Taxi Driver: the shape of things to come

IMDb rating: 8.5/10
My rating: 8/10

Having talked about the subject of mental health in my post about One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and who gets to call whom insane, I find myself confronted with similar issues in the 1976 cult hit Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader, directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring Robert De Niro. For, although I’d never really thought about it myself in this way before, the text right on the DVD box refers to De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, as “psychotic.”

I hadn’t actually seen the film since it was first released, when I and my fellow film-making high-school friends had taken to going out to see important art films—especially if they were also restricted. We were wowed by the disturbing, mesmerizing quality of Taxi Driver, with its unflinching bloodbath climax (still powerful, although of course far superseded in brutality by many movies and games since then). Indeed, according to Wikipedia, Scorsese had to take special steps to mute the effect of that sequence, in particular muting the color of the blood, in order to qualify the film for an “R” rating. (Scorsese apparently actually preferred the muted version to his original.) And we were youthfully indignant that the movie did not win the Academy Awards we felt it deserved. Now, after a gap of 36 years, I’ve seen it again.

In the main I was very favorably impressed. In some ways I think the film has even grown in relevance and power since it was first released. One thing that struck me this time was the pitch-perfect assurance of De Niro’s performance. For while I’m sure it’s difficult enough to portray characters who are more or less obviously crazy, like the inmates of the Oregon State Hospital in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I believe it is even more demanding to portray a character who does not, most of the time, exhibit any surface abnormality, at least beyond what you might see all the time on the streets of a vast city like New York where the film is set (Schrader set his story in L.A., but it was changed to New York, partly because of the greater prevalence of taxis there). Indeed, De Niro’s Travis Bickle has an easygoing, engaging, perceptive persona that is given here in there to behaviors that are questionable but not in themselves overt signs of abnormality. This time in viewing the movie I saw that the true moment of revelation of his abnormality is when he takes the political campaign worker Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) out to the movies—the same porn movies that he watches by himself when he’s off shift. As a teenager I merely found this comical, but now I saw that the strength of Betsy’s reaction is fully justified. She perceives what I didn’t: that Travis Bickle is a nut case.

But one thing that makes this movie important is that there are a lot of Travis Bickles out there. What is more, their numbers appear to be growing.

According to Wikipedia, Schrader wrote the script in a month when he was depressed and alienated after the breakup of important relationships in his life. Apparently he spent some weeks living in his car. He was inspired by reading Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and the diaries of Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin of Alabama governor George Wallace in 1972. As for Scorsese, he says that he was looking to evoke the dreamlike, stoned qualities of film, something that struck me when I first saw the film in details like the hypnotic zoom-in on the dissolving Alka-Seltzer tablet early on. And this time, in the vibrancy and presence of the New York streets in the film, I thought I felt an echo of Italian Neorealist films of the 1940s and 50s.

One of the iconic images from the film is of De Niro with his head shaved in a Mohawk—a hairstyle unknown in the mainstream world of 1976. Again according to Wikipedia, this detail was suggested by Scorsese’s actor friend Victor Magnotta, who plays a Secret Service agent in the film. Magnotta, a Vietnam vet, talked about commandos who would shave their heads this way before going on jungle missions; it was a sign to give them a wide berth. Bickle is an ex-Marine and Vietnam vet, and giving him this jarring change of style was a brilliant touch. Whether the film was merely prescient or whether it actually helped to launch the popularity of the Mohawk in the soon-to-be-born punk world, I don’t know.

I recall reading coproducer Julia Phillips’s memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, in which she describes the movie’s opening in New York, amid the fears of the filmmakers and studio that no one knew what people would make of this strange, deranged film:

“Taxi Driver” opens February 8, 1976, in the Cinema I. After an interview that Michael [Phillips] and Marty [Scorsese] and I do together, we walk across town to catch the noon show, the first show. People are lined up around the block and we punch each other in the arms with excitement. We stand in the back of the theater. See it with the paying customer, get to know if we have been right. . . . Late in the afternoon the next day, Steven [Spielberg] and I take the limo up Third Avenue to check out the lines again. They are very long and comprised mostly of pale young men in flak jackets who look like Travis Bickle.

I’m sure without realizing it, the makers of Taxi Driver were showing us the denizens of the world to come—the assassins’ world, our world. Assassination is increasingly becoming an overt tool of statecraft, sometimes crowed about, like the killing of Osama bin Laden, but mostly done on the quiet, and increasingly by robots, like the slamhounds in William Gibson’s Count Zero. The Travis Bickle wannabes have come of age.

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