[1976] Taxi Driver

taxi_driver_movieposterWe cannot ever be certain how many people live in a place. Article I, Section 2 of the US Constitution mandates that the Union count it citizens every so often, as to get an accurate number of Representatives from the individual states to Congress. In the 228 years since the first decennial census, the Census Bureau, now housed in the Department of Commerce, has conducted 22 of these surveys – each one attempting to coalesce on the actual number of people who live in a place, and certain characteristics about them. The hope, we hope, is to strive for a count of people close to the actual number of people; these two numbers have (probably) been close for some time. The decennial census direct order to the governing institutions from the United States’ governing documents.

It is still voluntary.

People, (probably) in the low-millions range, fall through the thin comb but these people still drive cars or take buses on roads provided to everyone, breathe clean air regulated by strict pollution laws, and reasonably expect clean water to be delivered to their homes, and dirty water taken away. No representative exists to hear their voices because their voices, statistically speaking, don’t exist.

Expanding this logic, thousands, if not more, Travis Bickles roam public streets and the Internet, free to exist, essentially detached from reality. They consume apple pie and drink coffee out of a misanthropic ritual. They subsume pornography because sex is violence, and violence is normal. They drive or walk or bike around, almost aimlessly, not out of academic nihilism, but out of actual desperation that is too distinct to classify, and unfair to study. We have no way to help them, because they don’t exist; but they think, and they plan and they plot, …sometimes. We can’t know. Taxi Driver is an innocuous enough title for a movie about a man angry at nothing and everything at the same time – so he drives a taxi to unwind. 

But it doesn’t help. The anger is there, but it’s invisible; rosy cheeks are invisible in the dark. Travis Bickleses thrive at night because they remain unseen, blending in with those adjacent: counted, but disposed. The adjacent are the prostitutes, who don’t know why they’re there, and the pimps who do know, depraved. The mafiosos, the crooks and criminals (real or imagined), the dirty cops and the dirty money are all the sleaze that stick, like slippery and pungent rubber cement, to the Travis Bickleses. What do these people know about being counted?

Taxi Driver has three possible relationships with its audience: either we think there are more Travis Bickles than there are, there exist fewer than we think there are, or we are secretly and unequivocally scared that we are Travis Bickle.  Director Martin Scorsese and Writer Paul Schrader know this and exploit it without ever addressing it through Bickle’s actions, which seemed innocuous enough, if not a little bit bizarre as a routine. We’re meant to oscillate between sympathy and repulsion in wild swings of emotional display. We’re worn down by Taxi Driver‘s hard character focus . Taxi Driver‘s ultimate and most resonant takeaway is that Travis Bickle lives on, a little bit, in each of us, and he’s fighting damn hard not to be counted.

Taxi Driver lives in flamboyant obscurity: many, many more people have heard of it and not actually seen it. Its credentials and inclusion on best-of lists, for decades, have cemented it as a masterclass in character study, but it is still, somehow underrated. It’s not as flashy as Goodfellas and it’s not as grave as Gangs of New York. Taxi Driver, along with the other nominees (All The President’s MenNetwork, and Bound for Glory), strike separate and salient American nerves. But 1976’s winner for Best Picture was always going to be Rocky. It strikes simple and catches the United States as it tries to unravel Vietnam. This country needed a win – and a winner for which to root. Incidentally, all of our Rocky Balboas long to be counted.

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