It’s easy to get lost in the high opinion of our modern times. Sure, we might have a tendency to idolize the nostalgia of the past but we also have the tendency to view modern things as superior. We are, by nature, animals that love to make advancements in society. As much time as we spend thinking, “this world is madness and it’s only getting worse” we also spend using all the amenities of the modern world to better our lives. We rarely sit down to look back at the past to piece together how we got here. In avoiding doing so we end up overlooking that our past has dealt with the same exact things we are dealing with today, in the here and now.
I think my favorite thing, and also, greatest hesitation in watching an “old” movie is examining how it fits in our modern world. Will the cinematic experience hold up? Will my awareness of the age of the film impact my opinion? Are the character’s actions or opinions difficult to watch with modern eyes? Does the message even mean anything after all this time?
In addition to these thoughts running through my brain, as I sat down to finally watch Martin Scorsese’s classic 1976 film, Taxi Driver, there was quite a lot of events happening in both my personal life as well as the modern world of 2019.
Those events, first, I had just moved to New York City, alone (temporarily). Another step in an endless quest to understand this crazy world. Second, I decided to explore my new city on foot AND in the cinema. Sure, I can step outside and breathe the polluted air of Manhattan, walk the streets of Brooklyn, and eat halal food in Queens but how can I fully understand my new home without a cinematic history lesson? And finally, and most importantly, our world seemed to take another couple steps closer towards self-destruction.
I’m not someone to fear the world. I know bad things happen all the time but I also know they have always been happening. However, these horrific acts hit me hard. Having previously lived in Ohio, I have friends from Dayton and those friends have family in Dayton, and they also have friends who were hanging around bars that night, in Dayton. It hit close to home, or my adopted home. And as someone who grew up with Columbine as high school rivals, this has been an unsettling trend of my life.
It was probably poor timing to jump into Scorsese’s view of New York City because as I watched Travis Bickle (played by a young Robert De Niro) drive aimlessly down the streets of New York City in Taxi Driver, I found myself deeply unsettled. Not so much because he leans on the dirty and dark streets of NYC to craft Travis’ worldview. No, I’ve experienced those myself in my six weeks here and I can say, not much has changed, still dirty, still dark.
The unsettling feeling came from how modern this story about a young white man who is struggling to find his place in the world felt. The parallel lines between Travis and the, typically, young white males, that have done these horrific mass shootings are clear. He is socially isolated and psychologically disturbed. He detests people his age who engage in behavior that he does not approve of, i.e. drinking, smoking, dating, sex. He spends most of the film intentionally isolating himself. When he finally reaches out, he gets rejected.
This rejection leads to him being not only a disturbed, socially isolated, and angry young man but also one who will do anything to get revenge AND respect. By the end of the film he has attempted to assassinate a presidential candidate, has succeeded to murder every person exploiting a young prostitute named Iris, and has been praised a hero both by Iris’ family and the media.
Throughout the film Travis sees himself superior, above it all, and responsible to fix the issues he sees, even when he is not asked to. He doesn’t know how to interact with women. In fact, he doesn’t view them as self-sustaining individuals. Rather as something he needs to save and then be rewarded for. His world view is tied up in his ego and his misguided views of justice. These biases has been intentionally isolated from learning how the world truly works. His mind just continues spinning in circles about what is wrong with the world, with no push back from opposing views, just an endless negative feedback loop.
And whether or not the ending was real, whether Travis truly did live and earn praise or whether he died on the couch imagining the glory he believes his actions will earn him, it’s a brief view into the mind of a madman who believes his terrifying actions are an act of justice. It’s a haunting reminder that the monsters of the modern world typically feel no remorse but instead pride in their horrific acts.
That’s why a film from 1976 still resonates today. That’s why I found the character of Travis Bickle so terrifying. It’s foreboding of the future and people like Travis feel omnipresent today. But the most unsettling part of it all? The age of this film proves this has been going on for decades.
My fascination with this movie is eerily summed up by the late, great Roger Ebert who simply states, “Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film is a film that does not grow dated…” and I would argue one that is more relevant today than ever before.