by Michael Dempsey
In Taxi Driver, New York City is a steaming, polluted cesspool and Travis Bickle’s cab a drifting bathysphere from which he can peer at the “garbage and trash” which obsess him: whores, pimps, junkies, wandering maniacs, maggotty streets, random violence. It’s definitely a subjective vision—the film locks us into his consciousness—yet not solipsistic, inasmuch as the grisly avenues and their cargo of human flotsam could be observed by anyone walking or riding there at night. The screenwriter, Paul Schrader, also wrote a book entitled Transcendental Style in Film,1 and he has gone out of his way to make us take one of its subjects, Robert Bresson, for his main inspiration. Actually, it is Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (released after the book was published) which Taxi Driver suggests most. Bresson made his Paris more romantic and even comic than Martin Scorsese has done with Manhattan. But both have created memorable portraits of glowing, phosphorescent urban nights, from which isolated human novas flare briefly before the darkness swallows them back again.
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) sees everything more or less silently from behind the wheel of his cab: a groping couple, presidential candidate Charles Palantine, a demented husband raving about firing a .44 into his wife’s pussy, a sub-teenage hooker named Iris trying to flee a pimp, a hip blonde Palantine worker called Betsy who first rejects him and later stares at him in fascination after he has accidentally won fame for gunning down Iris’s pimp during the film’s horrifying climax. Unlike the gabby hackies of New York folklore, Travis cannot talk much about his obsession. He feels so alienated that he either clams up or rambles half-coherently, to a puzzled fellow driver, to Palantine—just enough to hint at his dammed-up rage. Isolated, afraid of people, almost uneducated, Travis can do little but seethe to himself, complain to his diary (narrated in snippets on the sound track), and drive all night even in the most dangerous neighborhoods because he has so much trouble dropping off to sleep.
Seeking an outlet for the “bad ideas’’ in his head, he focuses on Palantine, somewhat as Arthur Bremer did on George Wallace, and resolves to kill him. This fixation mingles with the hatred he comes to feel for Iris’s pimp, which makes him oddly akin to the assassin in Nashville. Except for a cryptic reference to a tour of duty in Vietnam, Scorsese and Schrader avoid trying to explain him with personal details, psychologial data, or even the Marxist analysis which the film clearly invites; and this is all to the good. The hellmouth in which Travis is trapped is explanation enough for his impacted loneliness and self-hatred, his utter bewilderment over how to conquer them, his sense that he has failed “to become a person like other people.’’ In a complete turnaround from his pinwheeling, off- the-wall Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, De Niro has brought Schrader’s brilliant conception alive with expert minimalism: hooded eyes, stiffly loping gait, a crinkled shadow of a grin during moments of uncertainty. Along with Scorsese’s electric montages of gothic Gotham, De Niro’s embodiment of this lost man is the film’s most affecting element.
But once it has conjured Travis up, Taxi Driver does not really know what to do with him, other than baptize him in blood. Schrader uses Bressonian motifs, such as narration which describes what we already see, to make the film’s climax look like the work of fate. But there is a thin line between this approach and plain old sloppy plotting. The devious, opportunistic way in which Taxi Driver handles Iris and Betsy exposes its muddled thinking. Iris the 12-year-old whore and Betsy the sophisticated political activist both enter Travis’s life by chance, and he battens onto each for opposite reasons. Iris he wants to save from her sordid life; Betsy he hopes will save him. Travis never overtly searches for Iris; until the end, each encounter with her occurs unintentionally. But he boldly makes a date with Betsy by striding up to her desk and sweet-talking her. If we challenge either circumstance on grounds of simple plausibility, we are sure to be told that both are predestined, that—to cite the subtitle of A Man Escaped—“the wind blows where it will.” But this particular wind blows from a wind machine.
One of the movie’s set pieces is a breakfast between Iris and Travis, during which he tries to persuade her into going back to her midwestern home. But she wants nothing to do with that; Ohio is boring, and her parents hate her. This piece of motivation is so hackneyed that it sounds like a parody of the conventional “explanations” which the movie has otherwise tried to reject. But it helps make us conclude that Travis is right. Life in the American heartland may be dull and repressive—the droning voice of Iris’s father eventually confirms that—but at least it is not seamy or perilous. Jodie Foster brings a scary precocity to her part, and the movie flirts with the possibility that Iris prefers her street hustler’s existence. Still, the whole sequence works mainly as a set-up for the climactic violence. The script graphs matters out to make us feel a merger during the bloodbath of Travis’s twin impulses: to destroy the garbage and to save Iris. The gruesome carnage is supposed to be a rite of redemption, for the two of them and even for the city.
Betsy, in her incandescent loveliness and white dress, becomes Travis’s icon of purity, plucked by his eyes from the engulfing evil of the city. When they chat at a cafe during a break in her workday, he tells her that she is a lonely person. It sounds like the oldest snow-job in the world. But we know that we are supposed to believe it because, a few moments earlier, the movie violated its restriction to Travis’s point-of-view in order to show Betsy with a glib co-worker who doesn’t really respect her. This, plus a snatch of “fatalistic” narration describing the chat before it happens, is meant to disarm our doubts abut the likelihood of the whole encounter, and set us up for the next stage—when Travis wrecks his hopes by taking Betsy to a hard-core porno movie on their next date. Deeply offended, she rejects his apology and drops him. Frustrated in his attempts to reach her again, he concludes that she is as cold and distant as the other people swirling around him. With all chance of a relationship gone, Travis now has only one safety valve left—gunplay.
The plotting of this sequence is inept yet cunning. Travis’s gaffe is difficult to accept. He claims not to have known that any other kind of movie exists or that pornography would upset the woman he has cast as his rescuing goddess. Who can believe that a cabdriver, seeing and hearing every variety of human kinkiness, spending hours himself in scummy stroke houses, would be this naive? But just as these objections come to mind, so does the thought that Scorsese and Schrader are fully aware of them, that we are to swallow them anyway as proof of just how isolated from human life Travis has become. Scorsese has even gone on record with the observation that Travis’s mistake with Betsey is an unconscious act of self-destruction. Nothing in the sequence explicitly backs this statement up. But it sounds just plausible enough to make us incline to give him and Schrader the benefit of the doubt. Once we do that, we can then accept the withdrawal of Betsy, which leaves the decks cleared for action.
In order to clear those decks, however, Taxi Driver overlooks, maybe deliberately, other options. For the sake of argument, let’s accept the notion that Travis would take his dream woman to a porno movie. Why does she have to be disgusted by it? The writing of her scenes in the campaign office, along with the casting of Cybill Shepherd in the part, invites us to view her as a worldly young woman. Why does such a woman necessarily have to storm out of a hard-core theater as though she had never even heard of “dirty movies?” Or as if Travis had forced her to enter it in the first place? Or, even granting this much, why must she be so coldly unforgiving of his mistake? His apology is sincere, his explanation is understandable, and he had piqued her interest enough for her to go out with him despite their obvious differences. So why couldn’t she accept his regrets and continue to see him? Just as Three Days of the Condor eliminates its female lead halfway through its story so that it can lapse into a routine but supposedly more commercial shoot-’em-up climax, Taxi Driver dumps its principal woman just when she has began to suggest more interesting narrative choices than one more blood-and-guts ending. Possibly, even probably, there is little hope that Travis could have a relationship with Betsy or any other woman (no indication of homosexuality appears). But Scorsese and Schrader abandon the possibility too easily, if they ever even considered it. For reasons that may be as much intellectual and emotional as commercial, they prefer the certainty of blood to the chance of love.
Scorsese’s New York-bred angers and obsessions, not to mention his Catholic background, have become well-known through his movies and interviews. So have the repressive Protestant fundamentalism of Schrader’s youth and the difficulties of his life in Los Angeles before he broke into the studio system in 1972 with his screenplay for The Yakuza.2 These factors suggest that money alone does not motivate their desire to end Taxi Driver with a blood feast, though it would be silly to discount money altogether. But on top of all of this, Schrader must have had an additional motivation: the desire to have the movie conform to his formulation of “transcendental style.” Any brief summary of its elements is bound to be oversimplified. But, as he analyzes it, its constituent parts are: a detailed, nondramatic presentation of everyday life, in which “nothing is expressive” of psychology, ideas, or any sort of readily paraphrasable meaning; the disparity which results when “human density” is added to this cold, flat mundaneness, causing us to be emotionally stirred and to accept on faith the decisive action taken by a character in order to break through it; and a concluding stasis, defined as “a form which can accept deep, contradictory emotion and transform it into an expression of something unified, permanent, transcendent.” The style seeks to embody everything in life which cannot be explained psychologically, economically, dramatically, or through any other kind of rational means. It attempts to express “the inner unity of all things,” to “maximize the mystery of existence.” Schrader declares Bresson and Ozu its prime practitioners, adds elsewhere that he wrote his first script under its guidance, and has undoubtedly thought of it in connection with Taxi Driver.
But, leaving aside any debate over the validity of the style, the film has become a travesty of it. In Transcendental Style, Schrader quotes Amedee Ayfre to the effect that the slightest flaw or lack of conviction will destroy any film seeking to use this approach. Bresson writes his own scripts; Ozu collaborated with a scenarist who saw eye-to-eye with him. But Martin Scorsese is probably the least transcendental director imaginable. He wants immersion in the immanent, not transcendence of it. Much of Taxi Driver is indeed a meticulous presentation of “the everyday.” But Scorsese’s temperament and personal style are too sensual, kinetic, volatile, fevered for the transcendental as Schrader has outlined it. He seems to favor scripts whose looseness allows him to slip favorite vignettes or improvisations into them without strain. He tends to pour his own intensity into sketchy screenplays, often trying to obscure their faults and thinness with virtuoso camerawork and hot-wired acting. When he has a genuinely complex center to work with, like the anguished, priest-ridden hood Charlie in Mean Streets, his work has a passion which few other directors can match. But when his protagonist becomes too simple, as in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a bundle of confused contradictions like Travis, or when his plots become mere collections of scenes, as happens with Alice and Who’s That Knocking at My Door, his volatility, exciting as it remains, comes to seem little more than hype. A colder, flatter, more Bressonian version of Taxi Driver is easily imaginable and perhaps would have worked better even without script revisions. But Schrader, of all people, should know that Scorsese is not the director to make this version.
As for disparity and decisive action, Taxi Driver cannot hope to attain either because of its slippery plotting, which deprives its movement toward violence of any fatalistic quality. Just before he buys a load of guns in preparation for his attempt on Palantine’s life, Travis’s diary states that, after days and days of life’s uneventful drift, “suddenly there is change.” Like the narration which precedes his first conversation with Betsy, this remark seems intended to make us view what follows—in this case, the violence— as fated. In his book, Schrader cites the religious paradox of becoming truly free by choosing one’s predestined fate. But if one’s fate is indeed predestined, then so is one’s choice (or rejection) of it. Travis’s narration would have us believe that he is taking “decisive action” by accepting a fate which he cannot alter. But bad plotting, rather than predestination, has brought him to this point. Like the fate in Godard’s My Life to Live, this one is, as Pauline Kael put it, “crosseyed.” So is the coda, during which Travis, acclaimed by the media because the pimps he killed turned out to be gangsters, accepts Betsy as a passenger in his cab, drops her off, then drives away, rejecting her tentative interest but retaining her image in his rear-view mirror. Has his explosion purged him of his rage? Permanently or temporarily? The first seems unbelievable, and the second renders the whole movie a virtually pointless psychodrama. Instead of stasis, the scene expresses the desperation of the filmmakers to find a playable ending for the movie.
Schrader’s allusions to Bresson tend to seem almost as forced. From The Diary of a Country Priest, he has borrowed its protagonist’s Holy Agony—with both words operative, because his goal seems to be the canonization of Travis as a mythic icon or secular saint, a lowlife Christ come to cleanse the temple of moneylenders. When Palantine pontificates about the suffering of “we the people,” the phrase seems calculated to include Travis, who even wears a “We the people” campaign button during his failed attempt on the candidate’s life. When a fence lays out his inventory of guns for Travis, painstakingly cataloguing the caliber and power of each, the movie becomes laughably fetishistic. But the intention was apparently sacramental; Travis and the fence handle the weapons like chalices, set them down in their cases like hosts on a paten at High Mass. The miscalculation is almost sublime. With much of the audience simply gasping at the arsenal and turning on to the scene’s sexual undertones, its tonier aspirations become a joke, like Travis’s Bressonian lament that “I think I’ve got stomach cancer.” Travis has neither the religion of Bresson’s priest nor the Dostoyevskian rationale of his pickpocket. Scorsese is not the director for even deviant saints; the tortured, guilty Charlie is more his meat.
When it finally comes, the climax of Taxi Driver certainly does have a rush of emotion which could be palmed off as characteristic of the transcendental “decisive action.” But it is only a revenge movie cliche; like the shark attacks in Jaws, it provides a purely physical jolt and obtains nothing more than a reflex reaction. When necks are gushing, blown-off hands are flying, and brains are spattering the wall, we cannot help jumping with shock (pleasurable or otherwise), but that has nothing to do with anything as lofty as redemption. During this scene, Taxi Driver reduces itself almost to the squalid level of Death Wish, the kind of adrenalin-pumping, unprincipled revenge melodrama which will do anything to arouse its audience.
Despite the current cry in Hollywood for “pure entertainment” and a return to old-fashioned storytelling, most of today’s screenwriters are no better at either than Schrader is, which is why they so often head straight for this genre. It’s the easiest type of script to plot; just establish a lantern-jawed hero, kill off his wife and kids and dog, throw in some picturesque torture such as breaking both his legs or grinding off his hand in a garbage disposal, then turn him loose. As simple-minded as this mechanism is, its raw power is irresistible to many audiences no matter how stupidly and cynically it is used. Taxi Driver never becomes this simplistic, but the revenge movie’s relentless build-up to a bloody climax is hard to derail once it gets going and perhaps too brutally driving to be contained by even a flawless application of transcendental style. When Travis prepares for violence with calisthenics, target practice, dieting, fast-draw exercises before a mirror, and a Mohawk haircut, these ritual preparations, this Puritan shriving of the body, looks like a weird cross between a bull-fighter donning his suit of lights and a priest vesting for Mass. It does no good to remember that this is an ancient movie gimmick (see Electra Glide in Blue, for instance) or even that Lee Marvin parodies it hilariously in Cat Ballou. The inherent roller-coaster force of this sequence can neither be denied nor, in this movie at least, controlled. As a result, during the shootout, the audience doesn’t get redeemed; it just gets off—or gets sick. Not that Scorsese and Schrader are necessarily crass; violence is easy to misjudge in film, not only because it has been so widespread for years but also because it is generally photographed in fragments, with so much special effects technology that it can seem like a game for the film-makers. Whatever the case, their violence here is less redemptive than laxative, its impact morally and artistically useless. So when Scorsese then launches a spectacular series of crane shots over the corpses and the spent guns, the sequence cannot help appearing hypocritical.
If Taxi Driver had unleashed its firestorm, say, halfway through its running time and then had gone on to show Travis dealing with the changes in his life brought on by this catharsis and the resulting fame, it might have become an analysis of contemporary confusion rather than an example of it. In any sense of the term, it fails to transcend because its makers are caught in too many contradictions. Scorsese has an enviable feeling for film, Schrader a knack for evocative premises in addition to an often incisive critical mind. But, separately or together, both need a healthy dose of redemption from half-baked ideas.
1. University of California Press, 1972.
2. See especially a lengthy interview with Richard Thompson in Film Comment, March-April 1976.
Film Quarterly, Vol. 29 No. 4, Summer, 1976; pp. 37-41