Saturday, March 6, 2010

You Watchin' Me? There's No Other Film Here...

Films: Taxi Driver
Format: DVD from Galena Public Library through interlibrary loan projected on screen.


Taxi Driver is one of those quintessential films that people quote whether or not they’ve seen it. “You talkin’ to me?” is right up there with “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse” or “We’ll always have Paris” in terms of legendary quote status. What strikes me, though, is that while this is a great scene in the film, it’s not the one that is the most critical to the change that our antihero Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) goes through.

Bickle starts out as an everyman, someone we are supposed to latch onto and feel for. He’s an average loser, a guy who just wants something to hang onto and give his life meaning. Instead, he sees nothing but crime, cheap thrills, pain, and degradation. The streets are filled with cheap sex and pushers, the filth of the world coming out at night on the streets of New York. At the start of the film, he takes a job as a cabbie because he can’t sleep. He figures if he’s going to be up at night driving around, he may as well get paid for it.

Things change when he encounters Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a worker for the presidential campaign of Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). While Betsy has an attraction to her co-worker Tom (Albert Brooks), she’s also strangely attracted to the socially maladjusted Bickle, who is secretly hoping that she is what he’s been looking for. Their first and only date goes badly, though, because Bickle doesn’t know how to deal with anyone on a real, personal level. Instead of taking her on an appropriate date, he takes her to a XXX-rated film, and she leaves. In another context, this would be a comedy scene at his expense, but here, it comes across as painful because he doesn’t know how to react.

Instead, Travis becomes more and more interested in cleaning up the streets of New York himself. He buys an arsenal and practices with it. He also encounters Iris (Jodie Foster), a very young prostitute turned out by Sport (Harvey Keitel). Travis feels for the girl and wants to protect her even though she feels that she does not need any protecting.

Taxi Driver turns not on the scenes of Travis learning to use his arsenal of weaponry or on the scenes of him talking to himself in the mirror, but instead on the scenes of him in his apartment watching television. Eventually, disgusted with the entire idea of TV, he slowly pushes the set off its stand and lets it shatter. From this point forward, Travis is completely disconnected with everyone and everything around him.

***HERE THERE BE SPOILERS***

Travis, unable to assassinate Palantine, focuses instead on rescuing Iris from Sport. He undergoes not just a mental transformation, but a physical one as well, giving himself a Mohawk. In the shootout that follows, Travis guns down three men in particularly grisly fashion and is himself shot twice—once in the arm and a grazing wound on his neck. His complete detachment from reality comes when the police burst into the room and watch Travis, out of bullets, put his bloody finger to his head and simulate blowing his own brains out over and over.

Great stuff—but here’s what no one will tell you, but it’s what I think is a real possibility. Travis, according to the letter from the Steensmas, was comatose for at least some time. While he may be out of the coma at the end, I don’t think Travis is back. Rather than returning to his previous world and that final cab ride with Betsy, Travis is still “recovering” somewhere—somewhere the walls are padded and the jackets have buckles that tie the arms behind the back. I have nothing more than a feeling here, but no one goes through what Travis did and walks back to the reality he once had. The clippings and the letter may be real, but Travis’s return to normality is, I think, not. This may get me beaten up by others, but I’m going to stand by it, at least as a possibility.

***THUS ENDETH THE SPOILERS***

Bickle’s question throughout the film is one of fate. Does he control his own destiny or is it controlled by someone or something else? Fellow cab driver Wizard (Peter Boyle) has no control over his destiny, or so he believes. Iris did (she ran away from home), but now doesn’t. Does Travis? He’s not sure himself.

I said earlier that Bickle is the character we as the audience are supposed to identify with, and this is what makes the film so brilliant. We do identify with Travis Bickle, even up to and including his practicing drawing his guns, talking in the mirror, and even kicking over the television. Most of us, if not all of us, have felt that level of frustration, and have experienced that level of personal impotence at wanting to change our situation and not being able to. Once he starts, we as the audience go along for the ride with him…and then when he appears freshly mohawked and armed to the teeth, it becomes apparent that Travis Bickle has turned a dangerous and scary corner, and is going to a dark place that we, powerless or not, do not want to enter. It’s a wonderful cinematic moment when the character we have come to love and feel sorry for is suddenly the character that we fear.

Why to watch Taxi Driver: Possibly the defining film of the 1970s.
Why not to watch: The last 15 minutes, while inevitable, are shocking and gruesome.

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