Surviving the Moral Narrative of 'Taxi Driver' 40 Years On

by Carl Wilson

12 February 2016

"You do a thing and that's what you are." So what does that make us, the voyeurs in Travis Bickle’s world?
 
cover art

Taxi Driver

Director: Paul Schrader
Cast: Robert De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster

(Columbia Pictures)
1976

Forty years on from its release date in February 1976, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver still thrives in our collective public consciousness as a film in which an agitated and topless man manically challenges himself in the mirror; New York City is shown to be a violent and squalid night-world of terror, supersaturated with muted colors and washed over with blood; whilst Cybill Shepherd (as Betsy) presents herself as an ethereal beauty who is achingly beyond reach.

Taxi Driver is a classic and controversial exponent of the New Hollywood style of filmmaking, which sought to deconstruct its forbears through pushing past boundaries, whether they be technical, cultural, or anything else within their reach. So, taken on the face of it, Taxi Driver might appear to be a series of disturbing and ultra-violent snapshots that bled out and contaminated the reality that it sought to represent. Famously, for example, John Hickley, Jr., attempted to assassinate President Ronald Regan after obsessing over Jodie Foster, who played Iris: a teenage prostitute in the film.

Yet, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), the anti-hero of the narrative, is not a simple, doltish character in a two-dimensional cartoonish world that we are supposed to unquestionably consume and worship, or reject, outright. Taxi Driver continues to affect us precisely because of the complexities beneath its clotted surface; it presents the viewer with immediate gratification and thrills from a netherworld, but one which is permeated by a perpetually shifting moral invective that still has relevancy today.

“We’re all fucked.”

Ironically via a monologue, Travis Bickle confesses that “I don’t believe that one should devote one’s life to morbid self-absorption. I believe someone should become a person like other people.” Nevertheless, Travis is unable to recognize that it’s exactly because he is so self-engrossed and “lost in his private universe” (Keyser 71), as Scorsese has put it, that even though the young taxi driver is able to jokingly assert that his driving license is “real clean, just like my conscience”, his inward-turning vision does not allow him to consider how other people may have different, yet equally valid, ethical codes.

According to Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver: “Both Marty and I were very attracted to the perverse singularity of vision—someone who says, ‘I’ve gotta get healthy’ while he’s swallowing pills—and to the self-contradictory nature of the character …. He is the one making the world sordid” (Jackson 119). Travis’s sense of morality works from his joint denial and attraction to the “animals” around him. His encounter at the porno-theater, for example, demonstrates this division in his character as he wants his angelic date to simultaneously experience the degenerate world that he rebukes, but he also needs her to be able to reject it.

Taxi Driver demonstrates the interiority of Travis’s attract/disgust paradox in the prolonged shot featuring Travis on the telephone to Betsy trying to be “like other people” in a relationship, but failing. The camera tracks back down a long corridor to a deserted hallway where other telephones that are not in use can be seen, arguably epitomizing the emotional and physical detachment that Travis has from the society he is trying to dialogue with.

Yet, Travis is aware of his solitude. He records in his diary: “Loneliness has followed me all my life. The life of loneliness pursues me wherever I go …. There is no escape. I am God’s lonely man.” In this declaration Paul Schrader was consciously alluding to Thomas Wolfe’s “God’s Lonely Man” (Keyser 68). The epitaph to the original script is from the same text: “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” Furthermore, before drafting Taxi Driver, Schrader had read Sartre’s Nausea and wanted “to take [Roquentin,] whose essential dilemma is ‘should I exist’ and put him in an American street context” (Keyser 70). 

Scorsese created the perfect ‘mentor’ of Sartrean logic in fellow taxi driver Wizard (Peter Boyle), who believes: “You do a thing and that’s what you are …. you’ve got no choice anyway … we’re all fucked.” Travis’s character is also based on two similar but fundamentally different concepts: that man is lonely like others because that is God’s master plan, and that man is essentially useless and on his own because God does not exist. The implications of such internal contradictions means that Travis’s sense of morality is severely unbalanced.

Early in the film when he attempts to ‘be’ his job, he accepts it because he believes that God is there to help: “Thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks”; nevertheless, this protection seems inadequate to Travis as he continues: “Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all the scum off the streets.”

As Travis becomes more exposed to the “animals [that] come out at night, whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies”, Travis begins to filtrate his narrow-minded prejudices into his distorted moral vision; he begins to want to take action into his own hands. Travis is incapable of reconciling his desire to allow God to change people, with his desire to become a Godlike figure with the power to adjust other character’s ‘faulty’ perceptions. Consequently, he oscillates between the two types of morality, both within and without society, until his final outburst at the end of the film. 

The Mean Streets

The initial moral impetus behind Taxi Driver may have been Schrader’s “Protestant script, cold and isolated” (Von Gunden 146), but the film is synthesized with Scorsese’s urban Catholic beliefs, including the gritty vibrancy of character and city observations that had pervaded Mean Streets, his previous ‘New York’ film.

In both Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Scorsese has played a hit man that sits in the shadows of the back seat of a car. Although the “.44 magnum” scene was supposed to have been played by a friend, it is symbolic that Scorsese had the opportunity to play the “man in the shadows pulling the strings” (Biskind 251). Scorsese’s character barks orders at Travis and directs the attention of the viewer and Travis up to the silhouette of his wife. Scorsese directs the camera movement from in front of, and behind the camera, as it tracks to find it’s subject within the frame. Because of this double intensity of direction (visual and verbal), the viewer may feel coerced into sharing their point of view with Travis’s own perspective.

The point-of-view (POV) shot is one method of maintaining audience identification with “outlaws” (Von Gunden 1991), so Travis and his passenger may make an audience feel uneasy, but the POV may also encourage them to consider their collective similarities, placing them in the position of an accomplice to the unfolding events. Consequently, when Scorsese’s character says: “Now did you ever see what [a .44 magnum] can do to a woman’s pussy? That you should see …. I know you must think I’m pretty sick …. I’m paying for the ride. You don’t have to answer” a viewer might be morally disturbed by the dialogue, but they may also be partially sympathetic because they can feel the intensity of being there whilst the adulterous wife’s silhouette is seen above. Although a viewer might be appalled by the suggestion of brute force as a form of moral correction, Travis’s impassive demeanor at this juncture in the narrative may be beginning to suggest that he is considering the legitimacy of such an action.

To re-enforce the moral ramifications of the adultery scene, Travis buys, amongst other guns, a .44 magnum like the semi-justified cuckolded passenger. Within a framework of sympathy, this might make sense to the viewer as the other drivers warned Travis that he needed protection, presumably against “some jungle bunny in Harlem”. Furthermore, Easy Andy (Steven Prince) only deals “to the right people”. By this point in the story, the notion of whether Travis really is one of the “right” people, and what a “right” person actually is, begins to be seriously considered.

Travis aims his gun out of the window at a regular couple in the street, not only does this action question whether he has begun to class all people as acceptable targets, but it also foregrounds the reiterated motif from similar scenes where other people have suggested violence, such as when the black cab driver points his fingers at Travis to shoot him; Wizard remarks that Travis is a “killer”; and the gun gesture is repeated later when Travis meets Sport (Harvey Keitel) for the first time.

Travis has embraced the world he suspects to be immoral, but one might argue that he has overstepped the boundaries by literally buying the gun that the other characters have only alluded to. Although Travis’s actions may seem morally justifiable in an abstract sense, the reality of Judge Dredd-like immediate justice and violence clashes with ethical notions of rehabilitation by the state. For example, Travis’s first act of violence was to kill someone who was trying to rob a shop. Albeit that there was an initial crime committed, the act of murder is an extreme vigilante punishment and the shopkeeper, who promptly takes a baseball-bat and starts to beat the pathetic corpse on the floor, reinforces the ‘overkill’ attitude that is the product of an unsettled social environment.     

Heavens to Betsy!

According to Scorsese, Taxi Driver “just takes the idea of macho and takes it to its logical insane conclusion, graphically, pornographically, insane” (Keyser 73). Indeed, Travis is almost forced by the city to associate sexual gratification with acts of violence when he is driving: “Every night when I return the car to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights I clean off the blood.” His heavy exposure to pornography, prostitutes, and his naive assumption of the polarized virgin woman stereotype, forms Travis’s perception of women.

Crucially, Taxi Driver explores Travis’s naïve and fractured mind when his acceptation of the status quo becomes questioned by his clichéd heroic mentality.  Betsy, the campaign worker is distinguished because she “appeared like an angel out of the open sewer. Out of this filthy mass. She is alone: they cannot touch her.” Kolker believes that Travis approaching and being accepted by Betsy is a demonstration that “it is not impossible for the most improbable boy to win the beautiful girl” (Kolker 195), but Betsy is supposed to represent more than just an attractive love interest. If Betsy is an angel, then Travis goes to her for help saving himself from the world that he lives in.

Taking Betsy to watch the pornographic film, The Swedish Marriage Manual, is “unconsciously destructive” as Schrader believes, ‘there was something in him that really wanted to shove her face in the filth, that he felt to dirty her, to say, “Look at this: this is what I’m really like. How could you love someone like me?” (Jackson 119). Yet Travis’s unerring dedication to getting better, rising himself morally above those around him, leads him to ask where else should they go. Travis is like a child who’s looking for guidance and does something indecent because at this point in the narrative, correction and not physical violence is his method of learning.

The name Betsy, a shortened form of Elizabeth, means “God is satisfaction”. This is ironic, because the angelic Betsy is unable to satisfy Travis’s needs. The literal idea that God is satisfaction returns to the Sartrean existentialist idea that man lives through weakness and can not find moral satisfaction, and then dies by accident because there is no God. Faced with this fundamental clash of world-views as his romantic life unravels, Travis eventually responds to the threat to his moral crusade not by reconciling and correcting his thoughts, but by perversely denouncing the saintly Betsy as a Satan figure declaring: “You’re living in hell. You’re gonna die in hell.”

Although Travis initially believed that he should “become a person like other people”, he develops the conviction that “other people” must be inferior to himself. Travis writes in his diary that he realizes “how much [Betsy] is like the others, so cold and distant. Many people are like that. Women for sure. They’re like an onion.” Travis categorizes people in an attempt to understand his world but he only misinterprets their potential function within his life. Betsy could have been a corrective to Travis’s insanity but he rebukes her and reaffirms his own increasingly twisted beliefs. Schrader may have been agreeing with Travis when in the original script he calls her a “star-fucker of the highest order” (Keyser 75), but Scorsese makes her character seem less predatory and genuinely upset when her date to the cinema crosses her own entirely legitimate moral boundaries.

“You talkin’ to me?”

If the key undercurrent to the picture is Scorsese’s drastic challenge to the carefully nurtured morality of the viewer, then the key scene where they might become totally aware of their misplaced faith in Travis is the famous sequence in which DeNiro stares at the camera and demands from his reflection: “You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?” 

Although “the mirror here explicitly relates to determination and alienation: Travis’s assumption of a new, violent image is—as he threatens and ‘shoots’ himself—intimately linked to a repression of the self” (Grist 138), perhaps more importantly: Travis also speaks to the audience. He seems to mock the audience for searching for a Travis other than the one before them, yet he still tauntingly invites them to share in his perspective.

In an act of non-classical editing, Travis turns to look at the camera as his voice-over declares: “Listen you fuckers, you screwheads, here is a man who would not take it anymore, who would not let…”; the voice-over and shot then jump cuts to repeat itself and Travis carries on: “a man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is someone who stood up.” Although Grist suggests that this repetition serves only to “mark Travis as unhinged” (Grist 138), I would equally argue that the intent behind such editing is primarily to ensure that the viewer realizes that Travis is talking partly to them.

The shot is in slow motion and is repeated as if to separate the point of the narrative from time and plot. Travis talks to his audience in a private declaration, which they are privileged to because the confessional style has allowed them access to Travis’s psyche, but then normal time resumes as he addresses the fictional world. In this pivotal scene, Travis has forced a separation between himself and the viewer by grouping his audience with what he detests: those that are content to sit and passively watch.   

The Searchers and the Searched

Taxi Driver has long been acknowledged as being based on John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), and the same differences in genre character type are shown with Travis looking like a law-enforcing “real cowboy”, and Sport resembling an Indian with his long hair, headband, and long painted nail. Travis is presented as the hero of the action who has an ‘enemy’ that represents social and moral difference. If Travis wants to rescue the second significant female in the film, Iris, he also wants to reinforce the morality of his decision, she “should be at home now. You should be dressed up, you should be going out with boys, you should be going to school.”

However, Iris does not really accept Travis’s outlook of her being like Betsy, a type of damsel in distress that needs a “friend”. She calls him “square”, and most vitally points out, “Why do you want me to go back to my parents? I mean, they hate me. Why do you think I split in the first place?” Comparable to Ethan (John Wayne) of The Searchers, Travis has embroiled himself within an ironic ‘captivity narrative’ as the initial trial of virtue becomes perverted and disturbed by the Hero’s self-perpetuated desires.

The pimp represents the counter-culture that Travis does not understand; and like Betsy, Iris—as part of another opposing moral/social movement—does not really want to be the subject of his quasi-religious fervor to do the morally correct thing by his arbitrary standards. This implication is reinforced in the scene where Sport dances with Iris and they share the only true moment of peaceful mutual love in the film before the film cuts to a violent contrasting scene in which Travis is seen at the shooting range on his own.

Once Travis does decide to “fight the enemy on his own terms and in his own manner”, he adopts the Mohican haircut, embracing the western genre and demonstrating his similarity to Sport’s Native American style; but by potentially shocking a viewer’s sensibilities with such severity, the scene may totally separate their identification with Travis. He has allowed himself to “become a person like other people” (although, like in Pulp Fiction (1994), he may just be getting into “character”), but he is also simultaneously different because he expects his actions to be entirely moral. Travis has absorbed the cultural signifiers that may induce violence: the theatre playing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; the random violence in the streets; the blood in his taxi; and he has taken himself to the ultimate signifier of debauched sexuality by the standards of his own worldview: the brothel, where the shootout takes place.

The Taxi Driver Did It

Following the massacre and its aftermath, a slower, ominous version of Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Betsy’s Theme’ can be heard as this is where his distorted daydreams about the female form have led him. Accordingly, Grist believes that “Schrader’s script implies the achievement of ‘stasis’, the attainment of a state of grace” (Grist 155); yet I believe that Travis has not managed to purge himself and may easily regress to violence if he puts himself into a similar fantasy again. Like Travis’s attempt to get help by taking Betsy to the adult movie, and his need for immediate reproof against his actions, Travis has killed others to remove the immoral “other people” but he also wants to demonstrate that his actions themselves were wrong, hence he tries to shoot himself.

Ironically, because the newspaper clippings herald Travis’s heroism: “Taxi Hero to Recover” and “Taxi Driver Battles Gangsters”, for example, he has literally been presented as “the job” that Wizard warned him of becoming, thereby cancelling the possibility of transcendence at the end of the film as “God’s lonely man”. Indeed, Schrader’s enthusiasm for “tons of blood all over the walls” creating a more striking “surrealistic effect”, was restrained as Scorsese wanted the situation to be more like “the sort you read about every day” (Grist 153).

Consequently, the public, through the newspapers, sanctifies Travis’s violence. In contrast, for the viewer watching a man mentally disintegrate only for him to be praised, they might become aware of the huge disparity between their emotions at the end of the film and their own praise of Travis at the beginning of the film. Travis now seems far more animalistic in his response to getting justice and it is questionable whether he should be celebrated for being able to find a violent outlet for his disturbing emotions.   

As with much of the output from the American New Wave, a film like Taxi Driver may contest the boundaries of culture, but it does not offer radically alternative approaches or solutions; instead, it leaves that up to the viewer with their own accumulated cultural capital. Consequently, even 40 years on, a viewer may feel that it has witnessed the trials of Travis Bickle as the actions of a diseased mind, but it may also partially agree with the unfolding insanity partially because Scorsese has chosen not to show a viable solution to the problems within the narrative.

Taxi Driver has only reflected Travis’s moral dilemma onto us, just as much as we are the mirror that Travis sees when he’s preparing for war. However, in a world where potential world leaders are using the same disturbing rhetoric of claiming that outsiders are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists”, or that those with differing belief systems should be entirely banned from a country, it’s more important than ever that we use films such as Taxi Driver to consider the morality of our actions, and where they might lead us.   

Works Cited
Kenneth Von Gunden, Postmodern Auteurs, McFarland and Company Inc, London, 1991.
Kevin Jackson, Schrader on Schrader, Faber and Faber, London, 1990.
Leighton Grist, The Films of Martin Scorsese, 1963 – 1977, Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000.
Les Keyser, Martin Scorsese, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1995.
Peter Biskind, EasyRiders, Raging Bulls, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, 1998.
Robert Philip Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness second edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988.

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