Monday, January 26, 2009

Thoughts on Villainy and Misanthropy: Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver

I watched Taxi Driver last night for the first time. Unsurprisingly, cinematic violence of the last three decades now makes perfect sense. Before every gun obsessed film there stands Travis Bickle, holster in tow, asking, "You talkin' to me?"

What I find so intriguing about Travis is our willingness to side with him, even after it becomes apparent (for me: during the coffee scene with Betsy) that he's totally psychotic. There have been endless impressions, references, posters, t-shirts, and general fanaticism over this character. So I have to ask: do we side with Travis because we feel sorry for him, or because we relate to him?

Villains are the personification of general misanthropy. In the last few years, the line has been blurred between purely good and solely evil through the undying commitment by filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers to write complex characters we're unable to jam into a neatly defined category. And then there's the recent development of characters who represent something so purely and simply evil (see: Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men) that we're terrified by our inability to see them as human. Lord knows, as children, the villains seem cooler in Disney movies. But perhaps that's because their stories are just more complex, and therefore, more believable.

Travis, on the other hand, is very human. He can't sleep, probably because he's suffering from post-traumatic stress, no doubt from his service as a marine in Vietnam. He's disgusted by the seediness of New York, and entranced by a beautiful young woman. And, when she rejects him, he spirals out of control, throwing everything into saving a child prostitute he meets by chance. Jodie Foster, in one of the most honest, genuine performances by a fourteen year old girl I've ever seen, reminds us that she doesn't want to be saved, which somehow makes us even more sympathetic to Travis' plight.

There's that word: sympathy. Do we really blame Aileen Wornos for murdering men in cold blood after she had spent year after year being raped and abused by them? Are we not so secretly rooting for Thelma and Louise, even though they are technically murderers? What about the bride, in Kill Bill? These are revenge stories. Then there are the more stylized criminals like Bonnie and Clyde. They're so cool, we want them to get away with murder. It's a counter-culture fantasy. Don't we all just wish we could steal a kagillion bucks and ride away into the sunset, wearing a cute beret? I sure do.

But, it's never that easy, unfortunately. In Hollywood, the bad guys have to pay for what they've done. Otherwise, how the hell would we know that we have to continue to toe the line and go to our job every day and remember to buy toilet paper when we run out? While the life of crime might seem glamorous, it sure doesn't end well.

Or does it?

[here be spoilers]

In the end, Travis survives his killing spree as a hero. What wigs me out the most is the "moral" high ground Travis seems to occupy, in his dedication to act as God and rid the streets of Manhattan of all its trash. What exactly is Scorsese trying to say here, in naming Travis as a hero? Is he pointing out the inherent racism and bigotry in our willingness to believe that there in fact is "trash" that needs to be cleaned? And if Travis is a point of interest, and heroism, are his actions justified? (Notably, in the original script, the two pimps and Iris' customer at the end are all black men . . . Scorsese changed this). Or are we meant to interpret the film as nothing more than a portrait of a deeply disturbed man?

Given the intense popularity of the film, and the iconic status of the character of Travis, I have to tell you I think there's more of Travis in us then we'd like to believe.


Meagan said...

One of the reasons I think No Country is such a great film is that there is no way that any sane human could feel sympathetic towards Anton Chigurh. He's pure evil and it makes the audience uncomfortable. So many times in movies the audience does feel sympathy towards "villains" because directors/screenwriters find ways to justify their actions (battered woman, dad who needs money for his sick kid, kill one to save a hundred-type plots).

If "murder is murder," as many will say, then how is the killing of a pimp in Taxi Driver any different than Anton Chigurh killing that guy on the side of the road with a cattle gun? It definitely raises a lot of questions.

kat said...

Echoing the discomfort surrounding Anton Chigurh -- I found his character unnerving not just because he kills with impunity, but because he doesn't seem to feel one way or another about it. His flatness is terrifying.

Though I haven't seen Taxi Driver (yet -- must do that), your description of Travis Bickle, tortured by demons and on a crusade to rid the streets of trash, made me think right away of... Batman. Is that ridiculous? Or are there actually echoes of classic superhero here?

Snobber said...

M: Definitely. Anton Chigurh isn't human. He's a force.

Right--I think the problem is that "murder is murder" is a difficult standard to uphold, and I really love movies (like Taxi Driver) that take that into account!

Kat: Absolutely, again, with Anton . . . he's Godlike in his willingness to kill randomly.

Great connection to Batman! Your point especially rings true with Christopher Nolan's enterprise . . . his Batman struggles more with the power, and knowing who's the good guy and who's the bad guy.

Paul Pincus said...

this was insanely compelling. i empathize with most of these characters. what does that say about me?!

Snobber said...

paul, i don't think you have much to worry about. xoxox

Anonymous said...

What I find fascinating about Taxi Driver is how random it was that it turned out so well for Travis. He was going to kill the politician (or someone) at the political rally but security got the drop on him--he would have died had he drawn his gun, and certainly not a hero. But instead, he goes after Iris's jail-keepers. Remember though, he tries to kill himself at the end of the attack--out of bullets. The cops come, and could have shot him on sight because of his weapon (and his appearance), but they don't. He could have died from his wounds, but he didn't. So he ends up a hero, really by accident. This movie was more about alienation than psychosis, though. Having been "seen," having transcended his invisibility by virtue of his actions and his new status as a hero, he blows off Besty, who appears ready for some kind of reconciliation. No longer alone and invisible he doesn't need her now. Now that he is no longer invisible, and eaten up by alienation, he appears much more normal--what happened to the "psychosis"? He wasn't psychotic, he was desperately lonely. Just as the Romainian orphan babies literally die from lack of touching, adults can "fail to thrive" as well.