Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
He’s a poet, he’s a picker / He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher / He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned / He’s a walkin’ contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction / Takin’ every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
– The Pilgrim; Chapter 33, by Kris Kristofferson
Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard were brought up in a strictly Calvinist household. Paul tells a story of how his mother once stabbed him with a needle to inform him what hell was like. Creative storytelling was one of the few household luxuries. At age 18, Schrader snuck off to see Jerry Lewis’ The Nutty Professor and instantly set himself on the path toward making movies; the deliciously sinful sensuality of cinema and the tradition of creativity lodged in Schrader were an inevitable siren call. Clearly talented in film school, Schrader made his name in publishing studies of the spiritual cinema of Dreyer, Ozu, and Bresson. He worked for a time as a film critic, encountering and later loudly breaking with Pauline Kael. In a period of personal crisis following a move to Los Angeles, he left his wife for another woman, saw both relationships crumble, and wallowed in debt, drink, and a gun fetish until being hospitalized. Schrader also read the published diaries of Arthur Bremer, who shot Gov. George Wallace. Combining personal emotion and this weird character premise, Schrader furiously composed the first draft of an expression of pure psychological anguish—Taxi Driver.
Schrader hit the big time by selling, with Leonard, a screenplay for The Yakuza, a remarkably grown-up thriller that flopped. Paul bounced back when Taxi Driver was taken on by maverick producers Michael and Julia Phillips, who first tried to interest Al Pacino in starring and Brian De Palma in directing, before deciding on Martin Scorsese, who brought Robert De Niro with him. It was to prove an epochal mesh of talents. Scorsese and Schrader were both religiously and intellectually minded, aggressively sensual, and awkwardly, angrily progressive, cinephiliac by default.
Taxi Driver was a very new kind of movie, yet a large part of the film’s energy comes from being a terminus—the most fluent depiction of “Drop Dead!” fin de siècle New York, Columbia Studio’s last film to use to the old Torch Lady logo, the dying composition of the great Bernard Herrmann, and the last great American New Wave film, at the time when the affectations of the genre were being borrowed to make blockbusters and crowd pleasers (Jaws, Rocky, Saturday Night Fever). Taxi Driver shatters the sheen of outsider chic that drove films like Five Easy Pieces, Two-Lane Blacktop, and Easy Rider by presenting an alienated “hero” whose secret life is the poisoned well of the mainstream, a manifestation of the sickest elements of the time. The sense that, say, Five Easy Pieces’ Bobby Dupea had a squall of rage in him finds its thematically final, ugliest consummation here, as does the fascination with assassination after the political violence of the ’60s, which formed part of the texture of Robert Altman’s celebratory Nashville from the previous year, and also to Network, whose famously ranting newsman has his mirror image here in a strung-out, raging black man on the street; they share a telegraph wire to the zeitgeist.
Taxi Driver represents a vital intellectual and emotional severing point. Out of the volcano of this film formed the cool, ironic crystals of indie cinema, with its rejection of emotional conflation. A New York Times critic much more recently labeled the resultant film a work of “disco noir,” an evocative if reductive phrase describing the hedonist idiocy and decayed glamour of the cocaine-and-polyester scene; indeed, to many today, Taxi Driver is that scene.
As a basic story, Taxi Driver follows the template of Dirty Harry and Death Wish as tales of lone white men engaged in a violent battle with a universe of moral entropy. The difference is that in the course of emptying out their own shit-caked psyches, Schrader and Scorsese analyse the mindset behind the popularity of those other film, with a judicious, but not judgmental, dissection of their racism, misogyny, and macho conflict in an age pushing feminism, racial equality, gay liberation, all that jazz. “All the animals come out at night—whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets,” Travis Bickle muses, watching the brawling night life of New York, with its panoply of contemptible, obscene creatures dedicated to living a life of extroverted sensual expression Travis cannot take part in. Herrmann’s music swells as Travis’ vehicle fins through the night, liquid neon spewing across his windshield; Herrmann’s theme features whispers of romantic saxophone alternating with a stygian mass of woodwinds and brass, evoking a fine filament of humanity struggling through Hades and capturing the film’s driving dichotomy of Travis both as hero and devil.
Travis Bickle’s desire is to transcend, to become be an angel of death and savior. We learn that Travis was a marine, honorably discharged, a Vietnam veteran, setting the mould for a future movie cliché. War trauma may be part of his trouble, but I also suspect Travis, as a returned warrior, expects himself to become a exemplar of democracy. Instead, he’s barely keeping his mind together as he roams the city, driven by insomnia, dogged with an inability to relate. His smirk for the man who hires him for the taxi company (Joe Spinell, a signal ’70s character actor) reflects his unhinged, amused contempt for the work-a-day world. He gobbles candy, a cinema staple since Psycho for suggesting the rot of arrested development. His desires—to find a woman, to accomplish fine and brave things—are mostly at odds with his impulses, which are basically to rage, kick, insult, defile, debase, and destroy. The tension between these two opposing states keeps him, for the first two acts of the film, in a muted, awkward, semi-normal stasis. As The Clash would succinctly describe it, Bickle is one of “those who see ghettology as an urban Vietnam.” Taxi Driver is the first true Vietnam film in that it deals with its social, intellectual, and emotional fall-out in the terms of the conflict’s experience.
Travis is often described as a monster, a sick and twisted beast. But he’s an iconic monster not because he is a condensation of tropes that signify the Other, like the evil comfortably divorced from the everyday represented by Hannibal Lecter, but rather because he’s a condensation of every neurosis, embedded prejudice, latent source of rage, and antisocial impulse common to the average male in the ’70s. Travis is Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man—a savagely unsentimental intellectual for the Nixon era. Although Travis quotes Kierkegaard when calls himself “God’s Lonely Man,” he utterly resists traveling down the route of philosophy (“morbid self attention” as he calls it) in an age as sentimental as it is anti-intellectual. Travis, like stations of Cross, passes through devolving forms of culture—office humor plates, Betsy’s (Cybill Shepherd) faux-intellectual quotation of Kris Kristofferson, the pseudo-advice of Wizard (Peter Boyle), through to bathing in the sublime idiocy of The Young and The Restless, soft rock on American Bandstand, and combating Iris’s (Jodie Foster) idea that her lifestyle is in some fashion “hip,” that is, self-liberating. No wonder his training regimen has an aspect of Buddhist self-abnegation. Travis wants to strip himself down to a concept of pure force, and remove himself from this realm of gibberish entirely.
“Here, a man wants to die, he locks himself in a room and stabs himself in the belly,” says Richard Jordan in The Yakuza. “Back home he takes out a gun, shoots a lot of other people.” Schrader’s clearly referencing his own thinking, poured into the other screenplay on his mind, and he establishes a crucial divergence between Western and Eastern spirituality and social life. When Travis shaves his head to a mohawk, he is engaging in a primal ritual, one practiced for real by some soldiers in Vietnam when setting out on patrol. It is a timeless burial of the self into warrior guise, animal form (“Animal Mother,” Adam Baldwin’s baby-faced nutball in Full Metal Jacket, is named for a shamanistic idea of human rebirth into pure force via an animal totem. Taxi Driver, Full Metal Jacket, and Apocalypse Now all delve into the primeval devolution that fuelled the consciousness of Americans engaged on the ground level of the war). It is clear then that to be reborn, Travis needs to pass through this savage ritual and follow it to a conclusion, however apocalyptic.
The taxi drivers all hang out at the Belmore Café. He listens to the make-believe sex life recounted by Wizard, who serves, by default, as a wise elder. When Travis goes to him for advice, Wizard eventually shoots back, “What the fuck do you expect from me? I drive a taxi!” Everything that surrounds Travis is possessed with some import, either sexual (like another driver who shows off a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub with its traces of legendary sexual escapades) or demonic (a menacing cohort of black pimps).
Fittingly for a study of pagan impulse, Taxi Driver charts an Odyssean route, to the point where Travis journeys to Hades after meeting a goddess and a king. The goddess is personified by Betsy. Betsy works in the campaign of the would-be king, presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a populist WASP icon whose hollow rhetoric sounds uncannily like the tripe that would soon gain Ronald Reagan the White House. Betsy’s engaged in a go-nowhere romance with witty but so-not-butch co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Tom is everything Travis isn’t—easy, witty, safely asexual. In Schrader’s script, he was a standard, whitebread, pretty boy, a dully easy match for Betsy. By casting Brooks, Tom becomes the nebbishy kind of guy who makes a career out whining about not getting the girls, thus getting all the girls.
Bickle encounters Palantine in his taxi. The politician’s unspecified appeal to the disgruntled finds its readymade fan in Travis, who appeals to Palantine to clean up the city with the fire of the righteous. Palantine, in a small, but telling touch, slightly curls his mouth as he exits Travis’ taxi, partly derisory, knowing he’s just met someone neither brilliant nor nice, but certainly uncommon. Betsy responds to Travis for similar reasons—his intensity and honesty, even in his clichés. Betsy’s radiant looks hide a shallow, vaguely narcissistic personality. She’s someone who’s already heard every line in the book, never expecting something as corny as “You have beautiful eyes” to be recited with such feeling. She is intrigued before being repelled. Betsy makes a perfect bitch goddess to idolize and trample, and Scorsese’s sympathetic heroines of earlier films essentially go out the window.
Travis’ social ineptitude is made clear with bleak hilarity when he takes Betsy to a porn theatre, blowing the chance of romance for good—the apogee of the film’s blackly comic edge. Later, when Travis tries to call Betsy again, Scorsese moves the camera away from him to regard an empty hallway to avoid the embarrassing spectacle and to more forcefully illustrate the gaping maw at the center of Bickle’s future. To Scorsese, this was the most important shot in the film.
Travis’ second phase begins. He blows up at Betsy’s workplace. The menacing score, suggesting a wakening leviathan, which first accompanied shots of Bickle’s cruising taxi, now lumbers beneath a slo-mo shot of Travis in the fab red-velvet jacket he wore with such flair to his and Betsy’s first meeting that is now a signpost of distress and a predictor of the blood that will coat him. Travis the avenging angel has broken from his shell.
Travis has a grim vision of himself when one of his customers, a ranting, coked-up businessman (Scorsese, in his greatest personal performance) who spins a spell of perfect malignant energy: “You see that window with the light? The one closet to the edge of the building? You know who lives there? Of course you don’t know who lives there, but I’m saying ‘Do you know who lives there?’ A nigger lives there, and that isn’t my apartment. My wife is in there and… I’m gonna kill her…Have you ever seen what a .44 Magnum will do to a woman’s pussy? Now that you should see.” Destruction of female sex with Dirty Harry’s mighty weapon. Travis reacts to him like he’s scum, but Travis’ own warped condition registers this as a visitation by an evil demon, a harbinger, to be paid attention to.
Travis arms himself to the teeth with guns brought from a cheerful get-you-anything salesman (Steven Prince, a real salesman and acquaintance of Scorsese’s) and sets about training himself for the coming war, rehearsing imagined confrontations and planning the tactics of street fighting. He kills a black kid sticking up a convenience store owner; the unpeeled loathing of the store owner, who begins beating the corpse with a baseball bat whilst promising to cover for Travis, is the most coldly brutal element in the film and one whose racism Scorsese originally wanted to back off from.
Two missions appeal to Travis: assassinating Palantine and rescuing 12-year-old prostitute Ivy from her pimp, “Sport” Matthew (Harvey Keitel). Travis first met Iris when she tried to escape from Sport in Travis’ taxi. Sport bought his inaction with a crumpled bill made by some act of alchemy to resemble a soiled condom. Travis keeps it as a marker for some future rite of vengeance. Both scenarios offer electric transcendence, and the instant fame of the assassination trumps. But Palantine’s secret service goons spot him, so Travis instead goes off to kill Sport and the timekeeper (Murray Mosten) in their tenement block base.
Scorsese and Schrader decided the way to play the story was to have Travis essentially become a Western hero, a brutally dissected yet still <curiously heroic example of the sort of sociopath who’s good to have on our side (Wyatt Earp). By mimicking the varmint-plugging structure of a John Wayne film, Taxi Driver retains its driving quality. De Niro, in his improvised “You talkin’ to me?” scenes, is quoting Shane, and Travis reminds us how much heroism can be divorced from moral sensibility, as he blows the concierge’s hand off, shoots Sport in the stomach without giving him a chance to arm himself, and riddles one of Iris’s johns with holes. Much like those Wild West titans, Travis is lauded for his actions by the popular press purely for being, for converting thought and impulse into action.
Schrader had wanted the final impression to be surreal and garish; instead, Scorsese’s handling of the (scripted) tracking shot from out of the tenement coolly creates a voyeuristic context for the finale, as it finds corpses sprawled as they will appear in the newspaper photos, chalk outlines, with a crowd of flocking onlookers. We meet Travis again after a long cooling camera drift past his triumphantly collected newspaper clippings and the dryly caring sound of Iris’ father thanking him by letter. Travis is grinning and chatting easily with the other drivers outside the Belmore, and gets Betsy as a fare. Travis gives her a free ride, and leaves her behind, with a look through his rear-view mirror at….something, suggested by a swift sound effect quickly swallowed by Herrmann’s music and the city night. Travis will never be free of the demon singing from the back seat, but his song is sweeter now.
As much as the work’s blood is Schrader’s, the muscle and flesh are Scorsese’s. Taxi Driver is a work of total style, despite the intense reek of realism. Almost every shot is skewed with a succession of editing, lighting, and camera effects (with cinematographer Michael Chapman working his butt off), bending perspective through the gravity of Travis’ perception, and only finding clear-eyed calm when Travis converses with Betsy and Iris in mirroring scenes. Taxi Driver reveals Scorsese’s potent capacity to charge objects with totemic, fetishist import; for example, when Travis cavorts with his guns and weapons, it is as chillingly clear as the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey handling bones and realizing potential. Both scenes that have become iconic for masturbatory latent violence. Scorsese’s previous heroes are lost in maelstroms of ethical and physical confusion. Travis Bickle is the first to emerge from the other side.