Taxi Driver and Paris, Texas: Navigation Through an Isolated World

[Written by Josh Ilan]

Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Wim WendersParis, Texas depict their characters as isolated and insular figures navigating a lonely world, using the road as a metaphor for their internal turmoil. An extreme close-up shot opens Taxi Driver, being centred on Travis Bickle’s eyes. The next image displays New York City as a sleazy setting, which acts as the source of Bickle’s anger. Through the juxtaposition of these images, it displays Bickle as an insomniac observer going through an existential crisis, looking out at the world with disgust. Similarly, Paris, Texas grounds the main character, also named Travis, in relation to his setting. Through the use of the wide shot, it emphasises how Travis is introduced as being lost within his setting of a vast, sprawling desert. His sense of disorientation stems from his fugue state, framing a man who has disassociated not only from the world but his own life too. The absence of speech emphasises the theme of disconnection, encapsulating Travis’s sense of internal and external isolation. Taxi Driver, however, utilises voiceovers to understand Bickle’s state of mind. This internal monologue collects his thoughts about his disconnection from society, delivered in a monotone nature to emphasise how Bickle believes these thoughts to be inherently rational. The nihilistic and aphoristic voiceovers display Bickle as someone engaging, and actively participating in a world he scorns and disregards, enforcing the contradictory nature of his character.

Their fractured internal states are reflected through the use of the road as a metaphor for this. Paris, Texas explores this through a more conventional road trip with an idealized sense of journey and destination. The first piece of dialogue spoken by Travis after ending his muteness is the word ‘Paris.’ Describing it as a vacant and empty lot, he believes this is where he was conceived. By foregrounding Travis’s future desires to belong to that setting, it creates symbolism of rebirth, of a man looking to be born again after his journey. Scorsese, however, moves away from road movie tropes, heightened by his film’s urbanized setting. The film’s writer, Paul Schrader, describes his movies as works of metaphor, with Bickle’s position as a taxi driver rendering him an observer to a city he doesn’t belong to. Disavowing a linear sense of journey, Bickle’s travels are confined to a cyclical pattern of traipsing through New York City, with the character constellation stemming from those he encounters through his work. Tracking shots are often used to convey the directionless nature of Bickle’s motions, allowing De Niro to create a character who is motionless in his movement.

This existential arc contrasts Wenders’s depiction of Travis, where the two road trips the character takes relate to the character reconnecting with his past. When his brother arrives in the desert to take him back home, Travis chooses to get in the back seat, rather than the front with his brother, symbolizing his detachment from other people. The usage of the colour red punctuates the natural imagery here, shown through Travis’s hat, signifying a character coloured by lost love. Appearance is also crucial to the perception of Bickle, who sports a normative haircut and a brown jacket, which shows how his outwards presentation is a reflection of his profession. Despite this, the film’s jazz oriented score captures Bickle as a man-out-of-time, and out-of-place, heightening his modern alienation. Whilst this is used to create a sense of urgency, Ry Cooder’s sparse score for Paris, Texas evokes the dissonant emotion evident in Travis’s longing.

Both characters’ sense of mission is defined by fixation. Bickle initially pursues Betsy, whom he sees as an image of purity, highlighted by her being dressed in white, creating virginal allusions. Having succeeded in asking her for a date, she describes him as a ‘walking contradiction,’ showing how Bickle is a figure that is at one with the seedy surroundings he despises. After taking Betsy to a pornographic theatre in circumstances tonally of a black comedy, she breaks off the relationship, which sees Bickle describe her as being just like everyone else. This creates a Madonna-whore complex in Bickle’s mind, where he does not take accountability for his actions, but changes his views on others when he believes he has been wronged. Wenders, however, shows Travis as a character battling with his past rather than his present. Upon returning to his brother’s home, he is reunited with his son Hunter. After initial struggles reconnecting, they are brought together by the sense of family espoused by watching old Super 8 videos, showing the family Travis and Hunter shared with his estranged wife Jane. Hunter reveals to his adopted mother Anne that, having watched Travis viewing the videos he knows Travis is still in love with Jane. The solitude in which Travis contains his heartbreak contrasts the anger from a lack of love in Bickle’s life. When he watches romantic scenes on the television, he does so with a vacant stare and a gun pointed at the screen. This espouses a modern-day image of toxic masculinity, compounded by a regimen of shooting practice and exercise that display how he seeks superficial solutions for his problems.

Whereas Travis’s goal is focused, Bickle’s disparate goals reflect his fragmented sense of self. He gains a sense of purpose through the character of Iris. An underage prostitute, Travis relates to her as someone corrupted by the illicit world they share. He sees it as his mission to save her from her surroundings, seeking her out at her brothel to try and convince her to escape from her current life, though he is unsuccessful here. The role of children as a conduit to the character’s inner goal is also reflective in Paris, Texas. As time passes, Travis makes it his mission to reunite mother and son, where he goes on a road trip with Hunter to find Jane. Hunter’s childlike candour, remarking with amazement about how large the world is, displays how his youth is contrary to Travis’s insular view of the world. The revelation to Hunter of his goal emphasises Travis’s impersonal nature, with him finding out about his true intentions through a voice recording; highlighting that, although he has changed, he is a man who struggles to reveal his emotion.

This distant and insular nature is also evident in the characterisation of Bickle. The use of mirrors signifies a world fuelled by a misguided sense of self, being most evident where he looks directly into one in his room and proclaims, ‘You talkin’ to me? I’m the only one in here.’ It is the second line that holds a greater poignancy, enforcing his sense of isolation and his downward spiral; fuelled by the belief that an assassination attempt of Charles Palpatine – whom Betsy is associated with – will help release his anger and gain her attention. The use of overlapping subplots is a facet structurally absent from Paris, Texas. Instead, it uses a three-act structure, each focused around reconciliation with a certain character, exploring how those relationships developed. This shows the conciseness of Travis’s mission, with his psyche focused on fixing the past, rather than Bickle, whose problems stem from his inability to navigate the present.

Following their respective urban and Midwestern road trips, the transformation of the films’ characters aredisplayed through the culmination of their redemption arcs. Arriving at a rally ready to assassinate Palpatine, the shot slowly reveals Bickle’s new appearance, sporting a Mohican. Where his previous haircut followed societal conventions, the new image set him apart from society. However, upon arousing the Secret Service’s suspicions, he leaves the scene in a hurry unable to fulfill his intentions, underlining the futility of his aims. This initial inability to complete their objective is shared by Travis. Having located Jane at a peep show, he does not reveal himself to her at their first meeting, where he initially notices her as a beacon of femininity, with her appearance and room centred on many shades of pink. However, upon returning, a monologue details how Travis and Jane fell in love, and how his jealousy and violence drove them and their family apart. By delivering this in the third-person, it heightens Travis’s emotional distance, whilst allowing Jane to slowly learn that she is the other person in the story. This distance is enhanced by the use of one-way mirrors, acting antithetical to Taxi Driver’s self-enthused version of them by showing the separation inherent to Travis and Jane’s lives and their internal despair. This subdued melancholy is evident through the usage of the colour blue in Jane and Travis’s clothing and rooms, showing how they have both been consumed by sadness. An associative colour scheme is also used to progress character in Taxi Driver. At the start, Travis wears brown to show how his life is centred around his work. When he pursues Betsy, he wears red to show his desire for love. By the climax, though, he is wearing a dark green jacket, reminiscent of the military background of the Vietnam veteran. When he arrives at the brothel, he goes on a violent rampage, killing Iris’s pimp, Sport, among others. As he lays injured in the bloodbath, he mimes shooting himself, alluding to his aim being one of martyrdom.

Both films end on signifying their characters’ relation to the road. Scorsese’s films display characters plagued by internal troubles, often acting in illicit ways, before receiving some kind of redemption, even if it is not the one the character desired. For Bickle, the cinematography creates the perception of it being dream-laden, with Betsy entering his cab, congratulating him for his actions. This creates a sense of ambiguity, through the subverted sense of a happy ending. Wenders, however, engages with a bittersweet tone in his ending through clarity. Having brought together the reconciliation of Jane and Hunter, Travis watches their reunion through the window. The use of distance here shows how his intentions were to fix the past, rather than create a new present by involving himself in the family frame. As he gets into the car to drive away, the final shot of Travis is a close-up. This contrasts the opening image of a wide shot, highlighting how the character is at one with himself and the past, and how he and the road cannot be separated.  This mirroring of the opening is also pertinent to Taxi Driver. As Bickle drives away, he looks in agitation in the rearview mirror at the city sitting behind him, remaining a setting of seedy activity. This highlights the inability of Bickle to leave his troubles behind, contrasting the peace and resolution Travis appears to find. Wenders and Scorsese’s use of travelling in the final shots displays characters defined by their sense of isolation, using the road not as a place of self-discovery but as a pathway to redemption.

Essays

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