“Taxi Driver” as a Film Noir
Martin Scorsese’s first attempt at the mainstream picture just happened to be called one of the most revered pieces of American cinema, entering the zeitgeist immediately upon its release! After making mainstreams, Scorsese finally got the opportunity to adapt a screenplay written by Paul Shrader and collaborated once again with future filming partner, Robert De Niro but this time on a much more introspective journey. One would generally not anticipate that the solitude of a 20 something year old man would hit such nerves of the audience. What was originally thought of as a very personal story, may have just arrived at the right time.
Taxi Driver is a film that deals with loneliness, hatred, obsession and the need to go on. Even though the film follows a single character who’s characteristics are at the very extreme end of the spectrum, the experiences as a whole can still be seen as a relatable one. All of the emotions that make up Travis(protagonist), are all emotions that we have to deal with. We are his existential complex, his yearning to be included, we just do not admit it or perhaps we are more like Travis than we thought and that we do not WANT to admit it!
Film Noir is a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. The term was originally applied (by a group of French critics) to American thriller or detective films made in the period 1944–54 and to the work of directors such as Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder.(1) A common element in film noir is the seedy underground and unsavory aspects that manifest themselves in human societies. Elements of criminal activity, corruption, and sexual perversity abound. TAXI DRIVER definitely includes these noir elements. However, a neo-noir is a post modern appropriation of the elements/style of the original wave of noir films in a contemporary context and Film noir is French for "black film" and most neo noir films are dramas or psychological thrillers. Therefore, most cinema critics argue that “Taxi Driver” is more of a neo-noir than simply a noir.
As neo-noir should, Taxi Driver produces an anti-hero through psychological build up. The film also explores the ideas and questions raised by having such a radical person acting as an anti-hero in such a corrupt society. Noir does not have one concrete definition for it varies from person to person. It is not exactly clear when it took place and what elements it is made of. At it's beginning noir brought about a new high point in the expressionism, creativity, and style in American film which has continued to affect cinema to this day. While it is accepted that classic noir had its time in the 40's and 50's, noir continued on to reinvent it according to the changing times. In the 70's in evolved into the neo-noir style that can be seen in Taxi Driver. Jodie Foster playing the role of such a young prostitute made Taxi Driver very controversial right from the start. Five years later the movie made it's way back into the headlines when John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in attempts to impress Foster. Hinckley was attempting to recreate Binkle's attempted assassination of a senator in Taxi Driver. Hinckley's attorney actually played the film for the jury in order to prove him not guilty by reason of insanity. At this time a film like Taxi Driver had never been seen before and the fact that it took place after Vietnam caused it to have a profound impact on it's viewers. In a certain way America itself was going through a tumultuous adolescence. People went from the fluffy idealism of Americana in the 50's to a more organic, free, and open hippie love vibe in the 60's. The major shifts in so many areas of society shook the foundation of our identity. The 70's housed the fall out from all the struggle and a sense of bewilderment about what lay ahead. This all set the stage for neo-noir and films like Taxi Driver to be successful and gave them the power to impact their audience. (2)
Silver and Ward, for example, in their Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, choose as their first film the 1927 Underworld, directed by Josef von Sternberg - 'the first modern gangster film in which the heroes are actually criminals'. At the same time, they push their analysis forward, including in their list of canonical films noirs a movie as recent as Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver, and separately discussing neo-noir films up to 1992 (3)
(6)Taxi Driver nonetheless contains many of the elements found in the traditional Film Noir – the modern fatalistic protagonist just returned from the war, chiaroscuro lighting, voice-over narration, an ambient jazz score. Unlike the war the original Noir protagonists were returning home from (WWII), Travis Bickle’s war (Vietnam) is entirely senseless – devoid of purpose and meaning. The life Bickle returns to – New York City in the late 70’s – is equally senseless. Ergo, just as Bickle is differentiated from the previous Noir protagonists by war and society, the form and technique in Taxi Driver is differentiated from that of the former Noirs as well. Each element is pushed to its utmost limit. The lighting obfuscates to the point of surrealism – people are bathed in the red glow of neon or lost in the sable shadows of the night. The voice-over wavers between a tight, sensible narrative (“June twenty-ninth. I gotta get in shape”) and an insanity-limned, detached ramble .Taken any further, these elements would cease to be Noir, instead mutating into a completely different animal. This is the point – Travis Bickle is a man on the edge. The first half of the film could be a modern neo-noir ala Chinatown or Body Heat, but Travis Bickle slips over the edge, dragging all of the Noir trappings in his wake.
What Film Noir hinted at, but rarely examined, was the solitude – the utter isolation and personal confinement – of individuals living in post-war America and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world. Travis Bickle’s descent into madness is the result of his isolation. His voice-over (his audible thoughts and journal entries, really) begins in a state of coherence – the day’s events, feelings about life, etc. As Bickle wallows in isolation, his only attempts at some type of bond being rebuffed, his narration becomes grim, morbid, and fragmented. His logic begins to fail; his syntax collapses. Bickle is a character of duality: the Everyman, but also the Pariah. He talks of cleaning the streets of filth and scum (like the Everyman would), while simultaneously embodying the lifestyle of that filth (attending porno theatres, and, you know, plotting out assassinations and stuff.) Because of this, Bickle is a stand-in for the societal whole; that is, his place in society is both everywhere (due to his plurality) and nowhere (how can a person embodying everyone fit in any one place?) His descent into madness is not clear to the viewer – is he truly psychotic or is he a lucid vigilante? Scorsese’s direction, Paul Shrader’s script, and Robert DeNiro’s performance (to the credit of all) leave this point decidedly ambiguous. Once again, Bickle is a stand-in for the all – both the sane and insane. (6)
The film opens with what could be mistaken as a horror movie. There is a lot of horror iconography in the opening scene. With the camera a little distorted, things seem very unsettling. Its ominous opening, sets the anxious tone that we see throughout the movie. Through a process called “Ken-tone”, we see the streets of New York in a very high contrast with extremely blurred colors. The result is a luminescent world but at the same time, one that is overwhelmed by darkness. This is a perfect metaphor of how Travis views his world, which all the more confirms that “Taxi Driver” indeed is a noir. As even though there is so much light, the protagonist chooses to focus at the darker aspects. Through the imagery alone, the streets are pictured to be menacing. While having this opening, the perspective of the main character is shown to the audience. Travis is exceptionally bias towards his outlook at the world which is important as the rest of the movie is examined through his perspective. In the introduction itself, a few themes are established. For example, Travis appears distilled from reality and he sees the world differently than us.
There are certain points it “Taxi Driver” where the techniques of the film become very intrusive. The camera works in a very specific way from an emotional point of view which runs throughout the movie. The opening scenes when Travis becomes agitated, the camera moves in and things become very claustrophobic. Outside the depot, there is a dissolve which typically is used to move ahead in time yet simply brings Travis closer to us. Almost suggesting that the film and Travis are not quite in sync and that he is not connected to the world. It is this emotional film making perspective that is vital to explaining “Taxi Driver” because the film tells a story of Travis’s inner turmoil, so a lot of these techniques are not to be explained in a precise symbolic level.
In scenes which follow, we dealt further into his mind through his diary entries to learn his feelings about the world which he inhabits. It is shown that Travis clearly hates the part of society where he is in which can be further proved through his dialogue with the depot master earlier where he said “I work anytime anywhere” in an unpleasing tone.
(4)Taxi Driver implies that identity is not genuine but always synergistic, a kind of potpourri of idolatry and maxims drawn from popular culture, especially from violent movies and television news. In this vein, Robert Ray views Taxi Driver as a postmodern “corrected” Right film, the type of film generally aimed at a naïve audience. Ray explains that a “Right” film presents a traditional conservative philosophy that promotes the application of Western-style, individual solutions to complex contemporary problems. He writes, “Taxi Driver‘s basic story followed the right wing’s loyalty to the classic Western formula: a reluctant individual, confronted by evil, acts on his own to rid society of spoilers. As played by Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver‘s protagonist had obvious connections with Western heroes…even his name, Travis, linked him to the defender of the Alamo.”1 Ray’s notion that the film is a “correction” of the right-wing concept of justice is accurate because of its odd plot twist at the conclusion. Normally, such a story would identify Travis’s complicity with these criminals and thereby relegate him to some form of institutional punishment. But the film’s underlying theme reveals how absurd the Western idealistic depiction of heroism is because the news media in the film not only ignores his actions but also glorifies a psychopathic killer as a noble warrior.
Harvey Keitel as Sport, with De NiroIn essence, Travis’s discombobulated manifesto about “standing up” to the tyrannical elements that confine and constrain his social mobility reveal his motives to be suspect at best. He seeks vengeance under the guise of heroic violent (and ultimately suicidal) action, thus making his resolve antiheroic because it is more demented than courageous and ultimately places the hero myth itself on trial. We can recognize how his rationale reflects America’s century-old edict of solving problems through rugged individualism rather than a collective effort on the part of citizens, business owners, local police, and ultimately, the government. As the film’s downtrodden continue to become victims of urban blight and be led astray by inauthentic politicians like Palantine, they are rendered vulnerable to the clutches of muggers, junkies, and pimps. However, what distinguishes Taxi Driver from other noir films are the distinct elements of a demoralized New York in the middle of a fiscal crisis and a culture that blindly accepts a disingenuous form of heroism where the city’s agents (the police) are noticeably absent.
Les Keyser writes, “Travis’s quest for identity through armature, action, and violence can be seen in his monologues about a new ‘total organization’ and everything dedicated to ‘True force’ so great that ‘all the kings men cannot put it back together again'”2 Travis’s rationalization alludes to the vigilante justice that, with rising crime and New York City in bankruptcy in 1975 (the year the film was shot), was considered a reasonable alternative to the perceived impotence of government and police officials. Richard Martin remarks, “Taxi Driver … reinvents noir in a context more suited to the sociopolitical realities of mid-seventies America … it is informed by an understanding of political paranoia, economic deprivation, inner-city decay, and the violence of the seventies”3 Travis is actually a grotesque version of a populist because his behavior does not reflect middle-class progressive thought, but rather the frustration of a working-class reactionary who desires to cure the ills of society through violent recourse. In 1976, even President Ford was reluctant to aid New York; he was later quoted by the New York Daily News in a headline that read, “Ford to City: ‘Drop Dead.'” In Travis’s mind, he must co-opt the police’s authority and effectuate justice according to his own means.
Thus, Travis can be identified as a reactive immigrant exiled to an inner city sprawl where he is slowly dehumanized by a postmodern society. Yet the more his isolation leads to psychosis, the more he believes in the American cinematic hero movie myths of innocence and evil; as such he feels compelled to certify these myths through action. As Robert Kolker observes, “Travis Bickle is the odd offspring of John Wayne and Norman Bates: pure, self-righteous, violent ego and grinning, homicidal lunatic as each is the obverse of the other, but each equally dangerous”4 Accordingly, his violent solution to the crime in the streets is better than leaving it in the hands of local jurisdiction — another allegorical reflection of the Vietnam War. The genuine tragedy here is that almost no one who returned from Vietnam during this time was considered a hero. However, it is a clever way to suggest that he is an enigma given the public pessimism about government and the military in the mid-seventies. Nicole Rafter, author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, notes, “Travis Bickle, a Vietnam Vet turned cabdriver, can’t stand the ‘filth’ of New York City … Here the state has failed completely: By sending Travis to Vietnam, it turned this man into a pathological monster.”
Kolker also writes that Taxi Driver is a film that “most violently and ironically works through the problem of the dislocated subject”6 The violence and the irony to which Kolker refers is the source of that dislocation, and hence, Travis has failed to attain his persona because he has failed to become the “hero.” According to Kolker, Travis’s syndrome results from a sense of dislocation, but Rafter concludes that Travis’s behavior is the result of a stint in Vietnam. Perhaps the dislocation that Kolker refers to was Travis’s removal from Vietnam in the first place. The problem with this analysis, however, is that the viewer is never provided with any explicit information that Travis has ever served in combat. The Vietnam War, having ended only a couple of years before this film was shot, still cast a dark shadow over many peoples’ perceptions. However, in Travis’s case, the dislocation more aptly refers to a subject — in this case, a man with a cause but no country to support him in his effort, and as such his attraction to violent behavior is often regarded as pathological, and not heroic, by the audience.
Jodie Foster as IrisFor instance, early in the film, Travis speaks as if the city were actually an extension of his own mind, as he voices-over in his diary: “All the animals come out at night: whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Travis’s monologue continues at a rhythmically controlled pace with no emotion or tension in his voice. Travis and the taxi are inextricably linked — man and machine on a direct and purposeful course. When the rain does fall, it blurs Travis’s vision, and Scorsese suggests many of the character’s ambiguities and complexities with the use of editing and unusual framing. For example, Scorsese uses dissolve sequencing to follow Travis walking the musty sidewalks to distort the viewers’ perception of the character’s place in his world. Kolker writes, “The lap dissolve is conventionally used to signify a lapse of time or a change of place. Here, the effect is rather of a momentary lapse of consciousness, or of a drifting unbound by time, a perception by us of the character’s state of mind.”7 In other words, the lap dissolve creates a deformity that permits the viewer to understand Travis’s consciousness: Travis’s point of view is distorted in that he never seems to get a complete picture of any of the characters he meets, nor is his purpose for being in New York clarified. (4)
Travis’s sense of mission and urgency is channeled into the viewer with a direct yet subtle rhythm created by Scorsese’s shot selections and sequencing. Throughout this picture, the endless motion of the camera is a distinct part of the fabric of Travis’s world as it appears to move along at a pace that is directed by him. However, from the audience’s vantage point, it is as if the rhythm and cadence of New York City dwellers are moving in one direction while Travis is moving in the other. Scorsese’s subtle devices permit the audience to identify the irony associated with Travis’s diseased mind because Taxi Driver is not about lowly, disenfranchised street dwellers, but about a man being driven insane by his perceptions. One of those distinct perceptions is Travis’s skewed vision of race: he sees every black man as a potential threat to his safety. Scorsese illustrates every black man in the film as a dark figure who appears ready for a confrontation. For instance, when Travis goes to the local greasy spoon to seek out the advice of Wizard, who is sitting with Charlie T, a black cabbie, Charlie T. points his finger at Travis and says, “Bye children,” in a friendly manner. However, Travis looks at him ominously as if Charlie T’s finger represented a gun. Schrader comments in an interview with Amy Taubin, “There’s no doubt that Travis is a racist. He’s full of anger and he directs his anger at people who are a little lower on the totem pole than he is.”(5). Ironically, Travis sees himself as a kind of white minority who is being absorbed by a growing criminal class of non-whites.
(7)Amy Taubin concludes that “the hallucination that Travis enacts in that scene — which results in real death — is the hallucination of masculinity … it’s the search for the ideal masculine wholeness that subtends the entire history of the movies.” Taubin is correct in her conclusion about Travis attempting to achieve his masculine wholeness through violence. But actually, throughout the film, Travis’s visions, and ultimately, his actions of violence, could more aptly be described as “delusions” rather than “hallucinations.” A hallucination indicates that a person is seeing an object or a person that is not there, whereas a delusion indicates that a person has been misled or deceived by the very image that he saw. Travis has been deluded by his visions of African Americans, Betsy, Palantine, and the poor. Scorsese deftly illustrates these delusions by employing slow motion or oblique framing when he is in their presence. However, Travis is not at all deluded by the danger of Sport and his cohorts. But his solution is delusional because his retribution reflects an incoherent notion that his action will earn him a heroic mantle (sadly ironic though it does) in a city, seemingly devoid of nobility. (7)
Taubin, Amy. Taxi Driver. London: British Film Institute Publishing, 2000, 16-17. (5)
Martin, Richard. Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: the Legacy of Film Noir in Contemporary American Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1999, 81. (7)
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