The following article was published in N-SPHERE September 2011 issue.


Midnight. You’re heading home after watching this 3D version of a film they’ve released recently. You’re thinking it was not shit all in all, but they definitely haven’t got too far technically. All those commercials for nothing. Partly waste of money, partly waste of time, partly staring at this guy in front of you driving you back home. And you’re thinking that you haven’t even seen his face when you stepped in the cab 5 min. ago. You’re staring now and you can only catch a fragment of his eyes through the rear-view mirror. At this point, it could be fucking anyone, an erased face whom could make up for all the lack of excitement at the cinema and drive you to a deadend. Ten minutes later you could be facing the ground with no money, twenty minutes later you could be back in red light district, why waste the time… in 5 minutes time even, the car could crash with you in it. But this is not going to happen. The film was still crap though. And this man in front is just another taxi driver.

1976, the year when Columbia Studios released Taxi Driver, did not mark a new juncture in the history of the U.S. in terms of political alignment or cultural change. A large number of social processes were already in full progress. Just to name a few: the civil rights movement impregnated with the stains of race riots, countercultural manifestations and radical student movements, protests against the war in Vietnam and its aftermath. Add to this the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, which had taken place prior to 1976. All of this still weighed down in the American conscience, questioning notions of national safety and independence, and let’s be honest, to a certain extent, the American dream myth itself. This period was thus dominated by angry and lonely men, violence, crime, and a deadly cocktail of drugs and alcohol. America was already writing its history of violence, national anxieties beginning to surface whilst shadowing the optimistic façade of the Promised Land that populated the cultural imaginary of the previous decades.

This ongoing process of demythologization and national destabilization was also taking place under the close scrutiny of the camera lens, as directors of the time more or less translated in their films the government’s failure to ensure a stable future for its citizens. This deconstruction of national myths of self-improvement were explored by a new generation of film directors who were later coalesced under the term New Hollywood. There was no indifference: they analyzed the spectrum of pessimism and doubt that the former Hollywood consensus tried to cover. Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver was located precisely within this developmental narrative of violence, as a response to the malaise that was infusing the 1970s setting. The issues addressed in the film did not appear out of a vacuum: the increasing pessimism and alienation were already embedded within the American society. What the film did was only to render them visible, thus reflecting the morally deficient societal sphere of its time and becoming at the same time symptomatic of future developments.

Taxi Driver illustrates the story of a common man named Travis Bickle who embarks on a personal crusade to restore political and moral order in America. As a Vietnam veteran and nighttime taxi-driver, Bickle (Robert de Niro) internalizes the social anxiety that surrounds him, by witnessing the dystopian scenery that governed the streets of New York during the night. While deceiving his parents into thinking that he is an employee working for the American government, the insomniac taxi-driver becomes more and more apprehensive about the slums of the city populated by beggars, pimps and prostitutes. In this pessimistic landscape, he finds a 12-year-old child prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) whom he tries to rescue from her pimp (Harvey Keitel) and convince her to quit prostitution in order to return to her family. In parallel, Travis develops a relationship with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) whom “appeared like an angel out of this open sewer”, a campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris).

Having lived there during childhood and youth, Scorsese considered New York to be the best setting for the film. One could argue that he employed it as a metaphor for hell, as something that goes on and on while nobody can get out of it. As a Vietnam veteran living in post-war America, Travis’ main scope was to “clean up the whole mess” there, thus becoming an embodiment of isolation followed by violent intervention. His anger was not directed to a distant frontier, but located within the very core of the metropolis. A straightforward example in this case: even the taxi he is driving in and out of the sewers functions as a boundary between his inner thoughts and the exterior world. It doesn’t stop there: Travis’ individualism gradually becomes alienation. As a creator of cultural commotion by disrupting the social and political spheres, he is also a creation and a reflector of this environment. Torn by his inner anxieties and the determination to change his surroundings, he is portrayed as a fragmented man living in a fragmented society. The close-ups and brief cuts of slices of windshields and rearview windows also reflect, to a certain extent, the fragmentation of the protagonist

Gradually, the film exposes his failed attempts to connect with the ones around him: starting from his relationships with women and workmates and continuing with his estrangement within the American society itself. He is depicted in terms of Other-ness, psychologically outside the societal borders, even if he is paradoxically living right at the core of the metropolis. Although the link between the war experience and Travis’ personality is only implicit in the film, he could be regarded as Other because of his Vietnam background as well. As a war veteran, he becomes a signifier of psychological impairment and trauma, thus risking turning into a stereotype that incorporates mental instability and violence. What is interesting is that he somehow fails to assimilate a “coming home” feeling that the Vietnam experience more or less implied. For him, home is no place, it is associated instead with “a photograph on a wall and a letter aloud on a sound track”. He mimics the social behaviour that surrounds him, but does not directly participate to real actions. Through this process of staging what is considered to be familiar, he exposes a farce concerning both notions of home and romance. Travis’ portrayal in terms of Other-ness is also linked to his status of potential criminal and social outsider with a Mohawk haircut. To make it even more complicated: the protagonist was apparently constructed using as inspiration real life sources. According to Schrader, the journal diatribes of real life assassin Arthur Bremer who shot the presidential candidate Wallace in 1972 served as a primary source. Scorsese claims that the motivation also came from an earlier event, namely the 1966 mass murder case – in which Charles Whitman opened fire on the campus
of University of Texas and killed 14 people.

In the film, Travis decides to undergo a cleansing treatment similar to a Spartan purification ritual, considering that purgation could only be done through destruction and that catharsis assumes self-sacrifice. His passage from regeneration to violence, also symbolized by the marching military music heard when he purchases guns, is directly linked to the image of New York as Sodom & Gomorrah that needs to be cleaned and washed away by a flood (yes, some Christian symbolism right there). Fire is also used as purifier for his divine mission (an example: he burns away the flowers that he had bought for Betsy, thus freeing himself from any emotional attachment).

One step further: the taxi driver job also turns Travis into a social Other, thus becoming a faceless person whose individuality is gradually erased. For him, reality is always mediated through a physical boundary, be it either the rear-view mirror of his taxi or the cinema screen. One good scene – displaying an Alka Seltzer tablet dissolving, depicts this very condition: the camera shifts the focus on the glass with water, zooms in, thus creating an enormous close-up showing the enlarged medicine bubble. This close-up, maybe paradoxically, does not seem to suggest that Travis is on a gradual route to explosion, but vice versa – his anxieties are internalized growing into implosion. This might all seem metalevel talk, but this is real life as well: before shooting the film, de Niro and Scorsese tried driving a real taxi on the streets of New York to see if passengers would recognize the actor. Afterwards, Scorsese concluded that de Niro “was totally anonymous. People would say anything, do anything in the backseat – it was like he didn’t exist.”

Being depraved of individuality also turned Travis into a mask that could articulate both fear and alienation, which were experienced by the population at large. Both Scorsese and Schrader projected their own feelings of desolation and rejection on Travis. Scorsese asserted that he knows the feelings of being really angry that Bickle has, which “have to be explored, taken out and examined”. Drawing a line, Travis’ apparent portrayal as a singular Other seems to point out more towards his commonality, loneliness being central to human existence in general. His condition as an alienated person living in New York seems to reveal the estrangement of a whole generation. When he claims, while staring at his reflection in the mirror, that he is the only one there, Bickle does not only distinguish an Other staring back from the mirror (i.e.: one might immediately think of Lacan’s mirror stage).

In other words: Taxi Driver is not about a man who is fucked, it goes further and claims that we are all more or less fucked. And how could one counterargue that?

photo | Screenshot. Taxi Driver. 1967

by Diana Daia

Full article here.