It was a warm summer afternoon in New York. I was on a boat cruise around the City and there was a middle aged man, talking to a group of people about important landmarks, historical facts, significant events and the like. He then happened to say, “Taxi Driver is my favourite movie.” Everything he said after that sounded different to me. Not because I love the movie but because it gave his words a context I could resonate with. Sure, you can see a certain kind of New York in a Woody Allen movie and a certain kind of New York in a Scorsese or De Palma movie. It’s the same setting but the Worlds seem so distant from one another. Taxi Driver is sort of an “insider’s perspective on a movie about an outsider.” New York is a living organism and Taxi Driver is one of the most iconic and brutally honest on screen depictions of it. According to the history, Brian De Palma gave Martin Scorsese the Paul Schrader script. This aspect to me is very interesting. Had De Palma made it, it would be a very very different movie. The incredible marriage of Scorsese’s direction, Schrader’s screenplay, Robert De Niro’s performance, Michael Chapman’s visuals and Bernard Herrmann’s music, created an experience that is discussed, dissected, debated, written and spoken about to this day. And will always be, of course.
Comfort in the feeling of discomfort
Not until recently did it strike me that Scorsese has passionately created uncomfortable situations in movies. May be his King of Comedy is more discomforting than this film but there is a degree of discomfort associated with Taxi Driver that only says one thing. It fucking works. Oh, I don’t mean to speak about the violence or the brutality of it. That isn’t even slightly discomforting. What makes you uncomfortable are the situations Travis Bickle finds himself in with “the common people.” The whole scene with Betsy outside the porno theatre. What troubles you more? Not the fact that Travis took her there but the fact that he cannot quite understand where he went wrong. Scorsese went on record and said that the 1970s was a time in New York where visiting porno theatres was a regular thing. Though that’s not something people bear in mind while watching the movie and he knows that. That’s why it works. The documentary aspect that would explain such a phenomenon is avoided. Hence, the audience is left to be appalled by his behaviour and then shocked by Travis’ inability to get his head around the repercussions of his actions. What’s even more striking about this is Betsy calling Travis “a walking contradiction.” The phrase explains most of Travis’ doings throughout the movie. Most.
Key to great collaboration
Speaking of great improvisations in movies, Taxi Driver is right up there with the best. We have heard and read about Brando’s inputs on Vito Corleone in The Godfather or of Pacino in Scarface, and so many more unforgettable ones. Three instances in particular here exist because of Robert De Niro.
The “You talkin’ to me” scene. Scorsese says they were running out of shooting time and De Niro went on improvising. He also added the edge, “I’m the only one here. You talkin’ to me?” That sealed it, he said.
The second instance is the scene with Martin Scorsese in the back seat. A tense and troubling scene in which Scorsese’s character wants to murder his wife and talks to Travis about it. Robert De Niro helped Scorsese extend his lines in a manner that would make more sense. Such as, forcing him to keep the meter (flag) running until he was done talking. I think De Niro says only one or two words in this entire scene. Everything else is done by his expressions. It’s an incredible acting class, really. Sympathy, partly empathy, remorse, anger, dissatisfaction with himself and the burning urge to be noticed, all are expressed by Bob De Niro here. Unforgettable.
The third instance is the beautiful yet uncomfortable follow up to to the one with Scorsese in the back seat. It’s Travis Bickle speaking to his cabbie friend. “I have some bad ideas in my head.” The association with the previous scene in which Scorsese speaks about killing his wife has a bearing on this and De Niro improvised that line. The beauty of Schrader’s script is in creating these instances and situations that only partially link to things that have happened during the runtime of the movie. Many of Travis’ thoughts and actions are unjustifiable. But he justifies them, to himself. It’s not a depiction of his state of mind but a journey into it. Can you understand Travis completely? No. Neither can he. I don’t know how or what Paul Schrader experienced or saw or watched or heard that not only made his work this accurate but also honest and unsettling at the same time.
A man desperate to prove that he is alive
At the bottom of it all, Travis wants to “do something”.
He is waiting for “the real rain that will wash all the scum off the streets.” If you think this is comical (apparently someone found this movie to be a comedy and if anything about this film is funny, it’s that) you’re getting it wrong. It has to be relatable to everybody. What Travis is trying to say is that he doesn’t really follow political issues but he knows there’s something wrong. Something no one actually can “solve” or “clean”. It’s a larger problem that would need “a real rain” to clean it up. The entire film is from Travis’ point of view. The streets and the people on those streets paint a gruesome picture of things. Senator Charles Palentine can comment intelligently and say that he has “learnt more from travelling in taxi cabs than in all the limos” but surely, he doesn’t feel it the way Travis does. After the occasional yet brief cab journey, he will get back into his limo with tinted glasses and he won’t see the World Travis sees. Let alone live in it. Schrader certainly had a very detailed view of New York and Michael Chapman and Martin Scorsese magically put that up on screen. The noir-ish visuals aren’t “treatment ideas” but instead are projections of Travis’ mind. He doesn’t see the glitz and glamour of New York City. He sees the dirt, he sees hookers being forced by gangster pimps, he sees street gangs throw stuff on his cab, he sees gangsters attack shop owners. He doesn’t know what he can do to stop any of these things but he spends most of his time fighting the ambiguous force that embodies a culmination of these instances from the street. Travis was in the Marines. His work in Vietnam operated at a certain level of intensity. He could vent out his frustrations, physically, in Vietnam. He struggles to do that in New York. There are a lot of things that upset him on a daily basis but how can he “act” like he did in Vietnam? He gets a load of guns, a knife and exercises in his apartment. He is preparing for the act. But what is the act? Who is it against? Travis goes from “supporting Palentine” to wanting to shoot him. He changes his look, he talks to a secret serviceman (who is surprisingly cooperative). In his mind and his letters to his family, he is a part of a secret mission for “the Government”. Why does he tell himself that? By “Government” does he mean the current administration who Charles Palentine is fighting against? Or does he mean the Government Charles Palentine hopes to lead? The answers to these questions aren’t nearly as important as the questions themselves. To understand Travis’ psyche, it’s important to also understand that he doesn’t understand himself.
Travis and Betsy
Personally, I believe that the relationship between Travis and Betsy is one of the most complicated ones in Film History. When I first watched the movie (many years ago), the dynamic between Travis and Betsy acted like a foundation for my understanding of the story…and of Travis. This means, and I think this is true for most people especially on first viewing, everything Travis does is for attention and… Betsy. This oversimplified bottling of the entire film happens only for about 10 minutes after you have first watched it. May be the fact that I was very young at the time, this was the way I looked at it. But over time, I realised that this relationship may feel like it’s at the centre of the film but it is only one of the many fragments. Or consequences.
On one level of the story, we could understand that Travis’ acts after the porno theatre episode are in reaction to Betsy moving away from him. But this would have two parts. The initial part is confrontation. If he sympathises with Martin Scorsese’s character (who wants to kill his wife) does he have a similar plan for Betsy? If he did, then the only reason for change in his life could be the arrival of Iris. If not, then Travis’ reasons are far more complex. He could feel that a certain force has taken Betsy away from him and it is that force that he wants to fight. This could be a reason why he turns against Charles Palentine. (It still doesn’t explain why he considers Betsy to be a part of “the union” unless that was only out of anger) But on this level of understanding of the story, we could also conclude that the entire bloodbath towards the end was to make a point to Betsy. (This has been severely debated since Travis attempts to kill himself twice during the bloodbath) Maybe Travis thought that the only way to attract her attention and from “everyone in the union” would be by killing himself. From Betsy’s point of view, Travis is not like anyone she has met before. After the porno theatre incident, she walks away from Travis and doesn’t give him a chance to explain himself. Travis, still digesting his grave mistake, keeps attempting to get in touch with her. After Travis murders gangsters and the pimp called Sport (played so brilliantly by Harvey Keitel), Betsy has a change of heart. Or so it seems. The romantic ending of the movie is one of the big reasons it works on so many different levels. It is an open ending but the pinch of “I read about you in the papers” which follows the “hero articles”, gives the movie a balance of genius.
Travis and Iris
Travis is such a contradictory and complex character that it’s hard to pin down his actual belief system before he meets Betsy (Even after). A part of it becomes clearer once he meets Iris. Travis drove the taxi on the night Iris tried to run away from Sport (the pimp). He gave Travis a “crumpled 20 dollar bill” (which is interestingly the same bill he hands over to the gangster after using his room) Travis becomes protective and urges Iris to not work for Sport and to go back to her home town. What’s driving him? Maybe the night when he saw her being forced away or maybe, there’s a shift inside of him. It could still be that he finds a way of combating “the scum” by taking it up against Sport and his partners. The act of killing a bunch of gangsters just days after attempting to kill Charles Palentine, justifies Betsy labelling Travis as a “walking contradiction”.
Summing it up
While watching a film like Taxi Driver it’s impossible to predict where it goes towards the end. I never saw the “hero” episode coming. I never saw him meeting Betsy again. The genius of Scorsese and Schrader lies in telling you that you’re watching one type of movie and then it suddenly slides over and becomes something else. If you think about it, there would never be anything remotely optimistic about the ending of a movie that starts off on a character’s pessimism and then dives right into a pool of pessimistic thoughts. Not that the ending is optimistic or pessimistic but it certainly is more hopeful than you’d expect it to be. Martin Scorsese romanticises the lives of gangsters in a film like Goodfellas. In this movie, he partly romanticises the idea of this one man from the street who kills a bunch of gangsters and becomes a hero. The elaborate explanation with newspaper clippings and narration from Iris’ parents in the background is a testament to this idea of romanticising characters who essentially are “anti heroes”.