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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.

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Non-Review Review: First Reformed

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

First Reformed is an unholy mess.

On paper, First Reformed has some very interesting ideas. It is a film grappling very consciously with weighty themes and heavy subject matter. It is about the challenge of finding faith in a modern and cynical world, and about reconciling the mundane maintenance of spiritual belief with the euphorically elevation of pure devotion. This is a broad theme that resonates in a world that feels increasingly disconnected and diffused, in a time when people feel increasingly distant from purpose or meaning.

Indeed, the core premise invites comparisons to Taxi Driver, which remains the defining work in Schrader’s filmography. Schrader has been working as a writer for almost forty-five years, and as a director for forty years, but his body of work is still discussed in terms of the second script that he wrote. Although most audiences associate Taxi Driver with the creative partnership of Scorsese and DeNiro, it was a work that was very important to Schrader, articulating themes and ideas to which he would return time and time again.

First Reformed brings Schrader back to that, with Reverend Ernst Toller feeling very much like a spiritual sibling to Travis Bickle, a man who struggles to make sense and to find meaning in a chaotic world and who decides to impose his own order upon the universe. Schrader is very much playing with his own history and iconography here, playing out a familiar story in a new setting with a slightly different emphasis. As with a lot of artists revisiting their earlier and defining, the results are frustrating. First Reformed bends and contorts in the shadow of its predecessor, never coming into its own.

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