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Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)     Stasia McGehee 12/8/97

A Pessimistic View of American Society - the Legacy of Vietnam

Seen through the eyes of an ex-marine recently back from Vietnam, the menacing jungle has been transposed upon the urban landscape of New York, presented as "venal and sick," populated by animals of a different species, with whom Travis has little empathy. A misogynistic and racist point of view, (the camera dwells menacingly on the black patrons of the donut shop, as women are repeatedly the objects of sexualized violence) further adds to this sense of division, which is just as much a manifestation of Travis’ own psychic fragmentation. Political leaders offer little respite from this meaningless existence. Significantly the connotations of candidate Senator Pallantine’s name are doubly ironic; palantine can mean close to the palate, a commentary on his glib commentary, or imperial (as in palace/palatial), which belies his populist platform.

Self-Examination vs. Manipulation

By using Travis Bickle as the narrator, Taxi Driver offers an implicit indictment of war, not because of what it does for the enemy, but for the legacy of psychosis it bequeaths to its participants, for he clearly displays symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The most conspicuous, his inability to sleep, is what compels him to work nights, reveling in his 14 hour shifts, which would preempt any opportunity for reflection. His self-conscious decision not to be self-reflective could be explained as a result of wartime trauma; so that when he tells his fellow ex-marine cab owner that his driving record is "as clear as his conscience," he is being a trifle ironic. His conscience is clear only because he avoids examining it.

But it is exactly this avoidance which results in his ability to be so manipulated by the various discourses around him. Informed by melodramas and pornography, he vacillates between the fabricated extremes of romantic heroism and obsession. After a chance encounter with a psychotic customer who is stalking his wife and plotting her grisly demise, Travis takes a turn for the worst. Having no moral center, he is attracted to the most extreme and sensational solution presented; so he buys guns and spends his days on the shooting range, preparing for the day when he too would "make and impression."

Psychotic Heroism and Romantic Obsession

The ironic twist at the end underscores the relative nature of heroism and psychosis, alluding to the fact that heroic exploits in Vietnam would be deemed psychotic if reenacted within the civilian population. Travis’s appraisal as a hero is still possible only because the landscape within which he operates is an urban jungle. And because the victims of his delusions are inimical to mainstream society, he is extolled as a hero. However, it was by mere chance that Travis was intercepted at a political rally, averting a mass murder at a sanctioned gathering, while deflecting it upon the ghetto. Similarly his relationship with Betsy crossed the fluid boundary between romantic admiration to pathological obsession, only to superficially return to a state of normalcy after his homicidal urges towards self-actualization had been vented on Iris and her ilk. Thus the arbitrary delineation between hero and psycho, devotee and stalker, is a function of one’s point of view as well as the context.

Violence as a Performance Art

The violence that sums up taxi driver is so horrific and out of context that it tends to be surreal. When Travis shoots Matthew, he shudders and twitches uncontrollably. After the innkeeper is shot in the hand, he pursues Travis with his bloody stump, at which point the dying Matthew is resurrected, assailing him with gunfire. In the end Travis is bleeding profusely, surrounded by a trinity of death - the pimp, the john, and the inn-keeper. His repeated attempts to shoot himself are unsuccessful, as he lay impotently bleeding on the floor when three policeman gain entry.

At this point we are convinced that the psychotic Travis is doomed, that he will die of his sustained injuries or be contained by the gunfire of the police. But the action ceases for a moment while a camera hovers over the carnage, as if from the vantage point of the victims leaving their body, and then retraces every bloody step that has left its graffiti-like trace upon this urban canvas. Thus blood becomes the medium of a giant action painting, as his homicidal rampage acts as a performance of self-actualization. Such a montage sustains our impression of Travis as a psycho, heightening the irony when he is subsequently decorated as a war hero within the frightening battle zone of urban New York.


This page last updated on December 8th, 1997.
Copyright 1997 Stasia McGehee.

Written for History of Cinema, Susan Tavernetti, F/TV-042.-0IL,  DeAnza College,  Cupertino, CA,   Fall 1997.