Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Talkin' 'Bout Their Alienation

Not even five enforcement agencies can save their own.
Never mind the people
Tonight it's raining on the Angels of the City
Did anyone prophesize these people?

Only Travis
Come in Travis
One of these days I'm gonna get myself organized.

"Red Angel Dragnet" by The Clash

By J.D.
There is a certain sense of fear and loathing that is felt in large American cities — the result of the existence of a small group of rich, powerful families and an ever-increasing number of poor, uneducated people who know that they are never going to improve their situation. Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) captures the sense of disillusionment that people felt toward the Vietnam War, racial hatred and dishonest politicians such as Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992) captures the hopelessness of urban decay, the drug epidemic and the rise of crime in the 1990s. The protagonists in both films reflect these problems in simple stories of redemption. Taxi Driver and Bad Lieutenant are emblematic documents of their respective decades that mirror the imminent collapse of American urban society.

Scorsese introduces the viewer to the worldview of lonely cabbie, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), early on in Taxi Driver. Travis’ outlook is conveyed through diary style voiceovers. It is readily apparent that the city has had a warping effect on Travis: “All the animals come out at night. Whores, skunks, pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick. Venal.” As he is saying this, the camera focuses on the crowded streets of the red light district in New York City, filled with the people that he described in his voiceover. It is as if we are seeing the city from Travis’ point-of-view and this point is emphasized when he says, “Some day a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets.” As Travis says this line, a shot of a wet, slick road is shown to reinforce what he has just said. Scorsese uses the film techniques of voiceovers mixed with point-of-view shots to transport the viewer into Travis’ head. These techniques illustrate how Travis views the world around him. It is a view that is critical of urban life in the '70s. Travis is a lonely man who sees New York as a filthy, evil place that must be cleaned up.

In Bad Lieutenant, the protagonist is an unnamed lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) in the New York Police Department. He is an amalgamation of all that is bad in the city. He takes drugs, drinks, and is corrupt. The Lieutenant, like Travis, is the focal point of the film and both inhabit a world filled with fear, violence and corruption. Both protagonists are similar in that they are corrupted by the evil influences of the city. They are products of their environment, but differ in their reaction to it.

Scorsese presents New York as a frightening place inhabited by dangerous people. As Travis prepares himself for his assassination attempt on presidential hopeful Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), he enters a variety store to buy food. While he is in the store, it is robbed by a young black man and Travis acts immediately by shooting the man. This is an important step in Travis standing up to the filth that he loathes so much. He takes an active role, no longer remaining passive and apathetic. This scene also shows the madness and brutality of city life. After Travis leaves, the enraged store owner (Victor Argo) begins viciously beating the black man with a crow bar. Scorsese presents this action as a horrific event by increasing the pace of editing as the owner gets angrier. The cuts are timed with the owner’s repeated blows to the man’s body. This scene also conveys the social and racial tension that was felt during the 1970s. The owner is Italian, while the thief is black and poor. While filming this scene, life began to imitate art as Scorsese remembered:
“It’s very important to realize that the store owner has probably been robbed five or six times and he’s very angry. He says, 'Now! Now’s my chance to get even.' It’s not very nice, but that’s the reality of the situation. It is utterly sickening, sure, but while we were shooting that scene, a man was killed just around the corner at 86th and Columbus. All that stuff is real. We didn’t know which cops were for us and which were for the real killing around the corner. Everything got mixed together and we really couldn’t tell, so we just shot whatever was happening around us.”

Scorsese takes this feeling of madness and danger so prevalent in the '70s and conveys it on the screen with brutal honesty. He pulls no punches in portraying the violence that the owner commits as brutal and ugly and also seems to suggest that this is commonplace in a city of this size.

Bad Lieutenant contains a similar scene where a Korean store owner accuses two young black men of robbing his store. A young beat cop is trying to resolve the problem when the Lieutenant intervenes. He proceeds to discharge his gun in the direction of the two black men and sends the police officer with the owner to the police station. The Lieutenant makes the men give up the money they stole and then lets them go so that he has free run of the store, taking what he wants. Ferrara presents the scene with long takes, no music, and straight-forward camera angles, much in the same fashion as the variety store scene in Taxi Driver. This gives both scenes a documentary feel to them, as if they are really happening. Ferrara manages to convey the feeling of racial and social hatred that still exists in the 1990s. He also illustrates the corruption that exists in the Lieutenant’s character. He lets the two guilty black men go, and then proceeds to take whatever he wants from the deserted store. The Lieutenant is abusing his power, doing whatever he feels is right, just as Travis does in Taxi Driver. He sees a crime, so he stops it. This also is seen in other films such as The Searchers (1956) where John Wayne’s character has his own code of ethics. These three characters embody the American dream taken to a rather extreme level. They solve their problems through individualism and vigilantism.

Alienation plays an important role in Taxi Driver. Travis is almost always alone. One of the first images screenwriter Paul Schrader came up with for the film was a lone taxi driver, “floating around in this metal coffin in the city, seemingly in the middle of people, but absolutely, totally alone.” Scorsese also was conscious of this feeling of alienation while shooting: “Whenever I shot Travis Bickle, when he was alone in the car, or whenever people were talking to him, and that person is in the frame, then the camera was over their shoulder. He was in everybody else’s light, but he was alone. Nobody was in his frame.”

This technique is evident in many scenes in the film. Travis is often shown driving by himself in his cab, lying on his bed, writing in his diary and so on. Even when he is talking to others he seems to be in another world inside his head. This is illustrated in the scenes with Travis and the other cabbies. He is slow to answer them and rarely pays attention to what they have to say. Travis is an outsider who does not fit into society. Even he seems to recognize this when he says, “Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars and cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” Travis has no way to express himself until the end of the film when he uses violence to prove that he exists.

The Lieutenant also is a lonely figure. There are many shots of him driving through the city by himself. The Lieutenant investigates the sight of a rape by himself and undergoes a personal revelation by himself. This suggests that both films may take place in the characters’ heads. Both protagonists are in almost every scene and we see everything through their eyes. Travis is alienated from society because of his extreme worldview, while the Lieutenant is an outsider by choice. Travis leads such an intense existence because he is mentally ill. He has all the signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a residual of the Vietnam War that results in a psychotic state where violence is the only solution to his problems. The Lieutenant leads an excessive lifestyle of drug and alcohol abuse to combat the corruption and violence he sees everyday in his job. He is so immersed in this world of depravity and evil that he becomes a reflection of it. There seems to be no way for the Lieutenant to escape this world until he becomes involved in the case of the raped nun.

Travis recognizes that New York is corrupt and evil, but has no way to change this fact. Travis looks to a veteran cabbie known as the Wizard (Peter Boyle) for guidance. Travis tries to verbalize how he feels, but all he can say is, “I got some bad ideas in my head.” Wizard replies, “A man takes a job. And that job, that becomes what he is. You do a thing and that’s what you are.” This gives Travis a clue to what he must do, what he must become. He realizes that only he can clean up the filth that surrounds the city. He is the “real rain” that will come and wash the scum off the streets. Travis must become this cleansing, avenging force.

In the beginning, the Lieutenant has no purpose, no direction in life. He goes from one case to another, riding one drug high to the next, until a junkie friend (Zoe Lund) offers him a clue as to how he can escape: “Vampires are lucky. They can feed on others. We gotta eat away at ourselves...We gotta eat away at ourselves until there’s nothing left, but appetite...No one will ever understand why. Why you did it. They’ll just forget about you tomorrow, but you gotta do it.” The junkie realizes that we are alone and that we “eat away at ourselves.” The Lieutenant is such a figure who uses drugs to eat away at himself and soon there will be nothing left if he continues along this course. He is a victim of a corrupt society, a hopeless figure trapped in a hopeless situation. Travis is a vampire who preys on others, who recognizes society for what it really is and threatens to destroy it. The junkie helps the Lieutenant focus on his goal: he must find the boys who raped the nun and bring them to justice.

Travis’ voiceovers demonstrate how extreme his viewpoint has become. As Travis sits in a porno theater his voiceover says, “The idea’d been growing in my brain for some time. True force. All the king’s men cannot put it back together again.” The last sentence is said with a shot of a presidential campaign ad for Palantine and then a shot of Travis practicing with a gun. It becomes clear that he intends to kill Palantine. In Travis’ mind, he equates corruption in New York with the nursery rhyme. Everything is falling to pieces and the king’s men — in other words, Palantine — cannot fix the situation. He will only make superficial change. Travis believes that only “true force” can clean up the city and solve its problems. In Travis’ mind, Palantine is not to be trusted and symbolizes the resentment that people felt toward superficial politicians such as Nixon in the '70s. Palantine is a problem that must be dealt with “true force” and so Travis plans to kill the presidential candidate.

Bad Lieutenant does not use voiceovers to illustrate the Lieutenant’s worldview; it simply shows what he does. The Lieutenant confronts the raped nun and explains his course of action: “Listen to me good. The other cops’ll just put these guys through the system. They’re juveniles. They’ll walk. Get it? But I’ll beat them. The system. And do justice. Real justice. For you.” The nun undermines this by telling the Lieutenant that she forgives the boys. The Lieutenant, like Travis, is ready to use “true force” or “real justice” to solve these problems. They are willing to take the law into their own hands. Travis becomes a vigilante to achieve his goal, while the Lieutenant abuses his power as a police officer to get what he wants. However, both are foiled in their initial attempts. Travis is unable to kill Palantine and the Lieutenant realizes that he cannot kill the two boys responsible for raping the nun.

Both protagonists try to redeem themselves in the end. Travis acts the role of the avenging angel, wiping out everyone involved with the young prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). Travis even tries to kill himself. He has committed his “good act” by wiping out the bad influences on Iris and now he wants to deliver himself to a better place. Travis is cheated out of death as his gun has run out of bullets and the police do not shoot him either. He is trapped in a vicious circle, destined to repeat the process again. The Lieutenant also performs a redeeming act. He sends the two rapists away from New York City with $30,000 and a chance to start over. The Lieutenant lets them go because in his head, if the nun was able to forgive them for such a horrible act, then perhaps he can be forgiven for his sins. The Lieutenant sends them away from the corrupting influences of New York to make sure that they do not end up like him. Unlike Travis, the Lieutenant is rewarded for his good deed. While waiting for his bookie, the Lieutenant is shot dead in his car. His wish has been granted. He has redeemed himself and the “magic bullet” sends him away from his “earthly” existence to a better place. He is allowed to leave his pain and suffering on Earth, while Travis is condemned to repeat it.

The protagonists of these two films are products of their environment Taxi Driver and Bad Lieutenant are character studies of people who live in a large city and how this life affects them. Travis and the Lieutenant are so alienated from others that violence is the only way out. For Travis, violence is the only way left to express himself. As the film progresses, Travis is slowly disintegrating and losing control, symbolizing the chaos that enveloped big cities in the '70s. Violence is the only way out for the Lieutenant who is so immersed in corruption and amorality that there is no other solution. He symbolizes the hopelessness of the '90s. Corruption and decay have advanced so much that there may be no solution to the current problems of drugs and increasing racial and sexual violence. There is a real sense of disillusionment with urban society in these films. The protagonists are not romantic, beautiful people, they are dangerous individuals who embody the fears of all of us, justifying our own paranoia, as well as the problems that an urban society creates.

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Wonderful essay about the essence of these two definitive films, J.D. Alienation and redemption from two very different perspectives, and eras (70s & 90s). Great comparison. Thanks for this.
You are more than welcome! I found it interesting the parallels between these two films - both portray a nightmarish view of NYC.
I never got to NYC until 1994, but it's my favorite city in the world. Wish I could stil travel there.
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