All Images Credited to: Columbia Pictures.
Some films I return to every so often, every couple of years, just to look at again. Just to examine them and see if with time, age and greater knowledge, there’s new things to find, whether it’s moments viewed from a new perspective, new interpretations on images, or appreciation for techniques that I failed to notice before, perhaps elements of performances that did not resonate initially. In many cases, coming back, the films are often lesser than I recalled. The more distance that has passed, the more likely I will find things that irk me or disappoint me, or I find the visual approach more bland and generic. One of the risks of exploring art, developing personal tastes, and deepening appreciation, is that it becomes harder to like things, or to not find faults or failings that otherwise might have gone unacknowledged. It can be disappointing, even painful, not liking something as you once did.
Taxi Driver I looked back on around a week ago.
One of the most readily recommended films, one of the most acclaimed; one of the (near) universally agreed ‘greats’ of American cinema. A film its director summarises in one word as ‘loneliness’. Travis Bickle identifies himself as ‘god’s lonely man’. He spends much of the film alone, in his small and misbegotten apartment. He has limited connection with anyone: when he meets with the other cab drivers he sits at the end of the table and watches, with strange intensity, his pill dissolve in water. He has no romantic partner, no close friends and he mostly interacts with notable emotive distance, unsure of the appropriate boundaries with others: he is either at ill-ease, or perhaps too forthcoming, too close, too demanding with a stranger. Travis is a fundamentally unhappy character. His life is devoid of meaning, of achievement. In one scene he writes a letter to his parents, one the audience can tell is full of distortions, misrepresentations and lies. At such moments, Travis Bickle appears ashamed of himself and his life, imagining an alternative reality where he has all the things that elude him: love, connection, a respectable job, a place to exist. Plagued with depression and insomnia he rides around the grimy New York streets at night — “I’ll work anytime, anywhere!” — watching and wondering, musing — via voice-over — his contemplations on the state of society.
The opening of the film cuts to a close-up on Travis’ eyes, watching, looking, expressed by point-of-view shots capturing the abstraction of the city’s vibrant lights. Scorsese bedecks this close-up in a dark red, suggestive of the burning fury inside this aimless observer and the violence he will come to commit. Red appears throughout the film, often casting onto Travis, the rage inside him building and building, whilst he can barely express it to anyone. He often speaks, like a lost boy, about ‘what should be done’ with all the problems around him, or how he has urges. None of which show, fully, just how hate-filled he has grown in his isolated state. In a connective way, when the pimp, Sport, dances with his underage ‘lover’ Iris, it is also a scene bathed in a red hue. Often associated with love and lust, the films connection with violence and retributionary violence, it links to the world as Travis sees it. Sport is representative of the shameful underworld of the city that Travis shares with him. Sport is the type of character Travis desires to wash away. This is further underlined as the quiet perversion of the dance scene cuts with the sound of gun fire, to a series of quick-cuts of Travis practicing his aim. The beginning of a montage of his vengeance towards his personal loss that warps into his final rage on a representative of the underground society he hates.
Before he fulfils his violent outburst, Travis frequently interacts with an awkward distance from everyone, unable to reach out and grasp the meaningfulness that others have in their lives. Growing resentful at the debauchery and degradation of the numerous officious groups he sees infesting the streets of the city, his monologue becomes increasingly aggrieved, vengeful, grandiose. His actions begin to show a fixation on violence — buying guns, arming himself with knives — and the question of ‘doing something’ that he feels deeply in his heart, begins burning within him.
The New York of Taxi Driver is cold and dark and unpleasant. Travis views a hellscape of violence and abuse. He drives men with prostitutes one night, and unstable, vindictive boyfriends who want to murder their cheating girlfriends the next. Violence is all around him, it is the dark underlying heart of the city. These conversations appear to influence Travis — perhaps encouraging the darkening of his own thoughts . For example, “Have you seen what a .38 magnum can do to a woman’s face? Have you seen what it can do to her pussy?” he is told and, later, develops an interest in owning such a gun. Eventually, he asks an illegal dealer for one. Travis is easily influenced by the external. He seems to hunger for guidance, looking for answers out of his internal dilemmas — he has a conversation with his fellow taxi driver ‘Wizard’ that leads him no closer to his answers. Travis struggles to express himself, to verbalize, to others, the complexity of his inner world, the sense of anger and emptiness and dissatisfaction, the loneliness. He wants something better in life, something pure against the “scummy” New York backdrop.
In a city full of thousands of people, Travis is utterly disconnected from both meaningful relationships and a firm grasp on reality.
He initially believes he can find it with Betsy, an attractive political activist. He is smitten (and obsessed) immediately. Scorsese shoots her from Travis’ perspective in slow motion, dressed in the colour of innocence and purity — white — wandering through a crowd. A crowd Travis sees as vile and cruel, one that will harm her by dragging her into their debauchery. He gazes at her from his taxi for long periods of time, fleeing when she and her co-worker notice him. Travis grasps onto Betsy, boldly asking her on a date. He shows a daringness and assertiveness we have never seen from him before. Seduction, on some level, may be his element.
During their lunch conversation, he fascinates her as a “walking contradiction”. Travis appears either genuinely perceptive or heavily projecting; he sees loneliness is Betsy, unhappiness. An accurate read, or simply his own feelings writ into another’s life in a desperate attempt to connect. Travis speaks of connection and how he has one with Betsy. He slams her colleague, insisting she lacks a spark with him and Travis himself feels ‘nothing’ between them. He attempts to isolate Betsy into his world, hoping to pull her away from bad influences that may avert her from the path of his protective righteousness. He speaks assertively — narcissistically, even — of people he hardly knows. Appearing so assured, he’s convincing. In fact, these interpersonal reads are Travis at his most in-control, in determining another’s situation and life crisis he has a surety that escapes every other part of his life.
One night a young girl — Iris — enters his car, scared and desperate to go anywhere. Sport, her Pimp, quickly comes to collect her and drags her out, throwing wrinkled money at Travis. An event that has a profound and lasting impact on our unstable protagonist. He holds onto the money. Iris becomes another figure of innocence to him, one he also follows and watches. Another he wishes to rescue from the filth surrounding them. Following his rejection from Betsy, he interacts with a murderous husband in his car one night. The husband speaks with a neurotic rage, equal levels awkward and intimidating. He commands Travis with his unstable demands to let the meter go on. He references the gun that Travis goes on to buy, and possibly further fuels his murderous intent. Travis appears incredibly impressionable: for example, he takes Betsy to a porn theater having seen ‘other couples’ there, completely unaware of the social violation, a testament to his confused comprehension of boundaries. Much of what he does is a reflection on the cruel social world he absorbs, a way of constantly trying to shape himself into something that might have a purpose in this society. For Travis, having a respectable identity is something he searches for, something beyond spending his days sleeping, if he can, watching television, and barely existing, and his nights roaming around the city, struggling with insomnia and seething at the environment he engages with.
The streets of New York are a hellscape in this film. Roger Ebert summarised well their aesthetic grime in his review, calling them ‘stygian’. Travis flirts with the underbelly of New York. In one scene, he visits the prostitute Iris to convince her to leave her life. As Travis leaves the building, agreeing to meet Iris again for breakfast, one shot sees the timekeeping pimp played by Murray Moston walk into the shadows. In the grimy interior he walks down the hall and vanishes into the blackness, a shot taking on metaphorical qualities of dirt and grime, and moral emptiness. Like a descent into hell.
During the diner scene Travis makes a moral plea to Iris. He tells her “This is no way to live,” for a fourteen year old girl, that “pimps are square!” She seems unmoved by his earnest claims. Travis again pushes his projection onto another. He pushes his moral certitude — agreeable though it is — onto Iris. He decides for her. He does not think to ask why, exactly, a teenager might prefer living with pimps rather than at home, whether she fled an unstable or abusive home. “A girl should be at home,” he insists, never wondering why this one ran away. Travis sets her up as his second damsel to rescue, his primary option being to murder Palantine to punish Betsy: he aims to kill her own figure of infatuation, an act of jealous rage as a response to her rejecting of him. Without her, presumably, Travis feels his purpose in the world is gone. He’s too lonely to exist. Signaling the twisted romantic gesture underlying this terrorist violence: before he goes, Travis burns roses, his darkly obsessive smiting of her rejection. The ‘death’ of his love for her. He means to hurt her by bringing her loss. Crushing her dreams. Betsy and Iris seem not to register as independents to him; they exist in the roles he has cast them in.
Travis is framed as a watchful presence. Numerous shots in the film are from his point-of-view, roaming the darks of New York city, seeing flashing neon and drug-deals. Some shots we have from over his shoulder, watching New York in bitter jugement, seething at the ‘sickness’ that is before him. Travis Bickle is a Guardian Angel, one that is driven by vindictiveness but sees itself as a moral guard. Through his infatuations and his projections, he sees his prowling as his form of protection; he means to defend those he deems innocent or idealized. Until they disappoint him; then they become part of the degeneracy that surrounds him — “You’re just like the rest of them!” he shouts at Betsy after she cuts contact with him.
Travis’ massacre is an act of retribution, an ironic twist that sees him deemed a local hero, when his failed assassination attempt would see him as a monster. Travis is freed to roam the cities again, the rage brimming inside him, waiting, likely, for another blow up where someone — perhaps more sympathetic this time — is on the receiving end of it. Travis perceives himself at odds with the world; De Niro’s performance is full of off-time reactions, awkward movements and a discomfort in all environments. The only time Travis seems at ease is when he borderline ‘commands’ Iris and Betsy as he informs them of his ‘knowledge’ of their personalities and struggles — suspiciously akin to his own — or when he goes on his suicidal murderous rampage, intending to leave the world in a glorious violent cleansing. Travis, in his loneliness, has developed a grandiosity, viewing himself as the tide or flood that will sweep away ‘the shit’ and clean-up his city.
Travis is the deep-seated rage of isolation. He is God’s lonely man, who finds his purpose in slaughter. Travis is the dark end-point of a lifetime of bottled-up frustration, despair, projection and loneliness all coming together in a powerfully frightening fury.