Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.
I won’t lie, I’m feeling a little uneasy about uploading this latest analysis. Why, you might ask? Well, anytime you discuss something that’s dark or unpleasant, you tend to get negative back-lash, and if there are any two words in the English language that perfectly summarize Taxi Driver, the classic psychological thriller starring Robert De Niro, they are “dark” and “unpleasant.” The movie explores some of the most unflattering aspects of American society–racism, gun violence, drug abuse, child prostitution and pornography to name a few–in great detail. When it hit the theaters in 1976, it sickened audiences with its graphic depictions of violence, and then in 1981 became a lightning rod for controversy when John Hinckley Junior cited it as his inspiration for shooting President Reagan. But the truth is, I’m nervous about uploading this analysis for more reasons than simply the unpleasant nature of the film’s content. Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I’m not the sort to shy away from controversial subjects. What truly gives me pause about uploading this analysis is the fact that the film I’m discussing is so well known, and has been analyzed by so many people, that I’m afraid that if someone reads it, he or she will either say, “I’ve heard all this before,” or “No! This guy’s got it all wrong!” See, we like to say that there’s no such thing as an incorrect interpretation when it comes to works of art, but that’s not true. If, for example, one knows what the artist’s intentions were when he or she produced the piece, then one might be able to say that one knows the true meaning of the work. Similarly, works that have been around for a long time tend to acquire “correct interpretations” and “accepted meanings.” For example, The Great Gatsby is widely considered to be F Scott Fitzgerald’s literary condemnation of the selfish, hedonistic and ostentatious lifestyle practiced by the newly rich during the Jazz Age. If, however, someone were to assert that Gatsby was also a commentary on the racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism present in America during the ’20s–citing the character Tom’s reading of The Rise of the Colored Empires and the inclusion of a Jewish gambler, Wolfshime, as his or her proof–that individual would likely be met with laughter or incredulously arched eyebrows. Similarly, Taxi Driver has some widely accepted interpretations, particularly surrounding the protagonist, Travis, and it is these widely accepted readings that I will be challenging today. See, I’ve given it a great deal of thought, and I think I might finally have found out who this character is. I’ll probably get crucified by other film critics, but I don’t care. Taxi Driver is an incredibly important film to me, as it is to a lot of people, and I feel like if I didn’t share ALL my thoughts on it, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a true admirer. So, keeping all that in mind, let’s begin this dissection of the delightful, the despicable, and the dangerous, Taxi Driver.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the plot, Taxi Driver follows the downward spiral into insanity of Travis Bickle, a haunted Vietnam Vet working as a nighttime cabbie in 1970s New York. The film doesn’t develop a clear cut plot until about halfway in, when a young prostitute named Iris, played by a fourteen year old Jodie foster, attempts to escape in Travis’s cab. Everything prior to Iris’s appearance is set up, establishing the kind of person that Travis is and the sort of world that he lives in. Neither of these prove particularly flattering. Anyway, when Iris is subsequently pulled out of the taxi by her pimp, Travis becomes obsessed with her, and spends the remainder of the film trying to find her. When he does so, he tries to persuade her to leave prostitution and go home to her parents, but she refuses, stating that she would rather go to a commune in Vermont. In one of the few scenes that does not have Travis as the primary focus, Iris is shown dancing with Sport, her pimp, suggesting that the two of them have a genuine, loving relationship. Travis, of course, does not see this, and so, believing that he is liberating her from a life she doesn’t want, bursts into her brothel, guns blazing, killing everyone in sight. Travis then turns the gun on himself, only to discover that he has run out of ammunition. When the police arrive moments later, they find him popping cap after imaginary cap into his skull with an air gun. The scene that follows has been described by some critics as Travis’s dying fantasy, and by others as an actual epilogue. In it, Travis, who is now hailed as a hero for rescuing Iris, gives a ride to Betsy, a woman who, prior in the film, rejected his romantic advances. When Betsy gets out and asks him how much it will cost her, he simply smiles and drives off.
A primary theme of Taxi Driver is perception, specifically, Travis’s perception of the world. Director Martin Scorsese enhances the sense that we are seeing one, narrow, slightly skewed view of things by showing certain details, particularly people, in slow motion, and by including several shots from behind the taxi’s windshield. This latter device enhances our sense of narrow perception because we can only make out a sliver of what is really happening, just like Travis. Yet despite the fact that we see nearly everything in the movie from Travis’s perspective, we never get a full sense of who he actually is. Very little is revealed about his past and, due to his own mental instability, his behavior is highly erratic. Yet despite his capriciousness, certain details of his character remain consistent throughout the story.
The first and foremost of these details is Travis’s strong sense of right and wrong. Throughout the film, he constantly comments on the depraved and corrupted state of New York City, as well as the shady characters he has to interact with on a regular basis. In the film’s first voice over, he expresses extreme gratitude for a rain which, in his own words, “has helped wash the garbage and the trash off the sidewalk.” Later on in the movie, a Senator and presidential candidate gets into his cab and asks him a simple question, “what is the one thing about this country that bugs you the most?” and he launches into an aggressive rant in which he describes how he thinks the President of the United States should clean up New York City. That, or, to use his own words, “flush it down the fucking toilet.”
The second consistent aspect of Travis’s character is his strong sense of isolation and loneliness. If there’s one thing that movie goers know for certain about Taxi Driver’s infamous main character, it’s that all he really wants is a friend. In one of the film’s opening scenes, for example, he is shown trying, very hard, to chat up a young woman working at a movie concession stand. Unfortunately for him, he tries a little too hard, resulting in her calling the theater manager for help. The film is full of similar instances in which he attempts to reach out to other people but, for one reason or another, is unable to get through to them. Part of Travis’s inability to make connections is due to his own less than stable mental condition. He just doesn’t realize that what he’s doing is wrong. For instance, in one scene, he takes Betsy, a young woman that he likes, on a date to a porno theater. He’s not trying to be creepy or sexually aggressive, he just doesn’t know what the difference between what he’s showing her and a regular movie is. Because of this, because of his inability to read social cues and conform to standards of accepted behavior, he is unable to make any friends and is left, to use his own words, as “God’s lonely man.
The third commonly accepted interpretation of Travis’s character is that he is a racist. Of all the universally embraced readings of his behavior, this is the one that I disagree with the most and will be challenging today. My skepticism is due, in part, to the fact that he never actually says anything overtly bigoted in the movie. Those who believe that Travis does, in fact, have racial prejudices acknowledge this, but argue that there is enough in the way of actions and cinematography to prove their hypothesis. The first piece of evidence that they like to bring up is the way he looks at black people. Throughout the movie, whenever Travis is in a large crowd, he seeks out black people with his eyes. When he does find them, they are typically shown moving in slow motion, suggesting that his gaze is lingering on them. To most film critics, what this camera work illustrates is that Travis feels threatened by black people, and so is constantly on the look out for them. As for the slow motion, that apparently demonstrates that he is fascinated by what he despises. The second card that the “Travis is a racist” supporters like to play is Travis’s encounter with the unnamed passenger. Halfway through the film, Travis pulls over to a curb and sits with an unnamed passenger, waiting quietly then listening as the man reveals his violent and sexually grotesque plans to murder his unfaithful wife. The passenger directs Travis’s gaze, as a conductor might, to the lighted window where his wife is, tells Travis his wife is sleeping with a black man, then describes his plans for murder in gruesome detail. After this scene, nothing in the movie is the same. Many critics believe that it is this passenger who plants the idea of extreme violence in Travis’s head, while others argue that the passenger is simply a figment of Travis’s imagination, and is therefore a manifestation of all the hatred festering inside him. The passenger uses racist language to describe the black man that his wife is sleeping with, so if the latter theory is true and the passenger is simply a reflection of Travis’s own feelings, then Travis must be just as racist as him. The final, and to some critics, conclusive piece of evidence in favor of the bigotry theory is Travis’s shooting of a black man. This happens while Travis is shopping in a late night convenience store. An armed black man bursts in and tries to rob the place, only to be shot down by Travis, who has several illegally purchased weapons hidden on his person. Travis takes off shortly thereafter, not because he’s worried that he’ll be arrested for murder, but rather, because he’s scared of being caught with an unlicensed gun. To many movie-goers, Travis’s lack of remorse, or even feeling, at having just killed a black man proves that he believes people of color are inferior.
Now some of you might be thinking, “Okay Nathan, you’ve told us a lot about who the critics believe Travis is, but who do you believe he is?” That’s a valid question, seeing as I stated at the start of this blog that I would challenge commonly held perceptions today. So in keeping with my own promise, I will do my best to answer this question. To me, Travis is a young man who simply tried to do the right thing his whole life, and was broken as a result. That probably sounds pretty vague, so I’ll do my best to elaborate.
In my mind, Travis Bickle is a young man who grew up in a deeply religious family in a small town outside of New York City. This explains both his staunch moral compass and his fear and disgust at the levels of filth and crime in large metropolitan areas. His parents were very strict, and possibly abusive. They never hesitated to tell him when he, or anyone else for that matter, was wrong. That’s why a) he’s always passing judgement on, and preaching to, other people, and b) why he’s so unstable. Adults who were routinely abused as children, be it physically or psychologically, tend to become violent and paranoid later in life. That’s exactly what happened to Travis. His mother and father were always demanding great, usually unattainable things from him, and he consistently did his best to appease them, generally to no avail. That’s why he joined the Marines, because his Conservative parents told him it was his patriotic duty. And then, while he was serving in Vietnam, something terrible happened. Maybe his squadron was ambushed and he watched all his comrades die. Maybe he was captured and tortured by the Viet Cong. Maybe he was witness to any number of atrocities committed by the US Army. Whatever the case, Travis returned to America not altogether whole. Oh, his body was intact, as were the beliefs that his parents instilled in him, but something, some small part of his soul, never left the rice paddies of South East Asia. And it was that little bit of something, that something he no longer possessed, that would have let him sleep at night. It was that something that he lost that would have permitted him to go on and live a normal life. It was that something that no longer existed that would have stopped him from bursting into a brothel, guns blazing.
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t believe Travis is racist towards black people. If anything, I think his behavior shows that he’s highly attracted to them. I know from personal experience that having a racial preference in the people that you like–I find Asian and dark-skinned African American women especially beautiful–can come off as racist, and I honestly think that that’s what’s happening here. None of what Travis says or does really screams out bigotry. His slow motion point of view shots that supposedly demonstrate an obsessive hatred come off more as the longing stares of unrequited love to me. I don’t know about you, but I don’t generally stare at the people I hate. I mean, if I don’t like them, if they make me angry, why would I waste my time and energy looking at them? If I’m going to stare at anyone, it’s either going to be the people that I like or the people that I find interesting. Movie-goers often forget that the first woman we see Travis attempting to chat up, the woman in the movie theater, is black. Anyone who pays attention can tell that he really, really likes her. He’s just trying, way too hard, to let her know that. As for his shooting of the black man in the convenience store, all I can say is, were I in his shoes, I might not have acted all that differently. I mean, if some stranger with a gun came into the store where I was minding my own business and threatened the manager, I’d try to help. Granted, I’d probably be a bit more shell-shocked if I shot someone, but hey, Travis is a former soldier. He’s killed people in combat. It probably isn’t that big a deal to him. Besides, he’s got a solid self defense case, so there’s no real need for him to feel guilty about it.
So there you have it. My interpretation of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Maybe I’ll get crucified for my unpopular views of it, or maybe I’ll get no response at all because no one will ever read something so long about something so old. Either way, I don’t care. this movie really spoke to me when I first saw it. I could relate to Travis, an angry, lonely young man who doesn’t understand why the world is so cruel, on many levels. Granted, I never let my unhappiness get as out of control as him, but still, there was a time in the not so distant past where I too felt like God’s lonely man. Now, at a point in my life where my confidence has returned and my relationships have stabilized, I feel like I can leave him, and the movie from whence he came, behind. And writing this analysis just might help me do that.
Good night and God bless,