A lot has been read into Paul Schrader’s creation, Travis Bickle. The words psychotic and psychopath are used in reviews to explain his psyche and the behaviour that follows. I don’t believe, though, he is psychotic when the film starts. I think the film shows Bickle is in a transitory state. A state of being awake and unable to sleep, with a gnawing feeling inside his brain and his body. Something, a feeling, definitely pain, is telling him, consciously – and then later more and more subconsciously – that he’s not comfortable the way he is. He can pop pills for the physical pain, but the sleeplessness is something he can’t fix. So instead of driving himself crazy (literally), lying awake in bed at night or frequenting movie theatres, he applies for a job as a cab driver on the night shift.
His job interview and De Niro’s performance in the opening scenes of the film tell the audience everything the filmmakers want them to know at this point in the film. In the interview we can see that he’s doing this because he’s thinking if he’s going to be awake all night anyway he may as well drive the night shift. Some people might be thinking, “If I’m going to be awake all night anyway, I might as well earn some money, and drive a cab.” But there’s never a suggestion of that. In fact, he often drives around in an empty cab, and doesn’t pick up passengers, and even puts his own money into the box with his night’s takings.
Whatever is going on for him, he takes his observations out of the cinemas and into the streets. Whatever he can see, observe, notice, has been used up by watching what happens in pornographic films. He takes his need to have something which will engage his mind into cruising around and watching people. Whatever stops him sleeping by day or by night, presumably a background of troubles which we’ll never actually know the specifics, he can take his mind off that by placing it on something else.
The film’s lack of explanatory context is very intriguing. It basically says, here is Travis Bickle, he can’t sleep, he drives a taxi, and this is what happens to him. Bit by bit the viewer can then start to build a picture of who Bickle is now; not who he was, or what happened to make him who he is, and the very first thing we notice is that he’s a loner. De Niro’s performance, the way he walks, and the cinematographer’s camera, often isolating him on the streets, or showing him in longshots to make his body – his stature, his being – small amongst the larger world operating around him, make this clear very quickly.
It may not be by choice. But it could be. He may have grown tired of interacting with people. Or people may have pushed him away. Or maybe it was this way even when serving in Vietnam. What the filmmakers show us again is that his interactions are very few, and when they do occur, like with other taxi drivers, they are awkward.
Vignettes add more colour to Bickle’s persona (what he presents to others) to illustrate his personality. The actual information about his character (more specifically) is something that the filmmakers hold onto or longer.
Something for example about his persona, that he shows by his behaviour, is that he’s a loner. Something about his character that’s not so immediately obvious, is that he’s not the kind of cab driver who tries to engage his fares in conversation. Every cab driver I’ve encountered in the period from the 1970s to the 1990s wanted to engage me in conversation. Just like barbers or hairdressers. They always seem to be people naturally interested in finding out particular things about their clients, or starting a conversation about something that’s in the news or that has got them bothered. If a passenger hails Travis Bickle’s taxi there’s more chance of a passenger engaging the driver in conversation than Bickle saying anything. I’ve been in a lot of cabs over the years, by myself and with other people, and passengers starting conversations with drivers is a lot rarer than the reverse.
His insomnia, headaches and general restlessness start to build a picture of his mental state, and it’s reasonable to assume they are probably part of a condition from his time as a Marine. Everything points to the fact that his nervous system is not functioning properly resulting in perpetual agitation that literally prohibits sleep. He can work the night shift, then the day shift and still be seen awake in his apartment when he’s not driving, during the day.
Bickle originally chooses to take his fares when everyone else is asleep. But more and more, he is doing day shifts when everyone is awake. If the editing shows life the way it unfolds day to day, he is literally working nights and more and more in the day. No one asks when is he sleeping and the film shows that he is never sleeping, even though sometimes he lies in bed, awake.
One of the most well-executed things about the film is the four-way partnership in storytelling. If you’re a writer director – like Coppola with The Godfather and Apocalypse Now – one person drives the film even though it is still a collaboration between many departments. If it’s a script which a director agrees to director, it is still largely one person’s vision, but it may involve the writer to a degree if the director is the kind of director that will do that. But to have a collaboration where dialogue and the director’s way of representing the script are less than, say, 95% of the film; or 90% of the film; is unusual.
With Taxi Driver it appears to me after my third viewing, that there’s a greater degree of collaboration in how the story is told. Obviously the director will tell the cinematographer what he wants it to look like, and direct the actors to get what he wants from the scene. But in a film like Taxi Driver, it appears to me to that Schrader, or Schrader and Scorsese, want to plant the viewer in Manhattan, with hardly any backstory, and then tell what happens, with less dialogue and explanatory narrative material. Scorsese seems to have been willing to tell his story through other means than the script alone. In doing so, you can see from the first 15 minutes of the film that Scorsese is allowing Taxi Driver to tell it’s story differently from how most Hollywood films use film narrative. Scorsese shows a greater reliance, and therefore a greater trust, in the actor and photography, than most American films. And it’s achieved through Paul Schrader’s script, Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking, Michael Chapman’s camera and Robert DeNiro’s performance.
So much of Travis Bickle’s character is described without dialogue or narration (voiceover). That leaves visual elements: acting (as well as the way the character moves in the physical world) and photography, and hair/make-up, locations and settings. So much of Bickle’s character isn’t described overtly.
We know he served in Vietnam but we don’t exactly what, or how awful his tour was. We don’t know what he did before night-driving, but we know his papers for driving cabs are in order. But is he a drifter? Has he always been a driver? How long has he lived in New York? Was he always a loner? Did he ever have friends? Was he once more gregarious but Vietnam has made him withdraw into himself? For most of that I’d have to hazard a guess. The rest is left up to the viewer to put together from what can be observed.
Bickle habituates porno theaters; has a terrible scar on his back; listens to his fares tell their stories; he can even carry on a conversation with a political candidate – embarrassingly – showing a lacking of understanding of the larger issues of the city he lives in, let alone the world he lives in, during one taxi ride.
Scorsese’s camera at a certain point in the film starts to make us aware that certain things catches Bickle’s eye, several times. The things Bickle looks at as he drives, which catch his attention, start to build a set of prejudices he might harbour. A building awareness of what Bickle is seeing on the streets of Manhattan shows that his development from a person who is almost a non-participant in life, to a keen observer. Observer turns into hunter, and his first significant prey is a pretty blonde woman he’s spotted. He stalks her in his taxi. He doesn’t need fares like a regular driver, so he has time to cruise around, or just sit and watch. A few times he’s told to move on, and he’s startled, and runs like a frightened deer, not like a lion, or a big game hunter.
There are several scenes that are nicely constructed in the film. Travis watching Betsy becomes a scene of great emotional fragility as Bickle dares to engage with someone, a pretty someone, who might reject him, probably should, there and then. It’s full of tension because we’ve never seen Bickle do something like this before. He’s a passive character. When she accepts it’s a relief, because, whatever the viewer knows or doesn’t know about what he’s going to end up doing, he’s the protagonist and we want him to succeed at this particular point. Like it not, to keep anyone interested in a story, they need to feel something for the protagonist. An emotion such as caring. Or a feeling that he/she’s not being fairly treated. Or that they’re misunderstood. Or that they’re worthy of affection despite the circumstances. Writers like to see how far they can push a character and still have the reader remain connected. And when boundaries are pushed to an extreme, the writer will lose some people while keeping others. The dialogue, made real through De Niro in particular, is brittle. The conversation could fall apart and end badly at any moment.
Later, after Betsy and Travis have had their first date, and it’s gone horribly wrong, Bickle tries to apologise. We see a couple of these but there may have even been more attempts. The last one is when he is in a building on a payphone and he’s talking to Betsy who is at work (presumably). Martin Scorsese uses an unusual method to describe something visual while a one-sided conversation ensues. And his movement of the camera has been debated as 1) stepping outside of the natural world as the film has shown through its narrative so far, as 2) drawing attention to the camera and the director when it shouldn’t, as 3) being a break in style, becoming arty, or flashy, for no particular or important reason, or 4) just being odd.
The fourth point was my reaction when I saw the film, every single time. But the third time, a week or so ago, during my first 6 weeks of watching The 100 Greatest Films in One Year, comprising a number of extraordinary films in a short period of time, often where the spoken language was unfamiliar to me, or where the film was made before dialogue was able to be synchronised, I experienced the same shock. The filmmaker was breaking the so far agreed upon – unspoken – rules, which all fictional films require, the suspension of disbelief. But this time my mind immediately switched to a feeling or an understanding that Travis Bickle had separated from himself. It wasn’t as if I thought it was the moment he became psychotic. But it was a significant change in how he thought of himself and how he now regarded the world around him. You could see him talking and hear his voice. Then you could hear his voice, but he wasn’t there anymore. The filmmaking had broken an accepted rule: like in House of Cards when Kevin Spacey first addresses the camera, or when in a theatre performance someone contravenes the accepted fourth wall, which is a real wall for the actors – they can’t see the audience – but is an invisible wall for the audience – they can see (and hear) the performers and the set.
Bickle writes a diary, which we don’t know at this point, but as he walks down the hall, away from the phone, and the pain of the rejection, we hear how this has affected him. It’s an accepted device to allow narration, that someone writes words on a page, and the viewer hears the words in the character’s voice. This voiceover device is often used to get more information to the viewer in a shorter amount of time. Visual things can occur which progress the story while auditory things can also occur which progress the story. By combining the two, less screen time is needed to convey double the information – plus it is a great device to get inside the character’s head and hear what he’s thinking, without it just being narration, God’s voice - like in a documentary – telling us the reality of what we’re seeing. It’s a clever ploy by the filmmakers to reveal it and then show that it is his diary. De Niro even repeats a sentence, this time more slowly, like someone thinking the words they write as they write them, which is of course significantly slower than anyone can think them.
One device that is commonly used to keep the goodwill of the reader or viewer while the protagonist does terrible things to others, is to show that worse things were done to them or their loved ones, which when weighed up in one’s mind, can be justified. It’s the theme of any revenge film (Death Wish, Taken, The Brave One) and the protagonist can still be the hero. Another device is to show that the protagonist’s behaviour is warranted because of the greater good that is done through their actions. And as long as the actions aren’t horrifically brutal or sadistic – a war movie or spy thriller can still justify the protagonist as hero.
Taxi Driver doesn’t do that. It doesn’t give an event which makes sense of what the character does in the denouement. The film deliberately reduces the motivation of any event or series of events in revealing why Bickle cracks. It’s an accumulation. This is, I believe, why the film was unusual in the way it went about revealing the unravelling of a man who is hurting on the inside by things we cannot – and therefore do not – know, comprehend, or understand.
He doesn’t understand it himself; doesn’t know that he’s on the edge, ready for an event that pushes him over the edge. The dialogue that most emphatically reveals this lack of awareness, this feeling, which Bickle knows is there, but doesn’t know what it is, comes out in a period of confusion, when Travis tells another taxi driver, an unpremeditated thought that becomes reality –
“I want to do something.”
It’s the line of a person who has just stepped out of being disenchanted, alienated, unhappy, powerless, and dissatisfied; embracing a part of being human that is better left alone, that was on the fringe of cultural awareness. It was just four years – and still a world away - before Mark Chapman killed John Lennon in 1980 and Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Reagan in 1981.
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