Saturday, October 27, 2007

No. 2 - Taxi Driver

After the seismic counter-cultural disruptions of the late 60's and early 70's, there was bound to be a backlash. And there was, by the late 70's and early 80's, in the form of Anita Bryant, the Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan. But Paul Schrader sensed this shift in American values well before anyone else in Hollywood.

Schrader, one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood in the mid-70's, was raised as a strict Calvinist. He may have abandoned the religion of his youth, but Calvinist notions of depravity and guilt continued to haunt him and his work. His Travis Bickle is a tortured soul, a loner in a crowded city who is sickened by the blight of New York City. "Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets," Travis says in disgust. His plan to assassinate a presidential candidate is foiled, so he decides to kill some pimps. By this quirk of fate, he is hailed as a hero.

Is Travis crazy, or is he just tuned in to his environment? After Taxi Driver was released, New York City got even worse. There were the blackouts and lootings of summer 1977, interspersed with a real-life Travis Bickle known as Son of Sam. Things got so bad that NYC declared bankruptcy. When Ronald Reagan ran for President in 1980, his criticisms of the rampant welfare state and sorry plight of the big cities had a Bickle-like tone of moral disapproval. The fact that Taxi Driver triggered John Hinkley to attempt to kill Reagan in emulation of his hero Travis shows that Hinkley didn't get the link between crazy prophet Travis and suave politician Reagan. There was an anger that Reagan tapped into in 1980, the disgust of the Bible Belt and the Midwest at the state of American culture, especially the culture of New York and Los Angeles. Schrader had figured this out long before Reagan was elected.

And then came Rudy Giuliani. After decades of uncontrolled crime, Rudy came in and cleaned up the city, like rain washing the scum off the streets.

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