Taxi Driver (2)

td2Today we will finish our discussion of Paul Schrader’s script, Taxi Driver. The first part of the review can be found here. You can find a link to the script on the site forums.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) Before we can have any luck talking about reveals, we must first determine what the hell this story is about. On the surface, Taxi Driver seems to have many different disconnected story strands vying for the reader’s attention. Is the script just about Travis’ job as a cab driver? Is it about his attraction to Betsy? Is it about his assassination plot against Senator Palantine? Or, is it about his attempted rescue of the depressingly young prostitute, Iris?

Although the script involves all those elements, I think it’s really about the last line in the third paragraph of the script. The one I quoted in the prior review when discussing the opening ten pages.

As the earth moves toward the
sun, Travis Bickle moves toward violence.

I love this simile because it compares the mathematical necessity of physics, to the psychological necessity of Travis’ violence. We know the violence is coming, and we move through the pages of this script waiting for it to be unveiled. I see each of the story strands as weaving together to make a tapestry of Travis’ progress toward violence. The inexorability of this motion will become critical when we take up this script’s theme.

I will push all thematic asides to the background for now and, instead, note that there are dual perceptions of the movement in this story. Perception Group A consists solely of Travis. Perception Group B is… you, me, the author… any qualitatively normal person. Those two sets of observers DO NOT interpret the events which Travis participates in with the same translation guide.

We already know where Travis will end; the last sentence in paragraph three told us. Opposed to us, Travis [at least when the script begins] still believes he can find something that makes him happy. This causes us to view Travis’ case as one long, inevitable, slide into murder. Travis, on the other hand, thinks he makes reasonable attempts to cope with the world, and this world rejects these attempts… without just cause. Only after he believes he has exhausted every route toward acceptance available to him, does Travis begin to actively move toward violence. There is a reason Travis commits no acts of violence until page 59:

It doesn’t take TRAVIS long to decide what to do: without
hesitation he pulls his .32 from his jacket pocket.

Hey dude!

The STICK-UP MAN, surprised, turns toward TRAVIS, finding
only an exploding .32. The MAN’s lower jaw bursts open with
blood as he reels and crashes to the floor. There is no
emotion on TRAVIS’ face.

The reason is because, until page 59, Travis still wants to find a cure for his loneliness, he still wants human company.

With the dual perceptions in mind, then, I’ll posit the actual thing which gets revealed in this script is:

Travis is not fit for human consumption.

I believe this was expertly set-up and revealed. I think it is borderline genius [because of the impending theme] that this script is subtle enough to have this set-up and reveal happen BOTH for its main character and for any member of the audience.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) We just mentioned the engine when we discussed reveals. All the momentum in this script derives from Travis’ search for a cure for his loneliness. The reason Travis does not find this cure is because of his selfishness. Travis is looking for someone that will accept him as he is; Travis is the world’s third fully functioning consciousness bomb. [The other two literary examples will be discussed when we get to theme.]

Travis wants to be a part of society, but he refuses to enter into the various “social” contracts the rest of us enter into in order to make this partnership viable. Ordinary humans don’t get to be the emperor of their world. Ordinary humans must change bits of themselves to make themselves acceptable to those they wish to relate with. This is a symbiotic psychological algorithm which billions of people use to navigate their lives every day. In thematic bumpersticker-speak it reduces to:

I scratch your back and you scratch mine.

That simple algorithm is the basis on which society is built. Throughout literature only a few authors have dared to question the algorithm’s logic. If you stare at the logic long enough, though, you can begin to wonder if there aren’t tiny fissures in its foundation which might threaten gigantic fracture… under the right stresses. So far, the stress which modern authors have thought to subject it to is this:

If you love me, then you can’t want me to change.

Love is, in all our translation guides, equivalent to acceptance. A consciousness bomb dares to take the equivalence at face value. Love is not love when it alters when it alteration finds. These consciousness’s are bombs because they press on the fissures until they fracture. Every story about a consciousness bomb inevitably ends in violence. They can’t accept that they can’t be accepted AS THEY ARE.

Matching a consciousness bomb, like Travis Bickle, with a story about loneliness is perfect engine to protagonist matching.

5 out of 5 points.

Part C) The pinch point in this script is hard to determine. You could make a case that it comes as early as page 42:

It’s very simple. You go your way,
I’ll go mine. Thanks anyway, Travis.

Because that’s when we know, for sure, Travis is unfit for human consumption. Or, it might come as late as pages 91-92:

I am not a fool. I will no longer
fool myself. I will no longer let
myself fall apart, become a joke
and object of ridicule. I know
there is no longer any hope. I
cannot continue this hollow, empty
fight. I must sleep. What hope is
there for me?

If we are speaking about Perception Group A [Travis] then I think 91-92 is the answer. If we are talking about Perception Group B [the audience] then 42 is the answer. Perhaps the script misses perfection because it could not align these perception groups so that awareness happened at the same time. It would have taken a miracle of story engineering, but that is probably the definition of perfection:

2 out of 5 points.

Part D) Theme. We finally get to talk about theme. Mr. Schrader said in an interview his script was meant to be a very loose adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s, Notes from Underground. I believe him when he says this allusion was intended.

The Unnamed Narrator in that story, and Hamlet, count as the only two consciousness bombs who have ever successfully gone off in literature prior to Taxi Driver.

I believe Hamlet initiated the modern, Western, mind when he hesitated before killing Uncle Claudius. This indecision was new. Hamlet always knows retribution is required of him, but he does not want to act on that requirement. We see, in Hamlet, a man alienated from his culture. The thing alienating him is his own mind.

I don’t think you could plausibly argue Hamlet is afraid of killing Claudius, neither do I think you could successfully argue Hamlet is really unsure of Claudius’ guilt. Those lines about the play being the thing whereby he’ll catch the conscience of the king are far more Art than Matter. Hamlet does not want to kill Claudius because Hamlet hates that Society mandates he kill Claudius. If Hamlet kills Claudius because he was told to, then Hamlet is not Free to make his own choices. And what Hamlet wants, more than anything else, is the freedom to make his own choices.

The Modern Western Mind is born out of frustration with the undecidable nature of intellectual determinism.

The Unnamed Narrator of Notes is also alienated from his society. Unfortunately for him, Western Thought has internalized and accepted Hamlet’s message. Of all the things in epistemology that we can never know for sure, foremost among them is our inability to know whether we want the things we want.

Of what use to you are your thoughts if they are not your own.

The alienation of the Western Artist resolves into a rejection of the self. This is the reason the movement in any story about a consciousness bomb is toward violence. What is more violent than refusing to associate… with yourself? Hamlet says it best:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

In Notes, the internalization has become so autonomic that the protagonist is unable to do anything. The unresolvable nature of free will has so paralyzed the artistic mind that no action becomes preferable to any action. It’s as if the narrator is testing the hypothesis that inaction will avoid the contradiction. Events passively participated in [in the narrator’s mind] are morally superior to any exercise of his will. Of course, the narrator discovers [as he must] that refraining from choosing is MORE impossible than knowing with certainty if we chose. We are “programmed” to have preferences. No matter how much we try and train our mind to be lazy, this one faculty never gets rusty.

We want, therefore we will.

The narrator resolves into a fit of impotent rage. Suicide is no longer even considered. If there is no choice in life, then there is as little choice in death. He becomes increasingly bitter with the rest of society because “normal” people refuse to commiserate with him. What every isolated artist wants is AN AUDIENCE. If no one else sees the problem, then there is no hope of a community. The narrator is trapped in a world with one inhabitant. His loneliness manifests as impotent rage.

25cp_taxi_driver_j_1278519gBefore we consider Travis Bickle’s place in this progression, let’s summarize the ground we’ve covered.

Hamlet showed us our epistemological error, but then acted on the mistaken premises anyway. His decision to avenge his father’s death is a roundabout acquittal of Human Society. We may be all alone, but we muct ACT as though we aren’t.

The Unnamed Narrator is so convinced of the error that he cannot avenge something as slight as being brushed up against on the street. He is violence without teeth. He torments the prostitute Liza only to immediately regret it once she abandons him. In his story, we know we are all alone, but we can’t convince ourselves this is the truth. What if [we keep asking ourselves] we’re the only one in error? The paralysis is absolute. It presents as selfishness and it is gross in its insignificance.

The hundred years that pass between the Unnamed Narrator and Travis Bickle allow the [Western] mind to continue the process of internalizing the effects of loneliness. Now we know, for sure, what we want—just one human being to accept us– and we no longer care that the riddle at the bottom of psychological epistemology is unresolvable. We want to be loved for who we are.

At first glance, that might even be an acceptable statement of theme for Taxi Driver:

Humans just want to be loved for who they are.

However, I don’t think this goes deep enough. If you look back at Hamlet, and tried to characterize his actions as though they belonged to a disorder, I think you could make a strong case [not my brand of criticism, but the case would be strong nonetheless] that Hamlet is manic-depressive. When Hamlet is angry at himself, he is depressive. When he is angry at the world, he is manic. If you did the same analysis on the Unnamed Narrator, you could make a good case for him being in a mixed-state. His actions signify that he is always [and equally] angry with himself and the world. Travis is a circle. He brings us back to Hamlet without advancing us. Travis’ best diagnosis is manic-depressive. There is great disparity between his actions which are motivated by his anger at himself and those which are motivated by his anger at the world. Travis has brought us back to where he began.

I went through this psychological disorder hypothesizing because it does such a great job of highlighting the thing that underlies all three literary works I’ve spotlighted. They are angry texts. At times, they feel like the protagonist’s anger ricochets off objects in his world. Other times they feel like the protagonist’s anger ricochets off objects in his own mind.

Hamlet with his “what a piece of work” says it best, but Travis Bickle also takes a shot at summarizing the complaint in his [already quoted] lines from pages 91-92:

I am not a fool. I will no longer
fool myself. I will no longer let
myself fall apart, become a joke
and object of ridicule. I know
there is no longer any hope. I
cannot continue this hollow, empty
fight. I must sleep. What hope is
there for me?

The most important part of which is:

I will no longer fool myself.

If you spend too much time thinking about things [as Coleridge says in his critique of Shakespeare’s play—if you overbalance your contemplative faculties] you end up realizing you can never get someone to accept you for EXACTLY who you are, some parts of you must change in order to maintain the relationship. The implication of this fact is that relationships are inherently dishonest activities. If I am not who I am when I am with you, then, necessarily, you do not love Me. We pretend because it makes life easier. If relationships are inherently dishonest, then, by repeatedly applying the rules of modus ponens, we eventually discover that the desire to be in relationships is also inherently dishonest. Yet, it seems to be a psychological fact about humans that all humans desire [above everything else] to be in relationships with other people. Therefore, the next candidate for the real theme of Taxi Driver is:

Humans enjoy nothing more than they enjoy lying to themselves.

Even this does not get us all the way home, though. Underlying Taxi Driver [and Hamlet, and Notes] is extreme frustration with this natural order. Humans are capable of understanding the mind is a contradiction, but incapable of finding a solution. So far authors have offered two alternative courses of action:

1 Suicide [Hamlet]
2 Self-enforced solitude [The Unnamed Narrator]

Travis tries to be Hamlet. Had he died in the shootout at the end of his script, we could have ended with the last attempt at theme. But, Travis does not die. He becomes a hero. There is no other way to interpret this than:

The Human Mind is a joke.

The word that would make the most sense at the end of that sentence is: contradiction. But that isn’t the theme– that was just the subtextual message. Remember what Betsy told us:

That song by Kris Kristofferson,
where it’s said “Like a pusher,
partly truth, partly ficition, a
walking contradiction”.

Our minds make jokes of us. In the absence of choice, understanding is comedy. We are pieces of work and quintessences of dust. Taxi Driver makes Travis a hero, and then laughs its way to Fade Out. Travis is not the fool… we are.

Summarized one last time [because this section has gone on and on]:

Hamlet identifies the epistemological error, but acts on life’s premises anyway. Society is vindicated.

The unnamed narrator rejects the premises altogether. Society is guilty, but its sins have no consequences.

Travis [consciousness bomb number three] act’s on life’s faulty premises and is crowned the Hero. There is no Fortinbras to come in and restore order at the end of Taxi Driver. Society is indicted, and also sentenced. We are the ones who chose the hero of our story. We chose the most selfish person in the world. That choice, and only that choice, is not a lie. (1)

Perhaps, Travis advanced us after all.

10 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) The story is typical by today’s standards. The crazy guy trying to assassinate a presidential candidate that ends in a hail of bullets—I’ve seen that a dozen times if I’ve seen it once. Not being an accomplished film historian I can’t say for sure, but I do think this movie may be THE REASON its story became typical. In that sense, the story is, very definitely, unique:

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) Anyone who attempts to write a protagonist as consciousness bomb would be likely to get most of the points from me. What can I say about an author that may have actually succeeded…

5 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)

Of course we aren’t. Consciousness bombs don’t inspire, they infantilize. They propose to us that we are toddlers strutting and fretting our hours, worshiping at the altar of the false god of intelligence. Whenever we read one of their stories we are reduced. My omnipresent humanism is the subject of their joke. I might write a million words in praise of the human spirit, and the next Travis Bickle will laugh at me as he indicts me as another fool in the quintessence of dust.

Still, there is a commodity in the conclusion of these consciousness bombs that I can use for my own purposes. [This is the reason I value these works more than the nihilism I find in McCarthy.] They care, they just don’t know what to do.

That last statement is the quintessence of despair. These characters [and most probably their authors too] are lonely as hell… but they do not want to be.

6 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 93


1 Travis might also be the most honest person in the world. Does that quality make him our hero?


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