Lawrence Russell

Taxi Driver (1978) dir. Martin Scorsese writ. Paul Schrader cine. Michael Chapman music. Bernard Herrmann star. Robert DeNiro (Travis), Cybill Shepherd (Betsy), Jody Foster (Iris), Harvey Keitel (Mathew/Sport), Albert Brooks (Tom), Peter Boyle (Wizard)

Christ wears a cowboy shirt, jeans, boots and a combat jacket. He packs a 44 Magnum in a special holster concealed below his armpit and a Colt 25 automatic up his sleeve. He has a 38 snub-nose tucked into his pants above his ass and a 12 inch hunting knife taped to his right boot. Not especially literate, he manages to keep a diary between watching TV and visiting a 24 hour porno theatre down on the strip. This is what he does when he's not working -- and he works a lot, driving a generic yellow taxi through the habitual rain and neon night.

"Loneliness has followed me all my life... in bars and cars, sidewalks, stores... everywhere. I'm God's lonely man."

Working within the established tradition of American vigilante movies, Scorsese and Schrader give us Travis Bickle, insomniac vet, a direct action loner who decides to rid the streets of the scum he sees on his nightly tours of New York in his cab. Although it's never stated categorically, the trauma of Vietnam runs through the psychology of this movie like the rain that continually blurs the details of the city nightscape in a confusion of love and pornography, patriotism and loneliness.

We know this: he was discharged from the Marines in May, 1973... and his diary begins May 10 (although what year?). While he shaves his head into a Mohawk cut in the manner of a Vietnam Special Operations commando, the only reference to Vietnam comes in Senator Palatine's speech at a rally ("...we the people suffered in Vietnam....").

Why is Bickle's background left so enigmatic? Without Vietnam, his motivation is existential rather than political. While he professes to support Palatine's populist run for the Presidential nomination, his participation is circumstantial rather than intellectual. He thinks he's in love with Betsy, the campaign worker who "appeared like an Angel out of this filthy mess" but when he takes her to a pornographic movie in his idea of a date, she mistakenly thinks that their agendas are different. She walks out on him, and he's forced to find another madonna to complete his fantasy: the pubescent whore, Iris.

"Oh look at the size of that... oh looking good, it's getting harder... and harder, oh!" (porno soundtrack)

The link between sex and violence is categorical. Yet -- like Bickle's background -- there's an ambiguity in his method of operation just as there is in the Scorsese/Schrader paradigm. Bickle's isolation is anal-retentive, a white man's fantasy of reality. If you believe his card to his folks on their anniversary, his mission is constructed in delusion. He tells them he's working for the government in "the utmost secrecy" and that he has "a girlfriend whose name is Betsy". Yet he toys with the Secret Service Agent at the rally in the ambiguous way that sociopaths express themselves -- sincerely manipulative. Are these lies merely a camouflage for his course of action? Or is he another one of the insane working hard to legitimatize himself....

"All the animals come out at night. Whores, skunk pussys, buggers, fairies, queens, dope pushers... sick, veno." (Bickle)

There's no question that many people would agree with Travis Bickle's assessment of the state of the city and the spiritual confusion that comes with the de-regulation of sexual identity. Is it crime, or is it freedom? On the one hand he's a crude moralist, a retrofit whom we suspect is also a racist, while on the other hand he's a man of principle, an American individualist not unlike the populist politician he appears to be stalking. Like the veterans who returned from Nam expecting to find recognition and a disciplined and prosperous society, he finds himself marginalized and dangerously obsolete.

The gunfighter is a familiar figure in American culture -- a rugged individualist whose principles often fall between the conflicting shadows of homicide and sacrifice. Bickle listens to the client in the back of his taxi rave about the power of a 44 Magnum, what it will do to his cheating wife's face, pussy -- as they sit and watch her silhouette in the "nigger's" apartment. While there are a number of classic scenes, the one where he buys his guns probably tells us all we need to know about a society built on the right of the individual to bear arms:

Travis: You got a 44 Magnum?

Andy: Expensive weapon.

Travis: That's alright, I got money.

Andy the salesman puts two suitcases on the bed, opens them.

Andy: (the Magnum) Stop a car at a hundred yards, put a bullet right through the engine block. (demos the gun) There you go -- a premium high resale weapon. (spins the chamber) Lookit that, lookit that... that's a beauty.

He hands Travis the Magnum.

Andy: I could sell those guns to some jungle bunny in Harlem for 500 bucks... but I just deal high quality goods to the right people.

Travis snaps off a "shot".

Andy: How about that? This might be a little too big for practical purposes... I recommend a 38 snub-nose... look at this... that's a beautiful little gun... snub-nose but otherwise it's the same as a Service revolver. That'll stop anything that moves... the Magnum, they use that in Africa for killing elephants.

Travis sights the 38 on a car in the parking lot.

Andy: Some of these guns are like toys, but that 38, you can go out and hammer nails with it all day, come home and it'll still cut dead centre on target everytime. Got a nice action to it, and a heck of a wallop. (holds up an automatic) You interested in an automatic? That's a Colt 25 automatic, a nice little gun....

Travis: How much for everything?

What's the message here? That we have a society where men use guns as women use birth control pills? When Bickle suits up with his weapons, he turns himself into a cyborg, a killing machine where the gun is integrated into the motor-system of the human body. He manufactures a spring loader, a prosthetic limb that replaces his right arm, propels the Colt automatic into his hand like a hidden ace in the hole. The Magnum hangs across his heart like a sex organ waiting to be discovered. He's all stealth technology, a Magician of Death.

While there's certainly nothing romantic in the bloody shoot-out where the pimps are killed, there's certainly something of the existential hipster in the cool persona of Travis Bickle, avenging angel, Christ in a taxi. Indeed, he survives the carnage, becomes a folk hero on the street, in the media, and is so cool he can drive away from the angel of his dreams, Betsy, who is now aroused by the apparent political correctness of his actions. At the time (1978), this was funny, an irony as unlikely to happen as it was prophetic. Since then, Chapman (John Lennon), the Subway Vigilante, McVeigh, the Trenchcoat kamikazes, and a cast of other armed desperadoes have been writing history and establishing the mythology of contemporary culture. The true sexual karma of the altruist predator is enshrined in a new secular code of the unconscious, which seeks to reconcile perpetrator and victim as reversible entities.

Question: is Taxi Driver as lethal as the gun it exalts?

In the long tracking sequence reminiscent of an Orson Welles stylistic, the camera retreats from Iris's sex room over the bodies and guns. The John, the Master Pimp, the Street Pimp, the bloody walls a violent testimony of their day of judgement. This fresco of degenerates fixed in death allows us the moral superiority our legal system denies us.

"Listen you fuckers, you screwheads... here's a man who wouldn't take it anymore, who stood up against the scum, the filth, the deadheads."

It's the paradoxical nature of Travis Bickle's character that allows a wider range of society to identify with his utterly illegal and reprehensible actions. It's easy to forget that he exalts women as madonnas at the same time as he cultivates his loneliness in a porno theatre. It's easy to forget that he's a bit thick, yet he's extremely cunning when dealing with authority. He's sensitive, occasionally charming, doesn't smoke, seldom drinks, never has sex. A fundamentalist without a scripture? Certainly. But he's also a sociopath with a diary... and a taxi, and a gun.

Imagine this film without Bernard Herrmann's score. The music tracks Bickle's manic mood swings in sudden downward glissandos and floating sax allegros that recall the atmospherics of prime Hitchcock thrillers. Despite the excellent acting and direction, the movie would be a non-sequitur without it. It fits as sub-text, counter-points Bickle's voice-over diary, and the occasional lazy real-time dialogue improvs.

A hippy pimp from a commune. A child prostitute who measures time with a burning cigarette. A deranged man who screams "I'll kill you, I'll kill you" as he lunges anonymously down a crowded sidewalk. A cabbie trying to sell a tile from Errol Flynn's bath tub. Lots of contradictions, alright -- just like this movie and its message.

© LR 79/99


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