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.