Table of Contents
Travis Bickle – “a walking contradiction”
Cinematic and literary influences on Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver ´s influence
How to approach Taxi Driver ?
The psychological perspective
The social perspective
The cultural perspective
Starting point for my term paper was the question of how to approach such a
complex work of art, since I had no previous experience or theoretical knowledge in the
analysis of films. It quickly dawned on me that a literal analysis of the film´s plot and its
characters under particular consideration of the author´s intention, that I was used to in the
field of literary studies, would be dysfunctional, since there were too many creative sources
involved in the genesis of a film. To further complicate matters, I became in my search for
appropriate secondary literature quickly acquainted with some post-modern scholars such as
Robin Wood, who sees Paul Schrader as a
“neo-fascist”, “whose films amount to a systematic
repudiation of all minority groups and any possible social alternative, in order to re-assert
a quasi-mystical sense of male supremacy, heterosexual superiority, and a total spurious
"transcendence". [...] the film's interest is inseparable from its sense of confusion, its failure
to define a coherent attitude towards its protagonist.“ (Wood)
Since I was convinced that there was more to Taxi Driver than its „sense of confusion“ and
, that a coherent, clear analysis was possible, though coming to a definite conclusion might
not be possible due to its character´s ambivalence, I intended my term paper to be a step
out of this academic mingling of terms by the use of an integral approach. I use the word
integral in a Wilberian sense, which is “to include as many perspectives, styles,
and methodologies as possible within a coherent view of [a] topic“. (“integral thought”
-Wikipedia) Part one of my paper is generally a brief summary of the main underlying motives
that I identified in the secondary literature on Taxi Driver. These motives are: Travis Bickle´s
ambivalence, the creative tension between Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese, cinematic and
literary influences on Taxi Driver as well as Taxi Driver ´s influences. Part two comprises a
look at Taxi Driver from three fundamental perspectives – the psychological, the social and the
cultural- and is introduced by the question “How to approach Taxi Driver?”, which is basically
a reflection on my original dilemma.
Travis Bickle – “a walking contradiction”
Amy Taubin states in her book that Taxi Driver ´s appeal has something to do with the fact that Travis is largely a cipher that each viewer decodes with her or his own desire.` (Taubin 18). Roger Ebert says that the film “ is a brilliant nightmare and like all nightmares it doesn't tell us half of what we want to know” (Ebert)
The most accurate and direct characterization of Travis Bickle comes from the blond election campaign aide Betsy who quotes Kris Kristofferson´s song The Pilgrim: Chapter 33 from his 1971 album The Silver Tongued Devil and I: .`..he's a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.' . Although it is not explicitly stated in the film, it is pretty safe to assume that Travis is a Vietnam Veteran. The film only gives a few, but telling hints to this. He was honorably charged from the Marines in May 1973 ( the last United States soldiers left Vietnam on March 29th), he has a Vietnamese flag in his messy one-room apartment and later shaves his head in a Mohawk style. Amy Taubin establishes in her book Taxi Driver a connection between Travis´ hair cut and his possible past by pointing out that
DeNiro and Scorsese learned from one of the stunt men on the film that, in Vietnam, guys in Special Forces gave themselves mohicans on the eve of a dangerous mission . The mohican was a sign that they were in killer mode and should be left alone. (Taubin 68)
Travis suffers from insomnia, which could be a symptom of a post-traumatic stress disorder that is rooted in his Vietnam experiences. He is barely educated ( `Some, here and there you know `, he says to the Personnel Officer, when he applies for the cabbie job) and seems pretty inarticulate but keeps a journal. He despises all the `whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal`. Disgusted he tells us : `Each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood.` but like the street whores he cannot select whom he provides his service to and drives anywhere, anytime. He is lonely and has a deep longing for human closeness and sexuality and apparently chosen not to ease his urge by visiting prostitutes but visits porno-flicks after work in a desperate attempt to relax.
Much of Travis ambivalence and fascination has been attributed to the creative tension between screenwriter Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese that makes Taxi Driver such a `multi-layered and complex work` (Nesbit) . The distinct religious and academic background of Scorsese whose catholic upbringing once inspired him to attend priest school and Schrader who grew up in a strictly Calvinist household and was not allowed to watch movies up to the age of 17, has often been referred to as the initial point around which Taxi Driver ´s various literary and cinematic influences circulate. This mythical reception about the film´s origins has been reinforced by both´ initial medial comments. A month after Taxi Driver started in the United States, Martin Scorsese said in an interview:
I like the idea of spurting blood. It reminds me...God, it reminds me...it´s like a purification...you know, the fountains of blood...like in the Van Morrison song...`wash me in the fountain`. But it´s realistic, too. The guy that puts the blood...I said, give me a little more, he said that´s going to be a lot, I said that´s okay.
While Scorsese describes the film in Catholic terms – he calls the high angle overhead shots
`priest shots` (Meranda) because in his eyes they suggest the impression of looking down at the objects on the altar during the Catholic mass- Schrader´s screenplay focuses on the Calvinist problem of determinism and chance (Taubin 19) leaving Travis as the one who is meant to be “ God´s lonely man” unavailingly trying to escape his fate:
The slaughter is the moment Travis has been heading for all his life, and where this screenplay has been heading for more than eighty five pages. It is the release of all the cumulative pressure; it is a reality unto itself. It is the psychopath´s Second Coming. (Screenplay)
In an interview with his film-making idol Robert Bresson in 1976, Schrader was asked if he was pleased with the script´s realization and responded:
Yes, although it was not directed the way I would have directed it. I wrote an austere film and it was directed in an expressionistic way. I think the two qualities work together. There´s a tension in the film that´s very interesting. (Taubin 18)
Cinematic and literary influences on Taxi Driver
Schrader who after studying theology became a film scholar at UCLA and critic integrated numerous literary and filmic influences into the Taxi Driver screenplay. Most notorious example is John Ford´s classic western The Searchers starring John Wayne as a civil war veteran who wants to rescue his niece from the despised Comanches even though she is actually content with her situation. The only scene in which Travis is not present ,the romantic scene between Iris and Sport , has as its sole purpose to show that Iris is not unhappy, and not just to give the viewer some erotic moments as some critics have misinterpreted (Kauffman 18). Roger Ebert sums the two films´ parallelism up as follows:
...The buried message of both films is that an alienated man, unable to establish normal relationships, becomes a loner and wanderer, and assigns himself to rescue an innocent young girl from a life that offends his prejudices ..
One influence on Taxi Driver that should not be left unmentioned is the diary of Arthur Bremer, a sexually frustrated man who tried to kill the presidential candidate George Wallace on May 15, 1972 and was consequently judged to a life behind bars.
Another important literary motive is Existentialism and critics have often referred to Albert Camu`s The Stranger, Jean Paul Sartre´s La nausee and Fyodor Dostoevsky´s Notes From the Underground as literary influences for Schrader´s screenplay. The film actually quotes Fyodor Dostoevsky in the line: "I'm God's lonely man." (Wikipedia)
Taxi Driver ´s influence
Taxi Driver was “lavishly acclaimed on its initial release” (Ankeny) and its imagery has since left a lasting impression on (pop-) culture. Due to Travis Bickle´s killer mode haircut, the in New York City around the CBGB club originating Punk-culture became aware of the Mohawk which should become its hallmark. (Wikipedia)
Jonathan Rosenbaum sees the film´s lasting effect in the “glamorous depictions of hell on earth and odes to stoical despair about a post apocalyptic civilization found in monuments to capitalist-urban squalor” that can also be found in films like Blade Runner and Seven.
Key motive in this context is “ the aestheticization of violence“ , which can happen by means of the character, e.g.when Travis shaves himself a Mohawk, or on a filmic level. (Gruteser 23)
This desperate nihilistic atmosphere can also be found in David Bowie´s I´m Afraid of Americans in which Nine inch Nails´ Industrial-guru Trent Reznor plays Bickle, stalking Bowie through New York. (Flores)
Taxi Driver can also be seen as one of the first action films, a genre that had previously been dominated by black blaxploitation films such as Shaft and Superfly. Amy Taubin thinks of
“Taxi Driver as an attempt to reclaim- for the embattled white male - the urban landscape that had been revitalized by the blaxploitation films of the early 70s.” (Taubin 18)
Unfortunately, the film was for a long time best known because of a certain John Hinckley Jr. who claimed to have been inspired by Taxi Driver to assassin Ronald Reagan in order to achieve a mystical union with Jodie Foster. Martin Scorsese was shocked about the film´s reception of violence that he attended when he saw the film in a movie theater and stated that
the idea was to create a violent catharsis, so that they´d find themselves saying, ´Yes kill`; and then afterwards realize, ´My God, no` -like some strange californian therapy session.” (Thompson and Christie 63) Taubin states in her book that Scorsese has occasionally described Taxi Driver as a cautionary tale: ` It´s not cautionary for psychopaths because you can´t caution a psychopath, but cautionary for the society that produces them and casts them out and ignores them until it´s too late.` (Taubin 40)
How to approach Taxi Driver ?
Jonathan Rosbaum of the Chicago Reader said that Taxi Driver is “perhaps the most formally ravishing-as well as the most morally and ideologically problematic-film ever directed by Martin Scorsese.” (Rosbaum) This is due to the fact that the film engages such a complex interplay of motives and narrative structures and if one neglects one of them while analyzing it, one finds oneself in a moral dilemma.
Some critics have made the mistake and due to Travis Bickle´s non-reflexive, superficial narration tried to reduce the film to an orgy of violence and a drama of self justice (Höltgen). These Elements are certainly an important part of the movie but its violence and erotic serves a larger purpose than just to please the popcorn-munching audience.
A mere rough plot summary of Taxi Driver might look like this:
There once was a guy who was crazy,
Who shot those whose morals were hazy.
He was hailed as a hero,
This Robert De Niro,
So three cheers for Martin Scorsese. (Stoddard )
Some critics have gone at length to illustrate the film´s assumed overall shallowness, such as
Stanley Kauffman in his 1976 essay on Taxi Driver. Kauffman says that the opening shot of the taxi rolling over a steaming manhole, that Roger Ebert calls a “stygian passage” (Ebert) is the most subtle but also most “nudgingly and greasily assumptive” image in the film (Kauffman). His overall metaphorical incompetence and disregard of Scorsese´s expressionistic camera work leads him to the conclusion that “the hero of Taxi Driver is a psychotic, nothing more, and his story is a case history, nothing more” reducing the film to its
most superficial plot outline while denying its protagonist any development whatsoever. “It´s as if one were to copy MacBeth [...] but omitting the spiritual withering of the murderer” he writes. Most strikingly in his analysis is the fact that he almost exclusively refers to Schrader
when he criticizes the film leaving Scorsese with sparse praise: “Scorsese´s camera work has in fact improved [...] it´s more self-confident, with less zooming and handheld stuff”.
Recapitulating one can say that Kauffmann approaches the film like a work of literature, focusing on the screenwriter, while forgetting its director, vainly trying to get to a clear, convincing hermeneutic conclusion. He indeed notices the film´s inherent lack of realism when he asks
How could he [Travis] possibly dissociate what he sees on the porno screen from the male and female whoring he loathes in the streets, even if he somehow believes that this was the only kind of movie in existence?
but nevertheless sticks to his formal analysis.
The psychological perspective
Other more skilled critics were more consequent in working out the details of Travis´ “case study” and more empathic in portraying his loneliness. For many viewers Taxi Driver ´s “lasting impression [was] that this psychopath doesn't really look any different from the vast majority of folks out there.” (DVD Movie Guide) and so many have emphasized in their descriptions his (all too) human traits, portraying him as a sympathetic looser and outsider rather than a raging monster. Martin Scorsese compares him to Saint Paul gone astray but also to Charles Manson, driven by a dark spiritual desire to clean the world and his soul. (Thompson and Christie 99)
Most critics were wise enough to restrict their efforts to a humanist portrayal of Travis Bickle since the film´s overall outlook does not really invite for a realistic, psychological analysis. The film´s expressionistic style as well as some other actualities e.g. that Travis never sleeps and that Scorsese has two cameos, remind us that this is not a psychological documentary though it undoubtedly contains psychological elements. In American Film and Society Since 1945 it is pointed out that
Taxi Driver is not Dirty Harry – Scorsese is not advocating vigilante justice -neither is the film a social reformer´s portrait of urban squalor and disintegration nor is it a critique of the condition of 1970s America.
Scorsese´s obsessions are primarily psychological and aesthetic rather than social and political. Taxi Driver, with its cinematic references , voice-over, restlessly moving camera, high overhead shots, semi-abstract sequences, extremely tight close-ups of Bickle´s mad eyes, use of slow motion, and its sweltering night city of shadows, neon lights, shimmering shapes, and manhole covers emitting steam is not interested in providing a documentary or social realist view of the city. (Quart and Auster, 126)
Schrader himself said that “The whole film takes place inside that man's [Travis'] head; that's why it's not a realistic movie." (Schrader ). Kolker neatly concluded that “Scorsese does want to `expose` the inner life of his character, but not to explain it. The internal life of Travis Bickle remains an enigma throughout the film.” (Kolker 1980, S.224)
Those who still could not resist to label Travis and to put him in psychological categories have enmeshed themselves in a redundant and contradictory jargon of technical terms. Amy Taubin serves as a prime example for this problem when she says that Travis “suffers from a narcissistic character disorder. [...] a classic borderline personality, [at the edge of a] paranoid psychosis” (Taubin 40), “a pitiful schizophrenic”(Taubin 49).
Travis Bickle is not that degenerated as many critics have tried to pathologize him, but
he is still a pretty strange guy who definitely has a psychological problem and the film offers some motives that can , though not satisfactorily concluded on, still be examined. He probably suffers from a Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, (a war related trauma in his case) and his insomnia and pain could be interpreted as psychosomatic symptoms. He also has a pretty strange relationship to women and sexuality as some scenes suggest. Although he despises the sexual activity on his Taxis´ backseat and on the sidewalks, he chooses to go to the porno theater after his shift. His need for sexuality and belonging is denied on every possible occasion, filling him with the frustration that is released through the final slaughter. His strategically unwise decision to take Betsy to a porno flick on their first date combined with his subsequent misogynist remark that they are all “cold and distant” and “like a union”, suggests that he unconsciously manipulated their relationship right from the start, in order to confirm his prejudices against women and as a masochistic act. Bob Stephens refers in this context to ”another interesting image of purification,[in which] Bickle purges his sexual desire with fire by burning withered bouquets that were rejected by Betsy” (Stephens). His perception is shaped by idealized figures on whom he projects his problems. He sees Betsy as a white angel that shares his loneliness and the hippy-hooker Iris as an innocent girl that is waiting for him to rescue her from his pimp. Bob Stephens wrote that exactly this “excessive caricaturing of real people” allow him later on to execute his fatal plans without guilt (Stephens). Because of Travis´s apocalyptic metaphors such as: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum of the streets.“ and his obsession with the idea of saving Iris, a term that has often been used to describe Travis´s pathology is the notion of a messianic complex and\or Christ complex referring to an “individual that believes himself to be destined to be the Saviour of the world”.(Wikipedia). Amy Taubin writes that although the film “is even more evasive about [his] religious background than his military service,[...] there´s no doubt that he fantasies himself as an avenging angel.”(Taubin 37) In the course of the movie as his pathology worsens the flow of images also becomes more and more uneasy. Some distance shots as well as some narrative incoherences like for example in the “you talkin´ to me “ scene, the doubled “listen you screwheads, here is...” reflect his growing dissociation.