[26 January 2011]
Voices in Our Heads
“You talking to me?”
—Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver
It’s the pivotal scene in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and it remains one of the seminal moments in movie history. Not so much because of its improvisational nature, or the uncanny way Robert De Niro (playing the alienated and ultimately violent Travis Bickle) disappears into this character, managing to seem invisible and menacing all at once. Most important, this short scene echoes a question that all of us, to a certain extent, ask the world every day.
“Are you talking to me?” we ask, and the tone may be inquisitive, rhetorical or defiant. It may be those and many other things. Mostly, as we interact in a mechanized, sped-up and increasingly unreal reality, we want to make sure people know we are there. We use our voices, our eyes, our frowns or smiles, our car horns, our telephones, our e-mail, our clothes and a thousand little gestures to affirm that our presence does not go entirely unnoticed.
In a way, it was easier to project one’s self a few decades ago, around the time Taxi Driver (1976) was released. There was no Internet, no texting, no cell phones, no cable TV, no electronic anything adding to the din. If you needed to reach out and touch someone, you had to do just that. And your presence was thus known. It’s possible that with the proliferation of devices and toys in our information-overload moment (which, as it relates to art, content and information, is definitely not a negative thing), we are more removed from one another, rather than more connected, and therefore we are lonelier than ever before.
This ground has been well-covered and there are compelling arguments on either side. On one hand, it can be conjectured that by remaining indoors, behind a glowing screen, we’ve effectively cut ourselves off from old-fashioned interaction and our communication—however ceaseless—lacks intimacy and engagement. On the other hand, people who in another era (including this one) may be best described as socially awkward (due to a variety of societal and self-imposed factors) have myriad opportunities to connect that simply did not exist even ten years ago.
The above observations almost entirely relate to action as opposed to reaction. It’s difficult to accurately gauge precisely how a constant bombardment of content, opinions and steadily louder voices is affecting our perception. Not too long ago it was a common joke to talk about (either in celebratory or castigating tones) how we had 100 channels to choose from via cable TV. Now we have hundreds of channels, as well as streaming video, social media, blogs, and a dedicated website for every news channel, program and talking head in the world. And all of these voices are trying to tell, or sell, us something, always urgently, never off message, constantly competing with all the other noise to get inside our heads and influence our opinions in one way or another.
Who Owns The American Dream?
“You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna’ die in a hell like the rest of them.”
It was horrifying enough when we had Travis Bickle types who, for their various reasons, sought violent ends to make some type of statement or try and quell that voice screeching non-stop in their ears. Taxi Driver, though wrongly or at least simplistically described by too many as the story of a psychopath, is very much a cautionary tale about what can happen when an alienated citizen has no one to talk to. The fact that it’s set in one of the busiest cities in the world is less ironic than tragic: anyone who has spent time in a bustling urban environment can confirm that it’s sometimes—if not often—the case that one can feel most alone when surrounded by millions of people who don’t know or care about them.
Loneliness, alienation and even violence are sufficiently commonplace as to be unremarkable facets of American existence: watch the news or consider your own life story. This certainly holds true in any society, particularly our plugged in but often disconnected post-millennial era. It seems safe to suggest these conditions are most rampant and profound in the United States. There are countless reasons and/or symptoms, and they are rooted more in myth than reality. For example, while America does not have the rigid and stratified class systems that still plagues Europe, it does have a collective addiction to the white-washed fantasy also known as the American Dream, which is its own kind of class system.
Lest that sound like a facile dismissal of a very complicated and, in many ways useful illusion, there are undeniably certain aspects of the American Dream parable that are provable and worthwhile. The ceaseless influx of grateful immigrants is sufficient testament to the inherent promise of an ostensibly free society. The same promise luring men and women to illegally enter America is the same impulse that served as a siren song for Irish, Italian and other immigration movements through the 19th and 20th centuries. This migration, legal or illegal, speaks more to the ‘actual’ dream of America itself more than what many think really is the American Dream; the house, the car, the well-paying job, the happy family. Being able to do something about one’s life is altogether different from being able to do anything. Most of these immigrants (then and now) are obliged to work excruciating hours doing horrific work at woeful wages, and the only thing making their hard lives tolerable is that they’re (usually) better off living under such conditions than they would be back ‘home’.
The proposition that any of us, regardless of who we are and whatever our initial station in life can, with the correct combination of industry, initiative and luck, ascend to a status of wealth festers as one of the more powerful—if poisonous—fictions America has produced. More, it is not merely promulgated but actively inculcated: history books and sentimental movies tend to tout the exceedingly rare rags-to-riches allegory while ignoring, denying or conveniently dismissing the typical reality, which is that America’s working poor are likely to remain exactly where they are; and so too, their children. In fact, as we’ve seen in the last few decades, this is more—not less—the case in a political and cultural system that has steadily ensured that those who have more will get more, and at the expense of those who have little.
This dichotomy between what we see on movie and TV screens or inside magazines and what we see when we look up from these things is not new, but commercials, ads and websites telling us how we can be or who we should be are incalculably more prevalent and powerful in today’s world. Thus, the same types of alienating forces that the lonely, angry and outcast citizens have historically been subject to are alarmingly more intense in a 24/7 info-tainment unreality.
Which brings us to the Republicans in general and the Tea Party in particular. The GOP has auto-piloted the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories to the extent that counties receiving the most federal aid will lash out most indignantly (if ignorantly) about the perils of “big government”, e.g., “The number of states that have applied for and received funding made available by the Affordable Care Act: 50. The number of states, as of Jan. 4, that have signed on to a Florida lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act: 20” (source: “OBamacare Goes Under the Knife”, by Kate Pickert, Time, 27 January 2011.) Indeed, generation after generation illustrates that those who benefit most from higher taxes (and who have the least likelihood of ascending to the upper tax brackets) are consistently fanatical about keeping taxes low for those who earn the most. There are an unfortunate number of tragedies we commit as Americans, but this is one of the more profound examples.
“Loneliness has followed me my whole life…there’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”
One of the more devastatingly poignant (or poignantly devastating) scenes in Taxi Driver occurs when Travis sits silently in his apartment, watching the attractive and fashionable folks dancing on TV. Alone in his sweltering studio walk-up, the look on his face—at once longing, frustrated and confused—reveals the hastening recognition that he will never attain the easy, if superficial, security he sees on the screen. With subtlety and lack of sentimentality (the script is actually somewhat slight, which only underscores the astonishing work De Niro turns in), we see that Bickle is the ultimate loner, an underground entity who is as much insect as human, scurrying in and out of his pointless and preordained routine.
Add to this that he is a veteran, perhaps the most overlooked, yet prescient touch of the film (flash forward 30-plus years to see how America treat its soldiers when they return from the wars we ask them to fight; little coincidence that it’s the same party that salutes the flag most tearfully that is quickest to slash and burn the programs designed to provide physical—and especially mental—assistance to these returning soldiers). The result of these circumstances and lack of choices provide us, circa 1976, with a character sketch of someone who, if one thing leads to the next, might opt for a more sociopathic solution to his problems. Importantly, Bickle is not revealed as a man destined to snap; while he is far from blameless for his predicament, he is very much a casualty of the world (the real one and the manufactured one) that he can’t master but must exist in. Therefore when he decides “my whole life is pointed in one direction…there never has been any choice for me”, it is both a confession and a one-man verdict, his indictment against this world.
There is some irony, looking back on the candidate he turns his grim attention toward: Palantine, running under the campaign slogan “We Are The People”, seems to espouse a very optimistic (if clichéd) message. (Further irony in that this notion of a collective synergy only amplifies Bickle’s isolation.) Imagine all of these elements contributing to Bickle’s disintegration placed in the context of contemporary culture, with venom being spewed 24/7 by charlatans and circus clowns like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Michele Bachmann, and not least Sarah Palin. Imagine Travis Bickle watching Fox News daily. One wonders if that’s what Jared Loughner was doing before he went on his shooting rampage.
Travis gets his guns after a frightening encounter in his cab (and having heard about the violence fellow drivers have suffered). Only after he feels himself finally out of options does he contemplate using his gun on an innocent person (and later, others). Even in 1976, this was sufficiently compelling commentary on the ease with which Americans get access to guns. Today, appallingly, gun laws are looser than ever (and—shocker!—one political party defends this madness with the same tenacity it brings to cutting taxes and eliminating federal aid programs) and instead of a lone madman with one round, we have the sickening spectacle of a much more powerful man with a semi-automatic weapon: Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson.
It slowly comes into focus: it’s easier, now, for more people to understand the ‘math’ (or rather, the ‘language’) that made the Tucson shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords which killed six people and wounded 14 predictable and, perhaps, inevitable. There will always be lunatics in our midst who will kill and maim others and there is little we can do (other than disarm them). That said, it is way too easy to suggest this was an ambivalent act with random victims—in the same State that Sarah Palin put cross-hairs on a map of political “targets”. Of course, there is plenty of blame to go around due to the zero-sum game of contemporary political discourse. Then too, the media—equal parts opportunistic and prurient—must assume considerable responsibility for the breathless way it feeds this dysfunctional cycle.
If there is anything more prevalent than the notion that all Americans can become richer, smarter and more beautiful, it’s their lamentable tendency to ignore distress signals. Whether prompted by a political party, a propaganda machine masquerading as a news network, or collective apathy, one story seems to play itself out over and over: an individual snaps, we weep at the carnage and ask how it could have happened. Only in hindsight, it seems, do we recognize that the signs were hidden in plain sight. So once again, the most urgent question is not so much how we might have stopped Jared Loughner, but how we can stop the next one.