Taxi Driver - You Talkin' To Me?

Thoughts On: Taxi Driver

With a continued look in on 70s classics before looking at Spring Breakers I come now to what could be Scorsese's best film. I started with Apocalypse Now and will be looking at One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest next, with the intentions of exploring the ways in which cinema has changed over the last 40 years, and what the current era of cinema will be defined by. So, Taxi Driver follows an insomniac and a loner, Travis Bickle, through the streets of New York as his disdain for the city and world festers, culminating in an explosive gesture for catharsis and an attempt towards fixing his broken world.

Taxi Driver is the quintessential 'man with a problem' picture. Some like to look down on this kind of film. One of Christopher Nolan's key criticisms is that he tells the same 'man with a problem' stories. From Memento, to The Dark Night, to Inception, his male leads lose the women dear to them and then battle an internal struggle against the loss. Such stories are criticised because women are seen to be objectified, reduced to mere motivation instead of real characters. With 8 1/2 I explore what this is and why it's done. In short, films are dictated by character's perception. But, the main argument against the 'man with a problem' film usually pertains to a question of, why aren't there many 'woman with a problem' pictures? I think this is a genre, or grounds, that cinema hasn't explored too well at all. This may be down to fact that if I were to name a handful of the greatest directors of all time, without prejudice, I wouldn't come up with one woman. Google the 'best directors' and you get Scorsese, Spielberg, Nolan, Fincher, Tarantino, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Kubrick, Coppola, Cameron, Eastwood, P.T.A, Woody Allen, Tarkovsky, Rossellini, Goddard, Truffaut, Fellini, Bergman, Ozu, Kurosawa, Lynch, Cronenberg, Bertolucci, Chaplin, Peckinpah, Welles, Leone, Aronofsky, Capra... the list literally goes on and on and on. You don't get a woman until Sophia Coppola, Katheryn Bigelow or Ava DuVernay - and they are way down on the list. This is a very depressing and ultimately confusing reality. I won't pretend that there is one cause to this paradigm, or pretend to know the solution to the problem. But, when looking at Taxi Driver in this respect, you're faced with some difficult questions. Could Travis have been a woman? Yes, of course. But would the film have been as successful? As poignant? I feel the answer is no. The film would have been reduced to an exploitation or 'feminist' picture. Ridley Scott is praised for using characters like Ripley or Thelma and Louise. But, that idea is quite counter productive. Having strong female leads is the equivalent to having 3D in your film. It doesn't instantly make it better, but triggers an audience's interest. I won't delve too deep into these questions here, instead, save it for the talk on Spring Breakers--which I might end up splitting into several parts. What is relevant about the idea of a 'man with a problem' is Travis' issues being universally applicable.

Taxi Driver is about loneliness and authority. Anyone can face such issues, but Travis' retaliation is stereotypically male. The dynamic and tone of this film is reliant on the existence of this idea of a man with a problem and a stereotypical male response. Travis' underlying struggle with loneliness comes with his inability to get along with women and their rejection of him. We can see Travis' fight against societal ostracisation primarily with women, with Betsy and Iris. How Paul Schrader describes the film is as paraphrased: Travis is a guy who wanders around, he can't have the woman he wants and he doesn't want the woman he can have, he then tries to kill the father figure of one and fails, but does manage to kill the father figure of the other and becomes a hero. This is the best thematic summation of the film I've heard--and rightly so, Paul Schrader wrote the film. Travis, as he says, is God's lonely man. But, again using Schrader's view of the film and his intentions, people aren't born lonely, 'we make ourselves lonely'. Those three ideas are the crux of the film. Firstly, there's the problems with women, second is loneliness, third is responsibility. Problem, effect, retaliation. We learn of Travis' problems with direction and of course his narration. Scorsese made a point of directing this film from Travis' point of view, only ever once showing what Travis wouldn't have seen - the scene with Iris and Mathew dancing. We are made to cruise the grimy, grim, ill-lit streets of New York, constantly privy to crime and poverty so that Travis can be further isolated. The blurred and distant lights of the world beyond his cab imply his disconnect and when he opens the door to customers he's letting in more than potential fare. He's relinquishing control and letting in danger. The 'Taxi Driver' is an archetypal character of a person who lives as part of a city. And when that city is dangerous, they are show to be living life on the edge. This is why the archetype is applied to Travis' character. It perfectly captures both his will to be apart of society, but ultimately reduces him to a piece of furniture. This is also Travis making himself lonely. His problems and their effects are looped in positive feedback.

The idea of problems that reaffirm themselves by the actions they induce in us is a very telling paradigm. Almost all of the major issues faced by humanity are manufactured and self-preservative. People decide to go to war, choose to pollute, corrupt, lie, steal. As a whole, humanity is incapable of stepping out of this cycle of causing problems and feeling their burn. Travis' inability to hold onto relationships deepens the commentary. Coming back to women, Travis wants a girl that may be beautiful, but who ultimately isn't much like him and isn't that interested. When he comes across Iris, he comes across a character very similar to himself. She chooses to be a prostitute, to stay with Mathew. She can never step out of the loop. Travis could have easily been with her if he could bypass his own moral sense. But, like almost all of us, he can't - he doesn't sleep with a 12 year old. Women, in this respect, represent Travis' natural urges. But, his morals, standards that are too high and his persona disallows him to adhere to his natural inclinations in a true, or satisfying, sense - yes, he can go to porn theatres, but can't win Betsy over. Why? Because he messes up by taking her, on their first date, to see a porno. He allows himself to destroy what he wants. Porn represents an easy fix. Travis fits into an unfortunate niche here. He's willing to accept the easy fix that isn't good enough (a sticky seat in a porn theatre) whilst refusing another equally easy fix that may be more satisfying - Iris, otherwise known as Easy. Travis' conflict is himself, is this idea of morals. Morals are apart of what makes people human - it's what separates us from the animals. But, humanity is as much a gift as it is a task. Is self-awareness, conscientiousness, are feelings, emotions, really that great? Without them life would be an automated process, not a struggle to balance opposites: love, hate; need, want; society, individuality; us, them. But, the solution to the problems of humanity is not as simple as hitting auto-pilot. Our response to war, corruption, pollution, lies, theft, poverty, inequality, comes in the form of government, democracy, hierarchy, morals, social norm and laws. This idea is expressed though the political elements of this film, but ultimately comes back Travis and women.

Humanity is not perfect despite government, democracy, such and so on. This gives reason as to the state of New York in Taxi Driver and Travis' disdain. Don't worry, I'm not going to go into the historical and political atmosphere of the late 60s and 70s - this is partly because that's a small feature of the film, but mostly because I wouldn't know what I was talking about. With the wold being imperfect, Travis wants change. He sees a failing solution, a lie, in Palantine (the politician) and a worsening and ever prevalent situation around him as expressed through Mathew (the pimp). As Paul Schrader says, to Travis, these are 'father figures'. Travis isn't at all concerned with politics, but the girl at the politician's head quarters. Travis isn't so much concerned with the combatance of drug and gang crimes, neither prostitution. He simply wants a rain of biblical proportions to wash them all away, flush them down the toilet. His reasons for engaging in the final conflict are selfish, just as the reason why he didn't assassinate Palantine was. By killing Palantine, Travis wouldn't have won, spited, or helped Betsy. And so, he was quick to give up on the pursuit of what can be considered an authority figure above her. Killing Mathew and the organisation around the pimp is the only way Iris could escape her cycle. But, she's 12, Travis has no sexual inclination to save her. Travis, as a loner, may only break the cycle of his own pain by ending his life with the alleviating idea being that he died for a good reason - saving Iris. In short, in self-pity, Travis decides to affect the world the only way he knows how. There's a little more to the ending of the film though. The reasoning behind all the destruction comes with an idea of retaliation to authority. Travis makes himself lonely by telling himself the world is disgusting, that there is no solution to its problems beyond washing it all away and starting again. The final conflict is not representative of Travis washing away the problems of the world, but his problems with the world. He allows himself to see Mathew as the symbol of all that is wrong in his city. When he destroys that symbol, he's rewarded, but is ultimately left the same person. Travis has metaphorically washed out the streets of New York and in the end of the film, with him coming across Betsy again, he's reminded that he's merely displaced its issues - just like he has his own.

This idea links to Travis helping the girl he does not want. Here's the sad reality of the film. Travis was in the papers, Iris is safe, but all will probably be forgotten, Iris will probably hate school and would have only adopted a whole new set of problems. How easy would it be for a 12 year old former prostitute to fit in with other girls? Her problems, like his problems, have been displaced, not solved. The true happy ending to the film would have been some wishy-washy transformation which allowed Travis to get Betsy. But, hold on, that's not exactly true. How well do you think their marriage would go? Not very well at all. Travis was doomed from the beginning. He is the type of man that will probably forever be stuck in a cycle of his own issues. This is why Scorsese made the film. He thought it was a form of maturity, that it was ok to have the feelings of hatred Travis had, but not to cross the line he did. Taxi Driver asserts that some times it's not the world that needs to change, but your view of it - and that you can't go killing the fathers of the women you like because they represent a wall. It's Palantine that represents democracy and a sense of control in Betsy that Travis (as a person who ultimately devolves into an anarchist) can't get along with. It's Mathew as an immoral dreg of society that represents why Travis can't have Iris. In short, to be with those women he must be like them, be like their father figures. It's Travis' isolation from society, from other men, that makes him incapable to behaving like them. That is why this is a 'man with a problem' picture. It centres around the world of men with themes of not belonging. It's because Travis isn't the stereotypical man that he can't get the women he wants. By adapting the downfalls of the stereotypical man however (aggression, violence) Travis only recycles his descent--furthering himself from the idea of an average man and getting the women he desires. This speaks to the film's bigger picture which deals with the conflicts of humanity. In the same way Travis dooms himself, we shouldn't want to 'fix' the problems with humanity. We shouldn't be looking for the auto-pilot button. Problems must be dealt with internally, not externally. War? Everyone decides they don't want to kill or be killed and it won't happen. Pollution? Everyone decides they care about the future of our environment and they wont' actively harm it. The same goes for any and all major issues humans have made for themselves. But, alas, the major issue is humanity and me asking everyone to change, too look inside themselves, is just as futile as shooting up a crack den--no matter how good it makes me feel or how others praise me.

All in all, Taxi Driver is about responsibility. It's about taking your issues and dealing with them internally, not trying to project them onto the world around you and then asking or forcing it to change. The person that you should be asking 'you talking to me?' is not any figure of authority, of power, of opposition. No, you save the question for the mirror and maybe one day your refection will talk back, they might say 'yes, let's having a conversation'. Whether you shoot at them or not is up to you, but remember, the gun's not loaded.

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