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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder