Monday, August 23, 2010

To The Centre Of The City

The second in an occasional series of posts about the films the author loved.

"There never has been a choice for me."
--Travis Bickle.

"I am such a good man, at bottom, such a good man, how is it that nobody ever noticed it?"
--Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies.

You notice something else: the moment when Iris (Jodie Foster) enters her room in the brothel, and the camera stops up short with her, the 70s bead-shroud between her and us; turning, she calls to Travis (Robert de Niro), who has just barely opened the door a crack, nosing round it like a boy entering some domestic forbidden zone. That hesitation speaks volumes now: of the tenderness that accompanies Travis' almost total emotional arrestedness, of the refusal to face facts that accompanies his misanthropy and boasted realism ("you must see a lot as a cabby?"), and its basis in a sensitivity - of horror, of wrecked nerves - that ends up betraying its object. I watched Taxi Driver more times than I could count between the ages of 16 and 18, and, so my notebooks tell me, took to the self-righteous monologues, as you might expect from someone clumsily feeling their way into writing, reading Nietzsche, Camus, Beckett - "Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads: here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up." It is, of course, one of the most widely well-regarded films of the 1970s, but you wouldn't have known it when I first saw it: almost no young people whom I know have taken to it; these days it's a 'cult' film in the wrong sense, known by only a few, who will obsessively pore over it, quote and re-quote their favourite lines (though the "Are you looking at me?" monologue, from a scene almost entirely improvised by de Niro, retains its currency). When Ian Penman, probably the most perceptive critic of Taxi Driver in his famous 1984 essay on de Niro, says (I can't find the post) that it seems, in retrospective, adolescent and shrill, it is, perhaps this that he means: it rubs against the grain of our adult selves to the extent that we're embarrassed how literally (we) teenage viewers could take these spews of invective and violence.

This is somewhat surprising: de Niro was 32 when he played Travis, and I never, at the time, took him to be what I thought of as a young man. Rewatching, however, you can see the lengths he went to in order to make a character younger than the actor's years - the awkwardness of his posture, shoulders up, head in, hands in pockets, the blank look and hesitating speech, a personality sculpted into harsh and powerful lines out of apparent affectlessness. The first third of the film is almost painful to watch, so gawky is Travis, especially in his dealings with Betsy (Cybille Shepherd), who leans back and receives his naive tributes with an amused confidence so foreign to him. When he rocks up at the cab company, as Penman puts it, he "seems to have awoken from some cultural half-death, a baby yet to learn the city's syntax, its official slang"; with the other cabbies in the diner, he can't join in with the knowing laughs, precisely because he doesn't know, he can only communicate in 'Yeah's and 'No's.

That limbo of half-death, of course, was Vietnam - another detail I didn't pick up until years after I first watched it, perhaps because the name is never even spoken, and nothing mentioned of the nature of Travis' war. The conflict hangs in the background of the film, in its depiction of the Hobbesian life of mid-70s New York, and in the figure of Travis' planned war against "the scum": a man so torn up inside that he can't stop fighting against any target he might seize on - and, in this, a microcosm of America in and after Indochina. (The nature of his enemies - first a senator, then a pimp - is, in a sense, wholly unimportant.) Caught up in the tarnished nobility of the existential drama that occupies almost every frame, I missed out on this: the entire, massively important context of the disintegration of America, in spite of the presence of an enormous, obvious link to it in the form of Charles Palantine. Cambodia/Laos, Watergate, Kent State, the dying madnesses of the 60s (Manson, Altamont), the Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, the total poverty and civil breakdown of New York (that would form the backdrop to disco, the inverse to the intolerance of Travis' milieu), and the damaged sons, the unlucky ones who didn't come back in boxes (note how the cab drivers refer to the city's rough areas as "Mau Mau land"). There's a reason there's no hauntology of the American 70s: it was already crawling with ghosts, too (sur)real and lurid to fetishise. (Notably, the 70s is the high-point of that great American genres, the splatter-flick: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Halloween, etc.; notably also, the critic Pauline Kael called Taxi Driver a horror film.) Travis' proto-punk mohican is particularly prescient in this respect: the gesture of self-mutilation-as-identity that would proliferate throughout American punk culture, starting in the lowlife strata of New York. Travis represents, in some sense, the evolution of those archetypes of 70s US cinematic masculinity patented by Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson (the latter especially in Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest): "a spoor of doubt, confusion, ambivalence, dead ends. Masculinity was shown to be in a state of confusion and flux: caught between old sureties and new demands, old ideals and new realities... a site of unreliable excess" (Penman). Where Nicholson carries it (on) by an arsenal of twitches, sneers and cackles, de Niro rests it on the quality of his silences, the way his speech switches from inarticulate mumbles, to excessive brightness when speaking to the security guards at the Palantine rally, the way he averts his gaze absent-mindedly when people are speaking to him, the stare that seems not to even be looking at its object. Only occasionally does anger bristle from beneath the blankness, as when Travis grabs Betsy's arm when she flees the porno-theatre -his voice coarsening, shoulders setting. His deepening psychosis is conveyed not by madcap tics but a deepening withdrawal, behind matt shades, weaponry, a tough-guy exterior (assuming, perhaps, the self-reliant personae of western films - Sport and the other lowlifes always call him "cowboy"), ritual - an increasing unreadability. Two moments: in the middle of his self-training, as he watches a soap, the absolutely blank look on his face, the way his arm and leg move to shoot an empty pistol at the set, and rock it on its box, as if the limbs were completely unconnected with the rest of him; that close-up at the climax of the shootout: finger pressed to temple, face slathered with blood, eyes half-closed but sardonic, face split by a grin somewhere between relief, demonic revelry and school-boy pleasure. If the mark of a great performance is the extent to which the actor doesn't appear to be acting, then this is undoubtedly one of them: compare with de Niro in Mean Streets or Goodfellas, and you could hardly tell it was the same actor, aside from the face - he makes himself Travis, utterly.

The references to the Western - America's most persistent myth - aren't coincidental: the film is very often seen as a re-write of John Ford's The Searchers, with its quest for redemption through rescue of female innocence from the 'uncivilised'. Travis draws no distinction between the black characters he regards with such fear - pimps, the petty robber he kills in a grocery store - and the white criminals who populate Iris' world, the latter being racialised, Otherised, by association. As Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now would remind us 3 years later, the imagery of the cowboy, the rough-and-ready pioneer, carried a lot of currency among the US forces in Vietnam: American civilisation, founded on mass violence against the Other (the Indian burial ground under the Overlook Hotel), reiterates itself in south-east Asia and, stifled, back on the home front. (Taxi Driver's previous nearest rival for controversial film violence was Peckinpah's allegory of American decline, The Wild Bunch.)

Bernard Herrmann's score (his last - he died before the film was released) suggests another lineage: Hitchcock's channelling of the last major period of American paranoia, the 50s. Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo dramatised the forces boiling beneath the surface of American prosperity and conformity - Soviet threat, the lacks of an oversupplied world, stifled sexuality - as psychic dissolution, proliferating and oversexualised gazes. Travis replicates Scottie (James Stewart) from Vertigo's obsession with the redeeming female (Kim Novak), in the form of first Betsy, then Iris, an obsession that ends in psychosis and death. The dynamic of Scottie and Madeline's relationship of reiterated in Travis' feelings towards the two women, and in de Niro's screen presence: as Kael points out, sex, in its naked form (excuse the pun) at least, is almost entirely absent (the closest we get is Iris unzipping Travis' jeans), but this total sublimation leaves its negated energy coursing under the surface throughout, a bottled-up force that explodes in the final burst of violence. De Niro as Travis is hardly sexy in the mid-70s Warren Beatty/Robert Redford sense, nor even in the time-honoured James Dean in Rebel..., troubled teen kinda way (if anything, his character is closer to the impotent Plato (Sal Mineo), the unstable gay best friend); he's remote in another sense - recessed, unreachable, the kind of person who, you think, if he could make contact from the deep region of inner space where he resides, break the shield of ego and make contact with the Other, might be OK, a decent human being, even a lover. The tragedy, of course, is that this is always-already impossible: his attempts to connect always go awry - taking in a porn-film on a first date, alarming Palantine with his small-talk, resolving to 'rescue' Iris although she hardly wants to be rescued.

Schrader and Scorsese make it very clear to us that neither Betsy nor Iris can or will fulfil the function that Travis delegates to them, as the component that will make him whole: they are the objects of an impossible desire, a desire that has to hold the Other at arm's length. (The usual whore/Madonna binary structures his entire experience of desire: Betsy is a Madonna whom Travis comes to regard as tarnished ("you're just like the rest of them"), Iris a whore whom he tries to turn back into a virgin.) Travis is a born voyeur, regarding the street-life he sees from his cab with equal fascination and repulsion, Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman slowing and oversaturating Travis' POV shots of prostitutes and couples (and, of course, Betsy). Disgusted by the real bodies of the street-walkers, he nonetheless watches pornography. Scorsese's use of mirrors heightens this distancing effect: glancing into the rear-view as Palantine and a black prostitute go at it on the back seat; being asked by a jealous husband (played by Scorsese), whom he watches in the rear-view, to look at the silhouette of his adulterous wife ("You know who lives there? A n***** lives there"), an action mirrored in the rear-view image of Betsy that Travis gets when she hops into his cab after the final confrontation. (And, as with Rear Window, these scenes of projection implicate us, the viewers: what warped dreams of ours are we seeing played out, too?) For all the positive emotion and desire he expresses, he might just as well be an alabaster saint. And yet, the roughcut presence of de Niro bristles with a sense of warping, of danger and tenderness in equal measure, a sexiness that Travis himself, as Penman points out, seems unaware of. It carries resonance today, after the waning of the film's influence on rock and youth culture: the sense of desperation, of aching distance, of absolute loneliness and hopeful futility that de Niro conveys, is something that is still experienced. (I should know.)

He exemplifies the problem of the character who can never realise his good intentions, who, in spite (or, perhaps, because) of his wish to escape the downward spiral of his existence, never can do so. This relates, of course, to the warped sexuality and the ghosts of violence that drive him towards his end: as Penman notes, Travis' cab is "a diagram of the Freudian instincts: the (super) structure of cab/job gives him an excuse to keep going, working the city, keeping assignations and appointments. Inside, the eyes of this ego are not looking where they're going (which is nowhere anyway, as he does not choose the direction)... Hell - and, in this case, his unconscious - is other people". The unconscious drives (ha!) send him on, again and again, into the world he hates, in spite of his conscious reforming intentions, impelled by the forces inside himself he despises. It is, thus, a drama of impotence and conflicting impulses (Betsy: "I meant about the contradiction. You are that"). Travis' struggle is less against particular concrete enemies than against his own impotence in the face of a world he cannot control, cannot connect with, and cannot stand. His quest is to wrest power for himself, to use "true force" to shatter the world he can't live in. His thorough destruction of shooting-alley targets speaks of more than the wish to practice his aim; when he rocks his TV set back onto the floor, in a shot of sparks and smoke, it is as if the entire world had been snuffed out. He watches a music-show filled with couples dancing to typical mid-70s soft-rock, and the singer's voice asks his own question: "How long have I been sleeping?" - and, when will he awake? His violence, in a sense, is only for himself: when he speaks or acts, in front of the mirror, it's an enaction of narcissism, a spilling of internal rhetoric in order to bolster himself up, a power-play for which he is the only audience (Lacan: it's only at the mirror stage that the infant ego takes shape). It is a function of his unbreakable solitude: when he says, faux-streetwise, into the mirror, "I'm the only one here", we know, as Roger Ebert says, it's "the truest line in the film".

Rewatching, I was surprised by how little time elapses between Travis' first meeting with Sport, and the moment when he shoots him in the stomach. So much of the film is spent building up to what we (or rather I) know is going to happen: that unbearable leer at the police, finger against temple - "poom, poom, poom". Looking back, it seems absolutely crucial for Schrader and Scorsese to leave open the question of whether he survives, and the final scenes are fantasy or reality. Given the amount of (obviously fake) blood he had lost, it seems rather unlikely he would have survived, far less likely that, had he done so, he should be pardoned and rewarded for the murder of 3 men, criminals though they be. It is, perhaps, more rewarding to see this ending as the fulfilment of the unconscious impulse driving his quest: he set out knowing he would be killed, but it appears that he really desired the best of both worlds - the death of his enemies, and the reward of his actions in a continuing life. In this sense, it crystallises the overriding theme of Travis' stymied quest: the choice that the world presents to the living, in which there can be no half-measures - of fulfilment, the everyday happiness and social contact we see in the lives of others, or desolation, and ultimately death. The elect - the invisible church of those with the power to choose - and the majority, who cannot, will not be known until the day of judgement. Until then, we check the mirror, the stirring of the street. We will stop before the door, and wait for a voice.


Blogger Seb said...

Wonderful overall. A very minor addendum/correction: if there appears to be no '70s American hauntology, that's because it has yet to find a champion. Pity, really, 'cuz it's far more fascinating & potentially dangerous than the '80s version.

August 29, 2010 at 6:19 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

It's bizarre, because there's no shortage of nostalgia for the American 1970s, despite the fact that they were experienced almost exclusively as crisis & decline: 'That 70s Show', 'Velvet Goldmine', 'Nearly Famous', that godawful Germs biopic...

August 30, 2010 at 11:52 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

'*Almost* Famous', I meant.

August 30, 2010 at 11:53 AM  
Blogger Seb said...

Best to leave aside how incredibly high everyone was in the '70s and that's why it's remembered with such corduroy warmth. The '70s were also when the American nostalgia-feedback machine first roared to life (cf. "Happy Days", "American Graffiti").

But I think it's also generally accepted that the best art (be it music, film, or literature) from the '70s did reflect how turbulent & unpleasant much of it was. Certainly no other decade has produced a finer crop of conspiracy-theory films.

August 31, 2010 at 5:48 PM  

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