WEIRDLAND: Depiction of Mental Illness in Film, Taxi Driver

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Depiction of Mental Illness in Film, Taxi Driver

A new study, “Depiction of Mental Illness in Film and Association with Financial and Critical Success“ written by researchers from Stanford University, Yale University, and the University of Connecticut (published on October 22, 2020) finds that movies about mental illness have consistently earned more money, gotten better reviews, and won more Academy Awards than average since as far back as 1977. In recent years, there have been many much-discussed films about mental illness, for example Joker, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Inside Out, and Silver Linings Playbook. This new study analyzes more than 2,000 movies about mental illness between 1977 and 2019. Example keywords included autism, schizophrenia, bipolar, depression, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mental disorder, suicide, mental institution, etc. This filtering resulted in 2,043 movies that had plots involving mental illness. Suicide was by far the most common mental illness-related search term, occurring in 1,114 of these films. The researchers found that the number of movies about mental illness has been increasing by about two films per year since 1977. Though the overall percentage of films about mental illness changed from one year to the next, it consistently remained between 10-20%. 

Likewise, the authors used IMDB ratings and Academy Award nominations (and wins) as proxies for critical success. In terms of critical reception, they found that the average IMDB rating for the mental illness movies was above average for every year from 1977 to 2019. The films depicting mental illness scored an average rating of 6.4, versus 5.9 for films overall. Films about mental illness have also consistently done better than average in terms of Academy Award nominations and wins. Across all of years examined, films about mental illness accounted for 15.7% of all nominations. These films also won 17.2% of awards given out between 1977 and 2019. While their findings indeed indicate a growing interest in movies about mental illness, “there is danger of fetishizing mental health problems, or of poor depictions being celebrated,” they write. “Psychiatrists and mental health providers,” they suggest, “must play a role in shaping future depictions of mental illness in cinema.” Source:

Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), is Taxi Driver‘s lonely, alienated “anti-hero.” He wants Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), he’s obsessed with her beauty. But, he has no idea what a woman wants or how to date, let alone to have a relationship with anyone, even his fellow taxi drivers. He’s disconnected. When he makes a real faux pas with Betsy, he must redeem himself and save the world of women from scum. The scum Travis wants to wash away. He must have disconnected long ago. Because Travis knows nothing about pop culture, movies, women, or what makes him tick. “I first saw her at the Campaign Headquarters, wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel.” The headquarters are Presidential hopeful, Senator Charles Palantine’s (Leonard Harris). He proceeds to tell her his observations of her – yet, really his projections of all he can’t accept in himself: “I watch you. I see people around you, but you’re lonely. Not a happy person. You need something. Maybe a friend.” That’s Travis. He’s the one that needs a friend. “You going to be my friend?” Betsy asks seductively as they sit at a coffee shop: “I had black coffee, apple pie with a slice of melted yellow cheese. She had coffee and fruit salad when she could have had anything she wanted.” He wants her to want him. For all Travis’ unworldliness, he has a fragile self-protective arrogance. Until it is soon “shot down.” The more Travis talks to Betsy, the more disturbed we see his obsessive fantasy is: “You like the guy you work with? I could tell there was no connection. When I walked in there was something between us, an impulse we both were following that gave me the right to talk to you. Otherwise, I would never have had the courage.” Yet Travis’ arrogance covers a deep insecurity. Travis doesn’t have anything in common with Betsy. His mind is lost in disturbed preoccupations. When Senator Palantine gets into his taxi and asks him what bothers him most, Travis goes off: “Clean up this city. It’s a sewer.” Can he count on Palantine? No. Travis can’t count on anyone. Travis’ mind is very split. As quickly as “the angel” entered his life, Betsy’s gone. Another rejection Travis can’t take. 

“Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Bars and cars and everywhere. There’s no escape.” He calls and pleads with Betsy to have dinner or coffee. Sends her flowers. Bouquets of returned flowers pile up in his house; dead. He tries to apologize: “I didn’t know that was the way you felt.” He’s in torment: “The smell of flowers made me sick. Headaches got worse. I think I got stomach cancer.” Travis can’t take her refusals. He storms into headquarters, enraged: “Why won’t you answer my phone calls? You’re going to die in hell like the rest of them.” Clearly, this isn’t his first humiliation: “I realize now she’s just like the others, cold and distant and many people are like that, women for sure, they're like a union." He writes a sad letter to his estranged parents, lying that he’s been seeing a girl named Betsy for a few months. They’d be proud. We know he’s trying to toughen up against self-hate. Maybe saving Iris will redeem him. There’s still the mystery of what he’s training for with his target practices, workouts, and gun maneuvers. But, Travis gets it in his head to save Iris (Jodie Foster), a fourteen-year-old runaway hooker under the spell of Sport (Harvey Keitel) her “lover-pimp.” She jumped in Travis’ cab once and wanted to get away. But, Sport pulled her out.

We might think about Iris as Travis’ innocent, young, self that took a wrong turn, had some very hurtful experiences, went to war, and came back jaded. With a family he didn’t want to be with; didn’t go home to; who were distant and uninviting; without love. Iris is certainly at war inside; young and alone and scared. But, fighting it and fiercely independent for her own reasons. Maybe not so dissimilar to Travis’ lonely alienation. So, when she, again, literally crosses his path, he seizes the opportunity. Travis decides to save her. Can he redeem himself? In his mind? We already know he’s quite confused in his head; misguided about life and how to get things done. And, trauma upon trauma (childhood experiences and the Vietnam war) has set off a lot of buried rage. He doesn’t have any more reasonable sense of the rules of life than Iris does. He tries to talk sense into her. Tells her to go back to her family, she doesn’t belong on the streets with the likes of Sport: “You should be going to school. Going out with boys.” When Iris won’t listen and goes back to Sport, Travis takes matters into his own hands: “You can’t let him do that to other girls, least you. He’s the worst fucking scum on the earth.” After the bloodbath, when the police arrive, Travis has a crazed and happy look on his face. Proud of his accomplishments, he points his fingers at his head, gun-like, as if intends to (or metaphorically did) just kill himself. He’s single-handedly killed off the scum of the city and saved Iris. Iris will now go home. But, what was the real point of his rampage? Is he dying? Dead? 

Travis has become the city’s (and Iris’ parents) revered “Hero.” Is this reality? Or Travis’ grandiose fantasy? We’ll never know. In Travis’ mind, he’s special, better than the rest, better than Palantine (who dropped the ball on washing away the scum.) And, Betsy too now admires Travis for the “hero he is.” She’s his last passenger in Taxi Driver. Flipping the taxi meter, he absolves her completely. Travis rearranges the facts in his head, a typical trait of a schizoid mind. In planning to kill Senator Palantine, he wants to sacrifice him to the cause and make him a martyr. Scorsese confirms this idea by framing Palantine with his hands raised like the statue behind him at Columbus Circle, reminding us of Christ on the cross, the Saint of Martyr’s. Some critics came close but rarely suggested the possibility of Travis’ death. For example, in the March 1979 issue of Le Cinématographe (no. 45), François Cuel is the only one who explicitly alluded to it: "The burnt flowers, Travis’ message to Iris, rather indicate a suicidal ritual that precedes the meticulous preparation for a killing; and in the middle of the blood stains in the hotel, the real Travis, whose wounded leg already gives a cadaverous rigidity, actually dies. The overhead shot negates the ceiling and opens the sky for Travis’ flight."  Even as Travis plots his heroic acts of violence, he worries about how to save Iris. He believes he is just training to be an undercover govern agent, but his concern for Iris suggests otherwise. Travis's many contradictions make him one of the great characters in film history. Source:

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