By Marc S. Sanders

A number of years back I was watching Robert DeNiro interviewed by James Lipton on Inside The Actor’s Studio.  DeNiro recalled considering doing a modern day follow up on one of his most memorable characters, Travis Bickle, with director Martin Scorsese.  Lipton thought it would be a marvelous idea.  So do I.  However, I don’t think it’d be a comfortable film to watch.  Taxi Driver certainly isn’t a comfortable film to watch.  It might seem a little dated now, but its themes of loneliness, isolation, depression and violent obsession remain entirely unsettling.

Travis claims to be an honorably discharged Marine in his mid-20s, when he applies to be a New York City cab driver during the present period of the film, 1976.  He recounts every thought that runs through his head, and when you are alone, behind the wheel of a taxi cab, traveling through the arteries and veins of an ugly, crime ridden, seedy part of town, a lot of ideas run through your sub conscious.  Travis recognizes so much wrong with what he sees through his windshield that he prophesizes one day when a good, solid rain will wash away all of this scum and filth.  Maybe Travis will be the bearer of that inevitable storm.

Travis lives alone in a one room apartment with junk food, an old television set, and his unending thoughts that he writes in his journal.  When he’s motivated, he occupies himself with chin ups and pushups.  He also becomes enamored with perhaps the only pure and innocent occupant of this ugly city-a young, Presidential campaign worker named Becky (Cybil Shepherd).  Travis approaches her innocently enough under the guise of wanting to volunteer for the campaign and invite Becky out on a date.  He’s cordial enough, albeit awkward too.  Yet, he can not understand how twisted it is to escort Becky to a dirty, X rated film.  She’s sickened by the film and Travis is at a loss of what he did wrong.  Travis has become infected by the city he circumvents each day, and he’s blinded of gentlemanly courtesy he could be providing for a woman he’s interested in.

The well-known script for Taxi Driver was written by Paul Schrader.  He quickly conceived its disturbing ideas during an isolation binge he found himself trapped in. Schrader couldn’t make sense of his mindset at times.  One week he was gorging on sleeplessness, junk food, and endless television watching.  The next week, he was motivated to get in shape with exercise and healthy eating.  There was a lack of consistency in his behaviors.  Travis goes through the same experiences, but he also finds motive to respond to the offenses that he sees. 

Scorsese captures scenes of some of the passengers that enter Travis’ cab.  One scene includes the director himself in the back seat as a character obsessing over a woman in an apartment above.  It’s a cameo of an unhinged man that Travis never had any interest in knowing, yet this person insists on sharing his frustrated anguish.  Later, Travis happens upon the Presidential candidate in his back seat.  The candidate seems noble enough inquiring on what issues are most important to Travis as an American citizen.  What I gathered from the scene is that the candidate has his own ways of fighting for a better future dressed in a suit on a campaign trail, while Travis has a more disturbing outlook on what should be done. 

Midway through the film, Travis is purchasing guns from an underground seller and practicing how to quickly unleash his arsenal for when the fight crosses paths with him.  He builds a quick draw sling to hide a gun under a sleeve.  He practices how to whip out the switchblade he keeps strapped to his boot.  One of the most famous scenes in film history occurs when Travis is talking to his mirror image asking repeatedly, “You talkin’ to me?”.  Supposedly, this moment never existed in Schrader’s script, and Scorsese was fortunate to capture DeNiro getting into character.  Whatever the origin of the scene, it sends a chilling summation of where Travis prioritizes his mental focus.  It’s not on love or affection for a fellow human being.  Once he blew it with Becky, other ideas remained with Travis.  Now, he’s solely obsessed with the war that he’ll fight for, all by himself.

Schrader and Scorsese go even a step further with the character as he comes upon a twelve-year-old hooker, named Iris, (Jodie Foster) and her street pimp, named Sport (Harvey Keitel).  He takes Iris for breakfast encouraging her to go home to her family and get away from this life.  Iris cannot see the need for that.  This encounter almost seems to justify Travis’ will for violence.  He now has a cause to rescue this child from the danger she’s immersed in.  I won’t spoil the outcome of this relationship.  Yet, Schrader and Scorsese keep the ending unexpected.  Have we been watching a dangerous villain for the last two hours, or were we watching a hero? Does the bloody and excessive violence that wraps up the picture lean towards heroics or vigilante crime?  These are good questions to ask but they are also consistent with the contradictions of Travis’ mindset.  When all you have to occupy yourself with are the endless, mounting thoughts running through your head, you are doing nothing but debating with your subconscious, and it’s likely you’ll have no other person to assure you that whatever actions and choices you make are the right ones.  One day you wonder if it’s all worth it.  The next day, you feel chosen for a crusade.

So as DeNiro and Scorsese considered a follow up to Travis Bickle in a modern time of the internet, where the world has only gotten smaller and more intimate with itself, I’d be nervous to see what becomes of him.  Travis would likely still be alone, driving his cab twelve hours a day, and listening to the thoughts running through his head.  Only this time, he’d likely be getting responses to journal inputs, that he’d put on blogs and in chat rooms, from unknown keyboard warriors justifying his will for violent cleansings.  Travis would no longer be limited to just his own inner thoughts.  Now, he’d have the influence of others willing to share their own internal ideas of how to clean up the streets.  They might feel helpful and recognize themselves as saviors, but would they be able to decipher what needs saving, what needs improving, and what is the best, healthiest and most ideal way of following through with those missions?  Violence might be their answer. 

You know what.  Perhaps, I’m not being fair.  Maybe I should be more optimistic.  Some of these keyboard warriors who hide behind their computer monitors may attempt to convince Travis that the world is fine as it is and does not need the cleansings that he had always considered.  I don’t know. Sometimes, like Paul Schrader or Travis Bickle, even I go back and forth on what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s the best thing to do.

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