I’ve been to New York City once. It was a hit and run trip and I didn’t make it to Times Square. I regret that.
“I’ll hail you a taxi,” a waiter generously offered. “You’re less than five miles away.”
But it was getting late and I was alone. I wanted to get back to my hotel room before it got dark. I told the waiter that and he laughed. He was a handsome white haired gentleman who was chubbier and friendlier than most of New Yorkers I had encountered.
“You could walk there and be safe. It’s all corporate now. Tourist.” He smiled as he laid the waiter wallet on the table. “Giuliani,” he said.
Even then I knew that there were some New Yorkers who liked Time Square better pre Giuliani. I knew because I heard them–mostly artist types–say so on television the night before.
(NYC TV was great, by the way. Lot’s of independent channels with the weirdest people doing the weirdest things. FYI, this was pre Netflicks era.)
Here in Nashville, I’ve ran into some New Yorkers–transplants, they’re called–who have a love hate relationship with their home town. I have listened while they opined, extolled, how much better New York is even as they proceeded to tell me–in the same breath–how corrupt, dangerous and rat infested it is.
Twice this has happened to me at the deli. Once in a car dealership. And once in the sauna at the Y.
Grant it, some Nashvillians get upset by such remarks. Not me. I admire audacity even as I call BS.
Don’t get me wrong, I like New York City. I do. As an American I’m proud of it, just like I used to be proud of downtown Nashville before it went tourist city bonkers.
Before so many out of towners moved here.
Be that as it may, I think Martin Scorsese is one of those artist types who prefer the corrupt, dangerous, rat infested Times Square to the conventionally gleaming, corporate Times Square. Why? Because he ignores the latter while the former is his muse.
In his landmark 1976 film, Taxi Driver, Scorsese shines a glaring light in a very dark place, answering the questions we have asked too many times–then and, especially, now:
Who acquires an assault weapon and tries it out on his mother before he unloads it on classrooms of kindergartners and first graders?
Who sneaks a cache of assault weapons into a luxury high rise hotel room, a strategically chosen snipers nest, and unleashes a barrage of gunfire on thousands of unsuspecting country music fans attending an outdoor concert?
Who holes up in a metal shed with a dirt floor and no bathroom, no electricity or plumbing, surviving with little more than a sleeping bag and, sadly, a little dog, gets fired one day and goes on a drive by shooting rampage–again with an assault weapon–through the streets of my home town, Odessa Texas, indiscriminately killing anyone who happened to be in his swath?
Enter: Travis Bickle.
He’s not a bad looking guy–not particularly good looking either, but there’s something appealing about him. It’s odd.
(That’s why it never bothered me that Cybill Shepherd (Betsy) is a little curious. What bothered me was that she went into the porno theater with him. That just doesn’t pass muster. But I digress.)
Travis is a young, hardworking, honorably discharged Vietnam vet. A cab driver.
Relentlessly driving, rarely sleeping, storing his money in a slipshod apartment, he is a sentinel of mid Manhattan when it was a magnet to pimps, prostitutes and peepshows. What he sees repulses and excites him. He is unable to mindfully mitigate his weaknesses.
But Travis Bickle isn’t wildly out of step with the world like Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell) is in Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderful The Master; he’s simply amiss. Nor is he devoid of humor or empathy, but his sense of them is inappropriate.
The more we watch him, the more unsettled we become. That is because we are bystanders at his decent.
When Betsy, a senator’s campaign aid, rejects him, his newly found hope is crushed. Ever present loneliness suddenly becomes unbearable. He begins to rigorously train himself as an assassin.
He does push-ups. He lifts homemade weights. He tests his resistance to pain by holding the inside of his arm to the flame. The faint softness in his face fades into lean, jutting angles.
He buys a brief case full of black-market handguns and modifies one with the mechanical parts of of his shoddy dresser of drawers . He sets his sights on the object of Betsy’s admiration, but his plans are thwarted.
He commits a vigilante murder.
There is another who catches Travis’ gaze, but she is less woman than she is child. She has the potential for beauty. She looks a lot like Betsy. Her name is Iris (Jodi Foster).
She is a prostitute and drug addict. A runaway–the property of low rung mafiosos–who comes and goes as she pleases. Or so she thinks.
Iris has a pimp. He is her boyfriend. His name is Sport (Harvey Keitel.) He is probably in his early thirties.
Sport has a nice build. He wears a white, Marlon Brando, undershirt and dress slacks. His hair is long. It flows beneath a fedora. The nail of his right pinkie is long and sharp. It is painted blood red.
Sport knows how to talk to a woman. And though we see him only with Iris, we know that he talks to many women this way. We know that he always tells his women same thing, no matter how young or how old they are.
He tells them what they want to hear.
Sport is dangerous. He will resort to physical violence but he’d rather not.
From his taxi Travis observes Sport interacting with Iris. He despises him and objectifies her.
His frustration. His incompetence. His abstinence. His guilt. He projects all of it onto Sport. He decides to save Iris and satisfy his death wish in one fell swoop.
Sport’s fortress is a whore house guarded by mobsters. It is where Iris lives. There Travis Bickle confronts his demons.