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“You’re a Real Cowboy!” The Haunted Emptiness of Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, will be launching a belated Summer of Scorsese this week with a look at Taxi Driver. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s 1976 classic.

Even watched today, there is something deeply unsettling about Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.

Travis Bickle is a haunting figure, drifting through the night in what writer Paul Schrader has repeatedly described as a “metal coffin.” Of course, Taxi Driver is a film of the seventies. The New York through which Bickle moves no longer exists – the one famously (but not actually) told to “drop dead” by Gerard Ford. Bickle is a Vietnam veteran, later sequences revealing scars on his body, and even his mohawk is drawn from experiences of soldiers who served in that war. Even beyond this, the vacuous-but-wholesome politics of Palantine evoke the disillusion of the post-Watergate era.

However, there is also a timelessness to Travis Bickle. His strange isolation in a city populated by millions of people is a manifestion of Emile Durkheim’s concept of “anomie”, the weird loneliness that human beings can feel when trapped in confined spaces with countless anonymous neighbours. More than that, as countless observers have explained in the nearly half-century since Taxi Driver‘s release, Bickle’s murderous possessiveness towards Betsy and Iris feels eerily prescient in an era of mass shootings and manifestos by entitled angry young men.

What is most striking about Taxi Driver is the emptiness of Travis Bickle. Bickle is a young man who seems to be completely lacking in any sense of identity or self, any strong sense of who he is or what he wants. As much as Taxi Driver presents Bickle as a nightmare of urban living, he is also a reflection. He is an empty vessel that seems to have been shaped by the world around him without any deeper understanding or comprehension of what that means. Bickle isn’t a person so much as a manifestation of a culture so far in decline that it has folded into itself.

Indeed, much of how Bickle sees the world is informed and shaped by the forces around him, perhaps even unconsciously and passively. Bickle offers a glimpse of American masculinity in crisis, of decades of westerns and pulp adventures that have been digested and processed and rehashed until there is no meaning underneath it all. It’s possible to read Taxi Driver as a reiteration of The Searchers, one of the greatest westerns ever made and one of Martin Scorsese’s famous films. However, it isn’t Taxi Driver recreating The Searchers so much as Bickle himself.

There’s an uncomfortably warped sensibility to all this, a bitter meaninglessness that serves as an indictment of the world around him. Travis Bickle is a monster, but he is a monster manifested from the collective unconscious of a city (and perhaps a world) trapped in decline and decay.

Taxi Driver unfolds in something close to a dream world. Bickle originally becomes a taxi driver because he cannot sleep. His skin is pale and his eyes and bleary. He has tried to numb the world with trips to the all-night porno theatres in Times Square, but they do not help. Scorsese repeatedly focuses on Bickle’s eyes. They are a reminder that the driver is always watching and observing the world around him, but they are also a reminder that Bickle himself exists in a twilight state.

The opening sequence shoots the taxi cab itself like a monster. There are intense close-ups on the car as it moves through the urban night – tight shots on its headlights, glimpses through its windscreen wipers. The camera is often fixed on the cab itself as it drives down the streets, creating the optical illusion that the world itself is moving past Bickle. The car seems to emerge from and disappear into the steam rising from the city’s vents. The audience might be forgiven for wondering if it ever really existed at all.

Michael Chapman’s cinematography lends Taxi Driver the feeling of “a fever dream.” Glimpsed the windscreen, the city lights of New York blur and twinkle like stars. The world outside of the taxi is unreal. It is an abstraction. The windscreen is perhaps itself a screen and the image projected on it is a wave of colour rather than concrete images. At various points, the camera lends a mythic quality to Bickle’s journey into late night New York – passage through a neon green tunnel, a baptism through a broken hydrant – all suggesting “a Stygian passage.”

There is some irony in this. Taxi Driver makes it clear that the taxi cab is real. Every night, Bickle has to confront its realness, cleaning the blood and the semen out from the backseat. However, Taxi Driver repeatedly invites its audience to wonder whether Bickle himself is real. Not in the sense that Tyler Durden from Fight Club might be unreal, but in a more fundamental sense. Is Bickle a real person? Is there any consistency to who he is or what he does? Is he just a vehicle for the ideas peculating in the collective unconscious?

Like so many of Scorsese’s films, from Raging Bull to Goodfellas, Taxi Driver traps the audience inside Bickle’s head. However, Bickle’s head is a place of contradictions and inconsistencies. His voiceover is the manifesto of a madman. DeNiro repeatedly and consciously trips over words while trying to articulate his thoughts, making it clear that this stream of consciousness is not coherent or entirely organic. Repeatedly, what the audience sees of Bickle is at odds with what he says.

“There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body,” Bickle vows at one point in the film, but is subsequently seen knocking back pills and swigging beer. There is no doubt that Bickle meant that promise when he made it, but it is also clear that there is no fundamental core to Bickle. Bickle does not have a centre. He just drifts through the world, from one situation to another.

Writer Paul Schrader has talked about how Taxi Driver represented an effort to import the sort of existential and introspective protagonists of the contemporary European art house to the Hollywood New Wave, but believed that a protagonist in the milieu of seventies New York would lack the power to properly articulate his angst:

Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I reread Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero, that is, the man from The Stranger, Notes from the Underground, Nausea, Pickpocket, Le Feu Follet, and A Man Escaped, and put him in an American context. In so doing, you find that he becomes more ignorant, ignorant of the nature of his problem. Travis’s problem is the same as the existential hero’s, that is, should I exist? But Travis doesn’t understand that this is his problem, so he focuses it elsewhere: and I think that is a mark of the immaturity and the youngness of our country. We don’t properly understand the nature of the problem, so the self-destructive impulse, instead of being inner-directed, as it is in Japan, Europe, any of the older cultures, becomes outer-directed. The man who feels the time has come to die will go out and kill other people rather than kill himself. There’s a line in Yakuza which says, “When a Japanese cracks up, he’ll close the window and kill himself; when an American cracks up, he’ll open the window and kill somebody else.” That’s essentially how the existential hero changes when he becomes American. There is not enough intellectual tradition in this country, and not enough history; and Travis is just not smart enough to understand his problem. He should be killing himself instead of these other people. At the end, when he shoots himself in a playful way, that’s what he’s been trying to do all along.

Bickle doesn’t know how to express what he’s feeling, and so can’t even begin the process of figuring out how to solve that problem. As a result, his feelings of inadequacy and frustration only fester and develop, manifesting in weird and uncomfortable ways.

Around the midpoint of the film, Bickle makes an effort to reach out to another person. Wizard is one of the older and more experience taxi drivers working on the shift, and seems to hold a position of authority; the other drivers are constantly listening to his stories and giving weight to his opinions. When Bickles feels particularly lost and uneasy, he tries to talk to Wizard about what is running through his head. However, both men are lacking the vocabulary to properly express themselves.

“Things got you down?” Wizard asks. “Yeah,” Bickle admits. “Yeah, it got me real down. I just want to go out and really… really do something.” Wizard asks for some clarification, “Taxi life, you mean?” Bickle fumbles his answer, “Yeah, well… No, it’s… I don’t know…. I just wanna go out… and really… I really wanna… I got some bad ideas in my head. I just…” Even if they have not seen the film, the audience probably has some idea what Bickle means, but he cannot say it. Similarly, Wizard cannot understand it.

Wizard can sense that Bickle is frustrated, and attempts to offer a pep talk. “Look at it this way,” Wizard advises. “A man takes a job, you know? And that job… I mean, like that… that becomes what he is. You know, like… you do a thing and that’s what you are.” He concludes after a rambling digression, “You got no choice, anyway. I mean, we’re all f%!ked. More or less, ya know.” It is a moment of extremely dark comedy, two characters talking nonsense past one another.

“That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Bickle concludes. He is not wrong. Wizard responds, “It’s not Bertrand Russell. But what do you want? I’m a cabbie. What do I know? I don’t even know what the f%!k you’re talking about.” Travis accepts the criticism, “Maybe I don’t know either.” It is a wonderfully unsettling sequence, in large part because it underscores when makes Bickle so deeply unsettling. This is a young man who doesn’t have the tools to understand himself, and so has to cobble meaning from elsewhere.

Wizard’s speech is self-evidently nonsense, but there is a grain of truth to it. Bickle is a taxi driver, and that job is part of his identity. It is a potent metaphor for what Bickle becomes. Bickle is a driver, but he is one who lacks agency. Bickle moves up and down town, but guided by the whims of the passengers in his cab. He is alone in New York, but in a tiny confined space into which strangers bring all their issues and their directives.

This is most obvious with one passenger around the midpoint of the film, played by Martin Scorsese. Scorsese’s cameo here is interesting, in large part because he did not intend to play the role originally and only filled in for the injured George Memmoli. Nevertheless, Scorsese’s presence in the scene carries a lot more weight due to his role as the director of Taxi Driver. Guiding Bickle to an apartment building, the passenger literally directs Bickle’s gaze. Martin Scorsese directing a taxi driver while directing Taxi Driver.

“Cabbie, you see that light up there?” the passenger asks. “The window? The light, the window up there on the second floor. The one that’s closest to the edge of the building. The light up in the window, second story.” The camera is placed in Bickle’s perspective, so Scorsese is both guiding Bickle and the audience, both as director and in character. It’s very wry and self-aware, and it hints at some of the more uncomfortable themes of Taxi Driver in a surprisingly playful way. “Yeah, you see it,” the passenger observes. “Good.”

The passenger unloads a vicious racist and misogynistic screed, with Bickle silently listening along. Bickle doesn’t engage. He just leaves the metre running and absorbs all the hatred radiating from the back seat. It is very clear that Bickle has soaked this rant in. Shortly after listening to this passenger extol the virtues of what a Magnum can do “to a woman’s face” and “a woman’s pussy”, Bickle buys himself a Magnum from Easy Andy. Taxi Driver suggested that Bickle was always wary of the city’s African American population, but afterwards the camera becomes increasingly hostile.

There is no denying that Travis Bickle is a misogynist and a racist. (There has been some minor controversy on the latter point, but Paul Schrader has been very explicit about “the racism of the character, the sexism.”) However, what is interesting about Taxi Driver is the way in which the film explores this aspect of Bickle’s character. After all, to quote a cliché, racists and sexists are not born. They are made. It is learned behaviour. Taxi Driver is interesting as an examination of how Bickle learns that behaviour, largely from internalising his own frustrations.

His anger towards women largely stems from his own discomfort with them. Repeatedly in Taxi Driver, Bickle tries to make a connection with women, but fails. He fails with the ticket vendor at the porno theatre, he fails with Betsy, and he ultimately manages to impose himself on Iris with horrific consequences. The sequences of Bickle reaching out to these women are painful to watch, in large part because Bickle lacks any awareness or consideration of anything outside himself. He has no interest in these women as people, merely as objects that relate to his fantasy of himself.

He is attracted to Betsy not based on any mutual attraction, but because she is “the most beautiful woman [he has] ever seen.” The audience is introduced to Betsy through Bickle’s gaze, in a sequence that features another Martin Scorsese cameo as another onlooker staring at Betsy. The male gaze is literalised; the camera gazes at its director, gazing at Betsy. Before the audience is allowed to hear Betsy speak, Bickle has imposed meaning on her. “She appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mass, she is alone. They cannot touch her.”

Of course, Bickle’s opinion of Betsy changes dramatically when she declines a third date with him. He causes a terrible scene at the campaign offices where Betsy works. “I realize now how much she’s just like the others,” he complains in voice over. “Cold and distant. And many people are like that. Women for sure. They’re like a union.” Bickle generalises his rejection from Betsy into a broader statement about women as a collective.

Something similar happens with race. It is notable that the first woman to reject Bickle’s advances is the teller at the theatre. She is African American, played by Robert DeNiro’s first wife Diahnne Abbott. After that rejection, Bickle grows increasingly hostile to African Americans. He insists that he will happily take black passengers, but the subjective camera repeatedly frames the African American inhabitants of New York as hostile and alien. It is deliberately and pointedly uncomfortable.

To be fair, Taxi Driver perhaps mangles this thread. The character of Sport, Iris’ pimp, was originally meant to be played by an African American character in order to fit with Bickle’s racist and sexist paranoia. The implication would have been that Bickle was particularly unnerved by the interracial element of the relationship between Sport and Iris, and that would have tied the two threads together. This idea was ultimately vetoed by the studio, who were understandably worried at the prospect of a movie about a white protagonist gunning down a group of black men.

In hindsight, Paul Schrader has acknowledged that the studio was probably correct. There was a high chance that such an ending would have provoked violence in real life, with the studio arguing, “If we do this and Travis kills all those black people at the end, then we’re going to have a riot. And we’re going to be liable for this.” Schrader concedes, “It would have been socially and morally irresponsible if we had incited that kind of violence.”

This was probably the best choice in the circumstances, even if it does leave Bickle’s racism somewhat implicit rather than explicit. Still, in this context, it is worth nothing that the first person that Bickle kills in the film is a black teenager who is holding up a store. It is interesting to wonder whether Bickle would have been as quick to shoot a white man in that situation. Much has been made of the connection between the film and the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr., but the film also seems to predict the media circus around Bernie Goetz.

This is the paradox of Travis Bickle. He is unwilling to see the personhood of people other than himself. He casts Betsy as the perfect companion, with no real idea of who she is or what she wants. Similarly, he casts Iris as a damsel in distress, ignoring her efforts to explain that he situation is more complex than it might appear. There’s a powerful tension in Taxi Driver around Iris, in that she needs to be rescued from this life of prostitution, but Bickle himself is projecting a fantasy on to her. He ignores, for example, the obvious signs there was a reason that Iris ran away from home.

At the same time, while Bickle denies the personhood of people outside himself, he lacks the introspection to fully understand himself. Scorsese’s camera is mostly unflinching in Taxi Driver, capturing acts of brutality and violence. However, it hesitates in one particular scene, moving into an empty hallway as Betsy rejects Bickle over the phone. Scorsese explained, “The whole movie is based, visually, on one shot where the guy is being turned down on the telephone by the girl, and the camera actually pans away from him. It’s too painful to see that rejection.”

This is the irony of Bickle’s worldview, of the perspective in which Taxi Driver submerges itself. Bickle can murder three people in a calculated attack, but cannot fathom the rejection of a beautiful woman. The pain and the humiliation of that rejection is more real to Bickle than the literal violence that he inflicts on others, and so the camera looks away. Bickle can monologue at length about the horrors that he sees every night, but only because they seem less real and less tangible than a phone call in an empty hallway. Bickle can show us anything, but he can’t show us that.

What’s particularly interesting about Bickle is the way in which he is presented as an empty vessel that is shaped by forces that exist almost beyond his comprehension. Bickle talks about polluting his body, but the truth is that his mind has been similarly corrupted. Bickle’s unhealthy diet of peach brandy and processed cereal is just a literalisation of the garbage that is being absorbed by his brain – not only from the passengers in his cab or the pornography in the theatre, but arguably from larger culture.

Bickle’s otherwise spartan apartment finds room for a television. When he isn’t working out or writing, Bickle is often seen passively watching television. He watches soap operas and variety shows, a mediated version of America that appears to play havoc with his psyche. His attempted courtship of Betsy seems modelled on the stereotypical packaged ideas of romance that are sold in soap operas and movies, and which often bear little relation to the real world. At one point, a dancing show features a white woman dancing with a black man, literalising Bickle’s racial anxieties.

In this context, it’s notable that the climax of the film is effective Bickle attempting to restage The Searchers. It is the story of a war veteran who attempts to liberate a young white girl from a group of savages. The Searchers is one of the most iconic American westerns, itself the most iconic American genre. It is a literalisation of a certain kind of frontier myth, the idea of the North American continent as a space that was “civilised” by the brutality of the white settlers. After all, John Wayne taught “many a boy” what it meant to be a man.

Taxi Driver is layered with brutal ironies. Schrader had written the movie while living in Los Angeles and had originally set the movie in Los Angeles, but eventually moved the action to New York. Taxi Driver feels very much like a New York movie. As Scorsese explained, “Apparently, the city felt like it was falling apart, there was garbage everywhere, and for someone like Travis, who’s come from the Midwest, the New York of the mid-’70s would be hell — [that] must have prompted visions of hell in his mind.”

There is something bitter and dark about Bickle restaging an iconic frontier western amid the urban decay of the east coast. Watching Taxi Driver, it seems like America itself has decayed and collapsed into itself, and that all that the people living among the ruins can hope to do is to re-stage past glories among the ruins. In that sense, Taxi Driver belongs alongside the other gritty urban westerns of the era in suggesting films like Midnight Cowboy or Dirty Harry, stories about how the modern city was as chaotic and lawless as the frontier of memory.

Taxi Driver renders this explicit. Bickle is repeatedly framed as a “cowboy” in conversation with Sport, who notices the driver’s boots. Bickle works on his quick draw, like an old-fashioned western hero. While Bickle’s iconic mohawk is obviously a reference to the horrors of Vietnam, it also suggests the Native American tribe of the same name that inhabited the area now classified as New York before the European settlers arrived. With his long hair and his forehead band, Sport even looks just a little bit like a stereotypical idea of Native American.

Of course, Taxi Driver offers a particularly cynical riff on The Searchers. After all, John Ford’s westerns were informed by an undercurrent of racism and white supremacy, stories about the need for white men bringing order to an uncivilised frontier. Taxi Driver just makes that subtext explicit, although perhaps not as explicit as it might have been had Schrader not rewritten Sport as “the great white pimp.” Still, it is clear that Bickle has internalised the myths of American pop culture, and they have grown in him like a cancer.

Bickle is arguably a symptom of a fundamental and underlying illness. Taxi Driver presents him as an aberration only in the extremes to which he goes. Bickle dreams of finding fame and fortune in assassinating Palantine, a detail that Schrader drew from Arthur Bremer’s attempted assassination of George Wallace motivated by similar desires. However, that is arguably just an escalation of a wider obsession with fame, evident in Doughboy’s desperate efforts to pawn “a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub.”

Much has been written about the ending of Taxi Driver, the aftermath of Bickle’s brutal massacre. Bickle is lauded as a hero, celebrated in press coverage and allowed to return to work. Betsy even seems like she might be interested in connecting with him again. Roger Ebert wondered whether the sequence might be read as the “dying thoughts” of Travis Bickle. In contrast, Pauline Kael insisted that the concluding scenes only work if taken literally as proof “not that he’s cured but that the city is crazier than he is.”

Scorsese himself suggests the ending is to be taken literally, although it is worth acknowledging that the entire film has a haunted and dream-like quality to it. It is not necessarily that the ending is realistic, it is that the ending is no more or no less realistic than the rest of the movie around it. Taxi Driver feels like something of an allegory about the horrors of mid-seventies America, and the ending is just an extension of those core themes. Bickle’s madness and psychosis is not at odds with the world around him, but instead in step with it.

That is the real horror of Taxi Driver. It’s not that Bickle is monster or a freak, it’s that he’s a product of the world through which he moves and so cannot be dismissed as an oddity. The most unsettling aspect of Taxi Driver is the sense in which Travis Bickle is with us still – and might always be.

One Response

  1. I wonder if Travis Bickle is the first significant example of a damaged, reprehensible protagonist being misinterpreted by a significant part of the audience to be a hero who should be emulated.

    Perhaps that goes right back to the statement by Paul Schrader that you quoted:

    “There is not enough intellectual tradition in this country, and not enough history; and Travis is just not smart enough to understand his problem.”

    Likewise, there is not enough intellectual tradition in this country, and not enough history, and many Americans are just not smart enough to understand the serious problems inherent in Travis Bickle.

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