Ideological dimensions of Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver was written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese for Columbia Pictures 1976.
"Are you talking to me?"
The film was conceived after Vietnam defeated the American army. This defeat had been an event surrounded by the largest protest movement in America this century. The central character and narrator, Travis Bickle, claims to be a Vietnam veteran, a marine i.e. one of the elite. However as numerous reviewers have pointed out, he is scarcely a reliable narrator.
The film raises issues of sexism, racism, political corruption, alienation and the currently ‘live’ issue of the wide availability of guns in the US (although Travis actually obtains his guns illegally).
Marxism, (like all modernist ‘grand narratives’) has been described as a totalising theory (e.g. McLennan 1992 quoting Lyotard). A Marxist would not therefore see the film as a thing in itself but seek to relate it to the social conditions which called it into existence. It is also the case that the film does not exist in a vacuum but is being viewed in another set of social conditions. Clearly "late capitalism" would characterise the period both of the viewer and the producer and writer. Nevertheless it is a specific historical juncture which produced this film and I will therefore relate some of the incidents in the film to the specific conditions of the United States in 1976.
Travis is named after a famous American hero of the Alamo. However the war he is fighting is internal, both in the sense that it is a war inside New York and that he can also be seen as a character waging a war inside himself.
A taxi driver sees widely different social groups. He also sees ostensibly respectable middle class characters at night in New York where they "treat the back of the cab as if it were a cheap hotel room" because they ‘do not treat (the driver) as a if he were a person’ (Travis)
The term ‘person’ which transcends gender, social class and ‘race’ is significant in the film which raises the issue of ‘how a person should be treated’ in relation to Travis and ‘how a person should live’ in relation to Iris.
In a wider sense the film touches, especially in its portrayal of cynical political campaign workers, on the nature of a society which is ostensibly run by ‘the people’ but in which ‘the people’ are powerless to do anything about its problems.
Travis and sexuality
Issues of sex and sexuality are central to the film. When Travis talks about cleaning all the scum off the streets he refers to "whores, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies." It is an interesting list. He refers to the whores but not at this stage the pimps; he has three references to gay men and two to drug users, not pushers. Right at the beginning of the film he anathematises people who are more likely to be victims than criminals. Later he turns his attention higher up the criminal ladder, to pimps and corrupt politicians.
His denunciation of gay men is of a piece with his desire to assert his masculinity. The "are you talking to me" scene is strongly linked with his sexual frustration after his socially inept (to say the least) attempt to take Betsy to a porn movie.
His attempt to take Betsy to a porn movie has been characterised (Amy Taubin, 1999) as a kind of rape. It can also be seen as symptomatic of Travis’s isolation. This is the only kind of film he knows. Significantly the porn movies he usually sees enact violence against women. He selects the one he takes Betsy to because it is one that couples go to, one that is not hardcore misogynist violence.
Amy Taubin has summed up the contrast between Travis’ relationship with Betsy and his relationship with Iris as follows:
"Betsy is the Madonna he wants to turn into a whore while Iris is the whore he wants to save."
I will argue that Travis’ attitude is in fact an extension of a normal(ised) conservative to psychotic lengths, a reductio ad absurdum. I intend to argue that he wants to take Iris and Betsy from one kind of subordination to another.
The first picture we see of Betsy has a voice-over narration of Travis reading "they can not touch her" from his diary. She is the centre of attention in the picture and appears more alive than the background figures. It is not a realistic picture and it is shot in slow motion as Travis reads slowly and then the camera shows his diary entry in crayon.
Betsy is the ‘woman in white’ who stands out from the others around her and is untouchable in a superior sense. He recognises that she is from a different world from the one he inhabits and he needs to integrate him into his world if he is to win her. The irony is that if he could integrate her into his world she would lose precisely the ‘otherness’ which attracts him.
She is described by Travis as ‘an angel" and contrasted to the filth of the city.
She describes Travis as follows:
"He's a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction, a walking contradiction" quoting a popular song of the period.
Travis does not recognise the song or the singer but picks up on the word pusher (a word from his world) which he recognises and rejects. This ignorance is of a piece with the visit to the pornographic movie which is a caricature of a first date between an American girl and boy.
What this encounter is saying is that the American dream is dead. The dream was that social class did not exist in America and the European vice of snobbery had been left behind because "any man (not a woman of course!) can become president." It is precisely the subordination of women in American society expressed in the ‘mildly’ misogynist pornography which makes that dream impossible.
The movie does not just view Betsy through Travis’ eyes. We also see her as she ‘really is’. And "how she really is" includes her non-relationship with Tom and her job.
Tom is continually claiming a relationship with Betsy which she curtly dismisses. The timing of her riposte to his remark "I will play the male in this relationship and go and see." Interposing "Good luck" after the word ‘male’ economically sums up the sterility of their relationship. Tom seems to accept this and to be satirising himself.
Her job involves working for a political candidate in whom she does not believe. "We are selling mouthwash" is how she neatly summarises his political views, unconsciously parodying Tom’s insistence on the slogan "We are the people." Her job is political prostitution.
However, he does not only idealise Betsy. He also idealises Iris. She tried to get back to the commune where she had been living and Scout dissuaded her, apparently with the aid of threats. Travis is affected by Scout’s attempt to bribe him with ten dollars which he ostentatiously refuses to spend. He tells Iris that he does not want her to take money from them. It is hard to tell exactly what he means by this. He sees himself and Iris tainted by money from such a source. Yet we know that he himself receives a lot of his income from punters with prostitutes using his cab as if it were a cheap hotel room.
Travis’ meeting with Betsy is then mirrored in a distorted way in his meeting with Iris. He meets both of them at work. He purports to want to see them on a professional basis, which is a pretext. He persuades both of them to meet him later in a café and in both instances spends some time discussing the food.
When Travis talks to Iris in the café it is to tell her what to do. She can go on living as she is as a prostitute making money for Sport (Harvey Keitel), she can go back to a commune or she can go back to the family from which she fled. For Travis the commune is as distasteful as her present life and she must go back to the family and school. Again the voice of reasonable Middle America comes from the mouth of a psychotic killer.
To possess Betty he seeks to destroy the father figure of Palantine, to possess Iris he seeks to destroy the father figure (and what a father!) of Sport. This could be interpreted in a simple Freudian way but it could also be seen as an expression of a power relationship.
Margaret Creear (1996) has drawn attention to the use of physical violence to maintain the subordinate position of women in society. The traditional Victorian family, for example, accepted a man’s role as head of the household to discipline the wife and children and held him responsible for their actions as they his property in the same way as domestic animals were. As a father he would then hand over that right to physically chastise to the husband of his daughter.
Neither Sport nor Palantine is going to hand over any rights to Travis and he therefore has to take them. He does not direct physical violence directly against Betsy or Iris. It is displaced into violence against Palantine or Sport as the owners of the women he seeks to own. Again this is like a reductio ad absurdum of a teenage suitor seeking a daughter’s hand in marriage. The difference in Iris’ case is that Travis wants her to go back to her proper family.
Margaret Creear (1996) also makes clear the role of the family as a naturalised institution of social control which is contrasted with the "unnatural" institution of social control of Iris’ prostitution. The supreme irony of Travis urging her to live a normal life, an appeal which he is to enforce with armed force, is at the heart of his contradiction.
Travis is the kind of individual who was one of the building blocks of Nazism. Individuals who were used and discarded (killed actually) by the Nazi leaders. They sang songs in praise of Horst Wessel but if he had not been killed the SS would have had to do the job themselves.
Travis, the prophet, sees himself as morally superior to Scout and Palantine and his dramatic change of hairstyle is a kind of transfiguration to symbolise his realisation of his historic mission.
At the same time he is a pusher but not of drugs. Travis is seen taking Benzedrine, like a good marine going in to combat, but I think we can take at face value his denial. Drug pushers have to have far more social skills than he possesses. What Travis Bickle is pushing to Betsy and to Iris is Travis Bickle, his Weltanschauung and his physical domination as the man with the gun.
The attitude towards women portrayed in the film is reflected in the attitude towards the racial minorities in the United States. I intend to show that Travis’ racism is clearly shown and differentiated from the attitude of other taxi drivers; that the presentation of black characters in the film is racist and that the racism in the film is organically linked to the sexism.
Whereas Travis’ sexism is central to the plot of the film, his racism is almost incidental. The use of racist terminology among the taxi drivers, picked up by De Niro while working as a taxi driver, is actually more pronounced in Travis.
His first use of racist language is where he seeks to put a distance between himself and some unspecified other drivers. Some drivers won’t pick up black passengers but he does not make that distinction. However the word which he uses is ‘spooks’ a word suggesting figures of fear and creatures of the night. The point he is making is not that he is more democratic than other drivers. The point he is making is that he is not afraid.
In fact the taxi drivers we see in the café do not display the prejudiced attitude which Travis mentions. Once again we are reminded that Travis is an unreliable narrator. In fact they introduce him to Charlie T and they introduce Travis as ‘doughboy’ – so called because he will do anything for a dollar. This sobriquet suggests another reason why he does not refuse black passengers.
Travis refuses to talk to Charlie T, he pretends to be unable to understand what he says. This is a common racist practice. Racists will pretend, for example, that the accent of a job applicant from India or Pakistan prevents them from doing the job. This is a commonplace trick introduced in employment agencies as a counter to the Race Relations Act in the UK.
He immediately launches into a story of violence in which it is assumed though never stated that the perpetrator is black. Wizard refers to the location of the event as "Mau Mau country". Travis has succeeded in driving a wedge between the other drivers and Charlie T.
Travis then looks around the café and we see two black customers through his frightened vision. It is no accident that it is after this episode that the first mention of Travis getting a gun is made. Wizard interestingly says that he himself is "a conservative" because he carries a gun but does not use it.
The conversation with the passenger played by Scorsese is pivotal. Amy Taubin mentions that Travis watching the window resembles Travis watching one of his misogynist pornographic films. Interestingly the violent anger of the un-named Scorsese character is kindled by the fact that his wife has an affair with a black man.
Travis can be expected to ‘buy in’ to the racist and misogynist mythology of predatory black males seeking white females and the weak white females wanting to be sought. Again the gun is the solution to this problem.
And what are we to make of the naturalised racism implicit in his exchanges with Sport? Sport is a white pimp dressed in a style recalling the American aboriginal population named Indians as a result of Columbus’ ignorance. He refers to Travis from the start as a cowboy.
Any watcher of traditional Hollywood films would know that this opposition can only result in Scout and Travis having a shoot-out in which Scout’s chances of survival would be slim.
The Cowboy and Indian film in which the main Amerindian characters are not even played by Amerindians are a peculiar form of ‘naturalised’ racism in Hollywood cinema. So ‘naturalised’ that it is seldom indexed as racism at all. In few of them have the cowboys turned out to be portrayed as psychotic killers however. Thus again Travis alters the significance of a conventional motif by adopting it.
Interestingly Schrader, quoted by Amy Taubin (1999) says the following:
"When Marty and I started working together, we got to the scene where Travis shoots Sport and we just looked at each other and knew we could not do the scene the way it was written … It would have been an incitement to riot…At that point, Martin sent me out to find ‘the great white pimp’, but I never found him."
She cites uncritically Schrader’s conclusion that girls like Iris all had black pimps. Schrader’s comments have all the hallmarks of a writer complaining that ‘political correctness’ has forced him to censor his work.
What does the expression "great white pimp" signify? It recalls the "great white whale" in Moby Dick, an elusive prey which nevertheless existed despite its rarity. If Schrader is suggesting that the red light district in New York has a predominantly black population I do not know whether that is the case. I can assume however that the overwhelming majority of the population cannot be pimps. That would be ridiculous.
Are we to believe that Schrader conducted an exhaustive search? A video of such a search would have been as fascinating as the film itself. Are we to believe all the pimps in New York wear a ‘pimp’ badge or are otherwise clearly identified. That must make it very easy for the police.
Nevertheless, the overall message of the film may be quite independent of the intentions of the writers. Schrader in his introduction to the screenplay stated that ‘Travis was me’ and refers to the similarities in their personal circumstances. However, by putting racist sentiments into the mouth of such a character, the sentiments are themselves discredited.
We are reminded over and over again that we see black characters as we see women through the eyes of the narrator. We are reminded again and again that he is ‘partly fact and partly fiction’; that although he perceives a real world he perceives it filtered through his psychosis.
Travis and guns
In the improvised "Are you talking to me" scene, Travis produces a massive and eventually comic collection of different guns and points them at the mirror. Eventually he symbolically shoots his own image in the mirror.
Mao talked about political power growing from the barrel of a gun and this was a very current aphorism at the time the film was made. The US army, including the invincible marines, had just been thrashed in Vietnam. They had been thrashed by people identified, in the popular mind at least, with the ideas of Maoism.
The phallic symbolism of guns and bullets is often used as a limiting discourse to disguise the fact that the gun is a symbol of masculine power. In the same way rape is glossed (over) as an expression of sexuality when it is more an expression of power.
Groups which are kept in a subordinate position by a patriarchal capitalist society may well be kept there by a conservative consciousness, a feeling that things can’t be changed. However, in the final analysis, if the legitimacy of the dominant ideology is challenged, they are kept there by a crude repressive state apparatus. The power of this apparatus could (metaphorically and popularly) be said to grow from the barrel of a gun. (I need hardly emphasise that this is only in the final analysis).
The gun as a symbol of masculine power is summed up in the chilling exchange between Bickle and an anonymous passenger played by Scorsese (and supposedly based on an urban myth)
"I’m gonna kill her (his wife) with a .44 Magnum pistol
(Camera returns to seventh floor window. Woman is standing in the light)
Did you ever see what a .44 can do to a woman’s face, cabby?
Did you ever see what it can do to a woman’s pussy, cabby?
(TRAVIS says nothing)"
Schrader also includes a stage direction:
"(Camera closes in on TRAVIS’s face: he is watching the woman in the seventh-floor window with complete and total absorption. It is the same glazed-over stare we saw in his eyes as he watched the porno movie)"
The use of ‘cabby" emphasises the depersonalisation of Travis. The passenger does not think of him as a human being. He does not see any risk in this conversation. He sees no risk that Travis will disapprove or report his words to the police.
This frankly pornographic exchange also raises an issue of modality. Travis is the audience to the anonymous individual’s fantasy of revenge. Travis will go on to act out a revenge fantasy against the world around him. We are the audience of both these events. Travis is both fascinated and repelled by the man’s fantasy. But what about us, the audience to his audience?
How does this discourse construct its audience? It seems to be not dissimilar to the classic tabloid presentation of outrageous sexual or violent acts by which the audience is both attracted and repelled. Traditionally the Sunday papers would adopt a "high moral tone" with which to condemn the perpetrators of such acts. I intend to argue that Scorsese and Schrader are not taking such a tone.
Although the audience may perceive this outrageous speech from Travis’ point of view, they then have to recontextualise it in the light of Travis’ subsequent actions. In his psychosis, Travis is a travesty of the right-thinking conservative who wants to "clean up the streets." The apotheosis of this contradiction is only seen at the end of the film when the psychotic killer Travis is lauded as a hero in the press and in a touching letter from Iris’s grateful parents.
He is the reductio ad absurdum of the right guaranteed in the constitution for citizens to bear arms. The image of the little man made powerful by a gun finds its apotheosis in Travis. He is ‘defending himself.’ In the end he is defending himself against unarmed people. Even in the US being a pimp or a punter does not carry the death penalty.
Before this he is prevented by armed men from subverting the democratic process by the force of arms. Subsequent political assassins were to cite an obsession with Taxi Driver as a defence. Yet as a political assassin, Travis is laughable. His only effect on Palantine is to cause him to change direction briefly on a walkabout. The security men spot Travis as a uniquely suspicious character.
The context of the constitution makes it clear that this right to bear arms is to enable the formation of local militias and to forbid the creation of a standing army. The US not only has a standing army but that standing army included Travis. That standing army had just been beaten.
When Travis strikes out it is made more acceptable to the audience in that he strikes out at characters who could be seen as the authors of corruption rather than its victims.
Ostensibly he strikes out in support of Iris. Yet Iris is violated by the bloodshed and yelling for the killing to stop. Travis has channelled his feelings of aggression towards women into acts of violence against the men who exploit them.
However there can be little doubt that he is ambiguous about violence towards women. He is attracted and repelled. He is pointing the gun at himself because it is part of his own nature which is responsible. His attack on Palantine is, after all, tantamount to suicide.
In the end Scorsese and Schrader appear to be saying that there is no solution to the problems which Travis sees.
Certainly no solution can be expected from politicians like Palantine. Palantine actually resembles an unseen man who picks up a prostitute early in the film and this suspicion is further emphasised with his ambiguous remark that he has learnt more in the back of a taxi than in the boardroom of General Motors.
Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), the woman in white, is portrayed as a character who is at least more reliable than Travis. Yet she jokes with a colleague that by working for Palantine, they are "selling mouthwash" and Palantine’s carefully measured phrases are deliberately washed clean of any political content. The very general nature of Palantine suggests that it is not intended as a particular statement about any particular democrat (or even Republican). The message is that there is no political solution.
"One day a real rain will come and wash all this filth from the streets." Palantine is merely embarrassed by Travis’ suggestion that he will clean up the city. He comes up with a politician’s answer. He understands what Travis is saying but he warns that it will not be easy. There is a rather distinct absence of proposals. It is also unclear that whether he is dealing with a racist who talks about cleaning up the streets in terms of racial purification.
A powerless individual can do nothing to solve these problems. The individual needs a purpose and power. Travis acquires the first from his psychosis and the second from his arsenal of weapons.
While waiting for Travis’ ostensibly religious apocalyptic vision of a ‘real rain’ to materialise, the citizen is being urged to leave things as they are because attempting to change them will only make them worse.
As narrator and main character, Travis inevitably dominates the film. It is his racism, misogyny and violence we are invited to view as spectators. At the same time, the problems around him are real problems, the landscape although seen in a distorted way is a real landscape.
By ridiculing the contradictory nature of his consciousness, the film brings in to the open the contradictory nature of the conservative consciousness he caricatures.
He is a disruptive figure precisely because he opens the closed universe of discourse upon which the continuation of the society depends. I have indicated that questions about the nature of the family and the subordination of women are raised by this film. In normal discourse these are closed questions, the family is a natural form and not to be questioned. Likewise racist assumptions are laid open to question when the platitudes of racism are put into Travis’ mouth.
By looking at the ‘underside’ of American society the film problematises the whole issue the American dream. This is the case regardless of the intentions of Schrader and Scorsese although they can hardly have been unaware of these dimensions of the work they were producing.
The ‘underside’ does not exist solely in the imagination either of the writers or of their brainchild, Travis. Baudrillard may argue that there are so many conflicting perceptions that it is impossible to make any statements about an objective reality. Unfortunately that will not make the objective reality go away.
The reality of New York’s seamy underside is that it is intimately related with the respectable society by which Travis is eventually accepted. The film is quite clear on this. The taxi is a microcosm of a society in which respectable men pursue their non-respectable lifestyle at night.
Indeed Marx argued (in the Communist Manifesto, 1848) that the Victorian family was a form of legalised prostitution in the sense of a commoditisation of sex. Iris disgracefully sells her body outside marriage when at a later date she could legally sell it inside marriage. It is also the case that the commoditisation of sex is an extension of the normal business practices of capitalism into a forbidden area, as is drug pushing. In fact some of the more extreme ‘libertarians’ have called for the legalisation of hard drugs and prostitution on precisely these grounds.
However, the taxi is also an ‘object to think with’ about Travis’ isolation and by extension the isolation of any human being. In fact one reviewer has argued that the famous "Are You Talking to Me?" scene to which I have already referred is also Travis distorted attempt to reach out to other people.()
Travis writes in his diary "I do not believe one should devote himself to morbid self attention. I believe one should become a person like other people." His attempts at what might be termed construction of the self are a caricature of the way in which ‘normal’ people would undertake such an activity. He seeks to get out and form relationships. I have already dealt with the way in which those attempts caricature teenage romance, perhaps especially teenage romance as portrayed in Hollywood films.
In the end the only way in which he can hope to ‘become a person like other people’ is without the metal armour of the taxi around him. Unsafe in the world outside the taxi, he takes his guns.
A ‘person like other people’ does not exist in isolation. The paradox is that if he is not isolated then he is tainted by the world he sees as rotten and corrupt. His response again caricatures one way of responding to this…in his case with lethal aggression.
Whether the problem is internal to Travis or in the social conditions which surround him is in the end a sterile one.
Travis chose of his own free will to solve his perceived problem through the barrel of a gun. However, he neither created the phenomena of political corruption or prostitution nor the gun culture and military training which prompted him towards his solution.