In her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey uses examples from films of the 1930s-1950s to illustrate her argument that patriarchal society is reinforced by Hollywood cinema which, geared towards male viewing pleasure in turn relates directly to the construction of the male psyche. The paper is a polemic with the intent of redressing gender imbalance as identified by Mulvey:
“[the essay] takes as its starting point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.” (Jones, 2010: 57)
Mulvey acknowledges the changing landscape at the time she is writing and anticipates that the “monolithic system based on large capital investment” can be subsumed by an emerging alternative cinema which is becoming possible due to technological advancement:
“The alternative cinema provides a space for the birth of a cinema which is radical in both a political and aesthetic sense and challenges the assumptions of the mainstream film. This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the way in which its formal preoccupations reflect the physical obsession of the society which produced it and further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions. A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can only exist as a counterpoint.” (Jones, 2010:58)
To explore these assertions, I have chosen the film ‘Taxi Driver’, a first-person narrative exploring themes of masculinity, violence and alienation amongst other things. The film was also made around the time that Mulvey wrote her essay and I am interested on whether it confirms or confounds Mulvey’s argument along with how far it can be analysed using the psycohanalytic framework of her paper, specifically Freudian and Lacanian notions of the male Gaze (and the dichotomy between active male and passive female), scopophillia, voyeurism, narcissism and fetishism as well as patriarchal hegemony.
Scorsese is also of the new generation of directors that began to emerge in the 1970s that were steeped in the films of the past and referenced earlier works in their films, a key influence being Hitchcock which is most explicitly demonstrated in the use of his long-time collaborator Bernard Herrmann for the score to ‘Taxi Driver’. A postmodern reading of ‘Taxi Driver’ would emphasise the need of the requirement of the viewer to be able to recognise these references and appropriations in order to make a full reading of the text. Mulvey posits that the gaze in cinema is implicitly male, this is certainly true of ‘Taxi Driver’ as (virtually) all of the film is presented through the eyes of protagonist Travis
Bickle. And yet, although he is a man Travis possesses no power – in fact his masculinity is a prison which traps him in a spiral of loneliness, alienation, self-destruction and delusion.
Taxi Driver and authorship
“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes, 1977: 146)
Scorsese became synonymous with the ‘movie brat’ generation of directors that came to prominence in the 1970s who had grown up with a love of film and used these as touchstones in their own work. It can be argued that film proved the defining element of Scorsese’s development as frequent childhood illnesses “detached Scorsese from participating fully in the life of the streets but increased his opportunities for observing it.” (Cousins, 2011:339) He gained most of his experience not from directly lived experience but from films.
Conversely, Paul Schrader based the screenplay for ‘Taxi Driver’ on what he termed the low point of his life: in 1972 at twenty-six he was divorced and unemployed, living in his car and drinking heavily. When he was hospitalised with a gastric ulcer he realised he had not spoken to anyone for weeks. During his recuperation, he read about the attempted assassination of Alabama Governor George Wallace by Arthur Bremer. Bremer was an undereducated, lower middle-class man designated as a psychopath by the newspapers who ran extracts from his diary that provided the inspiration for the voice over of the film. Bremer believed that the only way he could achieve the attention he craved and found was lacking was to assassinate a famous politician, he settled on Wallace after failing to penetrate Nixon’s security. It is the combining of Schrader and Scorsese that makes ‘Taxi Driver’ – the brutal realism and authenticity of Schrader’s screenplay combined with the cinematic knowledge and referencing of Scorsese. (Taubin, 2000: 9-10) The vérité style of Schrader’s later directorial effort ‘Blue Collar’ (1978) suggest that ‘Taxi Driver’ would have been a much different film if he had directed. It could be argued that Travis is the surrogate imaging of how Schrader’s life could have easily gone following this experience with the added complexity that Scorsese is only able to articulate the narrative using the references from a life of film study rather than experiences in the real world.
The main two stylistic influences on ‘Taxi Driver’ are film noir and the French New Wave showing Scorsese’s bridging of both the avant-garde and mainstream. Tropes from film noir such as first-person voice over narration, expressionist camera angles and movements, moody jazz inflected score are all present. Film noir is also rooted in post war trauma; for ‘Taxi Driver’ this is Vietnam rather than WWII. Scorsese appropriates some of the stylistic innovations of New Wave directors such as Godard, for example, the jump cut which he uses to emphasise Travis’ fractured psychosis. Early in the film we watch Travis walking toward us on a street, a dissolve makes Travis appear to disappear then reappear in the shot. Usually this type of cut would be used to advance the passage of time in a narrative, here, with Travis only moving slightly closer to the camera, the amount of time that has passed is minimal. The effect is to emphasise early in the film Travis’s fractured state of mind and can be read in reference to Lacan’s notions of the three orders: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real – the small nudges forward are disconcerting and emphasises Travis’ discontinuity.
While it is not necessary to have knowledge of all of the references that Scorsese employs in ‘Taxi Driver’, it could be argued that doing so increases our understanding. Taubin (2010: 37) describes this as “hybrid iconography”, for example the western genre is an influence on ‘Taxi Driver’. (The scene detailed above is a reference to the 1952 western ‘Shane’) With the theme of masculinity being perhaps the most prevalent in the film referencing this most macho of genres adds further layers to Taxi Driver. The alienation and lack of purpose that Travis experiences is in contrast to the convention of the western hero who always has a sense of purpose. Like these heroes Travis also strives to bring order to the lawless, hell on earth he experiences around himself, although ambiguity about whether he is on the right course is prevalent. The change here from hero to anti-hero can be explained in the context of America at the time as it moves away from the trusted order of earlier times to the climate of the late 1970s with the rise of racial and feminist politics and discourse that questioned the status quo.
Taxi Driver and the look
“Looking is powerful. To look is to assert power, to control, to challenge authority.” (D’Alleva, 2012: 104)
Mulvey discusses the notion of the male Gaze in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ arguing that there is an imbalance in looking that is split between active/male and passive/female. The male is a controlling figure of the film’s narrative and the bearer of the spectators look with whom they can identify. This suggests that power is inherent in the main protagonist, something that Travis is almost completely lacking. For the majority of the film’s running time, Travis is a passive observer of the world around him. His taxi acts as a barrier between himself and the outside world which he views with disdain, a metal coffin on wheels symbolising urban isolation. (Taubin, 2000:10) The view the Travis experiences is literally using his Taxi as a window on the world, a distancing strategy that he combines with viewing his passengers in the rear-view mirror. Using the ideology Mulvey presents in her essay, as a white male Travis should possess a great deal of power in society. This is not the case in the film however, Travis has no power, even African Americans seem to have more agency than him. This perhaps goes some way to explaining his rage. Another reading however is that far from representing a critique of patriarchal order ‘Taxi Driver’ reaffirms this: Travis is a flawed representation of masculinity and he lacks agency due to the non adherence to masculine norms.
Frequently we are made to share Travis’ viewpoint throughout the film, from the opening sequence which uses stylistic strategies more associated with the horror genre to emphasise Travis’s world view of New York as hell on earth to the infamous ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene in which Travis practices drawing his gun and how he might react in a violent situation. He does this into the mirror and directly to his reflection, so although we see him on the screen the implication is we are looking directly through his eyes. The most powerful aspect of ‘Taxi Driver’ is that the film makes us view the world through the eyes of Travis, what we see is twisted by his pathology and yet we also become complicit, gaining empathy for him despite everything we see.
The ‘you talkin’ to me?’ scene is a key way to understand both the film and the character of Travis. Lacan’s notion of the mirror phase is present here – Travis is literally using his reflection to bolster his self-image, we have frequently seen him unable to interact with other people on a one to basis, a reality at odds with delusional self-narrative he gives us in voiceover. Even here he needs to practice over and over to get his speech right, the camera cutting to edit out his mistakes. Taubin (2000: 22) makes the point that the scene makes it difficult to distinguish between Travis and his reflection, between self and other:
“It is as if Travis implicates us in his paranoid confusion of self and other and of projection and reflection. If we are his mirror, then he is ours.” (Taubin, 2000: 22)
In another scene Travis is watching a film in a porn theatre, the camera watches him move his middle finger up and down over his eyes, breaking his field of vision. By deliberately preventing himself from looking at the screen through this gesture he is intensifying his voyeuristic pleasure, repeatedly enforcing and breaking the prohibition against looking.
Travis Bickle and the ‘Other’
“The Other refers to that which is understood as the symbolic opposite of the normative category. The slave is other to the master; the woman other to the man, the black person to the white person…” (Sturken and cartwright, 2009: 451)
Travis’s relationship with the ‘Other’ can perhaps be encompassed by his interactions with everybody he comes into contact with – he is completely alienated. The lack of respect that is given to him by the female encounters demonstrates that his maleness in itself does not entitle him to a higher social status. The first woman he encounters is the cinema attendant who quickly shows she is in control by threatening Travis’s mild flirtations with eviction by the manager. Betsy is a professional woman with a good job and higher educational level than Travis, clearly out of his league. Despite this she is intrigued by Travis and agrees to go on a date with him. Taking Betsy to a porn film shows Travis to be both socially inept and wilful in his self-loathing – it is like he is desperate to show demonstrate his deviance? Even Iris, the pre-teen runaway prostitute merely humours Travis and shows a higher level of maturity and awareness of herself and the world in the scene they share in the diner.
African Americans represent the one group that Travis can feel superior to and his blatant racism demonstrates this. Sitting with his fellow cabbies in the all-night diner, he can barely conceal his hostility towards the one black man at the table. Travis’s gaze then switches to a group of flamboyantly dressed pimps on
the tables opposite. We see the pimps through his eyes, the camera moves in slow motion towards them emphasising his hatred which seems directed at there very blackness rather than what they do for a business. As he leaves the black cabbie says “see you later killer”, closing one eye and pointing his finger toward Travis as if it is a gun. It is a telling and humiliating moment for Travis where he is mocked, albeit gently, by a black man and also shows that his cabbie colleague has seen the violence inside Travis while foretelling what is to come.
That these two themes of race and gender difference are so overt in the narrative is an indication of the political landscape of mid 1970s America – a time where the optimism of the post war years has given way to counter culture and tension between major segments of society through the civil rights and feminist movements. The Vietnam war is also another important touchstone which has since become synonymous with the decay of ideals that were projected through earlier mythologising genres such as the western.
Psychoanalytical readings of Taxi Driver
“it is the birth of the long love affair/despair between image and self-image which has found such intensity of expression in film and such joyous recognition in the cinema audience.” (Jones, 2010: 60)
Since ‘Taxi Driver’ is clearly both a character study and an examination of personality disorder it is not difficult to apply psychoanalysis to readings of the film. Throughout the difference between the real and imaginary are displayed through the use of voiceover juxtaposed with reality: Travis shows narcissistic tendencies which prove to be unfounded by what we see and how we see others react to him. He craves company and yet is unable to connect with others due to his social awkwardness and his lack of self-awareness transfers this failure onto others. His inability to connect with women for example can be read as a symptom of his inherent identity being under pressure from both feminism and the civil rights movements. Travis’s inner voice has “paranoid delusions of grandeur, contradictory assessments of self and others…pathological narcissism.” (Taubin, 2000: 38)
Travis shows a sexual repression that displays a clear castration anxiety. Despite his frequent visits to the porn theatre there is no suggestion that he is gaining an erotic charge from this, rather, he goes there because this is what he believes he is expected to do as an expression of masculinity. He makes no attempt to consummate his relationship with the two females he comes into contact with throughout the film, although he is also deeply confused about what to do. Betsy is the Madonna he wants to turn into a whore, showing her the darkness within him by taking her on a date to the porn theatre. Taubin (2000: 18) sees this as “a violation, a psychological rape.” Conversely, Iris is the pre-teen whore he wants to save.
Travis only begins to gain agency within the narrative when he decides to buy guns in a scene which is blatant both in its fetish and phallic connotations. Clearly the guns represent Travis’s castration anxiety and serve both as an antidote to this and a way to exact revenge on those who threaten his masculinity. Throughout the film Travis is like a bottle under pressure that you know will explode once the top is removed. The final, violent scenes of the film represent Travis’ release, yet also show his impotence demonstrated by his failure to commit suicide. In a final ironic twist however, the final scenes of the film show Travis hailed as a hero for rescuing Iris and taking out the gangsters, an action he only took because of his failed assassination attempt on Senator Palantine.
An interesting comparison can be made with the later film ‘Falling Down’ (1993) in which the protagonist snaps under the pressure of modernity and begins a vengeful journey across Los Angeles. Unlike Travis, the Michael Douglas character in this film is played as an everyman who we are encouraged to empathise with, a victim of circumstances and an anti-hero we can identify with. Comparing the structure of both films is the most telling comparison, ‘Falling Down’ has a clear, linear narrative and definite denouement. ‘Taxi Driver’ is open ended and we are left with both uncertainty and a sense of foreboding as the credits arrive.
It is difficult to argue that ‘Taxi Driver’ restores any sort of gender balance as it is difficult to imagine a film that deals with issues of maleness in more detail. The principal creators of the film are all men and there are very few women featured, however, this is hardly a celebration of patriarchy. Travis Bickle is a damaged man, possibly as a result of the war in Vietnam which is a symptom of late capitalism and used as a symbol of the decline of the American dream in the film. He is alienated in both the literal and Marxist sense and is unable to find his place in society as either a man or a citizen. Although the film can hardly be held as a positive portrayal of masculinity it seems to be suggesting that the psychosis Travis experiences is a symptom of the society which appears to be breaking down, by extension this leads us to ponder what the alternative would be – something new or a return to what has come before? ‘Taxi Driver’ is a complex portrayal of an anti-hero it is difficult to like and yet we are able to identify with the extreme feelings of loneliness, lack of connection and alienation Travis feels and experiences. If we are honest with ourselves the extreme narcissism, deluded sense of self and fear of the ‘Other’ are all parts of the human psyche that we experience to one degree or another. In the end, it shows that texts can have both multiple contradictory meanings and a hateful world view can be expressed without meaning that is shared by the creators. At the films denouement, we are left with a feeling of foreboding about what is to come, the final shot of Travis’s eyes in close up, looking into the rear view mirror for something it appears only he can see, echoes a shot in the opening sequence. The suggestion is that the cycle will begin again and there is nothing we can do about it.
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