I should offer up a few caveats before launching into my heresy of trashing a cinematic God. Taxi Driver is fascinating. It deservedly ranks as one of the seventies finest films, deeply ambivalent, belying easy description. De Niro’s chilling capture of a lonely homicidal manic, Hermann’s jazzy, brooding in the dark score is laced both with sexual menace and forlorn romanticism. Scorsese’s direction is a masterpiece of showcasing male paranoia and rancour. And of course Schrader, the grand architect proved himself with the script. It is a film that does not easily leave the consciousness once imprinted on it.
However a mistake has been made or rather a collective confusion. The prevailing idea among the less discerning media and young males is that Travis is somehow a hero. A shining example of masculinity and a role model. How many boys have Bickle posters in their room? How many times is he seen as a icon of cool, straightforward violence? A regular, white guy standing alone against the degradations of a mixed race, sickeningly liberal world. For interest type in Travis Bickle into Amazon or “Travis Bickle hero” into Google or check out this weird site.
Film critics and commentators have pointed out the surrealism of this phenomenon, best perhaps is Ryan Gibley in his book It don’t Worry Me. In any case I will note here that this conception of Travis is hilariously mistaken. It would seem that our minds dislike ambiguity and dissonance. The construction of binary opposites frequently occur in our thinking. Taxi Driver in many ways demonstrates the poverty of using such black and white terminology. Travis can be pitied and you can hope he finds some kind of peace but that does not displace the criminal and psychopathic actions he commits. The power of film is that it can get you to identify and sympathise with people you don’t normally take to. Taxi Driver is one of the best and most hauntingly ambivalent in the genre of the unreliable narrator.
For a start the film is as Amy Taubin notes, soaked in manifest failure, male failure. American failure over Vietnam, Travis himself is a veteran. The sixties and seventies saw things like the second wave of Feminism, the cultural and sexual revolution along with its failure to transform society, pot smoking and LSD and a dogmatic critique of the “man” and capitalist white Anglo Saxon institutions. The white man was under assault from all sides, no one could be trusted. The narrative can be seen as one of perpetual failure, failure to woo Betsy, failure to connect with people, failure to kill Palatine. Most crushingly his failure to work out what it is to be a man and to be one. You have to ask then why is it, that this film is seen as a celebration of masculinity? The Sopranos, The Godfather and Scarface are although containing their own critique much closer to celebrations and do contain great moments but Taxi Driver?
The failure of religion is also implicated. It is seldom remarked, the apocalyptic, hell fire and brimstone vision in Taxi Driver. Paul Schrader who wrote the script emerged from a fundamentalist Calvinist upbringing. (This community Schrader explores in his film Hardcore) Schrader notes that Travis most likely came from his type of background where “people seldom speak to each other, and where its always cold” Scorsese’s ongoing paranoia on the other hand over his Catholicism comes close to comedy and is endlessly fascinating and entertaining. Schrader presents Travis as “God’s lonely man,” A po-faced Lot in Sodom, waiting for the apocalypse in a city where God and goodness has long left. Scorsese is more typically Catholic in his view. He recalls his own sensation of cruising places like Times Square breathing in the sinfulness as a young kid even when the priests told him not to and that such temptations would put his soul at risk. (This is of course the director who would go on to make The Last Temptation of Christ.)
This is classic Scorsese and it is also Travis. Scorsese notes that the reason Travis patrols his cab through these areas is that it both excites and enrages him, it stokes his puritanical fury. Scorsese’s films are in many ways the conflict between desire and dogma. Charlie, Scorsese’s alter ego in Mean Streets just wants to run with the pack, become a gangster, get smashed on the weekend and screw his epileptic girlfriend. But he fears both the social fury at his actions and biblical fury. A similar case can be made for Travis. Why is it that after a night of venting he will go to a porno and attempt to chat up the girl working the confectionary stand in the cinema? He is an outsider, when your alone, you hate everyone while paradoxically wanting love and friendship at the same time. The scene where he attempts to chat up the girl in the porno theatre is on paper hilarious but it’s played deadly serious. The thing about fanatics and the sexually vexed is that they don’t smile.
Travis is living in sin, in hell for which he will need some kind of purification. We should remember Charlie’s maxim in Mean Streets “you don’t make up for your sins in church you make up for them in the street” or this from Scorsese himself. “ I like the idea of spurting blood. It reminds me…..God, it reminds me…….. Its like a purification”. Consider the language of the film, what the main character frequently expresses, its best shown in this monologue.
“All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets”
“I think someone should just take this city and just... just flush it down the fuckin' toilet”
“Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk”
The failure of religion here is of course setting impossible demands which cannot be met, even to contemplate doing wrong is sinful and shaming. Ideas of how to love and how to live have been warped in his head. Travis no doubt worries over the Calvinist theology of who is saved and who is dammed attempting to work out which category has been ordained for him. His response to rejection by Betsy is almost like the Takfir denouncement that Islamists use on Muslims who disagree with them, “your just like the rest of them, your in a hell and you’ll die in hell like the rest of them”
Nearly twenty years before the events of Taxi Driver, a little known Islamic scholar called Sayyid Qutb from Egypt set sail to America, to New York specifically. He initially wonders should he be normal or special. Hold on to his beliefs or as he says “indulge those temptations all around me?” he had this to say of New York “here in this strange place, this huge workshop they call “the new world”, I feel as though my spirits, thoughts, and body live in loneliness” “what I need most is someone to talk to” Qutb’s relationship with women was also fraught, he was a lifelong virgin never finding a woman “pure” enough. He had this to say “a girl looks at you appearing as if she was an enchanting nymph or a mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh truly but flesh nonetheless.”
Consider Travis’s rejoinder to this “women they are all the same like a union” Your probably wondering who the hell Qutb is? He is Osama Bin Laden’s favourite philosopher, the architect of Islamism and spiritual grandfather to Muhammad Atta the man who flew the second plane into the WTC building in New York on 2001. It is almost comical as Lawrence Wright remarks that this man “decent, proud, tormented and self-righteous whose lonely genius would unsettle Islam, threaten regimes across the world and beckon to a generation of young rootless Arabs who were looking for meaning and purpose in their lives and would find it in Jihad”. I’m mixing my monotheism’s here, Jihad is holy war in English, Scorsese in interviews from the seventies has described Travis as a commando for Christ. Qutb was a fearful man his abstract hatred of America fostered a sense that the US and the west was a land of carnal beasts, gays and primitive blacks, where women held power over men by the magical nature of their breasts. Even the prissy, temperate Greenly Colorado was beyond the pale for him. Multi cultural New York scared him and provoked rage, no doubt Qutb was smiling down from paradise on 9/11 just like the smirking Reverend Falwell who on TV after the carnage blamed 9/11 on American equality for women and gays.
Religion and sex seem to propel the narrative of Taxi Driver, Travis is surely a virgin. Incidentally one of the inspirations for the film was Arthur Bremer, who attempted to assassinate Governor George Wallace. Bremer like Travis and Qutb was a lonesome, virginal truant who painfully attempted to lose his virginity to a masseuse in New York. His diary entry for the day hems from self-disgust to misogyny, to pity to self pity. Killing for him was the only way to get “attention”.
If sex and religion make for very uneasy bedfellows then Religion and homosexuality is positively toxic. Taubin perceptively writes in her notes on Taxi Driver that the rivalry of Sport and Travis is not based simply on Travis’s subjective viewing of Sport as the jailer and pimp of Iris. That there is not only sexual jealously but homoerotic envy. For a man whose life is one of total disconnect with women, has as his nemesis’s a pimp, a seducer and controller of women is genius. Surely Travis envies Sport and on some level wants to be him with his free and easy ways, who is a hippie and a polygamist.
That’s not the only way this character’s macho bravado is undercut. Schrader himself has taken a hammer to it. He has expounded in numerous interviews the evolution of the Travis character. In American Gigolo which Schrader wrote and directed. Schrader openly talks about how the spiritual drift of the character in New York has become a gay playboy who is a professional male prostitute, servicing women. Schrader’s latest film The Walker has an openly gay main character who’s storyline is very similar to American Gigolo. Schrader notes that the character who started as a frustrated, angry young man in a cab has finally came out of the closet.
Travis is hardly looking a 17 year olds poster idol now. More interesting though is why is he is considered a hero anyway. In conventional narrative terms, he does not settle down with a women at the close, completing the oedipal trajectory. Though he combats gangsters and pimps at the final, he does so only because his attempt at assassinating a potential presidential candidate has failed. There is also no spiritual or psychological epiphany, Travis is still in his cab driving into oblivion.
The now rickety pillars holding up the ideal that Travis is some kind of hero and whose actions are to be socially celebrated is obliterated when we consider his real life counterparts. I have already noted Bremer, one of the chief inspirations for the film, he was a loner and a drifter. Then there is John Hinckley Jr a psychopath who became obsessed with the film and Jodie Foster, he got off with an insanity defence after attempting to kill President Reagan. These men along with someone like Charles Whitman have implanted the idea of mass murder and assassination in the American male psyche.
These men are the precursors to the notorious school shooters. Consider someone like Seung Hui Cho the Virginia Tech shooter who perpetrated the worst rampage in American history. Another loner who wanted to teach the “rich kids” and “charlatans” with their “debauchery” a lesson. It has been speculated that possibly it was his obsession with Emily Hilscher that sparked it. Consider unsmiling Atta the poster boy for the suicide bombers who like Qutb never came remotely close to romantic involvement with women and was a introverted outsider, he embraced a toxic fundamentalism and was a deep seated misogynist who in his will wrote, among other absurdities that women were not allowed to be at his funeral or that no pregnant women or other unclean people should touch his body. I am reminded of something critic David Thomson wrote, it was a story from Jean Renoir the beloved French film director. That in the 18th century a young man would go with his father to the local courtesan to “know” women. Renoir remarks that if something like that happened to someone like Hitler then we may never have had the death cult of Nazism.
Martin Amis in his essay, Terror and the dependant mind notes that it has been seriously suggested that these fanatical young men segregated from women are really after nothing more normal than a girlfriend or he caustically writes the simplest way of getting a drink. I’ll add my own corollary, they are after no more than a good time which fate has cruelly denied them, they have to kill themselves to get it. Amis goes on to say something similar to this-- Here in the west young men and women have the freedom to do what they want, drown copious amounts of alcohol, take mind altering drugs and dance away to ear shattering music and have sex with near total strangers. These distractions which tame the populace here are not available to the young men of Peshawar or Jeddah or Baghdad, nor are they available to men such as Travis or Seung Hui Cho or Pekka Eric Auvinen.
As American Airlines 2 smashed into the WTC what did Atta think? Did he say something like Travis, that he sees his life clearly now, that there was no other way. Did Atta look forward to the 72 virgins in paradise, a pleasure denied to him on this earthly plane? When Travis told Sport to “suck on it” a doubly reflexive sexual pun, did he welcome his suicidal, psychosexual violence as a reprieve from his temptations of the flesh? “Burning screaming, tasty flesh” as Qutb wrote.
“There is some bad ideas in my head” Travis says to the secret service agent. Indeed there is. The fear and intolerance that Taxi Driver exposes is in the final analysis pointless and self defeating. This rancidness is so corrosive, so self hating and pitying that it nearly always immolates the possessor of it. Amis writes in his much abused collection of essays on 9/11, The Second Plane, that sexual tension is eased not by religious rage but by sexual love. This obvious remark coined in the review to Ed Husain’s book An Islamist's Journey. Husain remarked that when he was a Islamic radical he peered into the face of his future wife Faye, he saw something that rarely occurred on his face anymore, a smile.
We go to the movies to dream. That sounds archaic now and old fashioned. Dreaming though is still important, how many times do we idolise the men and women up on the screen, secretly want to be them, to be their friends or to fuck them. We recognise though the dream aspect, in the end we come out of it, grow up or rather grow into ourselves.
Its foolish to say that films and computer games cause violence, violence and aggression are endemic to the human condition but we should recognise though the danger of bad ideas. Bad ideas, ideologies, secular dogmas or religions that have a nasty habit of spreading from mind to mind. Though naïve hero-worshipping of somebody like Travis Bickle is perhaps largely harmless, we should be attuned to the problem of the baggage that comes with it. Fear, lionising of violence, self imposed loneliness, and intolerance of difference. You may think I am protesting too much here over a film. Though I have attempted to connect this film with larger concerns.
Taxi Driver exposes many of the contradictions and schisms that exist within the male mind. “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” As Shakespeare wrote, there is two more brothers to add to the band. Yukio Mishima and his creation Isao. I confess a paranoid analogy. Schrader is a fan of Mishima who transported several of the Japanese writers ideas into his own work, not least suicidal ideation and the idea of righteous male violence, Schrader would go on to make a film of the writers life, Mishima a life in four Chapters.
Mishima is a fascinating, contradictory character, a brilliant novelist, a dreamer, an intellectual, a samurai and a obsessive bodybuilder who staged a bizarre coup which ended in his own ritual suicide when the attempt to spark a nationalist uprising in his county failed, despite Mishima’s macho posing he was an open bisexual. His great novel, Runaway Horses tells the story of Isao, a young nationalist radical who along with his friends plan an attack on the county with chilling similarities to 9/11. Isao is conflicted by the love of an older women though and the temptations to debase himself and give up his plan for suicidal violence. The resolution is breathtaking, when I read it as a teenager I marvelled at the relevancy and laser insight the writing possessed. Not only was this an oriental writer, working decades ago in a very different culture and yet this was something so salient to the contemporary scene.
There is a kernel of darkness that lurks in every man’s heart, the bondage of which is lessened through education and reflection, through love and compassion. Remember Scorsese’s views on blood and violence being akin to some kind of purification, upon reflection this idea seems juvenile and reckless. That’s too harsh maybe but it shows that even the bright and talented can have some very implausible ideas. I will leave the last word to the creator Paul Schrader who stated in his 30th anniversary DVD commentary that “Travis is not cured by the movies end” and “he will not be a hero next time”
Taxi Driver, Amy Taubin
Martin Amis, The Second Plane.
The Looming Tower Al Qaeda’s road to 9/11. Lawrence Wright
It Don’t Worry Me. Ryan Gibley.