Thursday, November 21, 2013
Narcissism of all Vision
For my film class, my professor sent out an article by Dylan Trigg called The Flesh of the Forest, which links Merleau-Ponty's theory of the sublime with Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God. It's a dense, compelling piece, which I'd extend a link to except that it's from a private academic journal. Anyway, there's a closing line referring to Aguirre's madness: "the narcissism of all vision." What a great line, I thought, to apply to last week's screening of Taxi Driver.
Is not this essentially what Travis is up to in his self-destruction? He says the city is dirty, essentially a hell hole, but it's really humanity he can't stand. He's clearly racist, he isolates himself from his friends (even when he's sitting with his fellow cabbies Scorsese frames him alone at the end of the table) and, while maybe not a total misogynist, doesn't think too highly of woman. "I see now that she's like the others," Travis says after his disastrous date with Betsy. In her brilliant dissection of the film in the BFI text (which are growing increasingly invaluable by the way-they're like the Criterion booklets only five times as long), Amy Taubin suggests that Travis taking Betsy to a porn flick on their first date is an unconscious move on his part to get rid of her, to affirm that there is nothing good to love in the world. Clearly he recognizes that Betsy is a decent person, the kind of woman who might give him a chance, transform him, and make him a friend of the world again. Travis fears this, and thus the disastrous date is suddenly not so much an act of ignorance on his part.
It seems as if then rather than narcissism, Travis possesses a nihilism of all vision. Yet while that's certainly true, I'm growing more and more convinced that Travis really is narcissistic, as well. He's obsessed with his own hatred of the world. He loves to hate, and thinks only of advancing this love in all his actions. This seems to be the point of his relationship with Betsy. Now, what then of the character Iris? Does not this suggest something counter to this argument, that Travis recognizes something that can be saved and wants to do so to essentially preserve its goodness? Indeed, this is where the film gets tricky. It's hard to say how much Travis actually cares about Iris, but it is blatantly clear that he can't stand Harvey Keitel's Sport and the whorehouse he works with. As Travis' inner-tensions build, violence becomes an increasing possibility. While before he would have only driven by in his taxi in disgust, his temperament has shifted and now he sees Iris as means to wipe out some of the dirt he cannot stand.
The common idea is that Taxi Driver is a movie about a man's loneliness and the need for companionship, and that Paul Schrader wrote Travis as someone to sympathize with. This may very well be true, but it's also a light reading of a astonishingly dark film. It deserves to be seen in this deeper light, even if it means Travis becomes a little less likable.