Along with the brilliance of its writing and acting, Taxi Driver is a masterpiece for its cinematography alone. So many shots out of the blurry view from the windshield and the cropped faces of passengers in the rear-view mirror emphasize Travis’ immensely skewed view of the world in a subtle, effective manner. If that were not impressive enough, there’s this image of Charles Palantine on TV, complete with the interlacing scanned lines of an old television signal. This one visual, better than any I can think of, best sums up the disturbed human condition in the modern world.
Here, on the surface, we have a politician on TV. Ideally, an amazing advancement in information spreading. Something unheard of until literally our parent’s generation (though it feels like forever ago); a leader addressing his people from the comfort of their own homes. Hell, even just the idea of a leader having to justify why he deserves to lead (rather than claim the right by brute force or heredity) is still pretty new and remarkable in the grand scheme of human civilization.
But then you realize what this picture really is; a broken, pixelated human face sapped of all detail, all color and imprisoned by these unnatural, mechanical interlocking black bars. It’s a machine trying to imitate a human face, and coming close but not quite equal. It’s uncanny valley entering your home, demanding your attention away from what’s real.
And then you think of the context from the movie, the cynicism of real life, and see what’s actually going on here. We have a bullshitter spinning lies and manipulative turns of phrase to sway people on one end of the screen and a disturbed, lonely man on the other. Technically they’re next to each other, but both physically and emotionally a world away. Just like all of us talking to each other through screens. (The irony of my conveying this message to you through a screen is not lost on me.)
And then you remember that in real life, the TV is largely used to distract and control, not present objective reality. It’s inventions like these which further drive us apart from each other, living unnatural, sedentary as well as solitary lifestyles that drive us slowly but irrevocably insane.
The people who can and should be addressing trends like this—our leaders, the Palantines of the world—are wasting time trying to get elected (and misleading the people in order to do so). Meanwhile, the true problems of society, the ones that create people like Travis, go ignored. Well, not ignored per se. They’ll be exploited by the powers that be in order to further justify the destruction of civil rights and distract the public from the systematic oppression going on behind closed doors in the smoky backrooms across the country. Advertisers use this isolation and insecurity to convince you the solution to these real, existential problems is buying another product you don’t need, which itself was made by exploiting people across the world.
You wonder who is less human, which is more phony. Is it Travis, who puts on a show of being normal to blend in with other people as he becomes increasingly erratic? Or is it Palantine, putting on a crooked show of his own, trying to appear genuine while his true motive is personal power and prestige?
It’s around this point where you start to think about human nature.
While we beautify it now, nature is a prison of trees, shadows and predators lurking around each and every one of them. To escape that prison, we inadvertently created one that’s more palatable on the surface yet just as scary in its effects. The modern prison is one of concrete and steel buildings acting as a cage, and the endless distractions which keep us from recognizing it. A pen for the increasingly sick populace to prey on one another…take out our natural urges of aggression, pent up sexual frustration, and need to assert dominance on each other.
Every day we try to escape this new prison we call society in various ways. Some bury themselves in the distractions of entertainment media, or alcohol or sexual voyeurism. The greatest attempt to escape this gritty reality yet has been the creation of the virtual world through pure mathematical logic, where you can create whatever you want purely out of ones, zeroes and electricity. But even the digital world is a prison all its own. It makes mass surveillance possible. It makes identity theft and hacking possible. It makes mass internet shaming and social control possible. (I’m referring to cyber bullying, outrage culture and astroturfing specifically.) It opens up a whole new plane of warfare between countries and individuals.
Wherever you go, you’ll never be completely safe or happy. Every attempt we humans have made to subvert the natural dangers and discomforts has also brought new, unnatural dangers and discomforts. We have achieved spectacular things but only by stripping ourselves of our own humanity. Removing any intrinsic worth of a human on its own terms, and replacing it with how many dollars you have, and how many you produce for the system. We created a world where every possible resource, idea and creature is owned, commoditized and exploited. Our society is so advanced and miraculous yet still incredibly savage and disgusting. The blood and gore of a fresh kill is gone, but the underlying instinctual drives which crave it have merely found alternative means of expression in this new environment.
All of that known but unacknowledged suffering was expressed in this one single image from the movie. Find me a frame in any other film that carries so much depth behind it. This picture is the modern human condition, for better or worse. Ours is a story of pervasive disconnection from ourselves, our needs and those around us.