Monday, March 24, 2014


I've always wanted to know more about Travis Bickle. As Roger Ebert wrote in his original review of the film in1976, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver is "a brilliant nightmare and like all nightmares it doesn't tell us half of what we want to know."

It's as if every ounce of Travis' life before getting his hack license was pared away in the editing room.  We see that he's living in a hovel, driving long shifts through what looks like a Hellish 42nd Street, and  growing paranoid about the ugly street life he sees around him. He meets a 12-year-old hooker. He wants to rescue her. He doesn't want her for himself, he wants to return her to her family. Of course, he also considers shooting a presidential candidate.  In the end, he rescues the young girl and becomes a hero. I still don't know much about him.

I've read bits and pieces over the years hoping to find clues. I learned that screenwriter Paul Schrader wrote the script based  on his own experiences in Los Angeles. He'd left his wife and, with no direction to his career,  found himself living in his car for several weeks with no one to talk to. "I was locked in this iron coffin," he says in the  DVD commentary, "wandering around in this nightmarish world." Schrader ended up with an ulcer. When he got out of the hospital he wrote the script in either 10 days or 15 days, depending on when he's telling the story. (The more recent the article, the fewer days it seemed to take; in a few more years he'll say he wrote it in a day.)He's never been too forthcoming about it, just to say "it was written from the gut," or, "it sprang from my head like an animal." 

In Mary Pat Kelly's 'Martin Scorsese: A Journey,' Schrader described Travis as "sort of a young man who wandered from the snowy waste of the Midwest into an overheated New York cathedral."  To Film Comment in 1976, Schrader described Taxi Driver as, "a very rich piece of juvenilia, but it is juvenilia, it is an adolescent, immature mind struggling to identify itself." About Travis, he said, "He should be killing himself instead of these other people," and "Travis is me without my brains."  He also likes to say that in trying to kill both a political figure and a pimp, Travis was killing the father figures of the women in his life, and that the theme of the film wasn't loneliness, but self-imposed loneliness.

Well, that's poetic and all, but it didn't help me in my quest to learn more about Travis.

At the time of the film's release, Schrader told the Chicago Sun-Times that he'd purposely left Travis' life a blank slate:

"I wrote it that way after thinking about the way they handled In Cold Blood. They tell you all about Perry Smith's background, how he developed his problems, and immediately it becomes less interesting because his problems aren't your problems, but his symptoms are your symptoms."

Fair enough. And, I'll admit, a good strategy. Had Schrader told us anything too specific about Travis' past, he risked us not relating to his main character. We gather that Travis is a Vietnam veteran, but he barely makes note of it in the movie.  "His psychopathy was created by himself," Schrader said. "He didn't need Vietnam to create it." By focusing on Travis' loneliness, Schrader cast a wider net. Still, I'd like to know a little something, anything. For instance, Schrader, a Midwest Calvinist landed in LA because he wanted to work in Hollywood. What the hell is Travis doing in New York?

I'm also familiar with the film buff's folklore about Taxi Driver being patterned after John Ford's The Searchers, a film where John Wayne kills a  bunch of Indians to rescue his young niece, who has been living quite happily with an Indian named "Scar." Maybe there's something to that. Wayne's character was a Civil War veteran, Travis a Vietnam veteran. Travis wears western boots, and wants to rescue a young girl from a pimp who wears an Indian headband. The pimp also wears his hair long like an Indian in an old Hollywood western. Still, that doesn't give me much to go on, other than Schrader's admiration for John Ford.  Wayne's just a hothead who hates Indians, while Travis seems insane. They're both loners, and I'd guess they're both unloved, but Travis is a decidedly modern character, just screwy enough to be dangerous, but competent enough to hold down a job.

Schrader has also labeled Travis as "uneducated," and "racist," someone so far down on the societal totem pole that he lashes out at the African-Americans he sees on 42nd Street, blaming them for his misery and isolation. The original script was much more blatant about this than the resulting film. For instance, the pimp and his friends were originally to be black characters, but it was Scorsese who suggested they be changed to white characters.

Travis Bickle's story also seemed pulled from the diary of Arthur Bremer, the screwjob who shot Alabama governor George Wallace in 1972. Bremer did have some similarities to Travis Bickle (same number of syllables in his name, too). He was awkward around women, and although he wasn't entangled with a teen prostitute, he did have a fixation on a 16-year-old high school girl.  Still, the surface similarities between Bremer and Bickle were never quite enough for me. Bremer was just another anti-social misfit craving attention. Travis Bickle, meanwhile, seemed to be working on a frequency not of this earth.

Part of the reason for Travis' otherness was that he was played by Robert De Niro, who played Travis as if he had no center - he was charming one minute, then a borderline imbecile, and then a seething avenger, determined to rid the streets of filth.  Schrader at one point claimed De Niro "knows more about Travis than I do," but De Niro, notoriously averse to talking about his work, has never said anything profound about Bickle, other than that he was an interesting character. Schrader let a cat of some sort out of the bag in 1976 when he told Film Comment about a script De Niro had once tried to write. It was about a boy in New York who carried a gun and daydreamed about shooting someone of importance.  De Niro never finished it, but upon reading Schrader's script for Taxi Driver, felt his thoughts had been captured. "The gun is your talent," Schrader told De Niro.

Scorsese has never given me much to go by, either, only that great pains were taken to film Travis in ways to emphasize his isolation. Scorsese tries to find the suffering Catholic in every character. On the DVD commentary, Scorsese says that one of the reasons he liked Travis was because, "He feels in his heart that he's doing right, like a religious zealot."  There was even a scene filmed where Travis flogs himself with a towel, as if doing penance. Scorsese eventually cut it from the final version because it "looked forced."

Scorsese was asked by Ebert in '76 about Travis' past. Scorsese responded, "we don't tell you where he comes from, or what his story is. Obviously, he comes from somewhere and he picked up these problems along the way."  He added that his film was his own version of feminism:

"Because it takes macho to its logical conclusion. The better man is the man who can kill you. This one shows that kind of thinking, shows the kinds of problems some men have, bouncing back and forth between the goddesses and whores. The whole movie is based, visually, on one shot where the guy is being turned down on the telephone by the girl, and the camera actually pans away from him. It's too painful to see that rejection."

Like most rejected men, Travis is confused. Other men, from presidential candidates to pimps, seem to have what he wants. Not only that, but they get it easily. As Ebert wrote in his original review of the film, "Travis has been shut out so systematically, so often, from a piece of the action that eventually he has to hit back somehow." But Travis doesn't do it randomly. He needs to build up to it. He prowls 42nd Street, the X-rated neighborhood he most despises, returning to it night after night, trying build up his rage. As he says more than once in the film, he's thinking about doing bad things. His jaunts down 42nd Street are a crazy kind of foreplay for him, leading to the film's climactic bloodbath where he guns down Iris' pimp and his buddies in, as Pauline Kael wrote, "the only real orgasm he can have.” But was Travis' saga, as many critics, mostly female, have opined, just a case of a man's sexual frustration that manifested in a gun battle over a little girl?

I've never appreciated kneejerk Freudian interpretations, but it's fascinating to me how so many highly regarded female critics rely on the old saw about "guns as phallic symbols."  If Travis bought a box of plain donuts, would Kael say they represented vaginas? I doubt it.

Full confession: part of my fascination with Travis Bickle comes from my own time as an isolated young man living in a big city. I've lived in that same hovel, a barren place with holes in the wall filled with newspapers to block out the winter chill. I worked those late nights, not as a cabbie, but in a post office.  I remember going to Chinatown and buying a switchblade, thinking I might have to use it for protection. I remember practicing in my apartment, seeing how fast I could get it out of my pocket and into a dude's heart.  One winter, when I had no money but needed a coat, I went to an Army-Navy store and bought an oversized green Army jacket, similar to the one worn by De Niro in the film. My friends would see me and say, 'Here comes Travis.' I took it as an odd compliment. Little did they know my couch was ripped and torn from where I had been practicing my stabbing techniques.

While I never knew any teen prostitutes, I certainly knew some disturbed young women, and I was convinced I could rescue them from whatever their problem happened to be. Sometimes I succeeded. Sometimes I got kicked in the teeth for my trouble.

Of course, I was bright enough to know you didn't bring a woman to a porn movie on the first date, as Travis did with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). That scene, as much as any, shows how disconnected Travis is from reality. That disconnection is the part of Travis that I've wanted to solve. Schrader once said that Travis' interest in porn movies came from his own time in LA. Porn palaces were the only place open at 2:00 AM, and they were a place to get warm. But Travis isn't there to get warm.  He doesn't seem to be there for thrills, either. Why is he there?  Travis seems strangely sexless. He thinks of Betsy as a beautiful blond goddess, and seems happy to just sit opposite her at the coffee shop. This scene is always bittersweet for me to watch, because Travis has actually charmed her, and seems just a click away from maybe getting her to really like him. He's so close! (Bremer, the Alabama nutcase, was said to have shown his 16-year-old female friend some porn, which turned her off. But in reading about Bremer, he comes off as a dumb pervert who liked showing dirty pictures. Travis just seems oblivious to reality.) But even if he succeeded in getting Betsy past their first date, could Travis actually have anything like a normal relationship with a woman? Or is he destined to be, to borrow a phrase from the movie, "God's lonely man?"

I recently consulted the Taxi Driver movie tie-in paperback. Remember those? Maybe you don't. Back in the 1970s, it was common for movie studios to hire a novelist to write a "novelization" of the screenplay, particularly if the studio heads felt the film might be popular, and especially if it was popular among kids, who always wanted to continue their experience of the movie. These books would be sold in supermarkets and bookstores, with some cover art resembling the movie. I recall Rocky being given such a treatment, and Star Wars, and Halloween, and many others from that era. The films chosen for novelization were usually love stories, or horror movies, or films geared towards children. That's why I was startled to learn that Taxi Driver had been given the "novelization" treatment. 

The Taxi Driver novelization is a slim thing, even by the standards of cheapo film novelizations. What intrigued me was that 1) Schrader's name was front and center, for it was his screenplay being used by novelist Richard Elman, and 2) It was standard for the first draft of a screenplay to be used as the basis for these books, which is why novelizations often include things that aren't in the film, and also why some things in the film don't appear in the book. I'd hoped  the novelization would reveal Travis Bickle in his earliest form, before Scorsese and De Niro started adding their own wrinkles to him. 

Writing in a sparse, first person narrative to resemble Travis' narration in the film, Elman sticks closely to the main storyline, but there are some minor things added along the way that caught my attention, namely that Travis mentions having a woman in his past, an older woman who loved him more than he loved her. He eventually left her because he'd grown tired of her, and then heard that she had performed an abortion on herself with a coat hanger. It doesn't sound much like Travis, but it did remind me a bit of the flashback scenes in  Midnight Cowboy, another novel (and film) about a young man who found himself alone in New York, surrounded by the city's seedy sex industry.  Midnight Cowboy had been one of the most popular films of 1969. Schrader wrote Taxi Driver in 1971. The earlier movie was bound to be an influence in Schrader's early draft, even if just to a small degree.  On the other hand, I can't be absolutely positive that Travis' ex-girlfriend wasn't inserted by Elman, just to add a little body to the story. I have no way of asking Elman, for he died in 1997.

There are other interesting bits: Travis hums dirty limericks to himself while driving his cab, and is particularly enamored of the word "cunt," using it as often as possible, even inserting it into old childhood songs; in his scene with Betsy at the coffee shop, he does not use the term "organazized," which leads me to believe that was De Niro's contribution;  the bits between Shepherd and Albert Brooks at the Palantine headquarters are not in the book; Travis mentions Kalamazoo as his home town; he shaves his head much earlier in the novelization, and is actually wearing his mohawk when he first meets Iris; the film's most famous scene, where Travis looks in the mirror and says "Are you talking to me?" is not in the book, which didn't surprise me. Those lines are actually from George Stevens' classic western Shane, and that scene was improvised by De Niro and Scorsese, simply because they had a little time on their hands. (Schrader has clamed the "Are you talking to me?" line was actually borrowed from a New York comic, popular in Greenwich Village at the time.)

There's a lot of trite stuff in the novelization about Travis wanting to be famous, to put himself in the history books, which sounds like it was lifted from Bremer, a sad sack misanthrope who wanted to be famous. Iris and Betsy are just stick figures of no particular interest (that they are so memorable in the film is a tribute to Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd).

There are some small things in the novelization that intrigued me, though. At one point, Travis is driving along and sees a man leaping to his death from a skyscraper. The image of the falling man stays in Travis' mind for several more scenes. Sometimes he refers to himself as the man on the ledge. I can see why this idea wasn't used in the film - it's too otherworldly. Travis is earthbound, stuck to the street, where the action boils. Having him look upward, during the daylight hours, isn't where Scorsese's vision rested. Still, it was an interesting idea.

Also, at the end of the story when Travis is back in his cab and seems to have returned to normalcy, he picks up Betsy. The scene in the novelization runs pretty much as it does in the film, with one glaring exception. When Betsy steps out of the cab, she shouts to Travis as he drives away, "Call me up sometime, huh?" 

Travis responds, "Sure. Sure I will."

And Travis drives away smiling.

Did Elman get this from Schrader's screenplay? Had Schrader intended the film to have a happy ending, where Betsy and Travis might have a future together? The novelization ends with Travis being philosophical, and feeling sorry for Betsy, acknowledging that it is difficult for everyone to make friends in this world.

If this was Schrader's original intention, then I'm intrigued. Travis was originally a more racist character, but also more upbeat by the story's end, almost optimistic. In the film he's less racist and more existential.

"He's certainly not cured by the end of the picture," Scorsese said on the DVD commentary track. "He's still a time bomb, ticking away. I don't know if that's clear, but it doesn't have to be." He added, "I used to think there was a bit of Travis in all of us, but now I don't know. He goes over the edge. He's acting out his fantasies...who knows what his background is...he just wants his power to be known."

I used to think there was a bit of Travis in me, too, but now I don't think so. After watching the film again, and reading up on it, I realized the difference. Travis was out of touch with reality. I was just a scared kid, pumping myself up with the idea that I might be whacko, too.  Being crazy was better than being scared, and it looks better on the resume.

I no longer live in a big city. I've moved to a beach town that is bustling with tourists in the summer, deader than a doornail in the winter. Recently, I sat in a corner booth of my town's lone pizza place, thumbing the Taxi Driver paperback, watching the waves slap at the beach.  I realized suddenly that the pizza shop was empty, except for me.

I may not be in the city, but not much has changed.

God's lonely men are everywhere.

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