DVD Review Of Taxi Driver
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/12/10
Is there an American film more wrongly and regularly misinterpreted than Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece, Taxi Driver? Not even 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick, nor Apocalypse Now, by Francis Ford Coppola, have been intellectually, politically, and critically twisted and turned away from what they really are- and this all aside and apart from the silly debates over art influencing real world violence after John W. Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, in 1981, due to his own obsession with actress Jodie Foster. The film has been deconstructed and reconstructed (see references to Death Wish and The Searchers) according to prevailing political and artistic whims more than several times, and matters have been further complicated by the many claims of the film’s protagonists, from screenwriter Paul Schrader (is there a better example of a filmic one hit wonder?), to director Scorsese, to star Robert De Niro, the claims and counterclaims about the film have devolved into legendry.
These I will address in a bit; but the film holds a personal part of my own legendry, in that over twenty years ago I saw the film primarily on the strength of the words in Roger Ebert’s review of the film, that I read in one of his annual film books; especially the gut-punch ending:
‘Taxi Driver’ is a hell, from the opening shot of a cab emerging from stygian clouds of steam to the climactic killing scene in which the camera finally looks straight down. Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis’s rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he’s suffering.
Here is a précis of the film: an unemployed drifter and military veteran (possibly from the Vietnam War), in his mid-20s, named Travis Bickle (De Niro), wanders into a cab company’s office, and applies for a job. He is lonely, depressed, insomniac, and figures he should get paid for not sleeping. It’s clear he’s not that bright (he does not know what the term ‘moonlighting’ means, and has handwriting akin to a child’s), but seems very earnest. He gets the job, and soon time flows quickly. The film never establishes a clear timeline, but it’s safe to assume the whole film occurs over a several month period, at least. Despite a rage over the ‘filth’ of New York in the 1970s, there is an impotence to Bickle’s frustrations, and a hypocrisy, for, despite his protestations, his free time is spent gorging on junk food and flopping all night in porno theaters. He keeps a diary, that he quotes from in voiceovers. His life seems to be going nowhere until her meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Instantly smitten, he pursues her, and denigrates a co-worker of hers (Albert Brooks), whom he feels is a rival for Betsy’s affections. They go on a date, and their second one ends in ruin, as Bickle cannot understand why she is turned off when he takes her to a Swedish porno film. She dumps him and he sends her flowers, which are rejected, and tries to call her, but she turns him down, in a key scene where the camera wanders away from him on a payphone, to scan down a filthy hallway, as we hear him unable to understand Betsy’s rejection. He explodes at her at the Palantine campaign headquarters.
Nonplussed, he turns for advice to a fellow cabby, Wizard (Peter Boyle), who is older, as both are at an all night cafeteria. But the men talk past each other, uncomprehending the other. Wizard proffers banalities, and Travis complains of feeling bad things inside. He decides to abandon junk food and drugs, and also to buy guns. A fellow cabby hooks him up with ‘Easy’ Andy (Steven Prince), and he buys four weapons, and begins talking to himself in a mirror. A thing rarely commented upon, though, by critics, is that the famous ‘You talkin’ to me?’ scene, is actually shot from the mirror’s reflection (note the fact that the De Niro’s cheek mole is seen on his left, not right cheek). While preparing to assassinate Palantine, Bickle shoots a black armed robber at a bodega. Meanwhile, during his pursuit of Betsy, Bickle came upon a 12 year old prostitute, Iris Steensma (Jodie Foster), and her pimp, Matthew, aka Sport (Harvey Keitel). A second time, after nearly running her over, Bickle pays Sport to talk to Iris in a tenement whorehouse. As he leaves he gives the whorehouse manager the very same $20 bill that Sport tossed in his cab to make Bickle ‘forget’ his interception of Iris when she tried to flee. The manager tells him to come back any time. Bickle says he will, a nice anticipation of the ‘I’ll be back!’ catchphrase used by Arnold Schwarzenegger less than a decade later in The Terminator. He then tries to convince her to leave her life. He sends her money to return to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
He then sets off to shoot Palantine, sporting a Mohawk, but is foiled by the Secret Service. He escapes, but needs to shoot his load, so heads for the whorehouse, where he shoots Sport, as well as the whorehouse manager and a john. Travis gets shot in the neck by Sport, before he kills him. Iris is horrified, and Bickle sits on a couch after he tries to blow his brains out. The gun was emptied, though. The film then shifts to Iris’s father doing a voiceover of a holographic letter tacked to Bickle’s wall, thanking him for returning their daughter to them. On the all are newspaper clippings revealing that the media has proclaimed Bickle a ‘hero,’ for saving Iris. Several months seem to have passé, since Bickle’s hair is now back to its original length. He is bullshitting with some of his fellow cabbies at the all night eatery, and gets a fare. It is Betsy, who knows of Bickle’s newfound status as a hero. He drops her off, gratis, and continues driving on, and glances in his rearview mirror, as the film ends.
There are many errors about the film that are made critically, and many camps, pro and con; but let me start with the biggest error, and likely the only one never really put up for debate, and that is the claim that Travis Bickle is psychotic and/or psychopathic. Part of the problem lies with the conflation of the two terms- due to their similar spellings and etymologies, and the rest of the problem lies with the fact that Bickle simply fits neither term’s definition.
First, a psychotic is simply someone who is detached from reality. It is: a ‘fundamental derangement of the mind characterized by defective or lost contact with reality especially as evidenced by delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech and behavior.’ In short, a psychotic is a loon; but not necessarily an evil nor violent loon. And, clearly Bickle has none of the traits described- in fact, he is an anti-psychotic. He is extremely organized (in many, not all, aspects), and, while not good with words, this is more a fact of his emotional stunting and low I.Q., not psychosis. Bickle also does not have delusions. In fact, the film, in many instances, makes it clear that he is the only character in the film that sees reality for what it is. He recognizes Betsy’s coldness, and the film, even to the end, shows her as a cold and manipulative person more interested in Bickle as a case study than potential lover. He knows New York City is a cesspool, because he indulges in it, sees it every day and night, and his encounters with Iris and Sport reinforce that reality. Also, extra-diegetically, New York was like that in the 1970s. I know- I was there, right in the middle of the very things that disturbed Bickle, and even worse. So, if anything, Bickle is not detached from reality, but far too extremely connected to it, to an unhealthy degree. After all, he is a porno addict, despite all his ravings against the filth of the times and city.
Second, a psychopath is a violent person, with no regard nor empathy for others. A psychopath has charm, superficiality, cunning, no conscience, and often a sexual promiscuity, amongst other traits. People like Ted Bundy or Adolf Hitler are prime examples of psychopathy. In fact, what made Hitler so dangerous a world leader vs. other psychopathic killer-despots like Mao Zedong, Tojo, or Josef Stalin, was the fact that on top of his psychopathy he was detached from reality- a psychotic, as well. Proof of this comes from the violation of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, less than two years after it was signed. Stalin, the master schemer, felt he had checkmated his rival’s ambitions, at least for a few years. But, Hitler was not bound by any idea that politics was a power grab that required a give and take. He believed in a destiny for himself that saw him as world conqueror. To Hitler, this delusion was reality, for against Russia, America, Britain, China, and many other countries, Germany, Italy, and Japan stood very little chance, and Stalin knew it. He just had to get his act together. Thus, he was shocked at Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June of 1941. Hitler and Stalin were both vicious, sadistic psychopaths, but only Hitler was psychotic, thus a more imminent danger to world peace than Stalin. And Bickle clearly is short on almost all these psychopathic traits (unlike De Niro’s character in Scorsese’s later Paul Zimmerman scripted The King Of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin, who is both psychotic- to a degree- and psychopathic). Yes, he shows violent tendencies, but he is utterly graceless, dedicated to finding ‘reality’ within others, hates deceit, has little cunning, clearly has a conscience and ethics- lest he never bother with Betsy nor Iris (and even frets over killing the armed robber). And, sexually speaking, Bickle is an emotional, if not physical, case study in sexual impotence.
So, given that the main character is a no go for either trait, why is he almost always referred to as one or the other in reviews (as well as by Schrader and Scorsese)? It has to be amongst the most obvious examples of the intentional fallacy in all of popular art because, while I have no doubt in the verity of Schrader and Scorsese in claiming they wanted to portray psychosis or psychopathy onscreen. They simply lacked the external knowledge and the internal empathy to do so convincingly. Fortunately, while they were not clued in to the interior geography of what they claimed to want, their use of the best way to build character- by focusing not on what we see of the character (the outside in approach), but on what the character observes (the inside out approach), they stumbled into something better than what they were aiming to achieve. In short, the intellectual application of excellent technique proved far greater in achieving a devastating characterization than did the mere emotional yearnings of artists that did not understand the fundaments of what they hoped to portray.
This schism between the intent of the incipient artists and their net result is due to several factors: 1) most people (including critics) are lazy, and saying someone is a psychopath or psychotic sounds more ‘serious’ than merely saying they are nuts, or merely deluded. 2) the idea and term ‘going postal’ was still a decade away from being coined, yet, this is clearly what the film portrays, and 3) it is clear, from the film, that Bickle is not a manic depressive, nor even bipolar. He is an almost classic example of what is now called a borderline personality. From the National Institute Of Mental Health website:
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental illness characterized by pervasive instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, self-image, and behavior. This instability often disrupts family and work life, long-term planning, and the individual's sense of self-identity. Originally thought to be at the "borderline" of psychosis, people with BPD suffer from a disorder of emotion regulation. While less well known than schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness), BPD is more common, affecting 2 percent of adults, mostly young women. There is a high rate of self-injury without suicide intent, as well as a significant rate of suicide attempts and completed suicide in severe cases. Patients often need extensive mental health services, and account for 20 percent of psychiatric hospitalizations. Yet, with help, many improve over time and are eventually able to lead productive lives.
Is this a description of what the film portrays, or what? Yes, Bickle has emotional problems, perhaps exacerbated by a tour or two in Vietnam, but it’s also clear that he is emotionally and personally immature, in many- not all, ways, for controlling one’s emotions is a result of the normal and healthy maturation process of humans. Those who cannot do so evince their own puerility, be it in personal behavior, or in criticism of the arts. Therefore, the fact of whether or not Bickle was a veteran or not (or postal worker, small time hood, college student, etc.) is meaningless. It simply does not matter, because the film is not in any way concerned with how Bickle got to the state we see him in at the film’s opening. He is there. Period. Both he and we just have to deal with it….kind of like in real life. And, as I will discuss, the film’s ending even suggests that Bickle can lead a productive life, as the website states.
That leads me into another of the major fallacies about the film, that
it’s ending is that of a dream, not any ‘reality’ within the film, but
this interpretation simply has no basis in the diegesis of the film, and frankly
is just gimmicky for a gimmick’s sake. First, the fact that Bickle would be
embraced as a hero by the media, for his gun battle with a pedophile pimp, and a
Mafioso (as the newspaper clippings detail) is not shocking, and actually
illustrates how prophetic the film was in the attitude of the media to seize
upon any momentary story for its most sensationalistic aspect. Some have claimed
that the ending has to be a dream because they do not believe the Secret Service
would have passed over Bickle’s later explosion at the whorehouse while
searching for a would-be assassin. But the actual film shows why this is not
hard to believe, for the newspaper photos of Bickle show him not with his then
Mohawk, but with a full head of hair, and given that the 1970s were a very
politicized era, almost all political assassins were thought to have political
agendas, not personal ones; therefore Bickle’s whorehouse imbroglio would not
have been connected up with the attempt on the Presidential candidate. And, then
there is the fact that one of the Secret Service men, while pursuing Bickle,
claims to another agent that he did not get a good look at Bickle. Finally,
there is the reality that, despite post-9/11 hagiography, most police
departments are not filled with dedicated, intelligent, hard working folks, but
the same sorts of mediocrities that fix leaky pipes, stalled out car engines, as
well as pull teeth. In short, the fact
that Bickle gets away with his failed assassination attempt is actually a
‘realistic’ outcome of most criminal investigations: nothing ever comes of
But there is an even greater irony to Bickle’s becoming a hero than is seen at first blush, and that is that had his Plan A (to kill Betsy’s hero) not failed, and he’d been forced into Plan B (to kill Iris’s hero), Travis would not have been hailed as a hero because killing a Senator and Presidential candidate is not considered ‘heroic,’ whereas gunning down pedophilic pimps and Mafiosi is. Second, after Burt Steensma’s letter to Travis is read (in voiceover) we see Travis with his fellow cabbies, and he clearly has a large scar on his neck, right where he was nicked by Sport’s bullet. This is where the fantasy/dream trope fails. If Bickle were in a coma, or this was his dying fantasy, would he actually envision such a scar? Yes, he might fancy himself lionized, and even imagine Betsy getting into his cab, tinged with regret, but the scar? No. Also, if Betsy were only seen in the rearview mirror, then the dream interpretation might be strengthened, but we clearly see her exiting the cab. She is real. Some critics, and Schrader, have claimed that the last minute adjustment of his rearview mirror is a sign that all is not well with Bickle, and that he will likely go postal again. But, there simply is little to suggest this, and, furthermore, such a tic-like moment would be very out of place in a dream/fantasy. Bickle’s demeanor with Betsy, in the cab, on the other hand, suggests that he is finally more at peace with himself. The impotent man has gloriously shot his load, and it feels good, damned good. He also has finally gotten some recognition and approbation, and he has lived out his white knight fantasy and been rewarded. Borderline personalities live for this, and are not necessarily recidivist. Also, part of the idea that the ending is a dream is the claim, by many critics, that Bickle is somehow not just psychotic, but willfully untruthful- i.e.- that he does not have parents he is writing to, that he did not serve in the military (or specifically Vietnam), etc. Yes, he does lie in his letters to his parents, but given the squalor of his life, this is hardly akin to his being a serial liar. He’s a white liar, at worst. But, there is simply no evidence that he is lying about the important things in his existence. Who, for example, would benefit by his lying about having parents? Scorsese’s camera? And who would benefit from his lying about having served in the military? The cab company boss- as if he would care of a military record for a hack?
Another fallacy about the film is that it, along with earlier films, like The Wild Bunch, A Clockwork Orange, and Bonnie And Clyde, helped foster real world violence in members of their audiences. But, this is, by far, the most easily debunked of the claims against Taxi Driver, for, despite a rise in the sensationalistic portrayals of violent crime in the mainstream media over the last few decades, the irrefutable truth is that American violent crime has been steadily decreasing since its heyday in the late-1960s-mid-1970s heyday. In fact, while real world violence has decreased (even including the great losses on 9/11) violence in the media (online, television and film) has risen steadily. If anything, there seems to be an almost directly inverse correlation between fantasy violence helping to lessen real world violence, as a sort of pressure release. Imagine if Travis Bickle had been able to release his violent fantasies (the ‘bad things’ in his head that he mentions to Wizard) not in a whorehouse, but through an interactive video game, replete with big-titted vixens and fiendish gargoyles. He may very well have never left his shitty little apartment while not hacking. That said, I think there is little causal relation, one way or the other, but the evidence, scant as it is, is in direct opposition to this claim.
The DVD, by Sony, is the two disk Collector’s Edition, and it shows the hour and fifty-three minute long color film in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It is a marvelously restored film print with enhanced colorization and restoration. Cinematographer Michael Chapman’s handiwork is likely the best technical element in the film, creating mystery from the very mundane streets of Manhattan. Bernard Herrmann’s score is very good, and it and the screenplay by Schrader have gotten a just amount of praise, for both enhance the stellar acting of De Niro. The famed screenplay shares, along with Woody Allen’s 1989 film, Crimes And Misdemeanors, and a very choice few others, the distinction of having a virtually perfect screenplay, even though a good portion of the film was improvised. But the film’s cinematography has always been underrated in comparison to the score and screenplay. Yet there are shots in the film that recall many other films and directors, as homages, as well as there being moments that embody a scene perfectly, or poetically connect one thing to another in a Negatively Capable way. Look at the scenes of Palantine in Bickle’s cab- first with a hooker, then with his handlers. One is never quite sure if Bickle realizes it is the same man (and what effect this has on his desire to kill this fraud), but one suspects it, since Bickle’s looks into the back- via his rearview mirror, are almost matched. Then there are the famed scenes of the wandering camera- not only in the hallway during Bickle’s rejection by Betsy, but when the film opens, he’s gotten the cabby job, leaves the dispatcher’s office, and the camera leaves him, semi-circles about the garage, and picks up Bickle on the other side of the screen. Then there is the seltzer fizz scene, in the eatery, which is a lift from Jean-Luc Godard. There is a deft recurrence of overhead shots of tables and desktops and, finally, the whorehouse apartment, that lends an almost scientific detachment to the film.
The film, on Disk 1, comes with two audio commentaries. One is by Schrader, and it’s an off the rack commentary, filled with many pregnant pauses and silences. Schrader adds little new to the mythos he’s created about the film for the last three and a half decades. The best he can do is explain a few minor points, such as the need to fuzz out the scenes of the Swedish porno film Bickle sees, and to desaturate the vivid colors of the final bloodbath, in order for the film to avoid an X rating. His most cogent comment is to claim that the scene where Martin Scorsese cameos into his film, in bIckle’s cab, to rant about how he will kill his faithless wife, is important because it shows one man (the Scorsese character) is a talker, whereas Bickle is a walker, when it comes to deploying violence. One only wonders why Scorsese was not available to do a commentary, as his are always interesting and informative, if a bit tedious and repetitive.
I ponder this because the second commentary is, by a film scholar, Robert Kolker. Depressingly, it’s arguable even a duller commentary than Schrader’s- and much worse, overall; even though Kolker adds new information about the film, and never punctuates his commentary with silences. It is at once didactic and clueless. Far too often, Kolker relies on dubious comparisons of the film to the aforementioned John Ford film, The Searchers, as well as assorted Alfred Hitchcock films, most egregiously by comparing Travis Bickle to Psycho’s Norman Bates. This comparison is based upon one single confluence- both men are killers. But so were Ted Bundy and Al Capone, and no one connects the two of them. Kolker also makes less telling errors in interpreting the film, such as when he claims that Bickle has waited, from the time Betsy accepts his date invitation to the date, outside the campaign headquarters. Yet, there is absolutely no evidence for this, as the cut from his asking her out to waiting for her outside is indeterminate, and she exits the building within a few seconds after the cut. Bickle could have easily gone about errands and then come back to pick her up. Later, on their date, in the restaurant, Kolker claims that Scorsese never includes a shot of Bickle from over Betsy’s shoulder, to emphasize Bickle’s lonesomeness, yet, not long after he utters this we see exactly that sort of shot, which only makes one question just how ‘expert’ this expert is (after all, he has no ability to discern the difference between ‘innocence’ and ‘naïve-te), as he freely indulges in the worst interpretations and critical cribbing around. Later on he makes another easily dismissed claim, when he claims that Iris, in the breakfast scene at the diner, tells Travis that he should look into his own eyes, when he calls Sport a killer, for she discerns that he is a killer. But, Iris never says that, nor implies that. This is wholly a delusion on Kolker’s part.
Kolker does rightly emphasize Bickle’s fearful brand of racism- as we see how he observes assorted black aggressions toward him- from the perceived (pimps in an eatery, a fellow cabby who makes a joking motion as if shooting a gun) to the indifferent (raging black schizoids on the streets) to the active (black kids who toss eggs and rocks at his cab, and tell him to leave their neighborhood). He then claims the inclusion of the street drummer who mentions Gene Krupa is an odd insertion by Scorsese, meant to emphasize the weirdness of Bickle’s existence yet, again, this sort of street busker was standard to New York in that era. It enhances the film’s realism, it has nothing to do with the weirdness of Bickle’s perceptions. During the phone call scene, in the empty hallway, Kolker claims the hallway represents Bickle’s mind, whereas it’s likelier that it’s just an asides to avoid the pain of rejection that is likely the key moment in the film. It is where Bickle hits rock bottom. What follows in the film, all the focus and violence, is actually Bickle’s self-reconstruction, after his rejection, not his descent. The final shootout at the whorehouse is not a symptom of Bickle’s madness, nor a manifestation of his death wish, but the realization of his would be self-apotheosis. That so few critics get this critical idea ties in to the fact that they have no real understanding of the emotional maladies that plague Bickle; content as they are to toss around terms, like psychopathy and psychosis, that they do nut understand.
Another instance of Kolker’s overreach comes when he claims that Bickle never sent flowers to Betsy because we see them dying in his apartment. But this is simply a silly claim. Obviously Kolker never tried to woo a girl with flowers, only to have the product rejected. What does a florist do in such a circumstance? They deliver them to the party that purchased the flowers. Kolker foists superficial and spurious comparisons, and avoids Occam’s Razor with such deliberation, in his commentary that one wonders how he was ever tapped to do the commentary in the first place. Perhaps the most over the top comment Kolker makes is that he is never sure what the film shows is ‘real’ or in Bickle’s mind. But, clearly many of the scenes, such as with the street drummer, are clearly representations of New York in that era. It’s just one of those sort of pseudo-intellectual comments that folk like Kolker. Perhaps the worst comment that Kolker makes is one which actually undercuts his claim’s verity. It’s in the debated scene of Sport and Iris alone in the apartment, where the pimp seduces the child, and then there’s a shot of Bickle in his cab, outside. Some claim that the scene is in Bickle’s mind, some that it is real. But, given that there is nothing but the small insert of Bickle, it’s most likely an objectively real shot, detached from any claim to being Bickle’s point of view. Scorsese even had fretted that this shot violates the film’s structure and previous ‘rules of the game.’ I agree with Scorsese for, given no evidence to support the idea that this is Bickle’s fantasy, it has to be real, and therefore we get even further confirmation of Sport’s repugnance, and Bickle’s rage against him having justification; therefore manifesting that Bickle is not psychotic, but clearly sees the reality that Iris and, by extension, all the other characters in the film exist in. The final faux pas Kolker makes is, at the end of the film, he believes that Scorsese erred in showing Betsy as existing in the real world streets of New York after she has her cab ride with Travis. He would have preferred that she appear only in the rearview mirror, thus making her all a fantasy, and thus justifying his own apparent confusion over the diegetical realities within the film. This is a de facto admission that he wants the film to be confusing, and also that he buys into the discredited ‘Bickle as psychotic’ meme, simply because that has an emotional and aesthetic appeal to him. Again, is this the sort of ‘expert’ ramblings that should fill a commentary?
The second disk has a number of interesting featurettes. There is a
quarter hour take called Martin Scorsese On Taxi Driver. It’s much of
what one would expect from Scorsese, on the film, and makes the viewer wish that
Sony had talked Scorsese into doing one of the commentaries, rather than
Schrader or Kolker. Producing Taxi Driver is a ten minute film with
producer Michael Phillips on how the film got to screen. God’s Lonely Man
is a twenty minute film on the Travis Bickle character, as conceived by
Schrader, and portrayed by De Niro. Influence
And Appreciation: Martin Scorsese Tribute
is a hagiography of the director, filled with kudos from the likes of Oliver Stone, Schrader, Roger Corman, De Niro, and others. Taxi
Driver Stories is an odd but interesting 22 minute film that is less about
the film than about the lifestyle of cabbies, and how it’s changed in the last
few decades. Travis’s New York has cinematographer Chapman and former
New York City Mayor Ed Koch talking about the film. Travis’s New York
Locations is a feature that allows you to see where the film’s haunts are
on a map of Manhattan. There are also stills, storyboards, and Introduction to
the film by Scorsese, but not the original theatrical trailer. There ism
however, an terrific 70 minute documentary called Making Taxi Driver. It
appeared on earlier DVD versions of the film and has interviews with Scorsese,
Schrader, De Niro, Cybill Shepherd, Jodie Foster, Albert Brooks, Peter Boyle,
and Harvey Keitel.
Taxi Driver was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost out to the formulaic boxer flick, Rocky, penned by Sylvester Stallone It did, however, win the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is not only a great motion picture, but it is one of the best portraits of a character ever filmed, and Travis Bickle is one of the scariest characters in film history. Probably only Martin Landau’s character, Judah Rosenthal, in Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors, is more truly horrifying (and certainly far more evil). But Bickle is every bit as scary, for he is far more unpredictable to those about him. Yes, he is not a cold blooded murderer, like Rosenthal, but he is certainly violent, and a racist- not of the KKK White Supremacist sort, but of the passive, scared little white boy sort; and much mileage has been gotten from the fact that the film’s final shootout victims were all white, when in the original screenplay they had been all black (Scorsese and Schrader bowed to studio pressure to change that fact, because by not making a change, the beancounters claimed, the film might incite race riots, and lead to financial culpability). These elements are what make Bickle scary, and why he is so realistically portrayed. Yet, there is also the niggling truth even the film seems loath to admit, that Travis Bickle really and truly IS a hero, and not merely a crazed lunatic. Note that I wrote ‘not merely,’ for this is an important point: because most critics resort to binary thought in such matters, that does not change the fact that Bickle is a dangerous and paranoid man and a hero; and these are not mutually opposing claims. And by ‘hero,’ I mean it in the absolutely most sober sense of the word. Heroes are not perfect men, but they are real men (and women, of course). And heroes are not necessarily even ethically ‘good’ men (imagine that!). But they are brave, they are determined, and they are relentless, in the pursuit of the goals, things, and people, they deem as good. But, most of all they are ‘real,’ not like the fictive heroes that populate books and films, comic books and video games. And rarely has there ever been a more chillingly realistic portrayal of a hero in film than Travis Bickle. Now, do me the favor of not misinterpreting that, ok?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Spinning Image website.]
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