Scorsese: Taxi Driver (1976)
Even tighter and tauter than Mean Streets, Taxi Driver remains Martin Scorsese’s definitive statement – the vision of urbanity, masculinity and New York identity that he’s returned to, and revised, time and time again over the course of his whole career. More specifically, it’s Scorsese’s defining formulation of the tension at the core of his cinematic vision – between the aesthetic appeal of revanchist masculinity, and the liberal political outlook that gives his work its moral urgency. At the same time, Paul Schrader’s screenplay is the quintessential vision of the crisis of the everyman that drove New Hollywood – the anxiety that the everyman was somehow losing his autonomy, agency and relevance in a rapidly diversifying America. As a result, this remains Robert De Niro’s most deracinated role in Scorsese’s career – given the pointedly waspish name of Travis Bickle, he barely feels Italian-American, instead channelling the white male body more generally as a cinematic optic that is on the way out.
From the very outset, Travis is buried deep inside himself, cushioned in a hypnotic hush, a noirish sense of loneliness, that squares the circle between New and classical Hollywood – between the desuetude of the 70s and the urban desecration of high noir. The city is always present but always muffled, as if Travis never quite leaves the cocoon of his taxi, as Scorsese paints an intensely introspective drama onto the city, which in turn becomes a projection of Travis’ fears and anxieties. To some extent, these can be explained through social and economic language – he’s downwardly mobile, he doesn’t have any clear job prospects, he can’t hold down a regular relationship, he’s estranged from his colleagues, he doesn’t have any friends or a clear connection to his family, and he doesn’t seem to have any real direction.
However, there’s also a broader sensory-motor crisis underpinning all these social and economic factors too. In a brilliantly simple formulation that I always return to, Gilles Deleuze argued that post-WWII cinema experienced a crisis of sight and movement, especially when it came to the male body. The horrors of the war, the impacts of post-traumatic stress, the dislocation of the post-war generation, and the rise of liberation politics all combined to desituate the white male body as the arbiter of action and autonomy. Rather than being able to act naturally and freely, white men, in post-war cinema, often found action deserting them, and detached from sight, producing tableaux where action was unable to keep up with sight, or where their capacity to act was hampered by debilitating, overpowering visual spectacles.
Taxi Driver is perhaps the most concise expression of this crisis in New Hollywood, since the taxi itself operates so perfectly as this junction of sight and movement. Travis is drawn to taxi driving, and to the night shift in particular, because he has a restless yearning for movement that he can’t contain. If he weren’t driving taxis, he confides to a colleague, he’d be moving through the city anyway – by foot, on buses, and on the subway. Yet the moment he gets in a taxi, he loses all autonomy, since the client directs the movement, meaning his only down time comes in between fares. Even then, however, he’s not truly free, and so his movement in the taxi is always subordinated to the visual spectacle of the windscreen, which prompts the most beautiful and lurid colour schemes in Scorsese’s entire career, thanks in large part to cinematographer Michael Chapman. While Travis seeks an outlet for his movement-hunger in taxis, taxi driving only slows him down, and reiterates his impotence, much as the film also decelerates into a jazzy, freeform, slow-motion fantasia whenever he gets behind the wheel.
This sensory-motor crisis corresponds quite neatly to Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful score, which forms another point of contact with the classical Hollywood past. Herrmann oscillates between two key motifs – a jazzy refrain, whenever Travis is looking through the windscreen, and a more threatening swell, whenever he yearns for a greater movement. These two motifs are quite dissonant with one another, and don’t really resolve until the final scenes, instead articulating Travis’ crisis for the majority of the film. While this crisis is primarily sensory-motor in nature, it quickly leads to feelings of broader social disenfranchisement – at the hands of wealthier people, black people, gay people, women, and any other group that treats his white masculinity as a mere conduit for their own action, rather than an arbiter of action in and of itself. The first clients we see are a wealthy older man and a younger black woman, prompting Travis to confide to us, in voiceover, that “each night when I return the car to the garage I have to clean the come off the back seat, and some nights I also clean off the blood.”
However, driving a taxi is not Travis’ only strategy for trying to extend sight into movement. Early on, we learn that he has proclivity for porn theatres – spaces that both address and intensify his problem in a similar way. On the one hand, porn theatre are designed to extend the action of looking into whole-body stimulation, which might be expected to produce satisfactory movement. Yet porn theatres are also, by their nature discrete, and there’s only so much that Travis can do in them. Certainly, they can’t restore his ability to act sexually, as we discover through two quite painful exchanges. In the first, he tries to come on to a woman who works at the theatre, but she’s painfully indifferent to his advances, blithely threatening to call the manager while she continues reading a book of her own about sex. In the second, he takes a date, Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd, to an “anthropological” porn film about sex, replete with mock-discussion of male and female genitals, and the reproductive process. Betsy is so offended by this that she takes another taxi home from the date midway through.
While Betsy is disgusted, Scorsese makes it clear that Travis is not dirty per se, or even especially interested in porn. It’s more that regular cinema has lost its pull – its ability to integrate sight and movement into a surrogate for the white male body. When Travis and Betsy leave the theatre, The Eiger Sanction is playing in a regular cinema across the road, but even the heroics of Clint Eastwood’s most gymnastic action film are insufficient to provide Travis with a proper sense of action. In other words, Travis is searching for a cinema commensurate to his sensory-motor crisis – a cinema that he can’t find in regular theatres, but only in porn theatres, through the taxi windscreen, and across the spaces between them.
This is the cinema that Scorsese tries to provide himself in Taxi Driver, which is most beautiful and lurid when Travis is cruising the streets in his cab, or entering and exiting porn theatres. Chapman’s cinematography is utterly ravishing, as Scorsese shoots entire scenes in neon, typically anchoring them in a queasy yellow-green that evokes a whole city reflected off the brilliant surface of Travis’ taxi, tinged with a perennial irreality. As if evoking his mission to provide this cinematic experience that’s lacking in Travis’ world, Scorsese himself plays the only client who instructs Travis to keep the meter rolling – and the only client who instructs him to look outside the window, instead of just ignoring him in the back seat. Scorsese directs Travis’ gaze to the purest expression of this green netherworld – a couple silhouetted against an emerald curtain – while expressing the film’s paranoia in its most primal form. We learn that his wife has taken up with a “n—-“ and that he is planning, possibly, to compensate with the phallic potency of his gun, which he imagines shooting into her face and “pussy” at once.
As the film proceeds, the social and sensory-motor anxieties of the film gradually converge, and Travis starts to suspect that black people, gay people, rich people and women are all able to act more impulsively and naturally than he can. He’s especially intimidated by black people, who seem capable of an almost preternatural power of movement, as evinced in an anecdote told by Betsy’s friend Tom, played by Albert Brooks, about a man who was capable of lighting a cigarette without a full set of fingers. Interestingly, Tom can’t remember whether this man was black, or a member of the Mafia, suggesting that Scorsese’s fascination with the Mafia is a sensory-motor as much as a cultural interest. Time and again, Scorsese’s films present Italian-American crime as a space where sight and action are fused – too fused, perhaps, and too impulsive, but at least not dissociated and dispersed as Travis is here. Insofar as Travis is framed as Italian-American, and insofar as De Niro draws on his gangster role in Mean Streets, it’s as a reminder of this horizon of Mafioso masculine action, now offered as frank fantasy.
After a certain point, this dissociation of sight and action becomes unbearable for Travis, and propels him into a masculine crisis, which in turn gravitates him towards the vigilante persona so beloved by New Hollywood. At first, Travis sees conservative politics as the solution to this sensory-motor crisis – a vocabulary that will assist him to clean up the sensory “filth and scum in the city,” the murk of diverse actions, so that he can act with impunity again. Since the film unfolds against the backdrop of an election, Travis initially veers towards the conservative candidate, whose slogan, “A Return to Greatness,” eerily foreshadows Donald Trump’s rallying cry of “Make America Great Again.” Yet Travis remains as aloof from the actual ideology of this conservative candidate as he does from his colleagues, who all appear to support him. Rather than identifying with the candidate in any intrinsic way, his investment his more extrinsic – he values conservative politics as a space that won’t overtly or explicitly censor his extravagant experiments with integrating sight and action into a masculine whole.
Since Travis isn’t ideologically attached to conservative politics – not yet – it’s easy for him to come to see his saviour in Betsy, who he first meets while she’s campaigning for Charles Palantine, a liberal politican who’s running on a reform platform, with a slogan of “we are the people.” Travis is drawn to Betsy because she operates in the same hushed space on the fringes of sight and action – spending her whole day calling, campaigning and organising political change, but from the static position of her office, separated from the city by a pane of glass that Travis quickly identifies with his own windscreen. When Betsy rejects him after their second date to a porn theatre, he collapses her into the progressive politics she represents, condemning the “union” of women before doubling down on his own vigilantism.
Before that happens, however, Travis’ sensory-motor crisis climaxes during a conversation with his colleage and mentor Wizard, played by Peter Boyle. In a hushed, neon-lit exchange, Travis confesses that he yearns for an action big enough to reset the balance between sight and action for good – sufficiently spectacular to redirect the burden of traumatic sight onto those observing, and sufficiently dramatic to affirm Travis’ capacity for action beyond all doubt. In other words, Travis becomes a white terrorist, and draws on the same inchoate need for a regulation of sight and action that has driven white terrorists down to the present day. It’s not hard to imagine Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas Shooter, thinking in these terms, which are inchoate by nature, leaving Wizard with nothing to say except worn-out platitudes about how a man needs to identify with his job, and now Travis needs to identify even more with his taxi. Yet the taxi is the problem to begin with, meaning Wizard’s advice fuels Travis’ final transition, which occurs as a slow-mo pan past a montage sequence of movie theatres.
What ensues is a proto-action film, since Travis can only affirm his capacity for action by militarising his body, and turning his body into an action-machine – augmenting himself as much as crafting an arsenal. This quickly restores some sense of autonomy when it comes to sight, since his purchase of a gun coincides with his first glimpse of the city above street level, and prompts the first scene when he gets into someone else’s taxi, and gives the directions himself. When he buys the gun, he uses it to trace out the panoramic view from his window, while the dealer tacitly frames firearms as a way of curbing black pride, assuring Travis that he doesn’t sell to “jungle brothers” in Harlem, and his wares are uses for shooting in Africa.
For a short period, it looks as if Travis will indeed become a vigilante, a mass shooter, or a serial killer – all key expressions of thwarted white masculinity in 70s culture. In one scene, he lingers around a Palantine appearance, sidling up to an FBI agent, who he regards with the same awe that serial killers of this period tended to reserve for the police, as avatars of a masculine agency they couldn’t hope to replicate themselves. It’s clear that the FBI agent thinks he’s a weirdo, offering to send him information about the Bureau as a pretext for getting his name and number. Yet Travis comes off as a square to Sport, a pimp played by Harvey Keitel, when he forms an attachment to Iris, a young sex worker, played by Jodie Foster. To the FBI he’s a freak, but to Iris and Sport he doesn’t “look hip,” turning him into a kind of militarised everyman – terrifying in how far he will go to insist on his normality, and the rights that come with normality, not unlike Michael Douglas in Falling Down. No surprise, then, that he writes a manifesto “for every man who has had enough,” retreating so deep into fantasy that the taxi, porn theatres and lurid cinematography fade into the far distance.
When it comes down to it, however, Travis doesn’t have the conviction – the capacity for action – to assassinate Palantine. Instead, the film shifts direction and focus, as Travis decides to save Iris from Sport, rather than symbolically recover Betsy by killing her boss. Unable to play the role of the husband, he plays the role of the concerned father, turning away from white terror, but for the sake of moral panic politics. During this sequence, he opts for military gear, wearing a “We Are the People” badge, which reflects Palantine’s liberal politics, and styling a Mohawk, which reflects the counter-culture, but in an ironic way – as if to testify to the failure of both liberalism and the counter-culture to reflect the needs of the everyman as he understand him. You can see an early harbinger of Joker’s outfit in Full Metal Jacket, and of the film Joker, since both films continue this vision of an everyman body stretched to its breaking-point, unable to situate itself in a world that apparently once revolved all around it.
While this need to play the role of a moral saviour initially seems like a step down from Travis’ assassination plans, it stems from the same logic, and the same sensory-motor crisis, much as conservative politics in the present nearly always tacitly endorses white terror in one form or another. The lurid green of the opening act thus returns briefly here, but without any real capacity to sustain Travis’ fantasy, since we only glimpse it in a fluorescent necklace worn by Sport, who’s shot down by Travis as the first casualty in a bloodbath that takes him all the way to Iris’ apartment. Scorsese gives us a few more flashes of a darker, gloomier green, before sinking into the most denuded palette of the film – so gritty and grindhousey that it feels like a different cinematographer from the opening credits. The images here recall those of Mean Streets, or even Who’s That Knocking At My Door, tinged with the hardcore ultra-violence of Boxcar Bertha, as Scorsese’s filmography reverts to its most primal manifestation.
While Travis saves Iris, she’s really an afterthought – an excuse to reaffirm his capacity for action by killing all the people in his way, and blow off the fingers of the man guarding her, who is the last line of defence. Earlier in the film, Tom told a story about a black man who could act without fingers, and Travis seems to put that fear of preternatural black action (and its Mafia surrogate) to bed here. Terrified of his inability to translate sight into action, he finally finds solace in a moral guardian persona – not a terrorist exactly, but certainly terror-adjacent, since the only way he can respond to his crisis is through creative self-destruction, culminating with the iconic image of him grinning at the camera, holding a bloody finger-gun to his head. Herrmann’s action-driven motif now reaches an almost unbearable dissonance and intensity, as xylophones pile into the mix, Scorsese pulls back to expose more and more space – over the room, down the corridor, out to the street – and people gather around, taking on the burden of sight that Travis has jettisoned from himself in this one epic action.
Yet you can’t also avoid feeling that Travis is still watching himself jettison sight, and that we’re still somehow in the midst of his fantasy. That sensation continues into the epilogue, which starts with Travis receiving a letter from Iris’ parents, thanking him for the return of their daughter. The clean, crisp script of this letter resolves the childlike writing of his manifesto, while Iris, aptly named, literally restores the cinematic optic, and sensory-motor coherence, that he’s been searching for – at least for now. For while the letter from Iris’ parents is just believable, the film devolves into full fantasy when Travis picks up Betsy in his next cab ride, and drives her home, exchanging a few pleasantries as Herrmann’s jazzy score starts up again. All seems well, the crisis of masculinity seems resolved, and yet – a flash of green returns to the palette, and the film ends with a sudden shift in movement, a change in the focus and quality of the image, as Travis glances behind him in the mirror, darting his eyes up so quickly to watch Betsy recede that his sight suddenly untethers from his body again.
And that’s the closing note of Taxi Driver – a gaze that has fantasised itself back into the body, a gaze that has tried to convinced itself it can still command action, looking back in anxiety at the film that has preceded it, trying to convince itself, and us, that it’s come away with cohesion. Watching it is like witnessing a fantasy fragmenting for a brief moment before the credits tentatively, partially, regather it in their sway, and the dissonant motif in Herrmann’s score rises to the surface one more time. Scorsese had many great endings still in him, but none, to me, are quite so poised, and quite so dynamic, as the finale here, which seems to quiver on the very cusp of what white men, in particular, want and need from cinema, refusing to quite give it, and refusing to quite withhold it, but keeping it open as a question.
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