Instead of watching the debates last night, I went downtown to see Gnarls Barkley and Cansei de Ser Sexy (it was awesome!), and the place we went to dinner beforehand is this punk rock pub that plays a lot of cult films and classic films and sometimes trashy horror films on the TVs. Last night, they were playing “Taxi Driver”, and it just so happened to be the big shootout scene. The bartender kept rewinding the most violent parts of it and playing them back in slow motion, and everyone in the bar was cheering him on. Such is the perverse brilliance of that movie that it both sends up and revels in a fantasy of vigilante violence. I love that movie (who doesn’t?), because it works on so many levels, but to me, it works most as an intensely political film, one where a set of right wing urges and fantasies are put in a funhouse mirror. The bitterness, fucked up attitudes towards women, and thwarted sense of entitlement that the movie captures has only gotten worse in the decades since, and we subsequently have seen a rise in personality types like Travis Bickle, people whose right wing politics get them stuck in such a loop that they lash out violently. And unlike Travis Bickle, they have right wing talk radio picking their targets for them, from icons of the federal government in the OKC bombing to a Unitarian Universalist church in the Tennessee shooting.
But it misses the point, I think, to dwell on the real life fringes, because the movie invokes larger themes than, “We’re creating a violent fringe!” It’s interesting to me, because the movie is both really mired in its place and time, and yet transcends that. Taken in the context of 1976, it was obviously a satire of movies like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish” that celebrated right wing vigilantes as some kind of superheroes. The movie exposes how pathetic the fantasies are, at best, and of course there’s the underlying bitterness and sadism. But the movie transcends that direct commentary and totally makes sense to viewers who aren’t looking at it in that context. Because it’s about the larger world that spawns the mentality that pushes people to enjoy vigilante movies. Embittered gun nuts haven’t gone anywhere, you know? They’re in positions of power, in fact—even, like Clarence Thomas, in offices they’ll hold for life.
With that in mind, I have to say that I’ve always been a fan of the theory that everything that happens after Travis Bickle gets arrested is a fantasy. The arguments could go either way. Perhaps it’s true that he becomes some kind of nationwide hero, and that the movie is commenting on how the public distorts stories to fit pre-existing fantasies. In a lot of ways, I’d prefer it if that was really what was going on, because god knows there’s a lot of stories that get entered immediately into our mythology with the facts all wrong because we want to believe the myth over the truth. The entire episode surrounding Jessica Lynch is a classic example. But I can’t completely buy into that, because there’s a couple of things that happen after the fact that make me think that the ending makes more sense if you think of it as Travis’s fantasies of what’s going to happen now that he’s rescued Iris and shot up her pimps. First of all are the headlines about Iris’s joyous return to her family. I never bought that even a mendacious media would go so far as to paint an idyllic home life for Iris. But mostly what strikes me as implausible is how he just so happens to pick Betsy up and she’s totally different to him. That’s such a literal fantasy—that cute woman that rejected you realizes that you weren’t the bad guy she thought you were—that it’s hard to imagine that it’s supposed to be taken as anything but Travis’s fantasy. More to the point, Travis plays it so cool, when he’s never been anything but an awkward wreck.
If that’s how you read it, and I can’t help but read it that way, then it seems that the ending is the final pointed comment on the fantasy world that underpins the right wing mentality. Considering how Nixon’s paranoia and bitterness destroyed him in the recent past when “Taxi Driver” was being made, then it makes all the more sense. The bitter wingnut that Nixon embodied (and Rick Perlstein describes to a T in this year’s must-read book) is obsessed with finally besting all those people who have slighted him over the years, and showing them that they’re actually beneath him. But, as Nixon’s example shows, it doesn’t really work out that way. Because no matter how much you achieve, if you’re paranoid, it will eat you up. Did Travis Bickle really show the fuckers who had always shunned him (which is you, the audience, if you really think about it)? Or did he self destruct and die with his fantasies of showing us all on his mind?
I realize that these are hardly unique observations. But it’s fun to debate it anyway.