“Taxi Driver” - Martin Scorsese (1976)


Taxi Driver (1976) was a landmark film in many ways.  Winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or in 1976, the film represents the peak and signature performances of director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro. But beyond those specific individual achievements, what singles the film out and marks it for greatness is its uniquely powerful expressionistic presentation [1].  By “expressionism” I mean here that the mode of artistic presentation entails depicting the entire external world as a manifestation of the inner feelings (the psychological interior) of the narrator (usually the author and/or principal character). The German Expressionistic films of the Weimar Republic period, reflecting the general Expressionistic art movement in painting and architecture at the time, presented expressionism at its most explicit, with severe and artificial distortions of the depicted physical world that depicted a disturbed state of mind.  Since then expressionistic film expression has been more modulated, but there are still exemplar filmmakers in that mode today, including Zhang Yimou and Werner Herzog.  However, Taxi Driver probably tops them all in terms of the urban expressionistic nightmare it depicts in an ostensibly realistic setting.

Taxi Driver also carries with it Existentialistic overtones, a not uncommon artistic companion of expressionism, since this film portrays the sense of deep-seated anxiety that is characteristic of the existentialist sensibility.  Modern exemplary filmmakers that tend to focus on the existentialist mode include Michelangelo Antonioni,Wong Kar Wai, and Majid Majidi, but there are many films that conform to this genre.  As I have discussed at greater length in "Existentialism in Film 1" [2] and "Phenomenology and Red Desert" [3], existentialist films involve a profound sense of both alienation and transcendence.  Alienation here is general: it involves a fundamental sense of separation and isolation on the part of the protagonist from his or her social environment and entire world of involvements. The reason for this sense of separation can be found in the manner in which Existentialism contrasts with Essentialism.  Essentialism, which we could also call Objectivism, applies the principles of objective, natural science to everything and is the conventional means by which our modern Western culture characterizes the world.  According to this mode of thinking, everything in the world can be understood  in terms of its essence, which is what distinguishes it from other things.  We can then understand the entire world (from the Essentialist perspective) in terms of the state-based relationships connecting these essences. Existentialism, however, has a perspective that contrasts with Essentialism by emphasizing not essence but existence – something more primordial and beyond the relationship-based notion of essence.  The Existentialist position argues that there is something fundamentally missing about Essentialism – we feel that we are more than just the essences that are said to describe us, and we feel alienated from such a diminished view of our existence.  Existence entails contingency and possibility.  There is something we feel that must transcend the essentialist depiction of reality.  The Existentialist viewpoint is concerned with more than a description of what is.  It senses transcendent contingency and possibility – that eery awareness that unforeseeable and unfathomable events, even our own deaths, may be imminent.

Early definitive portraits of Existentialistic unease appeared years ago in two groundbreaking novels: Albert Camus’s The Stranger (aka The Outsider, 1942/1946)  and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938/1949), in both of which the respective protagonists famously felt separated from everything around them.  But these works convey their message by means of written words, which are inherently grounded in Essentialism.  And as I remarked in those two earlier film essays, the film medium is probably an even better vehicle than the written word for the conveyance of existentialist and expressionist feelings. In fact, the direct transcription of outstanding expressionistic/existentialist written works onto the screen is often not as successful as other works that are similar, but have been more specifically sculpted for the cinematic medium.  Thus Brazil (1986) was a more effective expression of its artistic inspiration, Orwell’s novel 1984, than the explicit film adaptation of that novel (1984, 1984).  So, too, Taxi Driver is a more effective cinematic presentation of Existentialist alienation than Luchino Viconti’s The Stranger (1967), the film adaptation of Camus’s novel.  This was no accidental side effect of the filmmakers’ cinematic stylistics: Taxi Driver’s scriptwriter, Paul Schrader, had earlier written a book on film aesthetics, Transcendental Style In Film [4], which  explicitly examines how alienation and transcendence have been presented on film by some earlier masters.

Note that when Existentialistic stories are presented, the narrative structures are rather different from more conventional stories.  In most typical narratives, there is a metaphorical journey undertaken by the protagonist(s), who identify and seek a remote target that must be reached for fulfilment or salvation. Thus these protagonists generally know where they initially are and where they must go.  But in Existentialistic stories the protagonist is intrinsically lost from the outset.  There is a deep sense that something is wrong, but also a fundamental bewilderment in terms of where to go or what to do.  This sense of aimlessness and incapacitation in Existentialist works can frustrate some viewers and critics, who are waiting for the narrative journey to take shape and set forth [5]. The narrative structure of Taxi Driver struggles with this problem of aimlessness, and in the end Scorsese and Schrader manage to fashion a narrative scheme founded on this desperate search for a meaningful goal.  Anyway, what matters in this film is not so much its narrative structure as its expressionistic depiction of a dark, disturbing mood.

The story of Taxi Driver concerns a young ex-US Marine and Vietnam War veteran, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), who gets a job as a taxicab driver for a New York City cab fleet.  Bickle is a loner who lives in a spare, one-room flat, with only a diary for expressing his thoughts.  He drives all night, usually from 6pm to 6am, through the bizarre Manhattan underworld peopled by social outliers, such as prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, and various underworld types.  Everything is seen from his point of view, with occasional voiceovers recording his diary notes or letters that he sends to his parents, who are far removed from his existence.

Travis is cut off from everything and everyone, with no meaningful relationships in his life.  As the story unfolds, he will encounter two different women with whom he briefly attempts to strike up relationships.  These are overlaid on top of his fundamental problem of alienation: his dysfunctional relationship with the world.  So over the course of the film, there are three concurrent narrative threads to follow along, all of which are his attempts to come to terms with his sense of alienation:
  • the relationship with Betsy
  • the relationship with Iris
  • the relationship with the world.  Admittedly this one is rather general, but it makes sense to characterize it as problematic relationship in this context.
With respect to all three relationships, Travis tries to overcome his sense of powerlessness and futility with respect to having an authentic impact on his surroundings.  The story breaks down into roughly four sections that relate the frustrating evolution of these relationships.

1.  Hopeful Engagement
The early scenes show Travis cruising through the New York City night scene and delivering his fares.  Despite his worldly experience as a US Marine, Travis is fundamentally an innocent, almost naive, individual, who is disturbed by the corrupt world of New York City night people.  At the close of every workday, he has to clean out the semen, filth, and blood that is left in the back seat of his taxi by his degenerate passengers.  Travis’s sense of alienation and unrelenting distress is reflected in the insomnia he suffers, which further deadens him to his surroundings.  One day, however, he spies a beautiful girl on the street, Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), who is a volunteer campaign worker for a US Presidential candidate, Senator Charles Palantine.  In all the filth and grime of the city environment, here is a beautiful flower of perfection. Immediately Travis feels that he and Betsy must share some intrinsic inner connection – she must be his destined soul-mate.  How many of us have sometimes felt this way?  We encounter a person of the opposite gender who is just so perfectly suited to our inner nature, that there must have been some destiny behind our meeting. 

Despite obvious differences in class and breeding, Travis is boundlessly confident that he and Betsy were meant for each other, and he boldly approaches her directly.  For her part, Betsy is guardedly charmed by Travis’s effervescent innocence.  So Travis now has a hopeful goal and a route to fulfilment.

When Senator Palantine hires his taxi one time, Travis’s romantic enthusiasm for Betsy spills over to embrace the senator’s candidacy.  Palantine, himself, is an unbelievably empty-headed political hypocrite who merely repeats the mindless mantra, “we are the people”, throughout the film.  His character is something of a master stroke on Scorsese’s part, because Palantine’s platitudes effectively represent the dead-end emptiness of essentialism.  Unconsciously, Travis will come to sense that Palantine is the embodiment of his own frustrations with the world as the film wears on.

2.  Powerlessness and Frustration
Travis’s optimism proves transient.  Despite his innocence, Betsy soon recoils from Travis’s lack of polish and dumps him.  Innocence has been rebuked and rejected.  Then a 12-year-old street girl, Iris (Jodie Foster), jumps into Travis’s cab and urges him to get her away from some imminent danger.  But Travis hesitates, and the girl is wrestled out of his cab by her drug-dealing pimp, Matthew (Harvey Keitel), aka “Sport”, while Travis simply watches helplessly from the front seat of his cab.  Here is the city’s corruption of innocence at its most extreme: a pretty, underage girl coerced into prostitution.

The solution to life’s problems seems invariably to be violence.  One of Travis’s passengers (played by Scorsese, himself), tells him that he will kill his unfaithful wife by blowing her to pieces with a 44 Magnum pistol.  This seems to be the only path to take for Travis, too.  He buys an armory of guns from an illegal weapons merchant and starts preparing for some unspecified mission of violence.

In the meantime, Travis meets Iris again and arranges to become of her “clients”.  His goal is to rescue her from her degenerate life, but he doesn’t know how.  He does manage to make some sort of connection with her, though, and though transient, this turns out to be his only meaningful relationship in the film.

3.  Self Destruction
Existentialist rejection of the Essentialist-modelled world can lead to a rejection of one’s own essence-derived self conception.  This is clearly happening to Travis, as the viewer sees him heading down the path of self-destruction.  Travis evidently wants to strike out at the indifferent world and do something that has an impact on it.  His symbolic target becomes Charles Palantine, whose inauthentic disconnection from true human engagement somehow must unconsciously make him the ultimate target of Travis’s wrath. 

Travis prepares a letter to be sent to Iris with some money and a message that says, “at the time you read this, I will be dead.”  Travis’s voiceover reflection sums up his current state of mind: 

“Now I see it clearly.  My whole life has pointed in one direction.  I see that now.  There never has been any choice for me.”
Fully armed and now sporting a bizarre Mohawk haircut, Travis goes to a Palantine political rally to carry out his assassination.  But before he can act, he is recognized by guards and flees the scene. That night, and now even more mentally deranged, he pursues an alternative path by heading down to the Lower East Side to engage in a violent, shoot-first rescue of Iris.  A bloody shootout ensues, with Travis killing Matthew and two others while getting critically shot in the neck, himself.  At the end of the devastation, Travis tries to shoot himself, but he out of bullets. The police arrive, and Travis is taken away.

4.  Aftermath
It is now a few months later, and the viewer learns that Travis, after being in a coma, has survived and recovered from his wounds.  Despite his murderous killing-spree, Travis has been hailed by the press as a hero, since he killed low-life drug dealers.  Iris is back safe with her parents, far from New York.  Travis is back on the same taxi night shift and living as before.  One of his fares turns out to be Betsy, and they engage in cautious, impersonal small talk during the ride, after which Travis refuses payment and silently pulls away from the curb.
The ending of the film is one of pure irony. Travis has finally been returned to normalcy, at least outwardly. But that last shot of Travis slowly, reluctantly pulling away from Betsy is an indication of his continued isolation and tacit desire to make connection. He is now mentally confined by even bigger walls, but perhaps he has abandoned his struggle to overcome them.

As I mentioned earlier, the expressionistic presentation of a mood is what makes this film outstanding.  Scorsese’s picture of the ominous and threatening New York City night scene is undoubtedly aided by his being a native of the city.  The focalization of the film remains almost exclusively on Travis Bickle, except for short moments with Betsy and Iris.  Why were these two singled out in this fashion?  Perhaps the moments showing those girls' personal connections with other men highlights Travis's nightmares concerning aspects of their lives outside the scope of his influence. So these sequences, too, add to the film’s atmosphere of anxiety and separation.  Another particularly memorable scene is when Travis, alone in his apartment, slowly and knowingly tips his portable television off its stand and wrecks it.  The drift towards self-destruction is captured perfectly without words.

The film’s overall mood of threatening alienation is immeasurably enhanced by the film score written by Bernard Herrmann, who was perhaps the consummate film music composer and whose music for films of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Brian De Palma provided indelible signatures for those specific works. In this case here in Taxi Driver, the mood of the film is so linked to Herrmann that I feel he almost a co-author of the film.

Some people simply dismiss Travis Bickle as someone who just went crazy and who at the end remains a loaded time-bomb who might erupt again in the future.  Perhaps so, but the power of this film is its ability to give us some understanding of Travis. We can empathize with his agony and lost innocence.  We know him as we know ourselves.  At the film's end, meaningful connection possibilities with Betsy, Iris, and the city at large seem to be gone forever.  There is only the dark urban nightmare around him, and that still remains a threat, as shown in the last frames of the film.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “Expressionism in Film", The Film Sufi (2008).
  2. "Existentialism in Film 1", The Film Sufi (2008).
  3. "Phenomenology and Red Desert", The Film Sufi (2010).
  4. Schrader, Paul, Transcendental Style In Film (1972/1988), Da Capo Press.
  5. This has been a criticism of some of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, such as Red Desert (1964).

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