April 10, 2016 § Leave a comment
“Loneliness has followed me my whole life”, Travis (Robert de Niro) says about halfway through Taxi Driver, just after Iris (Jodie Foster) has evaded his noncommittal but Humbertian kerb-crawling. The ontological statement w/ wh/ he concludes – “I’m God’s lonely man” – recalls the Thomas Wolfe quote Paul Schrader stuck, like a reminder of his own high-cultural ambitions, as the screenplay’s epigraph. (The essay of the same name, undated & published after Wolfe’s death in 1938, links Schrader’s underground man to American literary traditions of het-masc self-determination, via Wolfe devotee Jack Kerouac: Travis, shipwrecked in New York & guzzling whisky, white bread & bennies, might be Sal Paradise washed up 20 years after On The Road.) It comes at the film’s structural axis, when he turns – in a move that has its own desperate logic of abjection – from hopeless swimming in the world of social conventions that surrounds & codes the world of bodies to the hardness of “true force”: politics, cold guns, racist violence, the lacerating regimes of exercise that disguise the body’s destruction as its “development”. A replay of John Wayne’s drifter snapping, at the end of The Searchers, from his desire for the niece he’s chased across the west (Natalie Wood) to the necessity of her extermination. It’s all downhill from here to the overdetermined, tragic-farcical bloodbath at the picture’s end.
But: loneliness? It’s the first we’ve heard about it. De Niro’s tone here differs from the spiritless appeasing small talk that structures even his monologues, in wh/ crisis is reimagined as water-cooler plaint (“all my life needed was a sense of someplace to go”). In previous scenes, he’s existed only as the hieroglyph of de Niro’s body: hunched shoulders, contained arms, stiffness, looks of stupefaction, overdetermined graveness & cud-chewing blankness that pass like clouds over his face. The dimensions of Travis’s volcanic disgust & rage are clear enough in the contained (& in fact conventional) violence of his “someday a real rain’ll come” monologue & the neon torrents of Michael Chapman’s photography. But this maladjustment, anomie, the blasted, wracked & desiccated landscape of a life has yet to receive a name, a motivation, something to tie it to the canons of pop-sociology (except for his misogyny: “women are all the same; they’re like a union”), or, beyond them, to any grammar or set of signifiers that would make such a life publicly explicable. Inevitably, it has the ring of a simplification: the summing-up of a life the viewer hasn’t seen, but also necessity as a justification – “there’s no escape”, he’s the man that God has made lonely. (Is there an echo here of “the man of sorrows”? Schrader, the midwestern Calvinist, may have had the phrase in mind, & the traces of a similar background hang around Travis.)
But that very act of simplification has a terrifying weight to it; the subjective world we’ve seen up to now, as if peering into a fishtank, shifts on its axis. Travis’s pain is legible, even explicable, empathisable, in a way that it hasn’t been before. What had been mere atmosphere, mise-en-scéne, becomes more directly a vehicle of emotional shocks, Bernard Hermann’s saxophone theme like blood spurting from a wound. Not, it should be said, by making Travis closer to the classical Hollywood conception of the sympathetic protagonist, the “focaliser” or narrative vehicle for whom we root. “Loneliness” appears as an intensity outside of ourselves, a part of the spectator themselves that is nonetheless creepingly, frighteningly alien. (Hence the hovering, disembodied camera moves, the mobile gaze that follows the taxi or slides off Travis as he talks on the phone, the inhabited world moving at the far end of the corridor – David Trotter has called the lateral track “the least anthropomorphic” of camera movements.) Thus Schrader & Scorsese establish the terms & mechanisms of the film’s Faustian pact of identification. (When Amy Taubin, in her BFI Classics volume on the film, claims that she has never even vaguely identified w/ Travis you begin to wonder whether anything in the preceding & following pages is even vaguely useful, no matter how good it seemed at the moment of reading.) “Loneliness”, as a frame suddenly imposed over the infernal matrix of the city, holds out the possibility of its solution – by redemption, the deus ex machina of sex, or annihilation. Or rather, that possibility is proffered as one moment in the broken dialectic to be overcome; “loneliness” reveals, rather, the stakes of a society that produces the lonely, whose mechanisms of individuation have no counterpart of recognition, reconciliation (“love”), except their fantasy, enacted in the darkness of the cinema. Desire will become real, but only as the negation of society’s negation of it: the proximity of hot blood.