Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
!! CAUTION !!
A missive from somewhere within the eye of a cloud of cocaine, Martin Scorsese’s first massive cultural touchstone is probably the most accurate portrait of the New Hollywood perspective upon the world. A few years before this, Hal Ashby depicted an American yearning and ambiguity in The Last Detail, one of the most realistic and melancholy films ever made in this country; none of that for Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, whose New York City is a cartoonishly nihilistic creation as expressionistic as the boxing ring in the director’s later Raging Bull. In contrast to Ashby’s humanism, it’s a thoroughly self-absorbed exercise in manufactured dread.
It’s technically a brilliant film; beautifully shot and edited, boasting one of Bernard Herrmann’s greatest post-Hitchcock scores, but like many of Scorsese’s major films, it displays a mastery of surface-level style with nothing underneath. A simple-minded story about a simple-minded character, its supposed poetic broodings about the glum horrors of the New York streets are nothing more than window dressing for a giddy celebration of the things it pretends to endlessly cluck its tongue and shake its head at. Why else would the filthy porn theater, which is of course a meeting ground for drunks and creeps, be so lovingly detailed from its popcorn stand down to its scuzzy little seats and the blurred-down kitsch being projected? Why else would hammy Robert De Niro’s smug flirtation with the girl at the refreshment counter uncannily resemble Rocky threateningly chatting up Adrian? It’s all a bit cruel; you can picture Scorsese pointing and laughing derisively at everything, which according to Albert Brooks is how he spent most of his time on the set. Its blanket cynicism points up a central hypocrisy — it’s a moralistic film that’s in love with the nastiness it can dramatize, like a fire-and-brimstone sermon from the most squeaky-clean pulpit. This is why, though not the worst of Scorsese’s most beloved efforts, it’s one of the most irritating of all classic American movies.
Schrader and De Niro’s joint creation is the lost Marine veteran Travis Bickle, a sort of anti-icon intended to be a microcosm of the moral directionless of the U.S. in the Vietnam era. The aim, it seems, is the humanizing of a psychopath, the “ticking timebomb” of a potential murder spree or other catastrophe — but if that is the aim, it fails, because Bickle never becomes a believable human being. He is already flying off the handle as a wildly deranged person before the film’s left the ground. He always seems like a Cliff’s Notes version of a depressed sociopath whose leering, uncouth behaviors give us a voyeuristic front row seat to his gradual decline — again, he seems designed as a beacon for us to gawk at, and our distance from him kills the movie. By the time he shaves his head and starts aiming his gun into the mirror (with, by the way, a cameo from Scorsese’s real-life drug dealer supplying the firearms), he’s a caricature of god knows what macho fantasy that lived at the time in Schrader’s head; and by the time he’s positioning himself as the outlaw savior of a local child prostitute, we’re thoroughly baffled by the sheer senselessness of it all. It tells us nothing of any consequence about his inner world, or the world he lives in, despite the pretending of the drab voiceover — he just, well, does things. Back to the pointing and laughing of Scorsese and his latest chronicle of, apparently, a lab specimen.
Is this unfair because Bickle’s a piece of societal symbolism? Maybe, but he’s not a well-written or revealing one; he has the intellectual capacity, it seems, of a six year-old boy playing with a dead animal, and he doesn’t show any emotional attachment to much of anything that isn’t somehow related to “pussy.” His dialogue is mostly inconsequential, just noise, and his actions are so bizarre — like taking a first date to the porn theater — it’s hard to honestly believe he’d be even as functioning a member of society as he apparently has managed to appear. Even his supposed acts of altruism, especially his tender attitude toward Jodie Foster’s nymphet runaway Iris, are impossible to trust — those dead eyes reveal no warmth, no goodness of intent. I never truly believed that he didn’t basically want to nail Iris just like all the other sleazebags surrounding him, like some twisted urban Humbert Humbert. Robert De Niro is a decent actor, completely believable in the role of the pathetic and boring Travis, but whether that’s a positive attribute or not is anyone’s guess.
So the hypocrisy of Scorsese and Schrader’s absorption and wallowing in the blood-and-guts violence of the film and more so in the various lurid attitudes propagated by its characters — Travis’ own obvious racism, for instance, another reason we find it impossible to care about his plight — is but one facet of its cynicism. Any movie that claims to make some grand statement about a generation, from The Graduate to The Big Chill to Fight Club, runs a risk of becoming a giant white-boy pity party — and this is among the all-time worst offenders. Travis’ malaise is just a whole lot of privileged bitching; it could be more, it could be made to be something familiar to us and the source of some sort of empathy on the part of the audience, but Schrader and Scorsese are far too busy showing us how cool it looks when you plant a screwdriver in someone’s back and blood goes everywhere, and how overjoyed Bickle is when our auteur shows up in the backseat of his cab to chortle gleefully about what a mess it would be if he shot a bullet into his cheating wife’s vagina.
But perhaps nothing is so tidily irksome and nonsensical as the finale of the film; security guards spook Bickle out of carrying out an assassination (of a political leader in whom he had no serious interest) he meant only as a bid at fame and recognition, a “way out” of sorts. It was also a vague lashing out at a female rejection — Cybill Shepherd plays a campaign worker for the presidential candidate, Charles Palantine, who happens to figure in the movie’s sole bold stroke of satire: at one point, Palatine hails Travis’ cab and listens politely as the driver gives him his Neanderthal-level thoughts on politics. As the tirade rambles on and on, the candidate and his associate shift around in their seats, clearly unsure of how to react to this, and yet they don’t really object to his hate-filled Rush Limbaugh ranting. He is, after all, a potential voter. (It says a lot, then, that the film’s focus is on the least interesting character in the scene.) At any rate, thus stymied, Bickle returns to pimp headquarters and murders a slew of pimps and all the New York “trash” he’s been complaining about for two hours, and in a bit of teeth-grinding O. Henry “irony,” he’s then hailed as a hero for saving children from the grips of these lowlives. And then he gets nice letters from Iris’ parents and drives a lustful-looking Shepherd home. It’s a happy ending. Of course, he’s a short fuse and he’ll act again, but in addition to being an empty exercise in audience oneupsmanship, it renders the film all but pointless, its quizzical, subhuman nihilistic exercises just a zero sum game so we can see how really dumb and worthless and scum-filled society is. There is finally little value to this goofy abuse of cinematic power, but we’ve given it a pedestal for all these years and unfortunately, it’s here to stay.