Depiction Of The Culture Of Violence In America In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver

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In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a mentally disturbed Vietnam Veteran likely suffering from PTSD who spend his nights patrolling the crime ridden streets of a decaying New York City in his yellow cab. The film is commonly read as the tale of a man driven to insanity by his inability to make any meaningful connections in a city of millions. This logic is sound, accurately depicting New York City as a lawless and crime ridden nighttown, encouraging paranoid isolation in the 1970’s. However, this common interpretation fails to account for why Travis Bickle is the only character driven to real violence in the film. In short, it is Travis’ service in Vietnam that makes his “disconnection from the city deeper and far more threatening,” and the film utilizes the man’s descent into insanity to critique the cultural landscape of America in the 1970’s, further shattering America’s ideal of superior moral righteousness post-Vietnam and post-Watergate (Sanders, 395). I plan to argue that the film employs the zeitgeist of American post-war disillusionment to symbolize how the veterans were a constant, painfully chastising reminder of the violence that the public witnessed in their very own living rooms throughout the war. Scorsese broke away from the tradition of representing American soldiers as heroic victims of violence, instead choosing to bring the war home by depicting an American soldier committing vicious atrocities on the home front in the name of his twisted perception of “justice.” In this light, Taxi Driver forces the audience to realize that the ruthless bloodbath displayed on the nightly news is a part of a larger culture of violence in America, underscoring the uncomfortable truth that America can be immoral, untrustworthy, and the perpetrator of unjustifiable violence.

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Taxi Driver was released in 1976, less than a year after the last set of American troops finally came home,tails between their legs, and attempted to reenter a society marked by social turmoil, violent crime, and hostility toward the War. Vietnam and Watergate violently divided the nation, irreparably damaged their conception of America as a moral world leader, and diminished their faith in the government as an honest and dedicated protector of its citizens. Instead of taking responsibility for the violent urban culture that had taken root in America, its citizens painted these veterans, mainly drafted minorities and poor men, as monsters, and the angry, misguided, voice of the American people rejected them in order to heal their own mental wounds. Scapegoating the veterans was much easier than dealing with the harsh reality being offered up by every American news outlet, as the nightly scenes of death and devastation, like the My Lai Massacre, had both undermined all justification for the war and been ingrained into the nation’s collective memory. Furthermore, given the scientific community had not yet discovered PTSD, the media portrayed “shell shocked” veterans as ticking time bombs, portraying their scarred mental state as a direct consequence of their actions rather than the trauma they experienced in combat.

When removed from this political context, it is easy to overlook the importance of Travis Bickle’s service in Vietnam. However, the political implications of, and the American mood surrounding, Veterans at the time of Taxi Driver’s release are a crucial part of the analysis. To fail to account for the zeitgeist of the era is to fail to understand what the director was really trying to say. There was no need for Scorsese to harp on the fact that Travis was a veteran as the Vietnam War was still very fresh in the minds of the American people, but the importance of his service as a military man is made clear through other avenues. For example, the audience does not learn much about the protagonist other than the fact he was honorably discharged from the Marines during the war. Scorsese also artfully includes a constant stream of visual motifs referencing Vietnam throughout the film, highlighting how important Bickle’s service was to his development as a person. A charred Viet Cong flag hangs in his apartment, and in almost every scene outside the apartment Bickle wears a military jacket with a “King Kong Brigade” patch creating a parallel between the mean streets of NYC and Vietnam. Ultimately, New York City was devolving into the hellish landscape that characterized Vietnam, and America was responsible for the unleashing of both of those “hells”.

Bickle’s background being centered exclusively on his identification as a veteran and a cabbie powerfully places the violence, madness, and fear surrounding the war in a familiarly American context. New York City in the seventies truly was “the concrete jungle,” and Scorsese was blatant in his choice to characterize postwar NYC as a place of danger, alienation, and depravity, a place that would remind a veteran a little too much of the jungles of Vietnam. Scorsese explains that the paranoia, when associated with Bickle’s experience in the war, “becomes more heightened when he comes back; the image of the street at night reflected in the dirty gutter becomes more threatening. I think that’s something a guy going through a war, any war, would experience when he comes back to what is supposedly “civilization”.

The enemy in Vietnam was indistinguishable from the civilian and Travis’ experiences attempting to integrate into the foggy, crime infested nightmare that was NYC in the 1970’s parallels that fear, skepticism and desire for “a real rain to come and wash all this scum off the streets” of NYC, a place he describes as an “open sewer”. The movie is a classic film noir with an excessively dark color palette dotted with bright neon signs that “seem to bathe the entire city in a think expressionistic gloom, completing the transformation in a fully rendered nightworld – a place at once ‘seductive and terrible’”. Scorsese’s use of revisionary film noir stylistic techniques compliment the post-Vietnam confusion of a world entirely out of balance, continuing along the experimental path of the sixties film, while simultaneously abandoning its idealistic youthful optimism in a truly seventies manner.

The title sequence sets this mood immediately, opening with an uncomfortably long shot of a thick cloud of sewer steam that fills the screen before Travis’ yellow cab slowly emerges, transforming the filthy cloud into a vague mist, carrying “Taxi Driver” in neon letters onto the screen before the cloud engulfs the frame once again and the title disappears. New York City is to be understood in all of its filth and immorality with the sewer top resembling easily penetrable gates of hell, allowing for evil (the steam) to seep into the very fabric of the city. Travis becomes obsessed with the worst parts of New York, spending his nights driving around the parts that most clearly resemble societal collapse. He separates himself from all that is bad in New York by fully immersing himself in it and labeling himself the morally superior other in order to identify as a man capable of redeeming the city. In the same manner, Americans distanced themselves from the war following the widespread circulation of a video showing a Vietnamese man being shot in the head. That specific instance of televised violence marked the turning point: Americans could no longer justify the military endeavor. The scene triggered the nation to remember the trauma of watching the televised assassination of John F. Kennedy paralleling how Bickle, suffering from PTSD, could easily be triggered by New York City to remember the trauma of the war. Looking back, it becomes obvious that the image of the cab passing through and covering the smog for just a second suggests that any recognition of Travis as a do-gooder who helped clean up the cesspool is simply a convenient falsity as his cab (Travis) simply adds to the pollution (violent culture).

The remainder of the title sequence enlightens the audience that the film is to be experienced through Bickle, as the camera rotates between close up shots of his eyes and entrancing images of New York City nightlife. This intra-diegetic gaze invites the audience into Bickle’s mind, providing the viewer with an exclusive understanding of his distant relationship with NYC. With the windshield acting as a safety barrier, Bickle suspiciously observes, with a furrowed brow and darting eyes, a city that he does not quite understand. A city that is unaware and utterly indifferent to his very existence. The streets are lit up by neon signs and the images are blurry, hinting at the later reveal of Travis’ mental instability and tainted vision of the world. Travis exclusively and intentionally exposes himself to the worst the city has to offer, and his hyper awareness of all that is bad, along with his inability to connect with anything “good,” stems from the psychological damage he suffered during Vietnam. Moreover, his understanding morality in terms of patriotic violence stems from his military conditioning. Bickle perceives NYC as his personified antagonist, and drawing on his distorted conception of justice, he deems it necessary to restore justice to the city like the American military hero he was never recognized to be after Vietnam.

When Travis applies to become a cabbie in the opening scene, the camera introduces the audience to his military jacket and the King Kong badge on his shoulder before exposing his whole face. The choice for the camera to focus on his Vietnam attire can be interpreted as a hint for the audience to recognize that Travis still has a combat mindset despite the fact he is no longer fighting in Vietnam. In 1976, to be recognized as a veteran was often synonymous with the media’s stereotypical portrayal of dangerous ticking time bombs that should be engaged only with caution, if at all. With this in mind, it is reasonable to view his conversation with his soon-to-be employer as dishonest. When asked about his driving record, he responds “clean. Real clean. Like my conscience,” and he cracks a smile for the first time throughout the conversation, likely because he is amused by, not guilty for, his actions in Vietnam. This is further supported by his clearly pained and embarrassed expression when disclosing his honorable discharge from the military. The choice for Bickle also to include the date of his discharge, despite not being asked for it, illustrates how painful and fresh the memories of the war are. While this could be interpreted simply as a man scarred by violence, his silent and disengaged reaction when his employer attempts to bond over the fact they both served in the Marines demonstrates that his discharge was likely not honorable, and his actions were not something others would regard as heroic.

One can assume that Travis took part in the violence in Vietnam with pleasure, buying into the American myth of capitalism being a force of good to defeat the evil force of communism. America’s endeavor to “free” the Vietnamese people from communist leader Ho Chi Minh was misguided, as the majority of the population favored his rule. In reality, America was the evil force attempting to impose its will upon the small nation in order to prevent a “domino effect” of south-east Asian countries embracing communism, bolstering Russia’s influence in the sphere and further deteriorating America’s image as a unipolar leader. Travis personifies this dynamic when a voice over narrates his first diary entry as the camera pans across his small apartment. The camera focuses first on a burnt Viet Cong flag hanging on a clothesline in the middle of the room, highlighting the centrality of Travis’ attachment to the Vietnam War as a force of moral good, choosing to display memorabilia in his small, cluttered apartment. Travis writes, “thank God for the rain which has helped wash away the garbage and the trash off the sidewalks,” and although this can at first be taken as literal rain, the voice over continues as the camera moves with the front of his taxi and a movie sign advertising “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Return of the Dragon” moves across the screen, with ominous music in the background (Schrader).

In Vietnam, the symbol of the dragon brings the actual rain, and with it prosperity and power to the nation. Travis understands the U.S. to be that “rain” that tried and failed to bring prosperity and power to Vietnam through a military campaign to wash away the Viet Cong, a force Travis identified as garbage and trash, degrading the morality of the people. The audience sees prostitutes and criminals on the street as Bickle recounts in disgust that “all the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal,” mirroring the emphasis America placed on the amoral nature of the Viet Cong’s military strategy, staging guerilla attacks under the cloak of night. He views New York City’s “animals” to be a similar force, degrading the morality and prestige of the once great metropolis. When analyzing fictional film it is imperative to remind oneself that nothing exists outside of the frame and that everything within the frame was placed there purposefully. Scorsese chose to place “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” above “Return of the Dragon” in bigger letters to foreshadow that Travis will become the very “rain” he deems necessary to “wash all this scum off the streets,” and it will once against resemble a massacre. When returning the cab that morning, he even notes that he has to often wash the blood off the backseat, like a soldier washing the blood off his boots after a day of Vietnam combat.

Bickle becomes so obsessed with not “devoting his life to morbid self attention” in order to bring salvation to a city spiraling into immoral chaos (Schrader). He sees himself in the same light that America saw itself in its fight against communism, as the moral center of a decaying world, and Betsey becomes Travis’ first obsession. Travis is enamored with the woman in a white dress, symbolizes innocence, who “appeared like an angel out of the filthy mass,” and he watches her through the glass window of the campaign headquarters, misinterpreting her worried glances during her flirtatious conversation with her co-worker as a cry for help. However, the reality is Travis is the paternalistic and invasive presence, just as America was. Travis’ inability to grasp this, exemplified by his persistence, parallels America’s allegiance to its myth of moral superiority. He attempts to convince Betsey that he knows what she needs, knowingly stating “you’re a very lonely person,” and Betsey’s ultimate rejection of Travis after he takes her on a date to a porno movie reveals to her that he is a man that has a murky sense of morality (Schrader). The rejection marks the beginning of his mental unraveling into murderous insanity as he “realizes now how much she’s just like the others, cold and distant” (Schrader). It is also notable that Betsey works earnestly for Senator Palantine whose slogan is “we the people suffered in Vietnam,” implying that he was probably a dove on the issue of Vietnam War, the very thing Travis has romanticized as his moral center. Moreover, when Travis picks up Palatine in his cab, he rants about the need to clean the scum out of the city, and Palantine uncomfortably dismisses the comments with an ambiguous promise that politicians will have to make some radical changes.

Following Betsey’s rejection, Travis picks up a distressed man, played by Martin Scorsese, who demands that Bickle pull over and leave the meter running, finally explaining that his wife was cheating on him in a window visible from the cab. The audience at first relates to the sense of uncomfortability and fear that Travis seems to exhibit with his silence and daring glances in his rearview mirror. However, the man discloses that he plans to kill his cheating wife with a.44 magnum pistol, and Travis immediately perks up, turning his head slightly right toward the man demonstrating that the man’s account of what a.44 magnum could do to a woman’s face is something Travis can resonate with. He too blames the problems of the world on others, rather than taking responsibility for his own feelings of hurt and rejection. He desires “positive” change in the world in the only way he knows, combating corruption with violence, and he chooses Palantine as the embodiment of NYC’s evil due to his misguided understanding of him as Betsey’s domineering paternalistic figure.

Travis purchases a.44 magnum from a gunman, the exact killing machine that his crazed fare graphically described as being capable of disfiguring a woman’s face and genitals. Travis is mesmerized by the gun, possibly fantasizing about his newfound purpose: assassinating Palantine. The camera pauses on a shot of Bickle’s eye framed by the open chamber of the pistol, signifying the turning point in the film when the gun begins to drive his actions. It is important to note that the.44 magnum, a weapon notably used in Vietnam to fight the “tunnel rats,” Viet Cong soldiers who fought in the tunnels, is the only gun that that Travis does not test out due to his familiarity with it (Tunnel Rats). The scene transitions into Travis vigorously exercising in his apartment with his military jacket hanging beside him, displaying the King Kong patch, before exposing the large combat scar on his shoulder. He insists that “every muscle must be tight,” before the scene fades to him at a shooting range, implying that Travis has resumed military style training (Schrader). The ex marine choses to inhabit the most crime infested parts of the city because it gives him the sense of purpose he felt in vietnam of instilling the American perception of justice. Ironically, even after meeting 12-year-old Iris whom he later becomes obsessed with liberating, he still chooses Mr. Clean Politician as his target demonstrating Travis’ distorted sense of morality. As Travis reconciles his delusional plot to assassinate the senator as a moral crusade to save the decaying city, he is the true source of danger, succumbing to the filth and the scum of the city.

At this point, Travis has designated himself to be the only hope for salvation, and he prepares for combat, strapping himself with guns and conversing with an imagined enemy while staring at his own reflection. The irony being that even when looking himself in the mirror, Travis is unable to recognize that he is the immoral force that would only serve to further degrade society by assassinating a presidential candidate, adding to the culture of violence and unrest. 

10 Jun 2021

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