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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That’s no moth, it’s a wisp of delight on the wing

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors.

Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations. At the same time, I was working at one of Cambridge University’s zoology field stations, an idyllic smallholding just off the Huntingdon Road, where my boss, Gerry, bred cockroaches, locusts, tobacco moths and other insects for study purposes.

I was the merest factotum at that facility, a rather feckless boy taken on to tend the gardens and glasshouses, but Gerry did his best to include me in the more interesting work, including his daily, highly security-conscious visits to the tobacco moths, which were kept under dark netting in a double-walled building within the complex.

At that time, as I recall, you needed a letter from the head of zoology to hold a key to the tobacco moth house, and government documentation was required by anyone seeking  to transport the creatures – because tobacco moths are potentially devastating pests of any commercial crop that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family; and because these include potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, we had to be extremely careful not to release these insects into the wild. For me, however, they were a source of wonder and a dark, almost Gothic pleasure.

An even greater source of wonder was to set up a moth trap and count the various species that drifted into the light – necessary work to estimate loss of species, changes in distribution and migration patterns. (Some moths – the hummingbird hawk-moth, for instance – can travel very long distances.) Moth losses rarely get the column inches reserved for birds or butterflies, but 62 British species in total became extinct during the 20th century and a further 81 are gravely endangered.

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths – gorgeous creatures such as the orange upperwing, the bordered Gothic, the Brighton wainscot and the stout dart – have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors. At the same time, species that have never been recorded before in these islands are taking up residence in parts of southern England – a sign of climate change, perhaps.

I am not an entomologist, nor have I ever been one. Nevertheless, insects – especially the larger moths – have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Even the names are cause for delight. “Garden tiger” and “snout” are self-explanatory, but who came up with “Brighton wainscot” for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or “Clifden nonpareil” for that astonishing specimen whose underwing – a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe – is actually a defence mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected colour?

Meanwhile, even though many of the nocturnal moths are subtler in hue, there is a delicacy to them when in flight – the faint, sometimes tiny wisps of what might easily be myrrh or chrism on the wing – that makes a night in the woods all the more enchanting. Back in my surveying days, they seemed so abundant that I didn’t mind watching the one bat that would circle the street lamp outside my window, picking the papery morsels from the warm glow of it.

Now, though, I worry: the losses of these magical creatures have come to seem too much to bear, especially as the reasons for their extinction – loss of habitat being the main culprit – could be so easily avoided.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism