Isolation in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver
This is a critical article discussing the themes and motifs in Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver. This article explores the theme of isolation as it is emphasized by camera work, sound, mise-en-scene, point of view, and characterization.
Travis Bickle, a gritty, disillusioned man, sits alone in his apartment. He is a man without friends, without passion. He rests his snake-skin cowboy boots on the ledge of his television stand as he stares blankly at the daytime soap opera that slowly manifests itself frame by frame. He is expressionless and uninterested. The stand begins to tilt backwards as his foot exerts more pressure against the TV. It teeters precariously in a moment of limbo between resting safely on the ground, and crashing to the floor. The absurdity of the soap opera becomes increasingly apparent as it seems so trivial, so insignificant. A moment later a loud crash echoes through the apartment as Travis hits himself on the head, loathing his state of mind. This singular scene in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver summarizes wholly the major themes of the film: the absurdity of human existence, and most importantly loneliness. Travis Bickle is a character on the brink of insanity that is stuck in a city of evil. By separating himself from reality with very little human interaction, his world becomes irrational. Through elements of mise-en-scene, camerawork, sound, point of view, and characterization, Scorsese invents a genre that would change filmmaking forever.
Filmed on location in New York City in 1976, Taxi Driver was the sixth film directed by Martin Scorsese. Notable films that Scorsese made prior to Taxi Driver include, Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Scorsese worked very
closely with Paul Schrader, the screenwriter to create this story. With the addition of Robert De Niro to play Travis Bickle, the three would form a creative trio that immediately clicked. At the time De Niro was just emerging as a notable actor after receiving an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II. The idea for the story was born mainly out of real life experiences that Paul Schrader had gone through, the feelings of isolation in loneliness in New York City. The irony of isolation in a big city was central in his thinking. There also appears to be a strong connection thematically with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, which chronicles a man at a point of inactivity and paranoia. This film was also a breakout performance for Jodie Foster who played a young New York prostitute named Iris. At the time she was only twelve years old but immediately displayed her credibility as an actress. Aside from directing Taxi Driver, Scorsese played a minor role as a man tormented by his adulteress spouse who rode with De Niro in the back of his taxi cab.
Along with being controversial for its time for the display of graphic violence, Taxi Driver received a lot of attention for its subtle references to the Vietnam War. It was one of first films to address the impact of the war on soldiers in a negative way. Travis appears to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that many veterans were afflicted with after the traumatic events witnessed during the war. Travis claims to have been “honorably discharged” from the marines and wears a military jacket. Not until The Deer Hunter, also featuring De Niro, are the atrocities of the Vietnam War addressed directly. Taxi Driver was the first film to begin to shed a negative light on the war, in an otherwise conservative Hollywood culture. This was further embellished when Travis decides on an assassination attempt of the presidential candidate and emerges from his apartment with his head shaved into a mohawk. There exist legends from the jungles of Vietnam that American soldiers would shave their heads into mohawks before going on very dangerous missions into the jungle. Taxi Driver also contains a good deal of latent racism that is somewhat characteristic of Vietnam veterans. At one point Travis drives his taxi into a dangerous neighborhood and a group of African-American youths emerges chanting “honky” and tossing eggs at his cab. Later we see Travis staring, with obvious racial contempt, at a man on the street. This reinforces the negative impact of the war on America.
The two major themes of Taxi Driver are the absurdity of human life and isolation. These two themes coupled together offer a very interesting outlook on the human condition. When one begins to retreat from society, it becomes more and more difficult to understand the world. We all acknowledge that there are wonderful and terrible things that happen everyday that are often irrational. Travis fails to realize this as he drifts further into the recesses of his own consciousness. He sees all of the evil and thinks, “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” He is unable to cope with the wickedness of the city which drives him to the brink of insanity. His isolation coupled with ridiculousness of the world creates an unending cycle for Travis. Although the ending of the film is a hopeful one, the story sheds light on the dangers of our own minds. Using film and literary techniques, Scorsese creates a story that is wonderful and terrifying, full of juxtaposition.
Throughout the film we see many contradictory elements often combining the frantic with the calm. Travis can’t sleep yet he stays awake all night. It is almost a self-induced state of anguish. “Twelve hours of driving a taxi and I still can’t sleep,” Travis writes in his journal. He tries to get healthy at one point by doing many pushups and pull-ups yet still maintains a terrible diet along with pill-popping. He attends many pornographic films yet hides his eyes from the screen with his hands. Travis attempts to develop relationships with people yet remains detached and distant allowing them to go no further. An interesting part of the story involves him pursuing a woman that he sees at the campaign office. After talking with her at a café it seems obvious that he is very interested in her romantically. When she is rightfully repulsed by the dirty movie he takes her to later, he is astonished that she is offended by it. Whether Travis is so inept socially to take her to this film, or is intentional in driving her away, remains somewhat ambiguous.
Travis Bickle the character reinforces quite holistically the internal clash that occurs within individuals. He is unable to ever fully express himself. He is the ultimate loner. He desires to be, “a person like other people,” a person with passion, with a goal in life. His existence seems meaningless to himself. He is full of contradiction as discussed earlier. He fluctuates heavily in his aptitude intellectually. He goes from one point not knowing the meaning of the word “moonlighting” to using words like “venal.” He seems unendingly detached from his surroundings as his glazed over eyes appear to look at nothing. He is troubled by his world of filth and scum. It is interesting though that he takes part in a lot of the social decay that is going on around him. Although he
loathes the wickedness of the city, he is a willing participant in pornography, alcoholism, prostitution, and illegal weapons selling. Scorsese very convincingly gets the point across that although we may despise the society we live in, we are tied to it no matter our best attempts the shrug it off. There is a scene from Notes from the Underground that parallels the state that Travis is in. The underground man is ineffective and useless in society. He wants to do something however. He wants to be somebody. As he sees a police officer approaching he puts a lot of thought into squaring his shoulders and bumping into the policeman. When he and the policeman collide, the cop barely notices it and continues walking. He is unable to even accomplish the smallest of tasks. Travis attempts something very similar when he gears up to assassinate the presidential candidate. He undergoes rigorous training and preparation to ready him for a momentous event. Travis wants to noticed in the world. When the secret service notices him standing suspiciously at the back of the presidential nomination, Travis immediately retreats and gives up all of his plans of revolution. Instead he resorts to killing pimps at the local whorehouse.
Scorsese’s use of camerawork serves to further reinforce the ideas of isolation and loneliness. Travis is often shown up close with the camera right near his face. This acts to reinforce his isolation amongst the rest of the world. Never are any of the other characters seen in this way. The pimp, Sport, played by Harvey Keitel, and many others are always shown with long shots revealing a good deal of the city around them. We are never given sympathetic close-ups that serve to romanticize these characters. With Travis however, we look deeply into his eyes as they almost become a window into his soul.
Camera placement is used in a very interesting way throughout the film to show the significance of the taxi cab in Travis’ world. We are often given shots from the interior of the cab looking out into the world. It is frequently raining in the New York that Scorsese has created. There seems to perpetual precipitation on the windows that distorts the images of the outside world. This serves to accentuate the hazy reality that Travis finds himself viewing. Neon signs cascade across the windshield with brilliant sparks creating a dreamlike world. His eyes search the streets at night witnessing all of the horrors and atrocities of the city. It makes us wonder if he is really seeing the truth, or a distorted version of reality.
Also the shots of the exterior of the taxi are up close and intimate. We never really get a view of the taxi as it fits into the overall landscape. Instead Scorsese isolates the cab so that it becomes almost its own entity, a refuge among the city. Details of the cab are often seen very close up. It seems to be a place where Travis can view his world objectively and remain distinct from the New York night life. Another way that the camera is used to emphasize the idea of isolation is camera movement. At one point Travis is on the phone with his love interest that he has recently alienated by taking her to the dirty movie. As he is on the phone, the camera slowly pans to the right to reveal an empty hallway. This move by Scorsese draws a lot of attention to itself making it fairly easy to realize the reasoning behind it. We still hear Travis on the phone as the camera
moves away. We are left feeling Travis’ shame and realize the isolation that is slowly crushing him. Scorsese does this one other time as the camera moves away from Travis as he enters his workplace. The camera comes full circle from Travis and allows us to see his world before dropping us back off with him.
The camera also offers a fascinating look at the point of view Scorsese is using to tell the story of Travis Bickle. Very seldom is the camera placed at the point of view of Travis. We always see Travis and rarely see a view of what he is observing. The camera is never placed at his perspective. This makes us wonder what exactly is being said about Travis and ourselves. Are we merely an objective viewer of the atrocities of the world, or are we willing participants, no better than Travis? It also makes us think about who is telling the story. Although Travis narrates a majority of the film, are we merely seeing clips of his thoughts, or are we viewing the world in the same distorted way that he is. Scorsese seems to convince us that we are observers but may be held accountable for remaining inactive in our own lives.
Mise-en-scene plays one of the most important roles in reinforcing the ideas he is trying get across about isolation within the city. Urban life becomes an interesting paradox of loneliness that seems to be rooted in personal space. In suburban areas one has a great deal of personal space and is therefore willing to participate in community, as long as they have a place of refuge for themselves. When one dwells within an urban setting, we are constantly surrounded by people and have very little personal space. This causes us to retreat further and further away from society. Paul Schrader was definitely thinking about the irony of urban isolation when he wrote the screenplay, which plays
into the motif of juxtaposition that is apparent throughout the film. The New York that Scorsese has created is one of oppression and calamity. Hookers and drug dealers roam freely amidst the streets. X-rated theatres and street performers stand on every street corner, as Travis writes about cleaning blood out of the backseat of his cab every night. He stops off at night to a local convenience store to indifferently kill an armed robber. The harsh humidity of the summer heat and the steam and water coming from the bowls of the city are a constant reminder that the metropolis Travis dwells in is delving into physical and social decay. Scorsese manages to create an appealing aspect of the city however. We are almost drawn in by its raw nature, willing to indulge in the city’s grotesque underbelly. Had Scorsese not created such a stark and rich vision of the city, we would have no reason to sympathize with Travis about ideas of washing away all the scum of the earth. Scorsese owes a lot of his film technique to film noir influences. Rather than portraying the realism of urban culture, a dreamlike vision of the city is created by the use of oblique angles, mirror shot, and De Niro’s eerie voice-over.
Sound is also used to further this point. Bernard Hermann, most known for his numerous works with Alfred Hitchcock, creates a brilliant and frightening score. Soft jazz tunes play and repeat themselves as Travis navigates the city. The sound is almost unsettling as it gives the film an eerie juxtaposition of smooth tones and the wickedness of the city. Hermann later introduces darker tones during scenes of violence that serve to further a disturbing atmosphere.
In conclusion, Taxi Driver is an innovative film that discusses many relevant topics of today’s society. Even now there are many people that live disillusioned lives.
People are full of potential yet are without direction, left to live meaningless lives. Travis Bickle is a prime example of this phenomenon. When one is left isolated amidst society, one falls further and further into their own self created anguish. As long as we strive to accomplish something, as Travis does at the end of film by becoming a hero after killing a prostitution ring, we can gain a certain degree of meaning in life. Although this film is unsettling psychologically, it displays fully the complexity of the human condition, and the necessity for community.