Paul (Joseph) Schrader PATRICIA PATTERSON and MANNY FARBER - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Basing its tortured hackie hero vaguely on the pasty-faced Arthur Bremer, who, frustrated in his six attempts to kill Nixon, settled on maiming George Wallace for life, Taxi Driver not only waters down the unforgettable (to anyone who's read his diary) Bremer, but goes for traditional plot sentimentality. Bremer, as he comes across in his diaries, was mad every second, in every sentence, whereas the Bickle character goes in and out of normality as the Star System orders. The Number One theme in the Arthur Bremer diary is I Want to Be A Star. Having dropped this obsession as motivation, the movie falls into a lot of motivational problems, displacing the limelight urge into more Freudian areas (like sexual frustration) and into religious theories (like ritual self-purification). The star or celebrity obsession is a Seventies fact—the main thing that drives people these days—compared to the dated springboards in Paul Schrader's script. Instead of Bremer's media dream, getting his name into the New York Times headlines, this script is set on pulp conventions: a guy turns killer because the girl of his dreams rejects him. The girl of his dreams, a squeaky-clean WASP princess, is yet another cliché assumption: that the outsiders of the world are yearning to connect to the symbols of well-washed middle-class gentility.

Busily trying to turn pulp into myth, the movie runs into all kinds of plot impossibles:

(1) A shy guy converts himself into a brutal killer after scenes in which he is a smart-ass with an FBI agent, a near matinee idol with his Miss Finishing School, and an unsophisticated, normal Lindbergh type with a teen prostitute. The latter girl similarly goes from street-hardened and cynical to open and cheerful, well-nourished and unscarred, in one twelve-hour time interval.

(2) The cabbie, after having readied himself with push-ups, chin-ups, burning dead flowers, and many hours of target practice, guns down a black thief in a Spanish deli. The brutality, which is extended by the store-owner golfing the victim's corpse with a crowbar, is never touched by the police.

(3) A taxi driver who's slaughtered three people, been spotted twice by the FBI, and has enough unlicensed artillery strapped to his body to kill a platoon, is hailed as a liberating hero by the New York press.

(4) A Secret Service platoon, grouped around a rather minor campaign speech on Columbus Circle, fails to spot and apprehend a fantastic apparition: a madly grinning young man who is wearing an oversized jacket on a summer day, sunglasses, and has his head shaved like a Mohawk brave, with a strip of carpeting for the remaining hair.

Although Taxi Driver is immeasurably more gritty, acrobatic, and zigzagging than the Jeremiah Johnson mythicizing of mountain men, the two films (one moves blandly forward on snow shoes, the other sets a grueling pace) are remarkably similar in their linear structure and ideology. Both are odes to Masculine Means in which a mysterious young man appears out of indistinct origins; learns the lore of survival warfare in a hostile land; after a heartbreak, lashes out in a murderous rampage; fades into a mythic haze. The lore Jeremiah-Travis learns has to do with manly self-reliance: the first learns to kill a bear, catch a fish barehanded; the "hackie in Hell" becomes a one-man commando unit. Both inhabit a world—an unpeopled wilderness and a callous jungle—where no one can be counted on for help. Women are the spurs to the climactic bloodbath: Jeremiah's Indian wife is murdered, while Travis's efficient blond tease rejects him, confirming him in his conviction that blood is the only solution.

The character of the Loner, which dominates American films from Philip Marlowe to Will Penny to Dirty Harry Callahan, has seldom been given such a double-sell treatment. The intense [Travis Bickle] is sold as a misfit psychotic and, at the same time, a charismatic star who centers every shot and is given a prismatic detailing by [Martin Scorsese], who...

(The entire section is 1677 words.)