Taxi Driver
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Taxi Driver

Amy Taubin

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Taxi Driver

Amy Taubin

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About This Book

Paul Schrader was in meltdown in 1972. Drinking heavily, living in his car, he was hospitalised with a gastric ulcer. There he read about Arthur Bremer's attempt to assassinate Alabama Governor George Wallace: the story was the germ of his screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976). Executives at Columbia hated the script, but when Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, who were flying high after the triumphs of Mean Streets (1973) and The Godfather Part II (1974), signed up, Taxi Driver became too good a package to refuse. Scorsese transformed the script into what is now considered one of the two or three definitive films of the 1970s. De Niro is mesmerising as Travis Bickle – pent-up, bigoted, steadily slipping into psychosis, the personification of American masculinity post-Vietnam. Cybill Shepherd and Jodie Foster give fine support and Scorsese brought in Bernard Herrmann, the greatest of film composers, to write what turned out to be his last score. Crucially, Scorsese rooted Taxi Driver in its New York locations, tuning the film's violence into the hard reality of the city. Technically thrilling though it is, Taxi Driver is profoundly disturbing – finding, as Amy Taubin shows, racism, misogyny and gun fetishism at the heart of American culture. In her foreword to this special edition, published to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the BFI Film Classics series, Amy Taubin considers Taxi Driver anew in the context of contemporary politics of race and masculinity in the US, and draws on an exclusive interview with Robert De Niro about his memories of making the film.

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‘Taxi Driver’
Really, it is not violence at all which is the ‘point’ of the western movie, but a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence. Watch a child with his toy guns and you will see: what most interests him is not (as we so much fear) the fantasy of hurting others, but to work out how a man might look when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero.
Robert Warshow, ‘The Westerner’
The person who made that slanderous movie about cab-drivers should be taken out and shot.
Anonymous New York City cabbie, quoted by film critic
Vincent Canby in the New York Times
I felt like I was walking into a movie.
John Hinckley III, explaining his state of mind during his attempted
assassination of US President Ronald Reagan
Perhaps the place to begin is with John Hinckley III, the man who, in 1981, tried to kill President Ronald Reagan so that, as the defence explained at his trial, ‘he could effect a mystical union with Jodie Foster’, the actress who played a preteen prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and who, at the time of Hinckley’s assassination attempt, was a freshman at Yale University. Hinckley’s action assured Taxi Driver a privileged position in cultural history, making it the only film to inspire directly a presidential assassination attempt. That the assassination failed is only fitting, since Taxi Driver is a film steeped in failure – the US failure in Vietnam, the failure of the 1960s counterculture and, most unnerving, at least to forty-nine per cent of the population, the failure of masculinity as a set of behavioural codes on which to mould a life.
Or perhaps the place to begin is a decade earlier, with Arthur Bremer, who, in 1972, attempted to assassinate Alabama Governor George Wallace, but merely succeeded in paralysing him from the waist down. The front page stories about Bremer, along with Sartre’s Nausea, Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Robert Bresson’s film Pickpocket (1959), directly inspired Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver screenplay.1
Schrader read the Bremer coverage while he was in a Los Angeles hospital, recovering from a gastric ulcer, at what he describes as the low point in his life. He was twenty-six years old, his marriage had broken up, the affair that broke up the marriage had broken up, he had quit the American Film Institute where he had been a fellow and he had been living in his car and drinking heavily. He said that when he checked in to the emergency room, he realised that he had not spoken to anyone for weeks. No wonder his imagination was captured by Bremer, who was also totally isolated and living in his car while he stalked various political heavyweights. Coming of age in the aftermath of a decade of political assassinations (JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy), Bremer had convinced himself that the surest and fastest way for him to get the attention he was starved of was by assassinating a famous politician. When he failed to penetrate Nixon’s security, he turned his attention to Wallace.
Bremer kept a diary. Parts of it were found in his car and parts in an apartment where he’d lived before taking off on the journey that would land him, at age twenty-one, in the penitentiary with a sixty-three-year sentence. The diary wasn’t published until 1974,2 but passages from it made their way into the news stories. Schrader, who was already wedded to the first-person, voice-over narrative, found it fascinating that Bremer, an undereducated, lower middle-class, midwestern psychopath, would talk to himself in his diary just like a Sorbonne dropout in a Robert Bresson film.
Schrader got out of the hospital and wrote the script of Taxi Driver in about ten days.3 ‘The theme,’ he says, ‘was loneliness, or, as I realised later, self-imposed loneliness. The metaphor was the taxi, a metal coffin on wheels, the absolute symbol of urban isolation. I’d had this song by Harry Chapin in my head, about a cab driver who picks up a fare and it turns out to be his former girlfriend. And I put all that in the pressure cooker of New York City.’ And who was Travis Bickle? Was he Arthur Bremer? ‘Travis Bickle,’ Schrader replied, ‘was just me.’
In case there’s anyone who doesn’t know, Taxi Driver describes one stiflingly hot summer in the life of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), an alienated ex-Marine who drifted to New York shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. This background sketch may or may not be true, since we have only Travis’s word for it. With small exceptions, the film is told from Travis’s point of view and he is, to put it mildly, an unreliable narrator. Travis takes a job as a cabbie. Unable to sleep at night, he cruises in his taxi through a city that seems to him a hell. He becomes obsessed, in turn, with two women: Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker for a presidential primary candidate, and Iris (Jodie Foster), a twelve-year-old prostitute. Betsy is the Madonna Travis wants to turn into a whore, while Iris is the whore he wants to save.
The seemingly desultory narrative is rigorously divided into three acts. In the first, Travis’s rage is diffuse; he rides around in his cab, more a witness than a man of action. In the second, he finds a mission and an object for his rage. (‘One day, indistinguishable from the next, a long, continuous chain. And then, suddenly – there is change,’ he writes in his diary.) In the third, he puts his homicidal fantasies into action, taking aim at one father figure (the presidential candidate) and, when that attempt fails, turning his gun on another (Iris’s pimp Sport, played by Harvey Keitel). The carnage that ends Taxi Driver is devastating, but it’s also voluptuous – as voluptuous as anything in American movies – and all the more so because of the sense of repression that pervades the film until this moment. The entire film has been built so that this eruption of violence would seem both inevitable and more horrific than anything we might have imagined.
The slaughter is the moment Travis has been heading for all his life, and where this screenplay has been heading for more than eighty five pages. It is the release of all the cumulative pressure; it is a reality unto itself. It is the psychopath’s Second Coming.
Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver screenplay4
I like the idea of spurting blood. It reminds me … God, it reminds me … it’s like a purification … you know, the fountains of blood … like in the Van Morrison song … ‘wash me in the fountain’. But it’s realistic, too. The guy that puts the blood … I said, give me a little more, he said that’s going to be a lot, I said that’s okay.
Martin Scorsese, March 1976, a month after Taxi Driver
opened in the United States5
Soon after Schrader wrote the first draft of Taxi Driver,6 he showed it to Brian De Palma, who passed it on to the producers Michael and Julia Phillips. They optioned the script for $1000 and began peddling it to the studios. There were no takers. The script was considered too dark, too violent, its protagonist too unsympathetic. Scorsese was hot to direct the film, but the Phillips shrugged him off. Mean Streets (1973) changed their minds. Still, their commitment to Scorsese hinged on his ability to convince one of his Mean Streets stars, Robert De Niro, to play Travis. Financing remained elusive for two years. It wasn’t until De Niro won an Academy Award for his performance in The Godfather Part II and Scorsese’s direction of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore resulted in an Oscar for Ellen Burstyn that David Begelman, then president of Columbia, gave the Phillips a green light. Begelman loathed the script, but he couldn’t refuse so much certified talent. Taxi Driver was financed originally for $1.3 million and wound up costing $1.9 million. Scorsese, Schrader and De Niro worked for next to nothing. Their up-front fees totalled $130,000. Scorsese and De Niro also had points in the picture, and, since the film grossed about $17 million in 1976 and ranked twelfth on Variety’s box-office chart, they may have seen some small profit.
The violence Begelman found so disturbing in Taxi Driver had been working its way into Hollywood studio films for roughly two decades. Hitchcock raised the ante with Psycho (1960), which like Taxi Driver, crossed the psychological thriller with the horror film. In Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho,7 Steven Rebello writes that Hitchcock wanted to make a film to herald the new decade of the 1960s. He had been tracking the box-office success of the low-budget horror films produced by American-International and Hammer Films. He was also slightly envious of all the attention that had been paid to a French-language art film, Clouzot’s Diabolique (1955), with its gruesome corpse-in-the-bathtub scene. The trick, as Hitchcock saw it, was to adapt a déclassé piece of material (a pulp novel about a real serial killer), fill it with Hollywood stars and have it released by a major studio.
Although Psycho inspired an underbelly of slasher films, the studios were slow to follow Hitchcock’s lead. The next major studio film to scandalise the Hollywood establishment and the middlebrow critics was Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which not only glamourised the eponymous outlaws, but also eroticised gun violence. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch followed two years later.
Schrader, Scorsese, De Niro
Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch opened against a background of the war in Vietnam and ‘the war at home’ – the civil rights and anti-war struggles. By 1968, the television networks, which had at first cooperated with the Pentagon by suppressing images of American dead or wounded, were pumping images of the escalating horror of the war – bodies that bled and burnt when assaulted by automatic weapons, bombs and napalm – into American households, where they were consumed as a regular part of the dinner hour. The imagery of the war and of the violence at home gave a moral justification to the film-makers, who now claimed it was their obligation, rather than their indulgence, to show the brutality of US culture. Also, in 1966 and again in 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) revised its rating code. More violence was allowed on screen, but age restrictions were placed on audiences.
The bloody nightmare of Vietnam surfaced not only in Hollywood movies, but also in avant-garde films and European art films. If The Wild Bunch was imprinted on Scorsese’s retina, so too was Stan Brakhage’s autopsy film, The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) and Pierrot le fou (1965). Indeed, it’s Taxi Driver’s extraordinary hybridity that partially accounts for its influence on two generations of film-makers and artists.
There’s a 1983 photograph by David Wojnarowicz (arguably the greatest and certainly the most subversive American artist of the 1980s) which appears on the cover of the catalogue for his 1999 retrospective at New York’s New Museum.8 Wojnarowicz is seated in a chair, facing the camera. His right hand, with the index finger extended as if it were a gun, is pointed at his head. It’s a mirror image of De Niro’s gesture at the end of the massacre in Taxi Driver. Wojnarowicz’s hand, however, is not covered in crimson. Instead, it’s painted blue and his face is painted yellow – an homage to the ending of Pierrot le fou, where Belmondo, having just shot the woman he loves and bent on killing himself, paints his face blue and wraps yellow and red dynamite around his head.
Wojnarowicz made the connection between the suicidal, alienated anti-heroes of the two films, both driven mad by the time in which they lived, and between the striking use of primary colours in both films to describe a nightmare narrative – a male anxiety dream of castration and death. While there are no two more film-literate raiders of the image bank than Godard and Scorsese, their aesthetics, politics and methodology have little common ground. When Scorsese borrows the jump-cut strategy of Breathless (1959), it’s not to shake up conventions of linearity or to throw a monkey wrench into habits of identification, but to reveal the gaps and disconnection in Tra...

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