'Taxi Driver' retains power Movie review: You might see this film differently after two decades, but if Travis Bickle bothered you the first time, he'll do it again in a remastered version at the Charles.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He wanted to know: "Are you talking to me?" But he hadn't said it quite right, so he tried it again.

"Are you talking to me?"

Nope. Still not right. Try again.

"Are you talking to me?"

Travis liked that one better. Standing there in front of the mirror, he liked the look of incredulity that came across his face, then transmuted in a firing synapse's time-span toward hostility, but, like, cool hostility -- hostility in command. And from there it was a simple matter to get the gun out, the big one, the .44 Magnum with the 8-inch barrel, one of three he carried in "Taxi Driver."

"Are you talking to me?"

But nobody was. Nobody ever did. That was the problem.

The words did not connect Travis to society, no matter how tenuously. No, they were a part of his fantasy mechanism, part of the program by which he could bestir himself from lethargy and indolence into an avatar of action, which, alas, he could not confine within the bounds of his own mind.

With Travis, it was an obsession with slights -- minor, almost accidental tremors of disrespect -- that he used to propel himself toward mega-violence to no good end except his own self-expression. With Lee Harvey Oswald, it was a crazed interpretation of Marxism. James Earl Ray was possessed by the demon of racism; Sirhan Sirhan was the avenger of Palestinian wrongs.

Travis merely reflected them, but in the reflection was a purer kind of truth: He was the quintessential troubled loner, haunting our century since at least 1963, and possibly earlier.

He's back. He's back in the form of Theodore Kaczynski, purported Unabomber. And Tim McVeigh, purported Oklahoma City Bomber. But he's back in his purest and most inviolate form in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," where he's named Travis Bickle -- a character inspired by one assassination attempt who in turn inspired another one, certainly as unique a claim as can be made in film history.

The 1976 film, in a restored and remastered version, is now at the Charles, where its enigmas continue to haunt, and where its inner meanings remain as obscure. For it asks the crucial question, which cannot really be answered: Why?

Really, isn't that the big one? What is it that turns one embittered nerd -- one among millions of such desperate souls, including at one time or other, all of us -- from his loneliness and litany of grudges into an actual killer?

Scorsese's movie, from a script by Paul Schrader, attempts to answer the question, but it can get no further than a description, vividly accurate, but in the end unpenetrative.

The movie takes the classic text of the madman's journal, inspired as much by Dostoevski as by Arthur Bremer, as its spine. Bremer was the loner who for obscure reasons roamed through the political year 1972 with a trunkful of guns until chance finally put him in a parking lot in Laurel with Gov. George Wallace. Bremer, politically uninformed, wanted merely to count for something; six shots later, he was world-famous, and he still languishes in a Maryland penitentiary.

Just as Bremer recorded his utter banalities and insipid mock-insights in a pitiful handwritten diary, so does Scorsese's Bickle.

Backdrop is New York

But to Bremer's madness Scorsese adds another dimension, one might say another dementia: Instead of transpiring against the backdrop of small-beer suburbs and anonymous expressway exchanges, Travis' odyssey is set against the caldron of New York City, a city throbbing with brutal sexuality and violence, a city down whose mean streets whip the vapors of madness, anomie, chaos, disconnection.

Through Scorsese's gliding camera and Michael Chapman's rich, dark and troubling cinematography, one can hear the city singing its mad melody to Travis, urging him ever onward, making each step of his journey seem inevitable, even natural.

Seen today, "Taxi Driver" still has the intensity of a fever dream, and its invocation of the swelter and weirdness of Manhattan remains just as mesmerizing.

It retains its power and its strange luminosity, so that it seems in some ways more like a fantasy than a reality. Its technique continues to astonish.

Its climax -- a massively brutal explosion of gunfire and mayhem in a sleazy brothel -- remains just as shattering, particularly with an emphasis still mind-boggling on the damage that bullets can do to bodies.

And the ironic coda, in which Travis is magically restored to health and sanity, seems just as phony and pointless, a true act of movie desperation.

But now the movie feels different, for some reason. Possibly it's a lack of context, a lack of ready connection between a life it portrays and the life so many of us live. Possibly it's that the '70s, with their embittered memories of the '60s, turned into the '90s, with their hazy memories of the '80s.

Perhaps it's that everybody's older, especially De Niro, who in "Taxi Driver" seems so callow, unlined unformed and pristine, he's almost a fetus.

But this time, "Taxi Driver" seemed stranger, more weird, more incoherent to me, and was not at all the movie I remembered. Like a treasured boyhood vacation spot, revisited it shows its tawdriness and cheapness. It seems even more dissociative and surreal. If anything, there's less of a theory behind it.

Veteran ambiguity

For many years, it's been assumed (perhaps by me, most of all) that Travis was a Vietnam vet (he wears a Marine aviation jacket, with a gaudy unit patch on the shoulder and a pair of jump wings on the chest, as well as his name stenciled backward, military fashion, on the back). He has a bad scar, he has military sunglasses.

Nearly everybody tumbled to this theory, and he's routinely described, as by Roger Ebert in "Roger Ebert's Home Video Companion," as a Vietnam vet. The film was regarded as something similar to Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," about an increasingly dysfunctional combat veteran for whom the war was so gigantic an experience that it could not be named and in going unnamed it became all the more ominous, like the famous iceberg that is nine-tenths under water.

But watching it this time, I began to question the assumption: Is Travis a Vietnam vet, or is he something more troubling, an isolated screwball who took to the military look as a pathetic pretense of joining something, of having, somewhere in his past, a connection?

The case against his being a vet is certainly as strong as the case for it.

One thing is that jacket, with its patch. Assuming that these things are planned professionally and are not serendipitous, that patch tells a different story. The Marine Corps is a notoriously Jesuitic institution, not given to show. Bright unit patches, with lions or other predators howling off them, are an army thing, not a Marine thing. For the Corps, the Globe and Anchor is enough.

So what's that patch on Travis' shoulder, and why is it sewn on both his surplus jackets (he has two; both have the patches and the jump wings)?

The jump wings are another oddity: The Marines don't have a big airborne tradition, as does the Army. The jump wings (they are jump wings; I looked very carefully at the parachute suspended between two wings) may be non-issue.

No mention of Vietnam

Again, when he's interviewed for the taxi job, he's asked if he's been in the service, and he says yes, the Marines. But no mention is made of Vietnam, even when the guy interviewing him claims to be an ex-Marine. Unbelievable.

The guns: He buys four handguns from a contraband dealer, and they seem utterly foreign and completely fascinating to him. If he were a Marine Vietnam vet, guns were how he made his living, and they wouldn't seem so charismatic. He would connect these little fellas with the big fellas he carried back in the Land of Bad Things. When he bought them, he might say, "Yeah, much smaller than the '16 I used to carry."

The wound: At one point, we see that Travis has had some kind of grotesque scar on his back, possibly a bullet wound. That suggests Vietnam again. But again: not conclusive.

And check out your basic psychological texts; you'll find that people who are capable of committing violence have an unusual tendency to attract it as well. Many suffer from maimings or the residues of strange accidents. They've seen blood gush before, their own, and that is why the gush of other's blood isn't particularly shocking to them.

Whatever, I like the non-Vietnam Travis better. It removes the blood libel that all Vietnam vets are psycho misfits prone to violence, a truism of 1976 that one would prefer to think a great director like Scorsese would see through.

And without Vietnam, Travis becomes much more interesting and troubling. He seems beamed down from another planet, an alien, with almost no entry point into the society that swirls about him. And his problems are therefore purely sexual.

The movie is a great black salute to the ugly power of frustration. Poor Travis just wants to have fun, but he has no idea how to go about it. Thus the city, with its venues of trashy professional sex, both attracts and repels him. He yearns to cleanse it (cleanse himself), but at the same time he cannot stop going to porno films; he cannot stop fantasizing.

Thus he's attracted to the blondest of women, not for their beauty but as emblems of purity. This leads Scorsese into obscure situations, such as the frankly absurd one where Travis, a complete social retard, walks in off the street to a campaign headquarters and starts hitting on Cybill Shepherd's Betsy. And she is intrigued enough to go out with this geek.

Yeah, right. Then he takes her, in evident complete innocence, to a porn movie, predictably grossing her out and blowing the relationship for all time.

What planet is this boy from? This cannot be the act of any even remotely socialized American male in the world. It's a fundamental truth of boy culture that the line between taboo and mainstream sex cultures is completely known. No one would take a pretty girl to a scuzzy downtown porn theater. Unthinkable! It rings utterly false, unless of course Travis is so messed up he is literally as insane as Hannibal Lector or is some kind of wild child, untarnished by adult knowledge.

In fact, all the way through, Travis remains childlike, untouched by the world except for his abiding psychosis. Thus he's moved next by the innocence of Iris, a child prostitute, played by Jody Foster. She becomes his symbol of corrupted beauty in a corrupt world.

The screenwriter Schrader works out the psychological equation quite neatly: Travis feels frustration from his rejection by Betsy. He invests in the well-being of Iris. Feeling powerless in both relationships, he retreats into madness, his changes in hairstyle reflecting his mental state. Acquiring an arsenal of guns, he loses himself in fantasies of power and elects to strike out at the dirty world by murdering the man for whom Betsy worked. Thwarted by the Secret Service, he goes in a rage to Iris' squalid block of Hell's Kitchen, starts blasting, and ends up killing her pimp (the demonic Harvey Keitel) and two Mafioso.

In the film's cheapest irony, his madness is taken for heroism. Suddenly loved by society, he is restored to wholeness and takes up his old life again. But this time, we are given to understand, he is more comfortable within himself. Yeah, right.

This breaks down at nearly every realistic level, chief among them being that he has wantonly killed three men who were doing him no harm, and it does seem that either the state or their employers, the Mafia, might have some investment in his future, no?

Why it works

But "Taxi Driver" is a triumph of technique over sense. You can point out a hundred reasons why it shouldn't work, yet miss the one reason why it does.

Scorsese so infused it with demonic energy, and he so completely found a visual vocabulary that expressed the one-track mind of its central character that the movie roars by all literal objections like a freight train.

Is it a fair picture of the mind of an assassin? Probably not; it's too localized for that. Is it almost undeniably powerful and does it have the thrust of nightmare-state logic to it? Yes.

One thing that still must be said about "Taxi Driver": It goes all the way.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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