40 years later, Travis Bickle has won

Art doesn’t change over decades, but its public does, and so political interpretations.

When I saw Taxi Driver for the first time, at 12 or 13, I was living in a small version of Scorsese’s world; Napoli was not quite like the mid-1970s Harlem, but at 2 a.m. the ambiance was just as shady and surreal. Travis Bickle, the insomniac loner wandering through the steamy inferno of New York, held me spellbound for years.

I loved, and was frightened at the same time by the way Travis interacted with Betsy, the way he noticed she was unhappy, the way he dismissed her obnoxious, racist coworker Tom.  He was trying to build a bridge between two apparently irreconcilable worlds. Her office (presidential candidate Charles Palantine’s campaign headquarter) was a hell, too, and Travis got it right.

Then I watched it again, yesterday, for the first time since I moved to New York. And I was instantly recaptured by the atmosphere of the film, its modernity, its acting, by Hermann’s melliflous, disenchanted score.

But I also realized, much to my awe, that Travis was only 26. While I once saw him as an older, angered friend, I pitied and loved him, now his age was deeply incompatible with my ideals. Now he looked as a precocious, paranoid vigilante whose taken away youth was in no way romantic, but disturbing. He was the kind of guy that would include me on his blacklist.

I still couldn’t hate him – after all, he was still a loner, and a victim, probably part of the generation drafted to Vietnam – but I saw in him everything I despised about the triumph of today’s New York.

Anti-imperialism might be embedded in this fascinating tale on moral corruption, as we see the social consequences of war (Travis was no ordinary marine, and he must have probably seen all kinds of horrors in South-East Asia). But what prevails, in the end, is a reactionary revenge fantasy.

Whereas Travis was once, in my adolescent eyes, the enemy of social barriers and the normative, seen from an anarchist perspective he’s an upholder of institutionalized values, policing against deviance and fighting for the status quo.

While the Travis Bickles have realized their sick dream of ‘purification’, moved Upstate, and the ‘scum of the Earth’ has been wiped out with the brutality of guns, jails and money, the City has  become a huge Palantine’s office: with de-sexualized, sterilized workers, desperately trying to make some kind of contacts somehow – to mimic the effortless social interaction we see all around us, but do not participate in.

Travis has won. The misanthrope is now embraced as the model citizen.


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