It’s not that I don’t like Taxi Driver. I do. But sometimes a movie is so widely praised and universally beloved that, even if you do like it, not exactly seeing the greatness of the thing still makes you feel like you’re not part of the group. I’ve read the raves, and I think I get what’s going on in Taxi Driver, but because I don’t love it, I think I just don’t “get” Taxi Driver. But since Nathaniel picked this beloved classic as this week’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” subject, I decided that searching for the one shot that encapsulates the movie might be the kind of experience that would finally make Taxi Driver click for me. Did I succeed? Well…
To me, Taxi Driver is the tragic story of a man who is pushed out of the system, and a system that cannot (or is not interested in) finding a way to help the people who are being crushed within it. Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader are not the first ones to craft such a narrative. There is Büchner’s Woyzeck, and more closely related to the decadence of 1970s New York you have Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. In Büchner’s play, Woyzeck is a sort of Cassandra figure, who constantly shows signs of the toll his life is taking on him, but nobody listens to. In Albee’s play, Jerry describes in excruciating detail the horrors of his life as an outcast New Yorker.
Because it was directed by one of the most celebrated directors of our time, and one of the few who is known precisely for being a huge cinephile, I expect Taxi Driver to provide an inherently cinematic way of dealing with this narrative. There is certainly ambiguity to how we should feel about Travis Bickle and his deadly crusade. I believe that the filmmakers intended him to be a tragic product of the system, but you mostly see the results neglect has had on Travis, and not the neglect itself. We hear he can’t sleep after coming back from Vietnam, but we are never sure if the world around him turned him this way, or if something was broken inside of him all along.
With those thoughts in mind, I found a moment that presents an alternative way of looking at the movie. Is Scorsese maybe trying to turn the mirror in our direction? There is a moment when Travis goes to the movies by himself. First, he finger-shoots the screen a couple of times. Then, he sits back and watches the movie, but he puts his hand in front of his eyes, as if they were blinds through which he is watching the screen. It’s voyeurism, and he’s the audience. It’s one of the moments in the movie that comes closest to finger-pointing. To turning to the audience and telling us that if we don’t see what turned Travis into such a piece of work, it’s because we don’t want to look at our own flaws. We don’t want to look at him, but we can’t stop looking. We delight in Travis’s tragedy. We don’t want to save him, we want him to die a bloody death at the end of the movie. I mean, it does make for better cinema.