Taxi Driver
Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese, 1976

#7 of 28 in the 20th century series

In college my only income was $205 a month in interest on the money I’d earned appearing on CBS as a kid, so in retrospect I don’t know how I found the wherewithal to buy so many random books.  I’d go down to Cody’s, browse through the piles and piles of books on the tables up front, and usually end up shelling out fifteen or twenty bucks on whatever happened to catch my eye.  One of these books was The Clothes Have No Emperor by Paul Slansky, a day‐by‐day, mildly arch chronicle of the Reagan administration.  It was from that book that I first learned something that had happened back when I watched Scooby‐Doo instead of the news: that the reason Ronald Reagan had been shot was that would‐be assassin John Hinckley had hoped to impress Jodie Foster, with whom he’d become obsessed after repeatedly watching her play a 12‐year‐old prostitute in the movie Taxi Driver.  I, in turn, became obsessed with this story.  That a huge, horrific turning point in American history, the Reagan administration, had come a fraction of an inch from being averted, and all because some creepy stalker had had a crush on a child actress?  That is just bananas.  I spent hours in the library reading everything I could find about Hinckley: decade‐old newspaper articles retracing his steps leading up to the assassination attempt, magazine interviews sharing his thoughts on other Jodie Foster movies… I even hit the used bookstores and found a copy of Breaking Points, his parents’ book about his personal disintegration, which I still own.  I did not buy a copy of Taxi Driver, though.  Before I had a chance to go home and visit the only place I knew of that sold VHS tapes—​the Suncoast at the Mainplace mall in Santa Ana—​a friend bought me a copy for my birthday.  I still have that, too.  But it isn’t the copy I watched this time around.

I mainly want to write about what struck me differently on this viewing than on my many viewings in the 1990s, but I guess that first I need to set a baseline.  So, here’s how I might have summarized Taxi Driver back in college.  The taxi driver of the title is twitchy loner Travis Bickle, one of those guys who never quite picked up all the nuances of how humans are expected to behave around other humans.  By night he drives his cab through New York’s worst neighborhoods, particularly the seedy pre‐Disney Times Square with its peep shows and daily murders, and by day he sits in a crappy tenement room and scribbles seething diary entries about how sick and disgusting it all is.  But then he randomly develops a fixation on a woman named Betsy, who works for the Charles Palantine presidential campaign, and decides that she is the treasure among all this trash.  He barges into her office to ask her out, and miraculously, she agrees… but Travis is so socially stunted that he assumes that taking a high‐class girl out to see a movie means taking her to one of the really fancy porno theaters.  Rejected by Betsy, Travis finds himself consumed by “bad ideas” and the impulse to “really do something”.  He buys a small arsenal of different sorts of handguns, practices his quick draw in the mirror for hours on end, and starts skulking around Palantine rallies.  But he gets sidetracked when a child prostitute jumps into his cab and begs him, “Get me out of here!”, only for her pimp to drag her out while Travis stares like a dullard.  Getting it into his head that it might not be too late to rescue her, he tracks her down and pays to be alone with her, only to find out that now the young girl, Iris, says she doesn’t want to leave after all.  But when the Secret Service foils his attempt to assassinate Palantine, Travis, on the run, checks down to an impromptu Plan B and kills Iris’s pimp, her flophouse manager, and her latest john.  And so what has up to this point looked very much like all those “retracing John Hinckley’s steps” articles instead ends on a darkly ironic note, with Travis hailed as a hero.

I started that last paragraph by referring to my “many viewings” of this movie, and I must confess that I did not watch it so many times purely out of historical interest.  In many respects, Travis Bickle and I could hardly have had less in common.  Travis repeatedly maunders that he doesn’t know much about politics, or movies, or music, or much of anything really, while I was so interested in all those things that I’d chosen contemporary American culture as my field of study.  Travis spends all his free time play‐acting confrontations that end with him pointing a gun in someone’s face, while I’ve never touched a gun and would like to see the 2nd Amendment repealed.  And yet Taxi Driver resonated with me.  Roger Ebert suggested that I was far from alone in this:

He is so lonely that when he asks, “Who you talkin’ to?” he is addressing himself in a mirror.  This utter aloneness is at the center of Taxi Driver, one of the best and most powerful of all films, and perhaps it is why so many people connect with it even though Travis Bickle would seem to be the most alienating of movie heroes.  We have all felt as alone as Travis.  Most of us are better at dealing with it.

In my case the overlap with Travis went beyond vague notions of “aloneness”, though.  People who read these articles on more than a sporadic basis have heard this story a million times and should probably skip to the bullet points, but for any newcomers out there, I skipped some grades when I was a kid and was therefore significantly younger than my classmates the entire time I was in school.  Not only was I out of the loop, but I didn’t even realize that there was a loop to be in—​my extracurricular socializing consisted of getting together with friends to eat pizza and play board games, and I assumed everyone else’s did too.  So, having never started along the standard trajectory of adolescent experimentation, when I got to college I found myself plunged into a world I didn’t recognize: fake IDs, parties with alcohol, people having sex out of wedlock, people crossing the street when the sign clearly said DONT WALK.  Being by nature a rule‐follower, and easily scandalized, I was appalled by all of this.  So it wasn’t just Travis’s lament that “loneliness has followed me my whole life” that I could relate to, as much as I could (and can)—​it was specifically his assessment that he was living in a “sick, venal” world and his yearning for something wholesome and innocent to cling to.  It is probably not a coincidence that every movie I have called my favorite since then—​Taxi Driver was replaced by Three Colors: Red, which was replaced by The Sweet Hereafter, which was replaced by Pleasantville—​has grappled with this theme in one way or another.  In a way, they kind of represent the theme as filtered through different Kübler‐Ross stages.  But of those stages, anger is probably the least interesting.

All right, on to those bullet points, no pun intended.  Here is what jumped out at me, watching Taxi Driver from start to finish for the first time in the 21st century:

  • I talked above about how I was out of the loop in high school, but I actually did hear snippets of things here and there: references to drugs, to sex, to parties.  But I just sort of filtered them out of my consciousness because I had nothing to connect those references to until years later.  Similarly, I talked above about how I related to Travis Bickle because I shared his feelings about the corruption of my surroundings, being a straightedger in a crooked‐edged world… and I guess I was so preoccupied with my own version of the theme that I just kind of filtered out of my consciousness how Travis spends the whole movie smoking, drinking, and popping pills.  This time around it was hard to miss him chugging from a prescription bottle in one hand and from a hip flask in the other.

    I had also missed how much emphasis is placed on his time in Vietnam—​like, Travis wears a green military jacket in most of the scenes, but somehow I interpreted it as a fashion statement (maybe because, for Hinckley, it was).  Yet Travis actually gets his job as a taxi driver in the first place because the guy in charge of hiring is a fellow marine, and when he’s not wearing his jacket with the King Kong Company badge on it, Travis can be found doing pull‐ups in a yellow “U.S. Marines” T‐shirt.  Put this together with his ignorance of music, of movies, of politics, of human behavioral norms, and it seems like the backstory here is that Travis grew up in some sort of strict religious community or family that had largely disconnected from the outside world, then was plunged into the Marine Corps, which took him apart and put him back together as a trained killer.  So he wasn’t just born with a screw loose—​the film actually goes to some lengths to establish that Travis Bickle springs from a social context, one that’s churning out others like him.  (The fact that everyone was breathing vaporized lead probably didn’t help.) 

  • Another thing that seemed obvious to me this time around but which had eluded me on my first couple dozen viewings: Betsy, played by 25‐year‐old Cybill Shepherd, is uncommonly beautiful.  I guess that when I was seventeen I automatically filed her away as “too old for me” and consequently failed to process that she actually was striking enough that a passing cabbie might become fixated on her based on a fleeting glance of her walking to work.  I bring this up not just to retroactively drool over the hotties of the Gerald Ford years but to kick off a quick discussion of how differently the Betsy scenes played for me now that I was reading her not as some random unfortunate woman but as someone way out of Travis’s league.  Like, when Travis marches into the Palantine office, claiming to want to volunteer but then admitting that he just wanted to ask her out… why does she say yes?  He’s already on Betsy’s radar as a potential stalker.  He’s pig‐ignorant about the Palantine campaign to which Betsy has given up both her days and her nights, suggesting both that they lack common interests and that he’s kind of stupid.  His little speech to her is weirdly intense.  And, as noted, he’s punching far above his weight in approaching her.  So what gives?  And after their first mini‐date at the coffee shop, talking past each other, with Travis even more weirdly intense than before… why on earth would she agree to a second date?

    Betsy says she’s following an impulse, but that’s begging the question.  What prompted that impulse?  Well, supposedly women are attracted to confidence—​maybe the very fact that Travis is approaching a woman out of his league conveys confidence.  Or maybe his weird intensity comes off as confidence.  Or both.  Maybe the bit in his little speech about seeing that Betsy is unhappy strikes a chord.  Maybe she finds him handsome.  But let’s skip to the end of the second date, with Betsy fleeing from the porno theater as Travis chases after her.  Given the very fact that she is fleeing, she’s being very mild‐mannered about it: walking at a brisk but reasonable pace, saying amicable things like “I have to leave now” and “We’re just different” even as Travis is grabbing her arm to keep her from getting away.  What I could see now, and was oblivious to at seventeen, is that Betsy is demonstrating a survival skill that nearly all women are forced to develop very early on, gently appeasing potentially violent men until they have a clear escape route.  Right up to the very last moment before the cab speeds off she’s still doing it, accepting the Kris Kristofferson record that Travis has bought her even though she already has it and is the one who told him about it in the first place.  And thus does she make it back home without being murdered.  So, back to the beginning: given that the warning signs were there from the beginning, doesn’t that make Betsy’s decision to go out with Travis ill‐advised?  Sure—​but as Louis C.K. has pointed out, a woman saying yes to a date with a man is inherently ill‐advised, given the statistics about male violence toward women.  It always means ignoring warning signs, since being male is itself one of those warning signs.  “If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half bear, half lion. ‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice!’”  To use the analogy that went around a few years ago, Betsy eats the M&M, and ends up getting poisoned.  Luckily, in her case, it’s just food poisoning.  Sometimes it’s cyanide poisoning.  But most of the handful of happy marriages out there owe their existence to women like Betsy making the same decision Betsy makes and taking a chance on eating an M&M, but unlike Betsy, getting chocolate with no cyanide or E. coli.

  • Though Travis kills four men and no women in Taxi Driver, on this viewing it was hard to miss how not just violence in general but violence against women in particular hangs over everything.  This point is made most directly in (and could hardly be made more directly than in) Martin Scorsese’s “what a .44 Magnum’s gonna do to a woman’s pussy you should see” speech, but I couldn’t help but notice that the first thing Travis does with the .38 that Easy Andy sells him is aim it through a window at a couple of chatting women.  Then, off to the porno theater to pantomime shooting at the actresses.

  • While on this viewing I was much more impressed with Cybill Shepherd’s performance than before, I was somewhat less impressed with Jodie Foster’s—​I would not describe it as uncommonly good for a child actor, but maybe I’m just comparing her to a bunch of uncommonly good child actors.  I will say that the “Just get me outta here, all right? C’MON!” scene was unexpectedly heartbreaking this time.  Maybe I felt more protective of Iris now that she’s young enough to be my daughter.  Not that she got any younger in the intervening time, but, y’know.

  • The Roger Ebert quote near the top of this article is from his 2004 writeup; here’s one from his 1976 review:

    The movie rarely strays very far from the personal, highly subjective way in which he sees the city and lets it wound him.  It’s a place, first of all, populated with women he cannot have: Unobtainable blond women who might find him attractive for a moment, who might join him for a cup of coffee, but who eventually will have to shake their heads and sigh, “Oh, Travis!” because they find him… well, he’s going crazy, but the word they use is “strange”.  And then, even more cruelly, the city seems filled with men who can have these women—​men ranging from cloddish political hacks to street‐corner pimps who, nevertheless, have in common the mysterious ability to approach a woman without getting everything wrong.

    One question I had never really thought about all that deeply was why Travis sets out to kill Charles Palantine—​I’d imprinted on the Hinckley story, so it just seemed natural.  I guess that one way to read it, bouncing off the above, is that Palantine is the one he sees as “having” Betsy—​initially he’s more concerned about her nebbishy co‐worker Tom, but Tom’s not the one Betsy’s working day and night for.  Then, when he can’t get to Palantine, he checks down to taking out the man who “has” Iris, her pimp Sport, whom she also sees as her lover.  We’ve seen that when Iris, troubled by her breakfast with Travis, returns to this guy and tells him that “I don’t like what I’m doin’, Sport,” he reframes it as a request for more personal time with him… and as the two of them slow‐dance and she clings to him adoringly, as he sweeps her into a long kiss, he seems to have read her right.  This was the scene John Hinckley couldn’t bear.  But Travis doesn’t know about it!  It’s one of the rare scenes from outside his viewpoint!  But back when I was writing screenplays for a living, the head of the production company I worked for told me that I didn’t have to worry about who had the opportunity to learn what—​that film had a sort of “transitive property” that led audiences to assume that every character knew what the viewers knew, even when logically that was impossible.  I’m not sure to what extent that’s really true, but it does feel like Travis guns down Sport for the slow‐dancing scene in particular.

  • There’s a scene in which Palantine happens to get into Travis’s cab, and anticipating Thomas Friedman’s “start every column by quoting a cab driver” schtick, asks Travis, “What is the one thing about this country that bugs you the most?”  As Travis gives his increasingly unhinged reply—

    Well, whatever it is, he should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer, you know, it’s full of filth and scum.  And sometimes I can hardly take it.  Whatever, ever, becomes the president should just really clean it up, you know what I mean?  Sometimes I go out and I smell it—​I get headaches, it’s so bad, you know?  I mean, just, like, they just never go away, you know?  It’s like, I think that the president should just clean up this whole mess here, should just flush it right down the fucking toilet.

    —we can see Palantine grasping that he’s trapped in a vehicle with a dangerous whackjob and, like Betsy, calculating that his best move is to pretend like he’s having a normal conversation until he can escape.  But this scene plays differently today.  How can any politician, and how can we, react to Travis as if he were some scary aberration when this is what most Republican voters sound like?  Seriously, every hashtag‐MAGA tweet, every comment on the bottom half of the Internet, reads pretty much exactly like this.  It’s the new normal, thanks to everyone in government and in the media who has spent the past several years responding like Palantine—​“Well, I think I know what you mean…”—​translating Travis’s overt deplorability into a subtler, white‐collar deplorability in hopes of keeping both sets of voters.  We’re all trapped in a country with a whole subculture of dangerous whackjobs, and collectively pretending to have a normal conversation with them.  Only, for us, as Travis would put it, “There’s no ex‐cape.”

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