Gilbey on Film: why we're still obsessed with Travis Bickle

An interview with Paul Schrader, writer of <em>Taxi Driver</em>.

Taxi Driver returns to cinema screens this week, though it feels like it's never been away. In the 35 years since the film's release, its key personnel -- director Martin Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader, actors Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel -- have hardly been short of work, yet nothing any of them has done has inspired quite the same fanatical response.

Lonely young men still pin the film's poster on their walls; some even imitate the Mohawk cut that Travis Bickle (De Niro) sports prior to going on a pimp-shooting rampage. (The fact that these fans are idolising a misogynistic, racist vigilante only adds another layer of irony to an already complex picture.) The Clash quoted the film in their song "Red Angel Dragnet" (from Combat Rock) while Manic Street Preachers used to exit the stage in the 1990s to the sound of one of Travis's speeches ("All the animals come out at night..."). Scorsese's film (which is itself essentially an urban take on The Searchers) inspired the likes of Mona Lisa, Seul Contre Tous and Falling Down, while the classic "You talkin' to me?" monologue has been parodied countless times, most regrettably by De Niro himself in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

The film feels as radioactive as ever. "I was friends with Pauline Kael at the time I wrote it," Schrader tells me. "After she read it, she put it in the closet under some boxes because she said it was so evil she didn't want it lying around on the coffee table. She liked it, but it gave off this stench like rotting fruit."

With his existentialism and moral ambivalence, Travis is the epitome of the anti-hero figure that rose to prominence in the 1970s. Schrader, who wrote the screenplay at the start of that decade, agrees that Travis is partly a product of his times. "If you made a film about an existential hero today, it would just look tired. Everything since Pulp Fiction has to be in quotation marks." Having said that, he knows why Taxi Driver and Travis have survived the years. "At the root of it is anger. Travis is a racist and a psychopath, but his anger in a broad sense is universal. De Niro, Scorsese and I never talked a lot about the script. All three of us knew this guy in our own way. There was that element of truth running through it, and that has kept it alive. After all these years, I don't think it's unfair to compare it to The Catcher in the Rye. You read Catcher and even though everything in it is anachronistic, the truth just vibrates off the page."

Schrader's comparison is not an idle one: Taxi Driver was cited as an inspiration by John Hinckley Jr, who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, while John Lennon's killer, Mark Chapman, treasured J D Salinger's novel. Of course, not all Taxi Driver obsessives take up arms. But Schrader seems unperturbed by the thought that people out there actually idolise his damaged protagonist. "Godard once said that every great film is successful for the wrong reasons. And Taxi Driver appealed to some audiences because of the vigilante element. The fact that he uses God to justify his actions is still pertinent. It's the illusion of righteousness -- it's there in every suicide bomber."

Still, the film has moments of excruciating social awkwardness that now reveal this dysfunctional cabby as more of a spiritual precursor and cousin to David Brent or Alan Partridge than his misguided disciples and imitators would like to admit. Watch Travis trying and failing to charm the cashier in a porno cinema, or demonstrating his karate moves, or acting cool to impress a secret-service agent, and it's hard not to cringe just as we do at The Office. Schrader has always been aware of the funny side of Travis, and seems happy that others are getting the joke. "He says things like 'I believe a person should go out and be among other people', yet he's stuck in his room or his cab. He says 'I'm gonna get healthy', but he's popping pills."

When asked where Travis would be today, Schrader doesn't miss a beat. "He was dead a year after the film ended," he says bluntly. "People have asked me about a sequel. Don't they get it? The last shot in the movie is the same as the first. It was starting all over again. And there was no way Travis was going to get lucky twice."

"Taxi Driver" is re-released on Friday

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage