Tuesday, March 22, 2011

An Ode to Travis Bickle

A few years back, I was at a Christmas party, if memory serves, and the topic of conversation, as it often does with me, turned to movies. Specifically, Taxi Driver. The comment that was made was something along the lines of how this person disliked Scorsese's film, because the main character was completely unrelateable and unlikable.

I, emphatically, disagreed. From where I sit, Travis Bickle, as written by Paul Schrader, directed by Martin Scorcese, and performed by Robert DeNiro, is one of the most heart-breaking characters in film history. That doesn't excuse the character, or ignore that he's dangerous. He's a time bomb from the moment we meet him, to the final moments of the film, where the fuse is lit again.

I can see how Travis might alienate a viewer. I'm not an idiot. The film is a pretty serious dance between trying to keep you out of, and let you into, his head. Scorsese uses all sorts of trick to let you think you've reached a bit of understanding, then rips it away from you. Travis represents "the lonely man," but the truly tragic thing is how much he fights against it. How much he wants to be a "normal person," and how utterly ill-equipped he is to get there.

For me the entire film is encapsulated in one scene, where Travis sits, alone, as always, watching American Bandstand.

That's the whole movie, in one scene, and it's utterly heartbreaking. The TV actually becomes a bit of a recurring motif for Travis, as, right before he snaps, he actually kicks it over.

Travis is absolutely a damaged human, that's not even in question. Vietnam, his upbringing, any number of reasons, something has scarred him, and isolated him from the rest of the world. Right in the middle of the teeming metropolis of NYC, no less. What's ultimately the most moving an agonizing thing about the film is that Travis spends a good portion of the running time trying, desperately to head off the ultimate climax.

We watch Travis try to connect with Betsy (Cybil Sheppard), asking her out on a date, having pie ("I orderd apple with a slice of yellow cheese. I think that was a good choice"). As we see them try to interact, it becomes so painfully clear that Travis has absolutely zero sense of how to interact with anyone. We cringe as he takes her to a porn theater in Times Square, and then the awkward scene in the election headquarters as she tries to extricate herself from his life.

With the rejection, he sinks into the cesspool of mid-70's New York City, and grows angrier with the debauchery and filth he sees as he drives his cab through the night. Coming to fixate on Iris (Jodie Foster), and forming a plan to "save" her. The ultimate joke is, of course, NYC isn't just a cesspool in his mind, it is (or was) a cesspool, and when he eventually does "save" Iris, he's lionized as the hero.

Even if, had he had just one more bullet, he would've took his own life. Travis goes into the gunfight at the climax of Taxi Driver knowing he will be killed, either by Iris' handlers, or by his own hand. He accepts that because, for once, he will matter. That this lonely man, ignored by all around him, FORCED the world to take notice.

I always contract those final moments with the scene where Scorsese himself appears as the scorned husband, fantasizing, but not acting, on punishing his wife and her lover for cheating. I always believe that man would never do anything that he claimed he would. That he was well and truly impotent, castrated, both mentally and emotionally, by the betrayal. He would live on, as we had seen Travis living, suffering, lonely and ignored.

But, of course, Travis survives. The final scene shows us our, well, I don't know if I'd call him a hero, back out in his cab, driving into the night. With one scream, and a glance into the rear view mirror, we know that the match is truck, and the fuse is burning again. The next explosion is only a matter of time.

It's this last bit that always makes me conflicted when I hear DeNiro and Scorsese talk about "kicking around" ideas for a sequel. Part of me doesn't want to EVER know what happened to Travis Bickle, and another part desperately does. The fact is, it'll never be as utterly brilliant as the original. So, leave it alone.

Travis is a hard character to watch, and harder to relate to. Yet, it's through these characters and performances that we can gain more understanding of the fringe elements of our society. Scorsese, DeNiro, and especially Schrader knew what it was like to be that lonely and isolated from the humanity all around. So far away, yet so pervasive that it seems too much to bear. Yet, they, as artists, could find a creative, positive vent for those feelings, and gave us one of the greatest movies of all time.

Travis Bickle is not inhuman, but quite the opposite. He's all too frail and needful of human connection. If we're honest with ourselves, we all know what that feels like. I know I do, from High School, through College, right up to this very day, I fight and struggle with the need to belong. To be accepted, to be part of the whole. Yeah, it flies in the face of my fierce desire for independence, but feeling alone, well and truly alone, even if you think you're doing what's best for yourself and others (and certainly Travis isn't that pure), is terrifying. It's painful.

That's universal, and that's Travis Bickle.

There's a 35th anniversary screening of this film this week. Tonight, and this past Saturday. Alas, I've had to miss both of them. It's painful. I've never seen Taxi Driver in a theatre. My Blu-Ray, however, is pre-ordered. A movie night is in the offing.

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