Saturday, March 26, 2011

Personal Influence, Cultural Memesis, and Miscommunication in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver

I had the great fortune to see Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) projected in a movie theater last weekend (it wasn't in 35mm, but a 4K restored, digital print in conjunction with AMC Theaters), a film that has been close to my heart since I became aware of the medium. In fact, I would say it, along with the likes of The Night of the Hunter, The 400 Blows, Pulp Fiction, and Halloween were the pictures of my youth that gravitated me towards consciously realizing not just a palpable affinity for anything and everything film related, but that the cinema, in its most fervent incarnations, reveal human depths that no other artistic form can (or can so comprehensively). Image, sound, movement - the possibilities for depictions of subjective anxieties and personal confinement through sensory stimulation, manifested in the form of a finite piece that, paradoxically, continues to shape and evolve well after it's been completed. Few films are able to endure multiple viewings without diminishing the novelty value; even fewer are able to be seen a dozen times without completely disintegrating it. Taxi Driver unquestionably proves a major exception, a film that never ceases to captivate and delightfully confound as if it were totally anew.

How does a film do this? What about Taxi Driver makes it seemingly immortal, impervious to time's intrinsic wear - how did Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese concoct an American tale that's as massive and convincing as anything starring John Wayne (and partially adherent to those texts), without making it feel mechanical, forced, or manufactured? In other words, why do both its filmic world and Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) resonate so forcefully?

Well, for starters, Schrader and Scorsese seem to understand the alienation, the displacement from a larger purpose that fuels Bickle's disillusionment with both New York City and humankind, in general. Scorsese's direction never treats Travis as a "nobody," so to speak (however, the recognition of absence and non-presence permeates throughout). Though the character's miniscule presence is consistently dwarfed and undermined by figures who either pay him no mind or display explicit apprehension towards his often curious or suspicious demeanor, there is a human anxiety which speaks through Travis, manifested through his gradual insanity, but made subtle and nuanced by one's self-revelation of potential inadequacy, a concern that personal will may always be cut-short or sublimated by the rough milieu that is both urban and human existence. Travis opts for self-pity in calling himself "God's lonely man," yet when confronted with existential angst that cannot be extricated through social interaction, one's empathy for such solipsistic rhetoric is softened.

Moreover, there is an implicit subjectivity within the film that necessarily humanizes Travis, as his perspective is, frequently, all the context provided (naturally, the response, interactions, and commentary of characters interacting with Travis flesh out other immediate understandings). The first shot of Travis is of his eyes, shifting from side to side, taking stock of the world that exists outside his taxi, his coffin on wheels, motoring him around the neon-lighted, rain glistened streets towards both a pre-determined destination and the abyss, blackness juxtaposing light, expressing the turmoil already present in Bickle's concealed world. Fitfully, a monochromatic red colors his face - foreshadowing through mise-en-scene, certainly, but the choice also reflects a certain one-dimensionality to Travis, unable to recognize the minutia of human behavior and interaction which makes it possible. Throughout the film, he will struggle to fit in, seek a state of "normalcy" impossible under the constraints of his personally constructed hell. More to the point - Taxi Driver is a film about failed communication, how, as Chris Sharrett has stated, "[cultural] mimesis creates desire, but it represents the beginning and end of desire."

As a narrative of miscommunication, Taxi Driver has been neglected, most scholars focusing solely on cinematic and pedagogical predecessors rather than socio-cultural problems of language - Travis cannot speak the same language as others, in the sense that his insights, thoughts, or suggestions are (rightly or wrongly) interpreted as threatening, aberrant, or misguided. Fitfully, most of Bickle's thoughts occur through voice over, in his head. Only he (the subject) can be privy and able to enact ignorant bliss (which for Travis includes numerous contradictions and hypocrisies). I have included a still from both the opening of Taxi Driver and Fargo, arguably the Coen Brothers' masterpiece, and their seminal work on the breakdown of human communication. In that film, the endless snow of North Dakota (vastness) constricts the ability of its characters to achieve any kind of totality, a reached destination, a harmonious balance. The film's title itself, perhaps a pun indicating a long distance (Far-Go), recalls the Western's ethos as much as noir, a duality also shared by Taxi Driver, as has been exhaustively noted in prior scholarship. My main purpose in indicating such similarities is to suggest the Coens' honed-in sense of linguistic error in Taxi Driver, opening their film with a visual homage. In each film, a car drives in from the distance, moving from right to left, before exiting on a diagonal on the left side of the frame.

Even more startling is that each film's title card appears directly after the car has left the frame, leaving it alone, barren, and isolated. Isolation could not be more prevalent in either film, and it's a testament to Taxi Driver's influence that the Coens choose to open their film with an identical visual metaphor - the title left behind the vehicle, arriving too late to be seen by whomever may be driving the car (at this point in each film, we are not sure). The wintry landscape of North Dakota blinds its characters, much as the smokey, exhaust filled streets of New York prevent Bickle's integration.

An immediate disconnect between Travis and the milieu is created, both by mise-en-scene and human interaction. Upon entering an office seeking employment as a taxi driver, Travis is divided, both by a wall (which reveals a character he is soon to become friends with, as if allowing him a glimpse of the future) and an elevated man behind him. Certainly, Travis stands while the hiring agent grills him with questions. Hinting sarcasm, the agent says: "Are you gonna break my chops?" Travis responds: "Sorry sir, I didn't mean that." The camera, as if sensing the break in mutuality, dollies in precisely at this moment. Though Travis finds a likeness with the man later in the scene (they were both in the marines), the visual cues and split-second hostility indicate that there will be no such bonding over old "war stories."

The entirety of the film is an extension of the opening scene's disconnect. The reveal of Bickle's taxi is in fragments, synecdochically suggesting, much like himself, that the pieces are not operating as a whole. In this sense, the taxi is an extension of Travis himself - tied to the city streets (but never or rarely stepping foot on them), he wistfully drives through the menacing nights, concocting a narrative in his head to explain what he perceives to be something "sick, venal." Rejection turns to hostility.

Likewise, Bickle's attempted chat with a theater concessions woman escalates from friendly to potentially hostile when she interprets his advances as lascivious. Notice the divide between them, mirroring the opening scene (and, as we'll see, mirroring literally manifests itself later in the film). At this point, Bickle's attempts to penetrate society, be it through verbal interaction or physical movement through the city, develop a pattern to reflect the psychological workings of a child's mind, who learns empirically and through repetition. Travis appears to still be undergoing this process and his displacement (and fractured subjectivity) should be directly correlated. Likewise, he sits in the porno theater, mouth ajar, educating himself through looking. Bickle's edification comes via mediation, whether watching the screen in a movie theater, trance-like in his apartment watching television, or fulfilling delusions of grandeur via the mirror, where the inactivity of his room, his place, becomes a theatrical monologue - without an audience. Travis is trapped, unable to connect with others because of his social inadequacies, but also unable to rectify those shortcomings in such a debased city-space (at least as he conceives it). As a dystopic presentation of New York City, Taxi Driver posits Bickle's frustrations within the realm of blindness, unable to "see" what goes on, and make coherent sense of it (even the pornographic film is horribly distorted, indicating that even something explicit, exhibitionist, is troubling and, perhaps, out of his grasp).

Bickle's interaction with fellow cabbies is also one of relative passivity, sitting and listening rather than commanding attention. Listening to Wizard's (Peter Boyle) story about picking up a woman in his cab then "fuck[ing] her brains out" (a metaphor later made darkly sick by a Martin Scorsese cameo), Travis smiles on, lapping up the story as if he were unaware that such things happened (and given the boisterous nature of the coffee shop, the dick waving, so to speak), one wonders if Wizard didn't simply concoct the story to pass the time. Night, routine, and the spaces of modernity create the need for potency, to not realize the rut one's stuck in. Travis is unable to engage in even menial conversation. When Doughboy (Harry Northup) asks Travis, "How's it hangin'?" he looks puzzled. "What's that?" he says. The profound disconnect is almost humorous. Likewise, when Travis does speak, it's to report something he heard on the radio: "Some guy got cut-up by some crazy fucker, cut half his ear off." Violence surrounds Travis, it engulfs him, which goes a long way in explaining his eventual obsession with enacting his own, especially under the delusion that he's a savior.

Which now brings us to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the sole woman that Travis shows a sexual interest in throughout the film. His idealization of her ("they could not touch her") expresses an extreme, a self-constructed height that Travis intends to surmount - initially, the oddity of Bickle's personality intrigues Betsy, to the point that she literally claims: "I don't believe I've ever met anyone quite like you." Certainly, Bickle's obfuscatory use of language and expression would enable such a response (from the complication of an "organizized" poster to claiming that Betsy's friend Tom (Albert Brooks) has "more than a few problems. His energy seems to go in the wrong places"). Bickle's rhetorical oddity, though not fully explained, appears to stem from his imitative impulses; one gets the sense that when he tells Betsy, "you know you have beautiful eyes?" he very well may have lifted it straight from a film, television, or an overheard conversation. Furthermore, the implication begins to take fold: is not any human interaction but an imitation of an imitation? Certainly, but what happens when an inability to accurately replicate or imitate occurs? For Travis, his interpretive (and understanding of causality) skills appear lacking - a lack exacerbated by a continuous circularity of influence, most of which will, eventually, manifest inexplicably. Thus, when Betsy quotes Kris Kristofferson ("he's a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction"), the linguistic deficiencies which plague Travis take explicit form.

Even more paradoxical, Travis must always look backwards to look forwards. When senator Palantine enters his cab, the conversation can only take place through his rear view mirror (and, naturally, Travis says something that alarms his passengers). Likewise, when Iris (Jodie Foster) first appears (her name not coincidental), Travis sees but her reflection, the mirror his only means of (indirect) connection. The continuous suggestion of a world only understood through hindsight (which takes on many connotations) signals Bickle's inability to truly move forward - even though that's all his cab does. The cab, in motion, his gaze in reverse. The epitome of destructive forces, each tugging at the other. In tandem with Bickle's narrative of decay and corruption, nothing but violence or "cleansing" can be a means of escape.

The deteriorization begins with Betsy's rejection following Bickle's clueless social faux pas - taking her to a porno movie. The move, possibly misinterpreted by Betsy as an explicit advance, is much more harmless than it would seem, stemming from Bickle's gravitation towards the material, unconsciously perhaps, and not "seeing" the social order as it has been invisibly established - decorum, etiquette are matters of interpretation - but what does Travis hope to accomplish with Betsy? Chris Sharrett suggests that Bickle's perplexed state ("I don't know much about movies...there are other movies I could take you to") implies, "not so much [him] trying to find out if there is such a thing as an alternative vision, as he is, indeed, trying to fuck Betsy." On the contrary, Bickle's constant struggle throughout the film is one of vision (a lack of it), not unsatiated sexual desires. In fact, one would be pressed to argue for conscious sexual behavior from Travis, aside from his gravitation towards pornography (and there's little to suggest any sexual thrill he receives from it). No, Travis remains in an ironic version Lacan's mirror stage throughout, narcissistic, sure, but also striving to find an "alternative vision." Or, at least, a vision - Travis is a malleable figure, seeking advice (his attempt to glean wisdom from Wizard ends with "I don't even know what the hell you're talking about") and counsel that, simply, is not available. Again, language breaks down - memesis is misinterpreted or perverted - and the film enters a point of no return for Travis - a hellish state.

His previous world can now only be seen through mediated images - he watches Palantine spew political rhetoric while eating junk food. Betsy is no longer of concern - his failed attempts to send flowers ends any possible relation to her. Thus, Travis, the idealist, turns from love to honor, opting now to rebel against the former world and save the new. Of course, this entails arming oneself (earlier suggested by Doughboy, and, one can assume, facilitated by Bickle's diet of television shows). Likewise, Bickle's insistence on physical purification through exercise and regiment (which include trips to the firing range and, still, porno theaters) reinforce his narcissism, more fully developed now that he has lost his ideal (Betsy). For Travis, his next mission, while rationalized as saving and protecting young Iris, is actually about his own grandeur, his role as savior. As such, this is an important point to keep in mind, since the film's epilogue, after Travis has carried out his mission, iterates more his own consciousness, his warped perceptions of reality, than anything the film has lead us to believe is possible from Bickle's immediate world. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to construct the ending as wholly ironic, given a misinterpretation of Bickle's miscalculation - two wrongs making a right, but we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

The definitive example of Bickle's fascination with himself (and of post-Vietnam alienation) is his soliloquy in front of the mirror, posturing and pulling tough guy antics to...himself. He is his only audience member, at least within his own world. Necessarily, human disconnect leads to seclusion, confinement, and a duality, literally expressed by the mirror, but more metaphorically in the discussion, Bickle's inquisitive state, asking questions that have no answer (at least, no potential respondent other than himself). Furthermore, the scene I've always found most moving in the entirety of the film is Travis sitting in front of his TV (watching American Bandstand), .44 in hand, completely and utterly at the breaking point of sanity, but like a child, playing with his toy gun, a force in a world that does not recognize his presence. Soon after, Travis breaks his TV, leaving nothing left to do but create his own version of what he can no longer see (even if what he "sees" isn't always violence. He cannot enact love, melodrama, etc.). The violence he plans to enact replaces the images he consumed and Travis knows no way to have a "purpose" in this world that's rejected him, other than to reckon with it.

Violence as a means to an end - first as an attempted assassination of Palantine (which is thwarted), then to the streets and over to Sport (Harvey Keitel) and Iris's other pimps - rescuing the helpless from the "savages." Of course, we can assume Travis has never seen The Searchers, but certainly Schrader and Scorsese had, an influence which has been acknowledged by both. Here, the meta-text transcends the narrative convincingly, culminating in an act of vengeance that speaks to Bickle's crisis and plight, but also the denoument of the American frontier - now on the streets (a theme echoed by John Carpenter's masterpiece, Assault on Precinct 13) and in dilapidated hallways. Bickle's mohawk (another imitative act) reiterates his ideological inconsistencies and oversights. Nevertheless, the violence, once completed, leaves Travis bleeding to death on a coach. Putting his index finger to his temple, the act makes full the duality - Travis figuratively killing the part of himself he cannot live with: his own mind.

The ending of Taxi Driver has been much debated, but given the circumstances of the film, one would be remiss if they did not, at least, consider the possibility of a subjective state, whereby we are privy to Bickle's dying thoughts and/or visions of what would occur if he survives. I tend to appreciate what this reading has to offer, much more so than an ironic sociological/media glorification of violence, which plays trite and didactic by comparison. Following the crane shot which draws up and back from the scene of the crime, we're lead directly into monologue: only this time, instead of Travis, we hear Iris's father, thanking him for his heroic deed. Nevermind the absurdity of such an act - listen to the cadence of the voice over, how he speaks. It mirrors Travis, not just in pace of speech, but in vocabulary as well. Moreover, the newspaper headlines are direct, extreme, much like Bickle's conception of the forces conspiring against him. The final sequence finds Travis back on the streets, standing around with his cabbie buddies. Notice his hair - now fully returned to its pre-mohawk state. The guys playfully joke and nudge one another - Travis is one of the guys, a part of something, fitting in, unlike his real life. Once he's alerted of a passenger in his cab, Travis finds Betsy in the back, curious as to his condition. Yet again, Travis never sees her face-to-face (at least, not until she exits his cab). Once she does that, Travis can see her directly, though still obstructed by the cab, by the city. Pulling away, Travis catches his own "eyeballs" in the mirror (to use Iris's parlance) and quickly shifts its position, to reveal an empty backseat. Having lived his mental fantasy of being a hero and rekindled love interest, Travis can drift away into unconsciousness, identical to how he lived his life - absent.

Much like the film's title, he is but one of many - he is any taxi driver, any anonymous figure that dissolves into a sea of millions. Nevertheless, what makes Scorsese's film so everlasting is that he forcefully questions individual purpose, how that comes to be defined in a culture, and what can/will happen when the dots do not connect. Yet there's an infinity, an open-endedness that no reading of the film can close - great works of art tend to be that way, elusive even once we've defined them. I know that for me personally, no amount of analysis or research could ever completely resolve the film's resonance and mystique - sometimes, affect supersedes intellect. Thankfully, there are films like Taxi Driver which have both in spades, allowing a vivid sort of introspection that, without such works, could not exist otherwise.

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