Regular readers of this blog already know how huge an influence the work of director Martin Scorsese has had on me. Which isn’t really news considering his movies have probably directly or indirectly influenced everyone who has pursued a career in film since the mid-1970s. But reading the new book Conversations With Scorsese reminded me that the work of many Asian and Asian American filmmakers, everyone from John Woo to my fellow Offender Justin, owe a big debt to Scorsese as well, particularly his “gangster” films like Mean Streets and Goodfellas. And while I get that appeal since no one did that genre better than Scorsese, it struck me that his most “Asian American” film isn’t one of his gangster flicks, but rather his classic 1976 exploration of urban alienation…Taxi Driver.
In the film, Robert DeNiro is Travis Bickle, a mentally unbalanced Vietnam vet living in New York City. Suffering from insomnia, he takes a job driving taxis at night and finds himself both repelled and fascinated by the less than desirable neighborhoods his nocturnal journeys take him through. He meets two women—a “madonna” in the form of Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy who is a campaign worker for a Senatorial candidate and a “whore” in the form of Jodie Foster’s 12-year-old prostitute Iris. Travis decides he must “save” the two women but when both reject him, he goes on a violent rampage.
I can’t think of another film that so perfectly captures a specific type of male loneliness and alienation than Taxi Driver. Bickle is a loner, but not by choice. He wants to connect with others, but doesn’t know how. In the film’s most awkwardly devastating moment, Bickle takes Betsy on a date to a porno movie and can’t understand why she is disgusted and refuses to see him afterwards. He longs to do the right thing and be the hero of his story—to rid the world of “scum” as he tells us—but he can only do so through violence. And in an ironic twist, he is hailed as a hero for his bloody actions.
Paul Schrader wrote the screenplay in just a few weeks. He had broken up with his girlfriend, was living in his car and going through a difficult time and has said the script “jumped out of him like an animal.” Scorsese has further stated that he and DeNiro felt a very personal and profound connection to the material. This was a passion project by three men who had to tell this story.
When I first saw the film as a teenager, I responded to it in a personal and profound way as well. Especially after I moved to New York to live on my own at age 17, I could really relate to Travis Bickle and what he was feeling. Of course, I wasn’t going to go to the extremes that he did, but I identified with his emotional state–the loneliness that’s unique to a metropolis like New York where you can be surrounded by millions of people, yet still feel completely isolated. Bickle referred to himself as God’s lonely man. I knew exactly what he meant.
And then when I started taking and eventually teaching Asian American studies courses in college, I realized that there were a lot of Asian American males who felt that way. As I’ve blogged before, no matter what topic we’d be discussing in these classes, there were Asian guys who would always bring the conversation back to the subject of how Asian men were disenfranchised in our society—desexualized, marginalized, ignored.
It reminded me of a line DeNiro says in Taxi Driver to describe the way others treat him: “You’re not even there. A taxi driver doesn’t even exist.” I think plenty of Asian men in America understand what that means.
Of course, in the years since then, we’ve had tragically violent incidents involving Asian American male perpetrators like the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre where student Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and himself. The note he wrote before going on his rampage could’ve come from Travis Bickle himself–Cho criticized “rich kids,” “debauchery,” “deceitful charlatans” and said “you caused me to do this.”
Not too long ago, “experts” reached the conclusion that serial killers and mass murderers in America had to be (mostly) white. And if any group would be exempt from those categories, it certainly had to be Asians. We’re the model minority after all. Unfortunately, reality has long since disproved that theory.
So reading the Scorsese book and revisiting Taxi Driver made me wonder why there hasn’t been an Asian American version of that film. I don’t mean a remake, but an independent work that really explores the emotional and psychological world of an Asian American Travis Bickle.
Films like Better Luck Tomorrow and The Motel have looked at a certain type of fucked-up Asian American male pathology, but I think that’s a little different from what I’m talking about here–those guys may have problems, but they still have the ability to connect with others and even form a community of their own. In Taxi Driver, we’re forced to see the world through the very distorted but very lonely prism that Travis Bickle does. He’s truly isolated.
And Scorsese is relentless and gives the audience no choice but to identify with Bickle and his twisted psychological and emotional journey. In only one scene do we ever leave him (a “tender” moment between Iris and her pimp played by Harvey Keitel). We may not like him, but Scorsese makes us understand Bickle or at least understand what leads him to do what he does. Scorsese shines a light on one of God’s lonely men who we’d rather ignore or keep confined to the shadows; out of sight. I’d love to see someone make an effort to shine a similar light on one of our own God’s lonely men ‘cause I see more and more of them everyday.
(Thanks to Offender David for his photoshop skills)