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Sunday, April 6, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Taxi Driver (1976)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybil Sheppard

“Here is a man who would not take it anymore.” And here is an iconic moment in American cinema, when Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) stands in front of the mirror, preparing himself for battle. “You talkin’ to me? Well, I’m the only one here.” The entire film is, essentially, Travis’ long conversation with himself, his attempt to reconcile one side of his nature to the other, a struggle made all the more intense by his alienation from the world and his chronic insomnia. He is one of the great characters in cinema, the anti-hero to end all anti-heroes, and Taxi Driver is brilliant for the way that it puts us so deeply inside his psyche that we can’t ever really be sure if what we’re seeing is “real” or fantasy, a moment taking place in Travis’ imagination as he looks in the mirror.

Travis is, of course, a taxi driver, having taken the job because he can’t sleep at night anyway, so he might as well be driving. This particular job offers him the opportunity to connect in some way with the rest of the world, to forge some kind of human contact, even if only briefly. However, having the job fails to help him connect with the world around him and he only becomes more disgusted by it, by the things he sees as he drives around the city at night. He actively attempts to make two connections – one to Betsy (Cybil Sheppard), a campaign worker for Senator Palentine, and one to Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute. His relationships with these women help to emphasize the dual nature of his personality.

Travis becomes infatuated with Betsy after spotting her from his car. He eventually works himself up to meeting her but fails to read her properly and connect. His jokes fall flat, he offends her by taking her to a porn film, his behaviour towards her becomes increasingly aggressive and stalker-like. His failure to relate to her ultimately stems from the fact that she has a secure position in the world which makes his own seem all the more unstable. She isn’t a woman who needs him to “save” her and their relationship – up to and including his attempt to assassinate Palentine – is marked by impotence and failure. He fails to shoot Palentine, he fails to understand Betsy and make her understand him. With Iris, however, things are different. She needs rescuing and she occupies a place in the world even more unstable than his own, so the balance of power is different between them. He succeeds in saving her, he succeeds in pulling the trigger and killing the dominant male figures in her life. In his relationships with Betsy and Iris, we see the full spectrum of Travis’ personality, the active and the passive, the dominant and the submissive.

Travis is a character who has taken on deep significance in popular culture (especially that image of him standing in front of the mirror) and I find it strange when people consider him in the terms of a rebel who lashes out against the establishment. Throughout the film, Travis is upholding traditional, conservative values, although he takes them to their most extreme. “Whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” he tells us. He’s alienated by what he sees as the moral decay that surrounds him and the solution, as he sees it, is not social change, but rampage – to quickly and decisively get rid of all the city’s undesirable elements. In the film’s final, blood-soaked showdown he’s not rebelling against the system, he’s eliminating enemies of the system and thereby earning his place in society. The final scenes of the film see him treated as a hero (although there is some debate as to whether these scenes can be taken literally or are just Travis’ dying thoughts) for saving Iris, his attack on the brothel framed as self-defence.

This is a very tense film – it coils around and around until finally exploding in the final scenes. We know that Travis is going to snap; we know because we’re seeing the world through his eyes, seeing what he wants us to see. In one scene he makes a phone call to Betsy, pleading his case to a woman who has already written him off. The camera moves away from him and looks down the hall. It’s because Travis doesn’t want us to see him this way, this vulnerable. He is controlling the narrative. De Niro is perfect at conveying the pent-up anxieties and neuroses of Travis’ character, as well as his growing madness. We watch him hold his hand in a flame, we watch him rock his television back and forth before finally tipping it over, and he doesn’t have to say anything, because we can read it all in his body language and in his eyes. And even at the end, after he’s been accepted into society as a saviour, we can’t really be sure that he’s satiated the demons inside of him. There’s that same intensity to his look, that same tension in his body, and the world is, after all, still the same except that Iris is now back with her parents and her pimp is dead.

The central performance is fantastic – as are the supporting performances, for that matter – and the direction by Martin Scorsese is amazing. He presents us with a very tightly controlled film, limited not just to Travis’ point of view, but to the state of his psyche at any given moment. When the film finally explodes in its final orgy of violence, it comes as a shock to the system even though we’ve been preparing for it from the first moments. Scorsese’s ability to do that – to tell you where the story is going, but still shock you with the fact that it goes there – is the genius of this film.

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