This article is the first in a series of articles exploring the philosophy of film writer and director Paul Schrader.
According to IMDB, Paul Schrader’s catalog of films spans 28 writing credits and 28 directing credits, many of which are one and the same. Schrader is an enigmatic person, and one whose religious upbringing has always been intriguing to those who interview him. He famously grew up in a strict Dutch Reformed household in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and never attended a film until he was away at Calvin College. While there have certainly been periods of Schrader’s life where it is questionable what he believes about God and morality, it is clear from his films, interviews, and film criticism that religion has never left his blood. There was a time where he labeled himself an agnostic, but of late he seems to identify as Episcopalian.
Schrader’s films do not generally garner the attention of theologically conservative Christians. They often incorporate some form of extreme violence and endings that do not point explicitly to the Biblical narrative of redemption. However, Schrader’s vision for film is more than a delivery system for a didactic message. He envisions “a feature film… hopefully, if you’re an artist, each time out you have a problem, a subject matter, and you need to create a style that really works.” Film, for Schrader, is a form of art that explores the human condition. Considering the human condition is imperative to understand the complexities of how redemption works itself out in an imperfect world. Often, Christian media misses this mark by creating a world where everything wraps up neatly. Facing the Giants, for instance, creates a problem where the protagonist faces infertility, a broken truck, and a losing team. By the end of the film, prayer and faith totally overcome those challenges. His wife becomes pregnant, his truck is replaced, and the team he coaches wins the game. Schrader’s films may lack the redemption we expect, but the problem and subject matter he deals in are grounded in reality. Thus, considering the philosophy of Schrader becomes an exercise in understanding the human condition. To begin our series, we will consider Taxi Driver.
The genesis of how Taxi Driver first came to fruition is from Schrader’s own life experience when he was homeless, sleeping at adult movie theaters, and self-isolating. This was a time of great psychological torment after his divorce from his first wife and during which he was being treated in the hospital for stomach ulcers. The character of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and his descent into madness represent the psychosis of self-imposed loneliness.
Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle was the first of Schrader’s existential characters, whom he described at the Zurich Film Festival as “men who are self-absorbed and not very reliable. Solitary men sitting in a room with a mask on (their occupation) waiting for something to happen.” Something of Schrader’s Bickle (and other “existential heroes”) rings true to the quest of individualism many Americans are on today. His characters are often bleak, and none of his films feel good, but perhaps the solution to the American spirit that has given birth to the mental health crisis at present can’t be found in a feel-good film about heroes banding together to rescue humanity from the threat of destruction. Maybe we need to examine a few films that centralize the things about us we’re trying so desperately to avoid.
Taxi Driver opens through the lens of Travis Bickle, and only one scene in the film is outside of his direct line of sight. He is a Vietnam veteran, driving cabs in the late 1970s in New York. Bickle is subjugated to all the “trash of the city,” even writing in his journal, “Thank God for the rain that has washed all of the trash down into the sewer.” His obsessiveness leads him to believe that it is his duty to wash away the people of the city who he considers to be trash as well.
Martin Scorsese muses in his commentary for the film, “In his quest to purify, Bickle feels the need to attach himself to a woman.” In this quest, Bickle first encounters Betsy, played by Cybill Shepherd, who embodies the kind of relationship he wants but cannot have. When he meets Betsy, she is working on the campaign team for presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). She is an attractive self-reliant woman. Travis charms Betsy, and they have coffee together. This leads to a second date, where Travis takes Betsy to a film. Unbeknownst to Betsy it is an adult theater that Travis frequents when he is unable to sleep. His preoccupation with pornography plays into his own self-isolation. Betsy storms off in anger, and this becomes a decisive action that propels Travis toward further psychological instability. Picking up a passenger later that evening, Travis’s sense that Betsy is just like the rest of the “trash” in the city is solidified. The passenger, who is waiting outside a window watching a woman whom he identifies as his wife sleeping with another man, is portrayed by Martin Scorsese. The passenger violently claims, “I’m gonna kill her with a .44 Magnum.” Instead of going after Betsy, the emboldened Travis decides to go after her “father figure” of sorts, Charles Palantine.
One evening, Travis stops in a convenience store and commits his first act of violence by shooting a robber who was holding up the store owner. His psychosis continues to increase as he watches Charles Palantine from a distance, indicating a sense of voyeurism. Travis then encounters Iris, who is portrayed by a young Jodie Foster. Iris becomes to Travis a new potential female to whom he could attach himself. For him, she is the female whom he could have but does not want. She is a twelve-year-old prostitute who has been exploited by the “father figure” in her life, a pimp named Sport (portrayed by Harvey Keitel). Travis decides he can attempt to help Iris by setting her free. His mission to kill Charles Palantine, however, has not left his pathology.
Palantine represents a liberal candidate who would potentially bring hope to the American people. Travis has no values connected to political association but wants to end the politician’s life simply because he doesn’t like him due to his connection to Betsy. Travis’s final physical transformation takes place by way of a mohawk haircut. He attends the rally of Palantine and reaches into his jacket to pull out a gun but is unable to do so without being seen by the Secret Service.
In the aftermath of the failed assassination attempt, Travis decides to free Iris by killing the men who are involved in trafficking her, beginning with Sport. He then enters the house where Iris is staying, killing the rest of the men and turning the gun on himself. Unfortunately for Travis, he finds that he is out of bullets. This allows Travis to be seen as a hero who has helped Iris return to her parents.
Taxi Driver is a violent descent into madness in a period America was losing multiple figures of hope to violent assassinations. The existential dread that Travis Bickle experiences, however, is timeless. It is the same dread that Rodion Raskolnikov experienced in Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was one of the great nineteenth-century existentialists. In his novel, Raskolnikov is a character much like Travis, except his trajectory takes a more hopeful turn. After finding himself conflicted and longing to commit a crime, Raskolnikov descends deeper and deeper into his own psychosis. As the story unfolds, we learn that the crime he is obsessed with is murdering the old pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna. Dostoevsky slowly peels back the psychological layers of the obsessive nature of Raskolnikov. Ultimately, he kills the old woman and slowly descends into his own nightmare.
The only way out of a state of psychosis for someone is to be able to see outside their own limited, skewed perspective and to see through the eyes of someone else. Too many Americans in self-isolation have fallen prey to the same disease that haunted Bickle. Does this mean that our end will be an explosive act of emotional and/or physical violence? For some, it already has been, as we are a nation with the highest rate of mass shootings. As social epidemiologist Elizabeth L. Tung has noted, “The association between violence exposure and loneliness is a really interesting one, because there’s such a strong link. . . . The pervasiveness of violence seems to be more evident now than ever. What does that sense of violence in our culture do more broadly to loneliness?”
The real question is how do we find a way out of the kind of existential dread that leads us down a path of self-imposed loneliness, violence, and deviancy? Like Raskolnikov, we must let someone else in. This is the only way we can transcend our own existential crisis and be reconciled to our identity, one that we do not have to make up as we go, but one that we can discover. This point is made particularly clear by author Alan Noble in his book You Are Not Your Own. In it, he ponders about the world we have created through the lens of the analogy of a lion who has lived in a zoo and experienced “zoochosis: animals driven to psychosis through living in captivity.” He continues,
Although we are not caged in the same way as lions at the zoo, contemporary people in the West often suffer from our own kind of zoochosis. Just like the lion, our anxiety stems from living in an environment that was not actually made for us—for humans as we truly are. The designers (who happen to be us, by the way: only humans are capable of creating inhuman environments for themselves) had a particular idea of the human person in mind when they created the modern world. Before you can build a habitat for humans, you must have an idea of what humans are. What do they do? How do they live? Why do they live? What do they need? Where do they belong? When you can answer these questions, you can begin to design institutions, economies, practices, values, and laws accordingly—the building blocks of a society.
The existential crisis of Travis Bickle is that of a man who has been driven to a violence and sexual deviance world through self imposed isolation. While it may seem far fetched, our collective community has been dissolving around us and manifested in increased mental illness. Living in a world that has been on lockdown because of COVID, our self-imposed isolation has only been exacerbated. Taking note of Noble’s conclusion, we have been creating inhuman environments for ourselves for too long. Schrader demonstrated this in the character of Bickle. Humanity thrives in community and starves in isolation. This is the heart of Schrader’s Taxi Driver.
An article in the International Journal of Health Planning and Management makes a further connection for us to consider:
A pandemic is not just a medical phenomenon; it affects individuals and society and causes disruption, anxiety, stress, stigma, and xenophobia. The behavior of an individual as a unit of society or a community has marked effects on the dynamics of a pandemic that involves the level of severity, degree of flow, and aftereffects.
In this new world of heightened disruption, anxiety, stress, stigma and xenophobia, the answer to the question of our meaning and purpose cannot be found within ourselves. Schrader mentioned in his commentary on the film that Travis’s story isn’t over at the end of Taxi Driver. His cycle would repeat again. He still hasn’t connected with humanity and is simply riding the wave of what is considered socially acceptable.
Raskolnikov, on the other hand, has a different ending.
Under his pillow lay the New Testament. He took it up mechanically. The book belonged to Sonia; it was the one from which she had read the raising of Lazarus to him. At first he was afraid that she would worry him about religion, would talk about the gospel and pester him with books. But to his great surprise she had not once approached the subject and had not even offered him the Testament. He had asked her for it himself not long before his illness and she brought him the book without a word. Till now he had not opened it.
He did not open it now, but one thought passed through his mind: “Can her convictions not be mine now? Her feelings, her aspirations at least….”
…He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering.
Through Sonia, Raskolnikov discovers that his meaning did not come from within, but from his Creator, one who had created humanity in his image. And through overcoming isolation, he becomes free to discover that he indeed has no identity to create, but instead has been presented with an identity to behold. The love of Sonia is a reminder not only to Raskolnikov, but to us as well, that we can find a kind of redemption, and in that redemption see that only the transcendent can overcome the evil that lives in our hearts. Taxi Driver differs from Crime and Punishment in that the ending provided for Travis leaves him in a perpetual cycle of existential crisis. The story is a warning of what can happen to a person who is left without help from an outside force. While Dostoevsky hints that help could come from the Gospels, Schrader leaves the question of the existential crisis looming with, and by doing so presents a subtle yet horrific admonishment: self-imposed isolation will end in destruction.
The next article will begin to explore Paul Schrader’s view of transcendence through his work in American Gigolo.