Okay But Does Taxi Driver’s Ending Unwittingly Endorse Violence?
Now let us cut to the chase. In both of the Desilet books being critiqued here, he writes the following:
In a letter sent just three weeks prior to the shooting, Hinckley wrote: “Jodie Foster, love, just wait. I will rescue you very soon.” In videotaped testimony provided at Hinckley’s trial, Foster was asked whether she had seen a message like that before. She replied, “Yes, in the movie Taxi Driver the character Travis Bickle sends the character Iris a rescue letter.” (Screens of Blood, p. 40.)
In actual fact, Travis’ letter to Iris consists of two lines (“Dear Iris. This money should be enough for your trip. By the time you read this I will be dead.”), though he does enclose some money for Iris. The similarity between Travis’ and Hinckley’s letters extends about as far as their both being letters, and the fact Desilet repeats, and thereby reinforces Foster’s exaggeration, rather than correcting it, indicates either how unfamiliar he is with the film or how determined he is to present his argument–that it inspired Hinckley to violence–regardless of accuracy. My impression based on everything he writes is that Desilet isn’t really that interested in Taxi Driver as a film. (Compare the lengthy plot summations he offers for Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence or Shutter Island to the scant sentences he uses to dismiss Taxi Driver’s storyline.) He is interested rather in using the film as an example to support his argument for more social awareness and responsibility in cinematic depictions of violence. As a result, somewhat tragically, he critically undermines his whole thesis by choosing to rest it on the flimsiest of evidence.
And yet. . . At this point, having come this far (4000 words and counting), I might want to ask myself–for the first time publicly in forty years, all credit due now to Desilet for getting me to this point–how realistic is the ending of Taxi Driver? (See, Greg, what working on this piece and going all the way into the corner for my once-favorite movie has brought to the surface!) Is it likely Travis’ deranged act of violence would be greeted as an act of heroism, and if not, was it irresponsible of the filmmakers to transmit such a message, however ironically they intended it? This leads to the question of how likely it is that any viewers might interpret the ending of the film as a genuine validation of Travis’ heroism, as a sort of “the end justifies the means” twist? In other words, how valid is Desilet’s concern that the film potentially glorifies Travis’ violent behavior and so might inspire others to imitate it? Even struggling as I am to incorporate Desilet’s point of view into my own, I fail to see how such a gross misreading of the film can be laid at the feet of the filmmakers. The morbid irony of the ending is far from subtle–it may even be overstated–and the indications that Travis’ “heroism” is motivated by loneliness, desperation, and impotent rage are far from ambiguous. Anyone who misreads the film and winds up admiring Travis must already be so far inclined that way as to not need much by way of encouragement.
While I have no doubt that some people saw the film and cheered Travis on in his mayhem, once again, there isn’t a great deal that can be done about individuals already primed to get off on screen violence and who simply don’t care about the context. It’s true that Peckinpah felt, on sitting through one screening of The Wild Bunch, that he had failed to communicate what he had meant to with the film, because instead of feeling sick at the violence some viewers were finding it exhilarating. And it’s true he suffered as a result (though it didn’t stop him doing a gratuitous shoot ‘em up like The Getaway.) I imagine Scorsese had his own moments of doubt about Taxi Driver after the Hinckley affair (or even before it). But the idea of somehow making a film for all people everywhere that will be of any actual worth to anyone is, I think, naïve and baseless. Human experience and perception is far too diverse for that.
Three Circles of Desilet-ion
There are three levels to the John Hinckley, “Taxi Driver-made-me-do-it” narrative so central to Desilet’s condemnation of the film. First up, somewhat superficially but still worth mentioning, is the fact that Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan, who is as far from an innocent victim as it is possible to imagine. This is not to say that there is a justification for shooting him, only that details such as who is being shot at and why–and what sort of justification there might be for the shooting–ought not to be completely left out of any analysis, especially one that seems partially geared towards moral questions such as social accountability, as Desilet’s is. Simply put, there were beyond any doubt reasons why Reagan was shot that have nothing at all to do with Taxi Driver, and not much to do with John Hinckley Jr., either (as we shall see).
Secondly, why is Desilet–who was involved in political activism in the 1970s–so quick to believe the official version of the John Hinckley assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan? Random shooters–as Taxi Driver itself depicts–don’t generally get close enough to powerful political leaders to do any damage. I realize this goes against the mainstream viewpoint, but I am assuming some degree of political awareness on the part of the reader as regards the extensive evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, or James Earl Ray were very far from being “random shooters.” On the other hand, creating convincing backstories to make trained assassins seem like random shooters or nutjobs is part of the standard operating procedure of domestic black-ops, which means the whole Hinckley-Jodie Foster-Taxi Driver official narrative which Desilet relies on–in this writer’s opinion at least–is most likely closer to a whole-cloth fabrication than historical fact.
That said, there seems little doubt that Hinckley did “stalk” Foster (with letters and phone calls) and that he did fire shots at Reagan. So assuming Hinckley wasn’t simply playing a role, the likelihood is that Taxi Driver was used on Hinckley, in a Clockwork Orange-style MKULTRA mind control process, as a means to instill Hinckley with a conscious motivation for carrying out his deed, and thereby keep the truth concealed. If Hinckley believed he was shooting (at) Reagan out of obsessive need to win Jodie Foster’s love, he could then be depended on to support the cover-up being sold to the public. But in this case, are Scorsese and his film really anything more than innocent tools in the hands of shadowy agencies of nefarious intent (most likely Vice President Bush and the CIA, of which he was the former director)? Who knows, maybe sullying Taxi Driver and traumatizing Scorsese and Foster–for making one of the very few truly insightful Hollywood movies about violence–was part of the program?
Based on the two of his books I have read, Desilet’s conspiracy consciousness is low and so he will probably be having none of this. Not low for a film critic, for sure, but low for a former activist and philosophical researcher exploring the limits of human perception regarding evil, violence, false narratives, and the like. This puts him at a marked disadvantage, especially when discussing films-as-propaganda and, more specifically still, when presenting Taxi Driver as an example of a film that inspired a copycat crime. To address this gaping hole in Desilet’s thesis, I will briefly direct his–and our–attention to a few inconvenient facts about John Hinckley, Jr. and the attempted presidential assassination of 1981.
- John Hinckley’s father, John Hinckley Sr., was a Texas oilman and chairman and president of the Vanderbilt Energy Corporation. He was instrumental in helping fellow Texas oilman George Herbert Walker Bush, former director of the CIA, win the Republican nomination for president. He was also the president of World Vision United States.
- World Vision is funded by USAID (United States Agency for International Development), “a traditional CIA front organization, allowing the agency access to an array of places and things around the globe.” (Source.)
- In the mid-1970s, John Lennon’s alleged assassin, Mark David Chapman–like Hinckley a fan of Catcher in the Rye– joined World Vision and, after a brief visit to Lebanon, worked with Vietnamese refugees at a resettlement camp at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas. He was named an area coordinator and a key aide to the program director, David Moore.
- In the fall of 1980, Hinckley was arrested at Nashville airport carrying three guns on the same day that then-president Jimmy Carter arrived in the city. Hinckley is believed to have been stalking Carter, who was running against Reagan-Bush. He was neither fingerprinted nor charged. (See Russ Baker, 2016.)
- The Bushes and the Hinckleys were frequent dinner companions. John Chancellor on NBC Nightly News reported “the bizarre coincidence” that Vice President Bush’s son, Neil, and Scott Hinckley (John Jr’s brother) had dinner plans for March 31, 1981, the day after the shooting occurred.
- Just five hours after the shooting, before Hinckley had even been questioned, Vice President Bush publicly announced that “no conspiracy” was involved in the incident.
- Though John Hinckley, Jr., was able to both make and receive phone calls from his hotel room, he chose to walk a considerable distance and wait by a public payphone for calls from an unknown caller, or callers, in the period leading up to the shooting.
- Nathaniel Blumberg, a Rhodes scholar and former dean of the University of Montana journalism school, was so disturbed about the investigation into the shooting that he wrote a 377-page novel called In The Afternoon of March 30. The book examines many unreported connections between the Hinckley and the Bush families. “What I’m really after is the case to be officially reopened,” Blumberg said, in an interview for United Press International. “In truth, I don’t think all the questions can be answered without opening up a whole new can of worms.”
- In the same interview, Blumberg claimed that Bush had “questions to answer in connection with the attempt,” as did the FBI and the judge who presided over Hinckley’s trial. “I’m not saying there was a conspiracy to assassinate Reagan,” he stated. “I’m saying there was a conspiracy to keep significant information from the public that it has a right to know.” Blumberg claimed that “journalists were fed a barely believable story full of inconsistencies.”
- Researcher John Judge reported that, while Hinckley fired six shots, all of them could be accounted for and none actually hit Reagan. He claims that it was observable on the news footage that the first hit to Reagan’s body coincided almost exactly with Hinckley’s first shot; yet Hinckley’s first shot hit secret service agent Brady in the head. [link]
- As in the case of both Kennedy assassinations, Judge’s evidence suggests that there was at least one other shooter, and that Hinckley, along with Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan, was just one more in a long and time-honored tradition of patsies.
- After he was found guilty, Hinckley was sent to the Washington-area St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital, “an institution with a fascinating history of involvement with the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, which focused on mind control experiments—and efforts to study the possibility of ‘programming’ killers. Psychiatrists played a crucial role in recruiting subjects for these experiments.” (Russ Baker, 2016.)
- Following Hinckley’s release in August 2016, the FBI declined to release 22 pages of documents that included the names of associates and organizations linked to Hinckley, as well as details of his finances. Documents on Hinckley’s psychiatric records were also among those kept secret. (Ibid.)
- Notes by Hinckley describing a conspiracy to assassinate a president were found in a search of his prison cell, according to Breaking Points, a memoir written by his parents. They said the notes referred only to “an imaginary conspiracy” and his lawyers dismissed them as far-fetched. They have never surfaced publicly. (Ibid.)
There is of course much more to be uncovered around Hinckley, but this is a riposte to Desilet, not a crash course in deep politics (however much I think Desilet might benefit from one). So let’s return to the main point, which is that, based on the above evidence, Desilet’s primary argument for the culpability of Taxi Driver is based on a set of evidence that he has failed to examine. This leaves only his wholly unsupported–and I think insupportable– claims that the film is a sensationalist melodrama about a narrowly drawn character that lacks any real conflict! Back to the drawing board, Greg?
Emotion won’t change you. Logic won’t change you. I haven’t got the faintest idea. Each man must find his own ground–make up his own mind–and then, just stand there. All I can do after that is testify.
Which brings me to my third argument for the defense, as follows: Even if Taxi Driver did inspire Hinckley to shoot Ronald Reagan without the interventions of MKULTRA, does this in any way prove the film itself is constituted of elements that are likely to incite people to violence? Or does it merely indicate that, by a freak confluence of factors, on one solitary occasion, shit happened? Is there any real way to separate Taxi Driver’s efficacy as a work of art–i.e., a work that deeply affects some people–from its possible negative effects on a psyche that’s wired to respond in all the wrong ways? Would Desilet argue–by the same logic–that The Bible is ipso facto a socially irresponsible work? Perhaps he would, and he might even be right to do so. But he would also be acknowledging that the can of worms he is opening with such arguments is a lot deeper and wormier than he is currently admitting.
Presenting evidence for the adverse effects of The Bible would naturally create a vacuum to be filled by counter-balancing evidence for all the positive effects it has had. The two bodies of evidence would then need to be weighed against one another. The problem here, of course, is that it is much easier to find evidence (even when manufactured or falsely contrived) for copycat crimes–and religious fanatical violence–than it is for more beneficent effects, since these by definition are going to be much subtler and harder to identify, or even to locate. Are we likely to hear the testimony of an alienated young man who was plotting to commit some terrible crime and then had a change of heart after seeing Taxi Driver? So then what does that leave? As a counterpoint to Desilet’s calling of John Hinckley to testify before the jury–a testimony I consider worthless–I call myself, a writer whose awareness of and sensitivity to violence has been immeasurably deepened as a result of repeat viewings of Taxi Driver–as I hope this current piece will show.
Plato vs. Pulp (Through the Desilet Looking Glass)
In both Our Faith in Evil and Screens of Blood, Desilet chooses to focus on the cinematic depiction of violence and the associated values. His assumption, perhaps, is that values relating to violence and conflict, being more dramatically observable, are also more crucial in terms of the health of the social organism. Movie violence is an easy target for anyone wishing to examine the ways in which popular entertainment would seem to both mirror and, to some degree, exacerbate increasingly destructive cultural trends. Yet I found myself wondering if it would be possible to likewise examine romantic comedies that promote a wholly fallacious, unrealizable, dissociative, and fantasy-based version of male-female sexual interactions, and to argue that they do immeasurably more harm, in the long run, than violent revenge fantasies. Values around mating, long-term partnership, child-raising, and the like, are much more unconsciously and unquestioningly adopted than values relating to revenge or violent “justice,” and they probably enter at a much deeper level because of it. Imagery and narratives that have to do with intrapersonal violence are obviously of less fundamental relevance to most people, when compared to the question of how men and women relate to one another, and what they can reasonably expect out of those relations.
To give credit were due, Desilet is clear in stating that violent melodramatic movie fantasy negatively influences people who watch it in ways that don’t correlate with violent imitative action per se, but in subtler forms of human interaction. Even so, he has chosen to write about violent movies as presumably the most accountable for a negative inception of values, or at least the easiest to identify. The danger here is that he is going after the lowest hanging fruit. It’s ironic to compare this with my own motive for writing The Blood Poets, for which I chose to focus on violence in movies because all my favorite movies were–and pretty much still are–violent, making this the easiest and most logical way to follow my passion.
While reading Our Faith in Evil, I didn’t ever really get the sense that Greg Desilet particularly likes movies. I am fairly sure this wasn’t his intention, and that he would say he cares about movies quite a bit, because otherwise why write books about them? Yet at no point does he communicate–to me–the sheer visceral pleasure that movies can provide. This may be more than just a passing criticism, because it is precisely the visceral impact of movies that–both in Desilet’s thesis and in my own view–makes them so potentially “harmful” for unprotected psyches (unprotected by self- and critical awareness, I mean). And, as I will go on to argue, I think that Desilet’s analytical approach to movies is, in part at least, a way for him to buffer the visceral power of movies and so protect himself from being moved by them.
There is only one movie he focuses on for praise in Evil: Red River. All the others are subjected to various degrees of condemnation, either for a) fomenting social violence, or b) failing to meet Desilet’s criteria for socially responsible cinema. This latter would seem (presumably) to overlap with–if not be wholly synonymous with–aesthetically pleasing cultural product (you know, art). Yet Desilet’s critical skills seem to come and go, according to his need or his interest or both. It’s very clear he doesn’t like certain movies; but besides the criteria already cited, it’s not obvious why he doesn’t. When he reviles Silence of the Lambs, for example, he relies heavily on quotes from my own critical drubbing of the movie in The Blood Poets, quotes that don’t seem to add much to his actual thesis. Mostly, he just seems to enjoy how mercilessly I trash the film, and to want to let my words express his feelings for him.
Having read both books in their entirely, I am pretty sure I didn’t come across a single mention of the subject of individual self-expression and its (possibly inherent) value for the individuals doing the expressing, namely, the catharsis and healing (tricky words, I know) that potentially occurs via the process of making art. This also leaves out the possibility (I would say fact) that such an immersive process of creation transmits to those who receive the works, those at least who, consciously or not, are able to tune into the wavelength of the artists behind them. This idea is central to Seen and Not Seen, but it seems to be beyond the scope of Desilet’s thesis. The only criterion he presents for good vs. bad art is his–admittedly quite sturdy–model relating to melodramatic (antagonal) vs. tragic (synagonal) story structure. The trouble with this is that it is a top-down, outside-in approach to movies (and to life and everything else). It is also one which, ironically, exemplifies the melodramatic, external-oriented structures that Desilet is trying to expose as essentially “impure” or as harmfully distorting of human perception and experience. Simply put, Desilet’s approach to movies is itself antagonal rather than synagonal.
Desilet denigrates pulp fiction, for example (in his analysis of the Tarantino film of the same name), as ipso facto belonging to the lower class of artistic storytelling. He adopts a conventional and superficial framework (that of style and genre) for gauging content. But some of the most honest, penetrating, and insightful explorations of human experience have emerged from the disreputable realms of pulp fiction, and they will probably always do so. When individuals explore their inner experience with the goal of expressing it, they naturally gravitate to whatever genre, form, or style best suits them. The Joker and Batman, for example, might appear to be the epitome of superficial melodrama in which obvious good squares off with obvious evil. And yet–with only the smallest of tweaking by a more serious writer (Alan Moore or Frank Miller), the melodramatic dyad moves smoothly and effortlessly into an at least partially tragic or synagonal structure–archetypally speaking if not realistically. Once there, Batman’s “goodness” is seen as being mirrored by–even giving rise to–the Joker’s “evil,” and we are given pulp melodrama with tragic poetry at its secret sticky center.
Just as melodramatic structure often disguises itself with a superficial imitation of tragedy, the reverse is also sometimes the case and genuine human pathos secrets itself in and through pulp material. I would even argue that this is the most likely place for it to surface. Desilet seems to want to prescribe an external model to adhere to, one which anyone who wishes to assume the deadly mantle of self-expression would be wise to learn the rules of before daring to put pen to paper or brush to canvas. A rather Platonic sort of Republic looms darkly on Desilet’s horizon.
The point I want to make is simple: what if the depth of awareness, interest, engagement, honesty and sincerity that individual artists bring to their work is what alone determines the measure of its value to others? Art is an artifact–humble or not–of the human struggle to make sense of our existence via self-expression and communication. According to Desilet–if I am reading him rightly, which I may not be–this is not only not enough, it is not even the priority (not even a close second, apparently, since he never even mentions it). The real aim of art for Desilet is Platonic–to offer up right ways to think, perceive, feel, and act to others; in other words to model exemplary forms of behavior. He wants all art to be PG-rated: Platonic Guidance required.
This isn’t quite fair to Desilet, however. He offers up Captain Ahab and Moby Dick as a positive example of tragic art, and tragedies in general hardly offer us with suitable role models. So he is clearly aiming to offer a subtler kind of criteria. Yet he does sink to this level when he attempts to criticize Taxi Driver for focusing almost exclusively on the inner life of its (violent) protagonist, and for failing to provide Travis with strong characters to challenge him in his delusion. Presumably Desilet requires this so he, the viewer, can more easily recognize how messed up Travis is, and not be fooled by the filmmakers’ compassion, like poor John Jr., into mistaking Travis for a hero. Desilet’s position overall isn’t to require more stalwart or upstanding characters in movies, then, but more awareness, caution, and responsibility from filmmakers, critics, and audiences.
The question is, would he know it if he saw it? I can’t help but feel that he’s advocating for the suppression of both filmmakers’ and audiences’ deep need to explore the darkness of their being, out of an overreaching concern that it might have a negative social impact. Does Desilet really believe the Scorsese who made Shutter Island (which he thinks “may be Scorsese’s finest film”) is a more self-aware, responsible, and reliable communicator than the Scorsese who made Taxi Driver? Incredible as it seems, he does believe this, and so I can only conclude that he is either oblivious or indifferent to the aesthetic qualities of both films. I think his focus is exclusively on whether the structural, thematic, synagonal or “moral” marks are being duly (and however dully) hit. Because I can hardly think of a more clear-cut example of the imposition of false values than arguing that Shutter Island is a better film than Taxi Driver. It seems akin to a Christian fanatic who loves any movie, no matter how awful, that promotes the correct spiritual values, and who rejects any movie that doesn’t, no matter how profound, out of a sense of religious duty.
At this point, I find myself firmly on the other side of Greg’s Looking Glass, wondering how I got here. Fortunately, while reading this essay back, I realized the answer was right under my nose. The very thing I was trying to get free of was what I was uncovering in Greg’s writing.
It should have been obvious from that start. What’s the last thing you see before going through a looking glass?
 Addressing the first question first: for Travis to get away with his murderous actions and be glorified for them would seem to depend on various factors. First of all, it would depend on his testimony to police while he was in custody. It’s fair to ask whether Travis, at such a time in his life, would be likely to exonerate himself through his own words. It’s much more likely that, whatever version of the events he gave them, he would be quickly identified by the police as exactly what he was–a dangerously unstable person who is acting out irrationally. And this may have been the conclusion the police reached–it wouldn’t necessarily translate into a media consensus or a jail sentence (or even a trial). Then there is Iris’ testimony to consider. How is she likely to have perceived Travis’ rampage, once she recovered from the trauma of witnessing it? Would she see it as a heroically inspired rescue mission motivated by concern for her, or as a horrific and senseless act of carnage driven by rage and delusion? But again, Iris’ testimony wouldn’t necessarily have affected the final outcome as we see it in the film. The film indicates Travis’ heroization via four main details: a clipping from a newspaper with the heading “Taxi Driver hero to recover,” and another that mentions one of Travis’ victims (Iris’ client) as reputed to have been a “Mafioso.” For all we know, this first clipping comes from a right-wing tabloid and is not at all representative of the general media coverage: just the one that wound up on Travis’ wall (for obvious reasons). Then there is the letter from Iris’ parents thanking Travis for returning their daughter to them and wishing him a full recovery. There is nothing too improbable about this because it’s easy to imagine how the parents would be thankful about seeing their daughter again–and about her temporary removal from a life of prostitution–and not especially concerned about Travis’ motives (or his sanity). Lastly, there is the fact that Travis is back to driving a cab at the end of the movie and (in the most fairy-tale-like twist of the narrative) that Betsy comes to see him. Travis being free to drive his cab again indicates that either he was never charged or the charges failed to stick. It doesn’t imply that he won any medals for his actions. And as for Betsy, well, maybe she just wanted to apologize for precipitating his meltdown . . . While it’s a perhaps overly fanciful ironic touch, I don’t think it constitutes irresponsible artistic license. The next and last question to address here is that of Travis’ victims. How much do they represent an unequivocal evil that some viewers might consider Travis justified in eradicating? Travis’ victims may be sleazy and exploitative; they may belong to a world (child prostitution) that many viewers will find abhorrent to an extreme. Some of them might even believe such types deserve what they get. But, as they are portrayed in the film–or more precisely as Sport, Iris’ pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, is portrayed–they are also unmistakably human and very far from stock villains. To some extent–and however much he may resist it– this is also Travis’ world and it is also the world of the movie, and Travis seems more at home with these characters (if we include Iris) than he does with anyone else in the film. So it is not really possible to condemn the characters he kills without also condemning Travis, to some degree at least. As is well known, Schrader and Scorsese even went to pains to ensure Taxi Driver include a scene showing the relationship between Sport and Iris (the only scene that doesn’t include Travis’ point of view), depicting it as much more nuanced and complex than that of a child victim and her abuser. So when Travis kills Sport and the others, there is no possibility of interpreting his actions as justified, necessary, or as motivated by good–much less as resolving conflict or “battling evil.” Travis’ rain is pure corrosion. He is clearly killing because that is what he wants, what he needs, to do: kill. Anyone in the audience who cheers him along can only feel the same way already. Unlike the filmmakers and the intended audience, they don’t give a damn for the state of Travis’ soul. Or, apparently, the state of their own.
 To some degree it can be argued that Scorsese’s career never fully recovered after this. His last great film, in my opinion, was the subdued but brilliant King of Comedy (thematically the same terrain as Taxi Driver), which was filmed the same year as the Hinckley affair and might even be seen as a response to it. After that, with a few notable exceptions (New York Stories, the overrated Goodfellas and the underrated Casino and Bringing Out the Dead), Scorsese gave us thirty years of shallow and/or absurdly inflated slick Hollywood products such as Hugo, Shutter Island, and Silence. Perhaps it wasn’t only Reagan who had to be brought back in line in 1981? (I am half joking; but only half.)
 Is there any violence more harmful than the imposition of false values? While from an adult perspective this may seem minor compared to actual forms of violence such as child abuse, rape, and the like, it is these early impositions of external and far-from lived or corroborated values that sabotage the development of our ability to navigate our environment, to interact healthily with other human beings, and, most crucially of all, to authentically know and express ourselves in life. As Marshall McLuhan once wrote (Desilet cites him for it), the lack of a clearly defined or rooted sense of identity is the most fundamental cause of all forms of violence.