(This is the 21st of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
It is hard to place ourselves back into the time when a famous movie was released. We all know the catchphrases; we probably think we know the movie well enough that we don’t need to watch it again. And when we hear the words “Taxi Driver,” we think of Travis Bickle, who we know, and we miss just how mundane that title seemed when the film was released, before it became Taxi Driver. It’s a pretty boring title that promises little, but we can’t hear that any longer.
While I can’t avoid personal anecdotes in these write-ups, I try to limit them. But I think my reaction to Taxi Driver says something about the movie’s power. When it came out, I was 23 years old. I had been working in a factory for a few years, a job I hated. I had a lot of pent-up anger, and this was a few decades before I started taking meds to calm myself down. My favorite author was (and is) Camus, so I was drenched in my version of existentialism.
I went to see Taxi Driver, and when I got home, I told my wife I had seen my story on the screen. Although it seems clearer to me on subsequent viewings, that first time, I had no idea Travis Bickle was sick until near the end when we see him in his Mohawk.
Bickle was based in part on the real-life Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace, and Taxi Driver was an obsession of John Hinckley, Jr., who shot Ronald Reagan as a love offering to Jodie Foster. Travis Bickle was a loner, alienated, psychotic … he fit in nowhere, he had headaches and couldn’t sleep, when he asked if someone was talking to him, the someone was himself … he struggled to talk to anyone else.
I was never a psychotic, and I’ve never shot a gun in my life, much less killed anyone. But I identified with Travis Bickle, because the representation of Travis draws us into his worldview, allowing us to connect with those parts of Travis that we recognize in ourselves.
And who hasn’t occasionally felt alone and alienated?
Premiere magazine called this one of the 25 Most Dangerous Movies ever. It’s dangerous because it makes it so easy for us to recognize ourselves in the crazy man at the center of the picture. I don’t think we are all Travis Bickle, but we may all be John Hinckley, Jr., watching Taxi Driver over and over and seeing ourselves on the screen.
Jeff Pike had this at #8 on his list. For some reason, when I put it at #30, everyone was hoping for something light-hearted. When I posted Taxi Driver, I said, “Here’s a comedy for you guys.” One person commented, “Taxi Driver is indeed a very funny film, and the Bertrand Russell line’s one of the funniest of the decade.”