“The tragedy of our predicament when we are within ideology is that when we think that we escape [from] it into our dreams, at that point we are within ideology,” says Slavoj Žižek in THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY—screening here at the Brattle over the next week. This is precisely the predicament of Travis Bickle, the wayward, psychopathic hero of TAXI DRIVER. Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) has it right when she says Travis is “a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.” Travis is a cultural observer at odds with the ideologies in which he participates.
His thinking is deeply rooted in capitalism, yet he is totally unfulfilled by money. He works long hours (“anytime, anywhere”) and has no problem dropping a few hundred bucks on a shopping spree with his friendly neighborhood arms-dealer. His apartment ain’t the Ritz, but money isn’t a concern for him. He works mostly so he has something to do. He’s a hard worker, he’s really successful at his job, and he’s extremely unhappy.
The quintessential scene where we see his unhappy consumerism in action is when he hits on the girl at the concession stand in the porno theater. Unable to strike up a conversation, he buys his way out of his dilemma, requesting a specific type of candy that “lasts longer.” What he’s trying to do is purchase an idea. Something long lasting. Something meaningful.
A lot of his relationship with Betsy follows this pattern of buying ideas. When he takes her to a diner, he obsesses over her order, apple pie and coffee. He acknowledges the order as “a good choice,” even though Betsy “could’ve had anything she wanted”. When she dumps him, he attempts to send her flowers to win her back. Nothing says, “I love you and I’m sorry” like purchasing flowers, right? She rejects his gesture, subsequently filling his apartment with flowers. Travis is expressing an ideology—a financial investment is the basis of a relationship, and every other component (including emotional investment) will fall into place once that initial investment is established. His wooing of Betsy is based on his ability to buy her stuff. He’s followed what he thinks are the rules of dating, but isn’t finding long lasting emotional success.
His fixation on Iris (Jodie Foster), too, begins with a transaction. Sport (Harvey Keitel) throws Travis a crumpled $20 bill when Iris first gets into his cab. This is a defining moment for him. He doesn’t drive her away and takes the money. In this moment, he’s every bit as bad as the people he claims to hate.
Part of Travis’s problem is that he likes to watch. When Sport pays him off, all he does is sit there and watch the action around him. In fact, a significant amount of this movie consists of point of view shots. We see Travis looking at something and there’s a cut to what he is looking at and this happens over and over (there is only ever one single brief scene where Travis could not possibly have a perspective: When Sport and Iris dance.)
This editing technique even occurs in the opening credits, which should give you an idea of its importance since it’s the first thing we see. Travis’s eyes are bathed in red light as he scans the crowded sidewalks of New York looking for… something. His job demands observation. A taxi driver has to keep his eyes on crowds to look for fares—a sort of socially acceptable voyeurism. Again there’s a contradiction in Travis because, except for Betsy’s angelic visage, he hates what he sees. An unhappy masturbator (the porno theatres he frequents don’t seem to be enough), he hates the city’s filth, its hookers, its junkies, but he himself is pretty unsavory and totally lacking introspection.
An amazing example of Travis’s penchant for watching occurs when we meet Betsy and Tom (Albert Brooks). Travis is outside the campaign office, looking in, and we, as the audience, get to enter and observe Betsy and Tom’s relationship up close, invisibly. We’re still in Travis’s perspective while this happens, but we act as a more intimate observer. Betsy, when she notices Travis, looks almost right into the camera at us.
Travis wants desperately to enter into the clean, bright, perfect bourgeois world that he sees in the campaign office, but ultimately he can’t. He wants to be “normal” and even writes a letter to his parents about how “gee golly work’s going well and he’s seein’ a real swell gal…” When he isn’t watching porn or driving through the city, he’s in his apartment watching couples dance on TV or writing in his journal about his loneliness. He wants a girlfriend bad, as if getting laid would help him rise above the filth of the city. When Travis finds that he can’t live up to this heteronormative ideology through his relationship with Betsy, he trades heteronormativity for fairytale normativity, becoming Iris’s murderous knight in shining armor. After his rampage, he seems to have overcome his ideological troubles. He seems happy and unworried for once in his life. He’s living the dream and during his chance encounter with Betsy, he seems pretty much over her. He’s not at all bitter and he doesn’t even charge her for the ride in his cab.
Then comes the look.
In a flash he sees something out of the corner of his eye. We’ve seen this look on his face before, that wild-eyed stare. It might have seemed like he was happy, but while he is definitely over HER, he isn’t over IT: Ideology. Travis has escaped into a dream and he’s right back where he started.