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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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