Taxi Driver: Seventies America

Q1: What is the film about and what does it reveal about the 1970s?
This is a 1976 film by director, Martin Scorsese, about a mentally unstable ex-marine, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro.) Travis was a loner who suffered insomnia and spent his nights riding around the city in trains and buses in New York City.  He got a job as a taxi driver that would keep him busy and also make him money. He saw the city as ruined, smelly, and full of sleazy individuals who operate at night. In one of the early scenes, Travis was driving in his cab and people were walking back and forth on the streets. He said, “All the animals come out at night; whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”

Travis hated the people and their immoral behaviors on the streets but expressed hope that someone would one day, do something about cleaning up the corrupt and decrepit society. He did not care for presidential campaigns because he did not believe any of the candidates could do anything to clean up New York City, a metaphor for the immoral society the United States had become. Senator Palatine
(Leonard Harris), a presidential candidate, and his aide took a ride in his cab and asked Travis what was the one thing that bugged him the most about the city. Travis answered that he would want the president to clean up the city of its mess. Senator Palatine told him that it would be tough to accomplish and that radical changes will have to be made.
The 1970s was a period when the government and authority in general disillusioned the youth. Therefore, there was widespread rebellion against the government, and the society at large by the youths. Many youths ran away from home to escape adults’ authority over them and lived on the streets doing drugs, committing crimes, and for the females, became prostitutes who were owned by their pimps. According to Bruce J. Schulman in his book, “The Seventies,” historians called the 1970s a period of “malaise.” They saw the youth as selfish and coined the term, the “Me Decade” to describe this period (Schulman, 145 – 6.) Some historians however, saw this period as a time when the youths spoke up about the ills of the society through art, movies, and music in rejection of the established conventions of corporate culture and the government.
Travis decided that it was up to him to take action and clean up the mess, referencing that “All the king’s men can’t put it right.” He bought several guns from a guns and drugs dealer.

Travis started working out, eating right, and practicing his gun shooting moves and poses. In his last journal entry, Travis wrote, “…here is a man who wouldn’t take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is someone who stood up.” He ended the entry with “Here is…”
The man who was going to save society from itself? Perhaps not but, he tried albeit the wrong way. When Travis’ plan to assassinate Senator Palatine failed, he moved on to save Iris (Jodie Foster), a runaway who went by the name, Izzie.. He shot and killed Matthew, the pimp who was twelve and half years old Iris’ handler, the motel owner, and a patron who was with Iris at the time. Everyone, including Iris’ parents who were happy to have their daughter safely back home, hailed him a hero.

Q2: Betsy’s character in the film in relation to Chapter 7 of Schulman
Travis’ only bright light in humanity was Betsy (Cybil Shepherd), who worked as a presidential nomination campaign volunteer for Senator Charles Palatine. Travis liked Betsy and thought that she was different from all the other women. He asked Betsy out to have coffee with him and subsequently, a movie to which she agreed. In line with Travis’ inability to communicate and associate with people, he did not inquire from Betsy about the type of movie she would like to see and assumed that a pornographic movie will be ideal for a first date.
Travis took Betsy to the theater where he goes to watch pornographic movies and she was put off by it. Travis said he thought Betsy would like it and offered to take her to another movie. Betsy refused and angrily left Travis at the theater. He sent her flowers and called to apologize but Betsy would not accept his calls or apologies. Travis went to the campaign headquarters to confront her and was tossed out by one of the male workers. Travis was incensed by this and said that Betsy was just like the others, “cold and distant.” He saw women as a “union” and they all acted the same way.
This is a depiction of life in the 1970s when women were still seen as inferior, weak, and should be under male dominance. Their male counterparts treated women as if they did not know what they wanted or what was best for them. They were better off looking beautiful and making babies instead of competing with the males or asking for their rights to be treated equally with their male counterparts.  

Q3: Do you think the film deserves to be listed as one of the top 100 films ever produced in the United States?
When Travis and Iris entered the room in the motel, he was more concerned about knowing who Iris was and showed concern for her. He didn’t think Iris belonged in that profession and refused to let her touch him. He told her that he wanted to help her escape and go home to live a better life. He promised to save her and asked her to go with him. Iris agreed to meet him the next morning for breakfast. At breakfast, Travis tried to convince Iris to escape and go back home to live a normal teenager’s life. He gave her money to leave but, Matthew the pimp, convinced her to stay. Travis eventually saves her when he returned with his gun and killed everyone involved in perpetrating Iris’ undesirable lifestyle.

This film deserves to be listed as one of the top 100 films in the United States during this period because it showed that Travis cared about humanity and doing the right thing though he went about it the wrong way. In spite of his anger at the whole world, he saw a child that needed to be rescued and didn’t hesitate to do so.

Q4: What do you think the last scenes in the film signify?
In the last scenes, Travis was in the hospital reading a letter from Iris’ parents thanking him for saving their daughter’s life and on the wall were newspaper clips of the media describing his heroic act. The final scene was Betsy riding in Travis’ cab and was being nice to him. This shows that society was ready to pardon Travis’ crimes because the victims were “low lives” who didn’t deserve to live. By killing them, Travis had saved a child and reduced the number of scums in the city.

The Seventies: The Great Shift In American Culture, Society, And Politics/2002/Schulman, Bruce J.


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