I start off with a movie that is not part of the DVD collection but was once a Criterion Laserdisc, spine 109. I teach it in my Introduction to American Cinema class, and if I hadn’t looked on Amazon to try to figure out what version of the DVD I was using, I wouldn’t have seen that the Blu ray was a startling $9.99. A new one from a third party seller was $7.99, but looking at the bonus materials, there was noted an “Original 1986 Commentary with Director Martin Scorsese and Writer Paul Schrader recorded by The Criterion Collection.” That raised my eyebrows. How easy would it be to start with a movie I just watched and have seen several times?
Travis Bickle is synonymous with “whack job” in the vernacular. There’s already enough historical pop content to keep any culture vulture salivating (notably John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981 to impress Jodie Foster, its win at Cannes in ’76, the infamous “You talkin’ to me?” sequence).
Researching the film, I came across an article that explained how to use Taxi Driver in sociology classes to explain certain types of behaviors and theories. A particular aspect that I found insightful is the idea of social circles. Travis mostly resides in the world associated with his occupation, a taxi driver, and that world is deviant. From the other drivers that he tries (rather unsuccessfully) to interact with (Peter Boyle’s Wizard having sex with a fare in the middle of the Triboro Bridge, another cabbie that wants Travis to sell what is supposedly a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub) to the customers that leave cum and blood on his back seat, the cabbie world is violent, sadistic and masochistic. It is inhabited by pimps, prostitutes, and other denizens, and it is a world that is dark, taking place at night.
Something else I came across was a review of a book called Streetwise: How Taxi Drivers Establish Their Customers’ Trustworthiness by Gambetta and Hamill. The reviewer notes that the book examines the practices of taxi drivers in New York City and Belfast as to how drivers profile potential customers to assess whether they will pick them up or not. In fact, there has been quite a few sociology and psychology articles written about cab drivers, cab designs, tipping practices, and so on. The weird assertion in the film is that Travis will work any time and go anywhere. He comments through voice over that other drivers won’t take certain types of people or go to rough areas of the city. Other drivers notice this about him too and comment, with a mixture of admiration and incredulity. What does this say about Travis? Is he courting death? A majority of his tenure as a taxi driver is spent without carrying some kind of firearm, which other drivers seem to take as part of a daily load-out. When Travis does finally buy guns, it is not for protecting himself from fares but his plans for assassination and murder (you know, government work).
And how far gone is Travis to himself? The other sphere that Travis attempts to operate in is the normal sphere (or however typical and commonplace NYC in 1976 can be). This is the sphere where Betsy and Tom reside. A sphere where you don’t take a second date to a porno. A sphere where people sleep. A sphere where breakfast isn’t crumbled white bread covered in sugar, peach brandy and milk. Reading articles and reviews about this film uncovers a variety of positions taken about Travis’s mental state. Is he just psychopathic? Is he aware enough that some of his actions are abnormal? When he writes a card to his parents, he not only messes up when Father’s Day is (he is writing in July and Father’s Day is in June) but explains that he cannot tell them his address because of the important government work he is doing. He similarly tells Iris he cannot go with her to a commune because of his work for the government. This is obviously false, but Travis knows this. It is a way for him to self-aggrandize. A NYC taxi driver is not a sufficient enough status for Travis, so he lies to others about his “true” work. So, Travis may not be honest, but he does have enough of a capacity for critical thinking to discern his role in the world. He doesn’t tell this lie to Betsy, but then again, he really doesn’t get to know her long enough to be able to spin elaborate lies. All he can do is say his record player is broken when he has no record player.
Some writers comment on how elusive and underdeveloped Travis’s character is, making him all the more difficult to unlock. I disagree. On this point, Scorsese (or Schrader, or both) makes the biggest mistake. The interview conducted at the beginning of the movie gives the audience some rather specific information that allows for a great deal of stereotyping of Travis before we get a chance to see him out in the real world. We learn that he was in the Marines and was honorably discharged in 1973. It would be difficult not to come to the conclusion that Travis is a Vietnam veteran. His later expert handling of the guns he buys and contraptions he makes to wear four guns simultaneously is testimony to this (But the guy does way too much dry-firing – is he trying to wreck the firing pins? Perhaps this is more self-sabotage.). Overall, the perception of Vietnam veterans (especially combat veterans), both in popular culture and generally, is not that flattering and tends to run, in a post-WWII America, to coding for mental instability. WWII vets were portrayed as heroes. Korean vets rarely portrayed. Vietnam and onward are the damaged, alcoholic, spouse-abusing victims / victimizers. Fair or unfair, the coding still is there for an audience to take in. We learn that Travis isn’t too educated (“here and there”). There’s coding for that, too. It also appears that he has no previous employment. He can’t sleep so he “ride(s) around nights mostly. Subways, buses.” We don’t see him quit another job once he gets this one. We know he goes to porno theaters. We learn soon after that he drinks. His apartment is squalid, even by NYC standards. Outside of other cabbies, Betsy, his customers, and Iris and Sport, we never see him interact with anyone else (although we see a lot of him alone in his apartment). So, he has no friends. To call Travis “enigmatic” is unfounded. He’s a broke, friendless, uneducated Vietnam veteran with a drinking problem (and perhaps a drug problem, as a few times in the film we see him take pills). If anything, the argument should be why are we fed so much of this information at the very beginning of the film if we are not meant to have preconceived, pre-coded notions about this character before we actually see him do something awkward?
One observation about this film that is particularly insightful is Scorsese’s assertion that in the scene where Travis calls Betsy to ask for another date after the debacle of the porno, halfway through the call, the camera tracks to the right and looks down the empty hallway. We hear Travis but no longer see him. Scorsese says that the camera, and the audience, is so embarrassed for Travis that we cannot bear to see this conversation, so we look away.
As for Paul Schrader, I will leave talk of him until I get to Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. But he did make an observation that I hadn’t really considered. Travis falls in love with two women whom represent the whore / Madonna dynamic (Iris and Betsy). He is set up to fail in both relationships. He wants Betsy but cannot have her. He doesn’t want Iris but can. Both women have father figures (Palantine and Sport). When Travis fails to kill Palantine, he kills Sport. Because he kills Sport, a pimp, he is considered a hero. If he had been successful at killing Palantine, he would have been an assassin.
Incidentally, the guy who Travis has to pay for the room when he first meets with Iris (listed in IMDb as “The John”) is Peter Savage, the author of the novel version of Raging Bull.
Other stuff: The use of the letter or the running diary is something Scorsese (by his own admission) stole from watching Godard films that used a similar technique for supplying exposition and plot cohesion. He (and Spike Lee, in the next review I will post) goes on and on about Pressburger and Powell, two filmmakers who I’m not very fond of (at least of what I’ve seen so far), so I guess I’m missing something (I really didn’t care for The 49th Parallel [and geez, given the subject, I should have loved it], The Dam Busters, A Canterbury Tale, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and Peeping Tom was ok but didn’t blow my mind). Originally, Scorsese’s script had no humor in it, which is why the Albert Brooks character was added, as well as banter amongst the cabbies. You have to have humor to break up tension in drama. Aristotle says so.