Note: The Director Movie Club is a weekly feature. We skipped last week because of the events in Boston, but we’ll be back on schedule now, hopefully without further interruption.
No one remembers this now, but Taxi Driver lost the Best Picture category in the 49th Academy Awards to Rocky. It was an incredible breakdown in judgment by the Academy—I mean, Rocky is good and all, but come on—though there have, after all, been even greater affronts. People are much more bemused by the fact that Goodfellas was supplanted by Dances with Wolves for Best Picture in 1990 and that is, surely, a decision that would merit arrest and a trial before a jury. I bring up the Academy Awards only to point out that this perceived wrongdoing against Taxi Driver has not become part of its narrative. It’s not that it didn’t deserve the award (as aforementioned, it did) or that the verdict wasn’t surprising; rather, people don’t bother with that strange anecdote because people are busy thinking about other things with this film; thinking, for instance, that this is one of the greatest films ever made, and no great sum of awards or lack of awards plays any role in determining that. If there was a list of top five or top ten American films, Taxi Driver would have to be on it. It was Martin Scorsese’s fifth film and his second major work, the first being Mean Streets—we discussed it last time out—the film where he boldly and convincingly staked his claim to being one of the most original and talented filmmakers in his generation. Taxi Driver was a masterpiece then. It remains a masterpiece now.
Coming off of Mean Streets, the first thing I noticed—almost immediately—was that Scorsese’s camera changed between that and Taxi Driver. Mean Streets was a documentary-style work, a loose and unpredictable piece where the camera sort of wandered about and caught whatever it could. That definition does not at all apply to Taxi Driver. Here the camera has purpose, and Scorsese deliberately chooses what we see. It’s a dictation tool. It forces the violence onto us by sticking firmly to sights of blood and wounds and corpses; it forces the wet, dingy, dirty city onto us by repeatedly showing us tarnished streets and ruined people through the windows of Travis Bickle’s cab. It’s a significant change in style over Mean Streets. So what does Scorsese do with it?
For me, the defining player in Taxi Driver is the city, the antagonist to Travis’ protagonist. The city is very much its own character, living and breathing in its seedy way and throwing up insult after insult at Travis, slowly coaxing him into going on a rampage. The city is, of course, filmed brilliantly; through the convex windshield of Travis’ cab, his surroundings speed toward him as if to attack him. City lights strike and bounce off his vehicle, and noise invades his space as soon as he wheels down a window or opens a door.
As in most cases, the cinematography exists to serve the story. Roger Ebert—he the foremost analyst of Scorsese—notes that the city is populated with things that Travis can’t have. He is the fox, and all the other elements—women (in other words, true relationships), money, success, a life—are the grapes dangling before him, forever out of reach. They all flow through his cab—businessmen with hookers, politicians, married men—but they all promptly leave, usually without acknowledging him. Even the Presidential candidate Palantine, a person that’s supposed to be a man of the people, doesn’t want to engage with Travis. It’s only when Travis prompts him that he begins to talk, a decision he seems to quickly regret.
Is this antagonistic city to serve as a trigger for what Travis does? At the very least, it gives us an insight into how Travis sees his world. This is the reality he’s bathed in. His world is like that, and even though his outlook is slanted—perhaps by mental illness, or by his experiences in Vietnam, by prejudice, or by whatever else; who can say—he is the narrator, and it is through his eyes that we view everything, so we must play on his terms. And he’s unreliable as narrators go. We’re never privy to precisely what sets him off. Sure, the city is no paradise, but I imagine few people hate it as passionately and as violently as Travis. What molded him and led him to react in such a way? What is it exactly that goads him into turning against Palantine? Is it just that the guy comes across as a phony, or is there some switch in Travis’ head that ticks off, making him decide that this guy’s got to go? I don’t think Scorsese gives us enough information to answer the why questions, and I’m not entirely convinced it matters. Travis is deliberately obscured. His past doesn’t matter, but his present acts do.
That is, in part, what makes the two female characters—Betsy, the aide to Palantine and Iris, the underage prostitute played by Jodie Foster—so interesting. To cite Ebert again, he observed that Travis is always trying to ‘free’ or ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ women. Perhaps, in Travis’ mind, the women are a sort of surrogate for the city. They represent purity and innocence to him, and by saving them he can begin to cure his surroundings, to rescue the city. It’s a sort of fairytale/princess/damsel-type outlook, but that’s precisely how Travis sees them—that’s the kind of warped reality he’s seeped in. The girls are soiled by politics and sex, two nasty things, and he instinctively tries to wipe that away but simply doesn’t know how.
Taxi Driver is a one-man-against-the-world kind of story, except it’s not presented in a way that we’re used to seeing. Usually that trope involves a hero fighting against a corrupted system—maybe the one politician or lawyer or police officer that’s ‘trying to do the right thing’ and facing seemingly insurmountable odds—but Travis is no hero, and we must constantly question the nature of the world that he’s fighting against. It is, then, a demented character study. We’re examining a man, but we’re examining him through his eyes. He is telling us what to think; he is showing us where to look. That is why we are sympathetic toward him when ordinarily we wouldn’t and shouldn’t be—he’s a frightening person, and certainly no champion.
The film’s ending has been the source of all manner of speculation and interpretation. Some say it’s a fantasy; others hold that Travis actually died and is in a kind of purgatory; others suggest that the ending is a cynical jab at how the media and society interpret events by packaging them within a narrative. Travis is a villain if he kills Palantine, but is a hero when he frees a girl from prostitution through violence. This theory also hints at a jab from Scorsese to us—we saw this troubled man all along, and we stuck with him, sympathized with him, and perhaps even supported him through to the end credits. I like both this and the fantasy theory equally, and am happy to vacillate between the two. It seems to me just as possible that Travis, in his self-aggrandizing haze, imagines himself becoming an unlikely hero, a man so suddenly beloved that women begin to chase him, now affording him the luxury of turning them away. It’s such a sudden change in tone that it might convince us that it’s all a farce, all in his head. But it’s all a farce to begin with—it’s his chaotic world, and he’s reacting to it as he sees fit. I’m not living in that world, for that’s not the world I see. But maybe the next guy is. Maybe he’s battling with the city too, there along with Travis. Just hope he never breaks.
Next Friday, the Director Movie Club continues with Raging Bull!