-- But even with (Dylan) Roof’s case, I felt that I had seen this all before. Then I remembered where: Taxi Driver. --
Is there much in the way of parallel between Travis Bickle(Robert DeNiro) and Dylan Roof? Bickle, as troubled as he is, devised a clear plan that followed a certain logic. He went after figures of authority, the politician and the pimp. If Dylan Roof had gone after black thugs or politicians, he would have been like Bickle. But he went to a black church where nice folks welcomed him. I'm no fan of Negroes, but what he did was beyond the pale. Roof's act is more in line with the Columbine murders. He left a 'manifesto' of sorts, but it had no bearing on his actions whatsoever. If he had problems with blacks, presumably as bullies or criminals, why take it out on a black church full of nice folks? Even the Columbine Massacre, crazy as it was, had more rhyme and reason. Even though the two homo psychos mowed down kids of every clique, they felled some 'bullies' as well. Perhaps, they killed the 'bullies' out of revenge and killed others for having been all-too-compliant with the school hierarchy. Bickle acts with a degree of clarity and purpose(despite all the craziness), whereas Roof struck out as if in a haze. It's sort of like how Sirhan Sirhan insisted he remembers NOTHING of the day of Robert Kennedy's murder. We sense resolve in Bickle's preparation and action(as with Anders Breivik), whereas Roof seemed to have sleep-walked through his mayhem.
-- Travis Bickle, an alienated loner in an urban hellscape who decides to die in a hail of bullets --
Suicide by assassination? Perhaps not. The film was made cognizant of the spate of famous killings going back to the 60s. JFK, RFK, and MLK. George Wallace survived but was paralyzed from waist down. Assassination plots were hatched against Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. (Sean Penn starred in THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON during the Bush II years.) Even celebrities were not spared. Andy Warhol nearly died from gunshot wound. David Chapman was obsessed with John Lennon throughout the 70s before killing him in 1980. Some of these assassinations were the acts of lone lunatics. Others were seemingly political or ideologically motivated. Others were by lone nuts using ideology as crutch for their madness. If John Wilkes Booth was obviously motivated by politics in killing Lincoln, Lee Harvey Oswald(if he was the real culprit) was drawn to radical politics as a kind of psycho-drama. He hated being a nobody.
So, the conception of Travis Bickle has to be seen, at least in part, as a response to the times. Indeed, it's been argued that the Sixties as a cultural phenomenon began with the death of John F. Kennedy and the coming of the Beatles. Loss of innocence, rise of radicalism, and youth hedonism, all of which are reflected in TAXI DRIVER but in stale and deflated form. Bickle's mission is like a parody of the Kennedy assassination, and Iris(Jodie Foster) is the pathetic product of Counterculture and "Women's Lib". Sexual Revolution led to new forms of tyranny. Sport(Harvey Keitel) is made up like a debased version of the hippie(though he also resembles an Indian, perhaps an homage to John Ford's THE SEARCHERS, an influence). What seemed so new and fresh in the 60s had already grown tired and sickly by the 70s. No wonder the celebration went from natural outdoors(Woodstock) to the artificial dance floor(SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER).
The 1960s, for good or ill, were truly a momentous decade. It was like the Second Revolution or Second Civil War though the conflict was generational, racial, cultural, and sexual than military. In contrast, the first American Civil War was essentially a war among whites, pro-Union and pro-Secession. The 1960s affected everyone, everything, and every group in some profound and seminal way. Just about everything that followed has been an attempt at repetition or rejection. Antifa imitates the Weather Underground and SDS. Blacks invoke Civil Rights Movement over and over. MLK has been made god. And, what means of conservatism traces current social ills and moral malaise to the 60s. All roads, pro and con, lead back to the 60s.
For a time, the 80s were billed as an effective and successful counter-revolution against the 60s, but the so-called Reagan Decade was really an extension of boomer excess, this time with materialistic yuppies than delusional hippies. 60s anti-materialism and 80s materialism were really two sides of the same coin: Boomer egotism and narcissism run amok. Young boomers could play at anti-materialism because they grew up with prosperity that they took for granted; and when they graduated and entered the work place, they were far more acquisitive than their parents whom they'd once condemned.
At any rate, the fact that the 80s decade defined itself against the 60s showed it didn't have compelling themes of its own. It's almost as if people have been unable to dream new dreams since the 60s. One either revives the 60s as exemplary or reviles the 60s as execrable. So, Obama was hailed as the new JFK, or current 'wokeness' is blamed as outgrowth of 60s student radicalism. Yet, even conservatives often wax romantic about the 60s as a time of free speech and, if anything, denounce current 'liberals' of having betrayed the 60s spirit of freedom. Even conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter prefer pop culture from 60s onward. Either way, all things are measured in relation to that transformative decade.
The 70s were an interesting period as both continuation and rupture with the forces unleashed in the 60s. Gone was the naivete and idealism, and yet, the nation had yet to coalesce around a new consensus that would come with the short-lived Reagan's Morning in America and the rise of MTV that made Grace Slick truly slick with 'We Built This City'. In the 60s, the young cheered on Benjamin Braddock as the white(or swarthy)knight in THE GRADUATE, but Mike Nichols keynote film of the 70s was CARNAL KNOWLEDGE that documented the betrayals of the 'sexual revolution'. Also, more candid depictions of sex and violence went from liberation(BONNIE & CLYDE that gave Pauline Kael orgasms) to grim reckoning with brutality. Closer cinema got to sex & violence, uglier things seemed, as in STRAW DOGS and THE LAST TANGO IN PARIS. It turned into disgust and loathing(before the industry and audience accepted them as guilt-free meaningless thrills). One of the more controversial films from the period was JOE, starring Peter Boyle who appears in TAXI DRIVER. It too is about a man trying to save a girl(his daughter) from degenerates, a scenario revisited by Paul Schrader with his own directorial effort, HARDCORE. It's as if men and women, liberated from traditional roles, went from short-lived liberation to the state of pimps and whores, real or metaphorical.
Anyway, given that Travis Bickle was partly inspired by radicals or misfits of the 60s and 70s, is it fair to say he was seeking death? After all, most assassins of the period weren't looking to be gunned down. Lee Harvey Oswald ran for his life and pled innocence. Sirhan Sirhan was wrestled to the ground. The shooter of George Wallace wasn't killed either. David Chapman just surrendered after killing Lennon. Hinckley was jumped by secret agents and policemen. James Earl Ray ran from the scene. So, it's possible Bickle wasn't seeking death. He might have expected arrest and trial. On the other hand, his character seems partly to have been inspired by Yukio Mishima(a Schrader obsession) who did seek ritual death.
As for the bloodbath in the brothel, Bickle did everything to avoid getting hurt. He was sure Sport was incapacitated, but the pimp came back and shot him in the neck. In the end, he tries to shoot himself because he's badly injured(shot in two places) and has no chance of escape. At any rate, he doesn't seem upset that he's alive in the final scene.
-- Any movie involving vigilantism is inherently anti-liberal, which makes it objectively Right-wing, regardless of the vigilante’s or the director’s intentions. Liberalism is the idea that we can be governed by laws, not men. --
Vigilantism may be anti-liberal, but it isn't necessarily right-wing, though it depends on how we define the term. After all, Antifa and BLM violence are premised on the notion that Law-and-Order as it exists is unjust and perpetuates tyranny. Therefore, radicals and blacks must take the law into their own hands and fight the evil police state that perpetuates 'racism' and 'white supremacism'. And Jews and globalists are happy to aid and abet such mindset and mayhem. At Charlottesville, the authorities let the radical rabble run riot and attack Alt Right types. Global Media controlled by Jews almost never condemned attacks on Trump supporters. When Richard Spencer was clocked, most 'liberals' cheered and called for 'punching nazis'. California courts were ultra-lenient on radical thugs, such as the professor who used a bike lock to bloody someone's head. In 2020, the Power, even the US military, bestowed blessing on BLM thugs and Antifa nuts. Governments in Portland and Seattle hardly did anything to rein in the 'mostly peaceful protesters'.
Now, one could argue that such violence isn't vigilante in the classic sense. Still, blacks and radicals believe they must take the law into their own hands because of the 'inherent violence' of the system rigged to favor certain groups. (To be sure, the current 'left' is less about the powerless against the powerful than the sacred select against the tainted others. Jews, blacks, and homos are sacred, and so, it doesn't matter how much power, privilege, and wealth they have, whereas whites and patriots, even the poorest among them, must be attacked and humiliated because they are eternally soul-tainted by History.)
Radicals clearly have a more abstract and theoretic sense of injustice; therefore, their violence is of a different kind than that of conservatives. While radicals and anarchists aren't claiming to act violent for violence's sake(which would be nihilism), their sense of wrongness derives from a macro-vision of the world. In contrast, right-wing vigilantism is grounded more in personal safety. Rightists take up arms because of direct threats to their well-being. (In RED DAWN, the townsfolk pick up arms because they were invaded by the Soviets.) So, when BLM marchers were met with a white middle class couple holding assault rifles in St. Louis, both parties were going against social norms but on different grounds. The marching blacks were not in danger of being gunned down by the police, but blacks and their white radical allies have a abstract vision of historical injustice with endless invocations about slavery and Jim Crow and etc. In contrast, the white couple picked up guns to protect their lives and property; they felt under direct threat. The Left responds to History, whereas 'right-wing' vigilantes react to circumstances.
From the encounter, we can deduce why the 'left' has an advantage over the 'right'. The 'right' is reactive and limited in scope; its members aren't willing to act unless they are threatened there and then; indeed, many such folks don't even deem themselves to be rightist in ideology. In contrast, the 'left' is motivated by a larger vision(even if delusional and nuts) that goes beyond the well-being of me-and-family. The 'right' is usually dormant when undisturbed whereas the 'left' is agitated even when its members face no dangers. All those college professors are affluent and privileged, but they still wage the 'culture war' and infect students with radicalism. Discontentment is always part and parcel of Leftism. Indeed, the average leftist feels ill-at-ease and guilty about feeling content. With all the problems in the world, why should anyone be happy? So, leftism tends to attract more malcontents who, even when faced with no danger, feel much rage and hatred in their hearts.
How would Travis Bickle fit into all this? On some level, he seems a conservative type disgruntled by all the filth and corruption. And yet, he is different from the stereotypical vigilante because he does have a larger sense of what's 'wrong' and goes after those posing no direct harm to him. Palantine is just another politician, one Bickle could just ignore. And Sport the pimp had no personal beef with Bickle. Sport is content to do his thing on his piece of turf. It is Bickle who intrudes into others' spaces. Furthermore, his sense of the Wrong is less personal than 'spiritual'. Though living in a dangerous city, he isn't particularly victimized by crime. If anything, he says he's willing to pick up anyone, even 'spooks', in his cab and take anyone to any part of the city. He seems to make okay-money driving the cab. So, what's his problem?
He's more like Oswald the radical than Paul Kersey of DEATH WISH. Kersey hardly thought of bigger issues before his family was attacked. And he reacts to criminals who threaten his life. It's entirely personal. Bernie Goetz, who became famous or infamous in the 80s, was a classic vigilante. He wanted no trouble as long as others left him alone. If those black thugs hadn't accosted him in the subway, there would have been no shooting and no publicity. In contrast, Bickle, like Oswald, goes looking for 'trouble'. They both feel there's something wrong with the world that must be made right. In that sense, Bickle doesn't fit the stereotypical profile of the right-wing vigilante. He has right-wing sentiments but also radical obsession.
When blacks riot and loot, is it an act of vigilantism? After all, they justify their actions as righteous rebellion against a 'racist' society that won't give them a fair shake in the system. There was a TV show a year back with Al Pacino as a vengeful Jew. The scenario called on Jews, blacks, and cuck-whites to hunt down 'nazi' whites. Is that vigilantism? If so, Jews seem to be okay with vigilante justice as long as 'nazis' are hunted down and hanged.
What about post-WWII violence in Europe? In Italy and France, communists and anarchists were let loose to lynch anyone accused of fascism or collaboration. The authorities either looked the other way or encouraged it. This complicates the meaning of vigilantism and rough justice.
Of course, 'progressives' and 'leftists' almost never characterize their extra-legal activities as 'vigilante', a term that connotes bigotry or brute instinct, i.e. a vigilante has no sense of right-and-wrong or vision of society other than 'my security' or 'my tribe'. So, anyone from Bernie Goetz to KKK member could be labeled as 'vigilante' because they were motivated not by ideals but personal safety or tribal/racial security.
In contrast, extra-legal violence on the Left is idealized as serving History or some greater cause. Whereas the vigilante acts to defend life and limb(and has no higher sense of good beyond himself, his family, and perhaps his tribe), the revolutionary is deemed as self-sacrificing; he takes up violence to make for a better world and is willing to give his life for it. Like Che Guevara, he's willing to offer himself up for the Cause, live or die. To the extent that Travis Bickle is a self-sacrificing character with shades of Jesus-complex, he doesn't fit the bill as the classic vigilante.
-- Vigilantism takes place when the legal system breaks down and citizens feel the need to take action themselves. --
It comes in two flavors. There is post-order vigilantism where people take up arms in a world where order has broken down. But there is also pre-order vigilantism, often depicted in Western movies. The frontier has yet to establish law-and-order(and secure systems of contracts and property rights), so everyone operates in vigilante mode with guns and guts.
The appeal of the Western was contradictory because the genre revels in the freedom of violence but also roots for law-and-order whereby children and womenfolk could walk safely to church without being accosted by Lee Marvin. HIGH NOON is especially contradictory because the citizens won't stand behind the lawman who is left all alone to go 'vigilante' against the will(or lack thereof) of the 'good' people of the town.
It's also murky in STRAW DOGS. In a way, David Sumner(Dustin Hoffman) goes vigilante against the town thugs, but he is motivated by pride of principle than self-preservation. Indeed, he's willing to risk his life for that principle. He could have avoided the whole trouble had he given up the village idiot to the local yokels. He insists on protecting the village idiot out of some higher principle than self-preservation, the main objectives of most vigilante types.
-- and the lyrical but also menacing musical score by Bernard Herrmann --
The score is remarkable but problematic. It is too jazzy, hip, and loose to convey the constricted and sullen inner torment of Bickle. Herrmann's music for PSYCHO was closer to the mark with the subject matter. The score for TAXI DRIVER is more reflective of the city than of Bickle in particular. (Its jazziness also sounds overly nostalgic in the age of Rock and Soul, the dominant forms of music in the 70s. On the other hand, Bickle is a man out of time.)
-- So who is Travis Bickle? Travis Bickle is a twenty-six-year-old honorably discharged Marine... Travis suffers from insomnia. --
Some have tried to explain Bickle's madness as post-war syndrome, but he was surely borderline psycho BEFORE he entered the military, like Francis in STRIPES.
In a way, Bickle would have been better off in the military, which provides some sense of order, structure, and purpose. One of the characters in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES has difficulty adjusting to life back home. At least in war, he was a 'hero', a patriot among 'real men'. As a civilian, he's suddenly a nobody.
It's no wonder Bickle shows interest in the secret service. He isn't only trying to measure up the enemy but fascinated with its sense of order and purpose, like with Clint Eastwood's character in IN THE LINE OF FIRE. One wonders why Bickle doesn't join the police force. Still, driving a taxi offers some semblance of order and purpose. Taxi cabs, like police cars, are alike in standardization. It's a way of being 'organizized'. There's uniformity and order in being a cabbie in a city full of crime and chaos.
And yet, it isn't fulfilling because Bickle as cabbie can only be an observer than an enforcer. He belongs to an order of sorts but one of serving than saving the customers. There's a part of Bickle that wants to belong, to be part of an Order. And yet, there's another side to him that is deviant and asocial, rather like Paul Newman's character in COOL HAND LUKE. Bickle is a walking contradiction, like the lyrics from the Kris Kristofferson song. He's a misfit who wants to fit in. Unlike Randall McMurphy who revels in his anarchy, Bickle is uneasy with the bohemian side of his being. The Mr. Hyde part of him feels more at home with the hookers, junkies, and other flotsam, while the Dr. Jekyll part of him feels nothing but contempt for the lowlifes. He is a weirdo with the square's disdain for weirdos. No wonder he doesn't leave NY. And yet, another part of him recoils in disgust from the weirdness. It's like Woody Allen's quotation from Groucho Marx: "I would never want to belong to a club that would have someone like me for a member", which is visualized in the opening of STARDUST MEMORIES where Allen, in a train car full of Jews(and depressives), wants to be with the glitzy glam-goyim in the other car.
Some people are happy to be squares among squares while others are happy to be bohemians among bohemians. Bickle, in contrast, is like both a square among bohemians and a bohemian among squares. There's a film MAX about young Hitler with a similar theme. Hitler's problem is he's too square and straight to be a bohemian artist, but too weird & deviant to be fit into respectable bourgeois society. He's ill-at-ease in both worlds. In contrast, the Jewish Max is comfortable in both. Bickle has all this weirdness but simply can't face up to it.Trailer for MAX.
-- He tries to connect with his fellow cabbies. But, being on the night-shift, they are almost as weird and asocial as he is. --
But the key difference is the other cabbies are okay with what they are. Weird or not, it's just a living for them, as with the characters in the TV series TAXI. Bickle isn't merely weird but ill-at-east with his weirdness. (In contrast, Jeff Bridges, originally slated for the role of Bickle, plays a happy-go-lucky weirdo in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. He's weird alright and proud of it. If anyone recalls Bickle in that movie, it's the John Goodman character who's just as weird as Lebowski but thumps his chest as an upright patriot and pious Jew to boot. BIG LEBOWSKI may have taken some inspiration from CUTTER'S WAY, which in turn, might have been partly inspired by TAXI DRIVER.)
When Iris calls him 'square', he even misinterprets the word and says she is the 'square' one for doing all the un-square things. And he doesn't seem to understand the term 'hip' either in his encounter with Sport. As with James Dean in THE REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, something's tearing him apart. If Dean's character was trapped in an all-too-square and conformist society, Bickle is caught up in the exact opposite, an open sewer of libertine freedom with humanity reverted to the tyranny of animality. Either way, there's lack of equilibrium, especially for the innately confused.
-- Senator Charles Palantine, who is running in his party’s presidential primary. (His party is not stated, but he’s clearly supposed to be a Democrat. --
Or, Palantine could be based somewhat on John Lindsay, the Liberal Republican.
-- he walks into the office and asks her on a date. Betsy accepts. Travis is strange, but he’s not bad-looking and has an off-kilter charisma.
Travis blows it on their second date, however, when he takes her to a pornographic movie. It is painfully awkward. --
He initially strikes Betsy(Cybill Shepherd) as confident and worldly. But already at the first 'date', she notices something off about him. He seemed easy-going, even a bit suave, when he walked into the campaign office to introduce himself. But at the coffee shop, he comes across as overly earnest, almost like a Jehovah's Witness. There are also signs of agitation, like of a sculptor anxious to turn a slab of marble into his ideal vision. It goes from easy to a bit queasy. When she quotes from Kris Kristofferson's song about 'prophet and a pusher', Bickle takes it the wrong way(like Burt Lancaster's ruse in the restaurant scene in ATLANTIC CITY when Susan Sarandon's character says he has no fingerprints).
TAXI DRIVER stood the test of time. As mere sociology, it would have become dated, like JOE, PEOPLE NEXT DOOR, and NETWORK. But Bickle's problem is psychological, even spiritual, and as such universal and timeless. It's part of man's unceasing struggle with one's demons, but then the demons of one era are the angels of another. No wonder Scorsese has been more fascinated with the existential aspect of the struggle. The real meaning is in the struggle than in happy acceptance of official truths without questioning. How Christianity was struggled into being as vision and movement is more fascinating to Scorsese than how it was consecrated as the compulsory Faith for all in the Kingdom. Bickle goes about it the wrong way, but there is a certain dark integrity in his struggle to figure things out.
Jesus is shown undergoing a similar struggle in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. The 'spiritual' aspect of TAXI DRIVER partly derives from Robert Bresson, whose works also influenced Schrader's AMERICAN GIGOLO and LIGHT SLEEPER. (Bresson's characters are usually inarticulate and withdrawn, social outcasts and pariahs. And yet, isolation and/or rejection may be a requisite for grace. Carl Dreyer with PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and Tarkovsky with STALKER, NOSTALGHIA, and THE SACRIFICE also pondered madness as a kind of hell with a backdoor to heaven.
TAXI DRIVER is impure in its fusion of Bresson and Peckinpah. (Bresson's more austere and purist take on violence can be seen in L'ARGENT.) It was also in the spirit of Sidney Lumet's work with SERPICO and DOG DAY AFTERNOON. By the looks of Robert Altman's NASHVILLE, the 70s malaise was a nation-wide problem. The country music capital, though far from New York, is beset with same problems of drugs, sex, and sleaze. It also ends with an assassination. And DELIVERANCE showed the woods ain't no sanctuary either. Hillbillies can be queers too.
TAXI DRIVER was both a Zeitgeist film and a stand-alone work. On the one hand, it was very much the film of the moment, the talk of the town about symptoms of the malaise. It dealt with violence and sex and urban decay, crime, pornography & prostitution, alienation, crisis of youth, the problem of guns & assassination, racial tensions(especially with blacks), and etc. Like Lumet's film from the same year, it can be approached as a social document. But like MIDNIGHT COWBOY, it is much more and has been compared with the works of Dostoevsky and continues to strike a chord with new audiences. In terms of alienation, Bickle most closely resembles Robert Duvall in THX 1138 though the worlds the two characters exhibit are diametrically opposed. Both are about individuals who feel such powerful sense of angst but can't put a finger on why.
Ironically, TAXI DRIVER'S biggest problem may be it's too-well-made. Scorsese displayed such mastery and brilliance of style that Bickle is transformed into an 'icon' of sorts. It partly sensationalizes and idolizes him even if such wasn't the intention of Schrader and Scorsese. The visual prowess canonizes his madness, much like in THE GRADUATE does for Benjamin Braddock(and HAROLD AND MAUDE does for its lead). In that sense, the raw Bickle might have been more honestly conveyed by a second-rate director lacking in visual flourish that inadvertently serves as advertisement for madness.Dave Kehr's Review of LIGHT SLEEPER by Paul Schrader.
-- The choice to take Betsy to a dirty movie makes it abundantly clear that Travis has issues. It is not socially appropriate. --
And yet, here's the irony. It was both appropriate and inappropriate. Bickle attends porn movies because they were so conspicuous in the 1970s. There were porn theaters all over NY, and XXX movies were advertised in newspapers. Serious critics and scholars wrote about movies like DEEP THROAT, which also became the codeword of a key leaker involved in the Watergate Scandal. Pauline Kael, John Simon, Susan Sontag, and others weighed in on the matter of pornography. Playboy had already become a reputable magazine with serious interviews with important figures of politics and the arts. The Carter clan would soon become chummy with Larry Flynt of HUSTLER.
And as Bickle notes, couples attend porn movies, and there were plenty of educated middle class people, men and women, who watched porn movies in the 70s, out of habit or curiosity. So, given the culture of the times, Bickle's taking Betsy to a porn movie wasn't as outlandish as it may seem. (These days, stuff like Lena Dunham's GIRLS on TV and Miley Cyrus have pretty much legitimized porn among young people, and respectable journals like Forbes and other run articles about the porn industry as just another sector of capitalism.) There's no indication that Bickle has any special thing for porn. Confused and alienated with too much time on his hands, he wanders into porn theaters because they are there, like he watches whatever is on TV. So, he takes Betsy to a porn movie because pornography seems to be a normal thing in New York. In that sense, he is the one being 'normal'. It is Betsy, in taking offense, who seems 'abnormal', 'old-fashioned' and 'square'. She still seems to cling to 'outdated' notions of 'respectability' and 'dignity'. Initially, she seemed hipper than him, but there's still something of the small-town girl in her to take offense from pornography. She did say she's from upstate.
This all adds to the confusion of modernity, and this confusion may be worse than ever. Women now celebrate 'slut pride' but also claim to take offense at Trump's 'grab pussy' remark. And their idea of wearing dignity on their sleeves was to wear pussy hats. Women who use sexual wiles to get ahead in the industry suddenly shriek and join the #MeToo Movement. That crazy and shameless skank Emma Sulkowicz also cried 'rape', and then made a porn video about the trauma. Porn and puritanism sit side by side.
-- He broods and ruminates. He tells Wizard, one of his fellow drivers played by Peter Boyle, “I got some bad ideas in my head.” Travis does not, however, come off as delusional. Instead, he is angry at the sleaze and injustice that surround him. --
He isn't delusional about social ills, but he's delusional in failing to realize his own sickness. Foul fumes rise from sewers, but Bickle own soul is a sewer. A part of him morally recoils from the urban rot, but there's something fermenting inside him as well, which he's unwilling or incapable of realizing.
Paul Schrader said in an interview that Bickle is a uniquely American phenomenon. He said a European or Japanese Bickle, being more cultured and/or philosophical, would realize that the main source of his sickness is from within; therefore, he would commit suicide, presumably like the character in Louis Malle's THE FIRE WITHIN(based on a work by Drieu La Rochelle). In contrast, Americans, being less self-aware, are prone to project their inner demons on the outside world and strike out in violence; guns help some. The problem with Bickle is he both suffers from inner demons and is correct about the urban rot. So, his inner demons and the social decay become intermeshed, and he's not sure whether he's going crazy or being driven crazy by the city. And we aren't sure either as Bickle seeks an external solution to his internal troubles.
-- One wonders, though, why Travis continues to subject himself to this world. Not every city is as dystopian as New York. He could also focus on better neighborhoods and better fares. But he doesn’t. The truth is that Travis is a glutton for punishment. He has a masochistic, self-defeating personality. --
In a way, it's because he's just as sick as the city though loathe to admit it. In this, he's different from the retard in SLING BLADE(the indie FORREST GUMP). Billy Bob Thorton's character is capable of murder but is really a good soul. And he feels a peace of mind looking out the window of a mental hospital. In contrast, Bickle is always in a state of inner turmoil. So, things might be even worse for him in a stable and normal community. Amidst the peace and quiet, he would come face to face with his demons. In contrast, NY is somewhat therapeutic precisely because its craziness serves as a diversion. It's like someone who hallucinates strange voices may not prefer quietude as the voices will only grow louder. He'd rather be in a noisy place where the constant din drowns out the voices emanating from within.
Craziness being commonplace in NY, he is distracted from his inner demons. Or, he can pretend his demons are the sounds of social degeneracy and decay. Bickle is a different animal from David Lynch who, as in ERASERHEAD, could probe into his weirdo psyche and see what's there. Bickle is loathe to stare into his own soul and prefers the distractions of NY. Easier to see craziness in the world than in oneself. (Likewise, a minor character in FIRST REFORMED, the latest Paul Schrader film, becomes obsessed with environmental issues as a coping mechanism for his depression. He clearly has psychological issues but would rather project them onto the wider world. But this poses a new set of problems. If the whole world is as diseased as one's own soul, where's the escape? The man commits suicide, like Max von Sydow's character in Ingmar Bergman's WINTER LIGHT who ascribes his depression to fear of nuclear holocaust.)
Also, despite Bickle's loneliness, it too is somewhat comforting. After all, anything goes and everyone is tolerated in a big city full of strangers. No one cares. It's lonely but one is left alone. If Bickle were to settle in a nice rural community, he would be observed and judged by his peers. If judged badly, he would be shunned by the community. In contrast, no one is exiled in NY because everyone is a stranger. Bickle is just one of the many nameless nobodies. It is lonely but also liberating.
Besides, many people prefer to be a nobody in The Place than a somebody in no place. Why does Joe Buck hang around New York for so long in MIDNIGHT COWBOY? It's the capital of the world whereas the place whence he came was some nowhere-ville in Texas. Adolf Hitler hated degeneracy but was drawn to the city where things were happening. Only the 'happening' metropoles matter. It's like Washington D.C. is a sleazy place, but Pat Buchanan is addicted to the sports of politics. It makes him feel alive, and he just can't let it go despite his disgust. And in Oliver Stone's film, Nixon feels dead outside politics. You'd think he'd have peace of mind after bidding farewell to the System that only kicked him around, but he must re-enter the ring. The warrior part of Bickle knows the game is in the city. In a way, he's a war lover and still in the fight even after leaving the Marines.
-- Today, I look at Travis and see someone on the autism spectrum who is also an incel. --
He has issues but isn't technically an incel, which means 'involuntary celibate'. Bickle had a chance to have sex with Iris but refused. Even when he approaches the mulatto woman at the porn theater refreshment stand, he courts her. (In the background is a classical nude statue, suggesting Bickle's idealism about the other sex.) And he approaches Betsy with courtesy and feels she deserves respect. Ironically, he takes her to a porn theater thinking it is the 'proper' thing to do in NY. He thought she might appreciate it as a New Yorker.
So, if Bickle really wanted to 'get laid' or 'ball' someone, he surely could have. He is willfully celibate with Iris. Thus, he's more a 'wilcel', a willful celibate. It makes him feel special. In his mind, other men see Iris as a piece of meat, but he sees her as someone special; therefore, he is better, nobler. There's a similar appeal to Vito and Michael Corleone. Whereas Sonny, Fredo, and Carlo stick their dongs into everyone(and even Tom Hagen has a mistress), Vito and Michael are faithful to their wives. And Vito despised the Tataglias for dealing in whoredom.
A key difference between Michael Corleone and Bickle is the former belongs to a family and tradition. So, Michael's 'psycho' acts(and those of Al Neri) have legitimacy within the milieu(with its core of honor), whereas Bickle's psycho act seems out of the left field... but for the fact that society comes to spin his crazy deed as an heroic act in total ignorance of the fact that Bickle attacked the brothel ONLY BECAUSE his attempt on Palantine was foiled. It's the thin line between monster and hero, but then in our age of George Floyd, notice how easy it was some lowlife Negro druggy to be spun as a saint, along with Michael Brown. And Jonathan Pollard went from arch-traitor, the worst in US history, to a hero who worked for Israel; as Israel is America's Greatest Ally, Pollard's deeds now seem justified. If the US's primary purpose is to serve Israel, then Pollard did no wrong in betraying the US for Israel. It's what 99% of politicians do on a daily basis. Maybe Jews will demand in that the US apologize to Pollard as the 'New Dreyfus'.
-- Betsy isn’t the only object of Travis’ gallantry. He also wants to rescue Iris, a twelve-year-old prostitute from a pimp played by Harvey Keitel. --
In a way, he 'also' wants to save Iris. In another way, he 'afterwards' wants to save Iris as compensation for having lost Betsy. Iris is like a consolation prize. Had things worked out with Betsy, it's unlikely he would have paid any mind to Iris. But after his humiliation with Betsy, he fixates on Iris to restore his pride. Betsy is too high above him. He saw her as an angel, even a goddess. He apologized and groveled, but she snubbed him as a loser and lunatic. He can't handle this pain, and so, Iris becomes useful to his wounded ego.
After all, she's a young whore, the dreg of society. There's no way someone like her can look down on him. She allows any man to screw her orifices for money. She's so low in the totem pole that he need not worry about being rejected by her. Jesus too had a special relation with a whore.
People feel offended by being snubbed or rejected by superiors, not inferiors. People take offense when called dumb by a smart person, not by a retard. So, Bickle feels more at ease with Iris who is below even someone like him. Also, there's something similar to the dynamics in MULHOLLAND DR. There, Diane Selwyn feels dejected and humiliated by her friend who made it in the industry. In her fantasy, Selwyn-as-Betty is full of love and kindness; she would never do what her friend did to her and goes out of her way to help out an amnesiac stranger who is modeled on the friend. Similarly, through his concern toward Iris, Bickle is reassuring himself that he would never do to another what Betsy did to him. She turned out to be a BITCH, but he's no son-of-a-bitch. He cares and would go out of his way to care for Iris.
But then, he's not being entirely honest. After all, his real objective was to kill Palantine(and face arrest or be shot by cops and secret service men). He attacked the brothel as compensation for his failed attempt on Palantine. Now, why did he target Palantine? He may consciously justify it on political or ideological grounds. But, it really has to do with Betsy. Subconsciously, he sees Palantine as the pimp who owns Betsy as his whore. In Bickle's subconscious, Palantine is to Betsy what Iris is to Sport. So, despite his bitterness about Betsy, a part of him still wants to prove himself to her as the slayer of the super-pimp who owns her.
-- The seventies were the decade of the anti-hero. The organs of the culture were by then firmly in the hands of the hostile elite. Thus the instinct of the critical mainstream was to weaponize anti-heroes like Bickle against the establishment, meaning against mainstream America. There was surely some hand-rubbing on both coasts when Reagan was shot by a wannabe Travis Bickle. --
But Bickle isn't at war with mainstream America but with the very things that led to White Flight. He seems uneasy in the presence of black thugs. And he feels contempt for the Jew played by Albert Brooks. Also, many Anti-Heroes of 70s cinema were accused of 'fascism'. Dirty Harry was an anti-hero cop. Unlike the traditional crime fighter, he played dirty like the criminals. He bent rules. But people still rooted for him because he got things done. Crime got so out of control that even Liberal Hollywood was making 'vigilant movies' and soon shut down the production of Blaxploitation movies as agitating the Negroes. SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASS SONG was a runaway hit in the black community but was soon taken out of circulation.
Audiences also identified with the Corleones of THE GODFATHER. Corleones were killers and criminals but not without an element of Nobility of Evil in service to Family and Honor. THE LAST DETAIL mocks the military but also hippies and other freaks of the period. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST has an anti-hero who fights Negroes and a bitch-monster. If the problem in CUCKOO'S NEST is too much order, the problem in TAXI DRIVER is too much disorder. Both were released in the same year, but the 60s revolution is the gulf between the two anti-heroes.
It was Liberals who were most upset with THE FRENCH CONNECTION where anti-hero cops played dirty to shake down black junkies and break up the international drug trade. William Friedkin's other big movie was THE EXORCIST, the appeal of which wasn't much different from TAXI DRIVER. A priest paralyzed with self-doubt regains meaning by fighting the Devil to save a young girl whose body is ravaged by onset of puberty.
With movies like NETWORK and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, things got further confused. Are the two newsmen in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN heroes or anti-heroes? In a way, they are hero journalists. Yet, they can also be seen as assassins, gunning to bring down the President. You don't need a gun to hunt politicians, as Trump recently found out. Are Woodward and Bernstein righteous rebels against the most powerful man in America, as the movie suggests, or are they hired killers for the Establishment that simply didn't like Nixon? Heroes and Anti-heroes become even more muddled in the world of NETWORK.
-- Today, the hostile elite is fully in control. They are the establishment. They want to hold on to their power. Thus they live in terror of Travis Bickles like Brenton Tarrant and Dylann Roof. Hence the cultural organs pushed back hard against Todd Phillips’ Joker, which owes a great deal to both Taxi Driver and Scorsese’s later DeNiro vehicle The King of Comedy. --
I don't think the current elites would be much upset with a film like TAXI DRIVER were one to come out today(but for the part about blacks, especially the scene where Martin Scorsese as jealous husband says he's gonna take a magnum 44 and blow away his wife's pooter for her infidelity with Long Dong Silver). The reason why many critics reacted in horror to THE JOKER was it sensationalized Art House tropes for the mass audience. Some people might come away with sick ideas from TAXI DRIVER, but it was never going to turn mobs into Travis Bickles. From beginning to end, Bickle is on his own as God's Lonely Man.
In contrast, THE JOKER is about how the lunacy of one spreads like wildfire and ignites a mass movement. Also, due to its superhero comic book pedigree, many more people were going to see THE JOKER than TAXI DRIVER(or something like THE KING OF COMEDY). Whatever its flaws, Scorsese and Schrader tried to be true with the material: What would really happen with someone like Travis Bickle, a ticking time bomb?
In contrast, THE JOKER merely steals Art Film tropes and goes into fantasy mode not unlike V FOR VENDETTA. Genuine art rarely has mass appeal. Fantasy has mass appeal but is usually taken as fantasy, nothing serious. But THE JOKER was Mass Fantasy posturing as Radical Truth, and there lay the danger.