[In September 2020, I began a series of blog entries discussing the themes and inspirations of my dark chamber-pop album Best Dead Masterpiece, scheduled for release on BandCamp in January 2021.]
Before anything else I ought to say this: to my knowledge I have never been personally acquainted with any young men that have perpetrated violence. So when I use Travis Bickle as a reference point, as I’m about to, I’m thinking not of his infamous violent acts but the particular cocktail of confusion, frustration, anger, and loneliness that unfortunately manifested as that violence.
I’ve always been offbeat and detached from what was popular with my peers. I was not unlike the stereotypical kid who is home-schooled and/or largely shielded from carnal knowledge (though my upbringing was thoroughly secular). I also was never conventionally beautiful but had strong features and was possessed of a certain visual drama. It follows that, once I became a teenager, I attracted, and in turn was drawn to, a certain type of male. Loneliness and disaffectedness were a cologne that dizzied me. (I’d been lonely and disaffected myself through middle school: while I was never physically bullied, my fundamental blend of earnestness, self-seriousness, lack of kinesthetic awareness, and insecurity was seized upon by other kids who no doubt felt powerless themselves, and they’d psychologically manipulate me in ways that undermined my confidence and sense of self-worth for many years thereafter.)
I didn’t always want relationships with these males, but I liked their attention. Our interactions were interesting, unpredictable, outside the realm of social convention. They never knew what to make of me and tended to set me apart from – and perhaps above – the madding crowd, and it made me feel exotic and powerful.
Unsurprisingly, the outcomes of some of these flirtations were cringey – though I didn’t always see the cringe coming. I was particularly taken aback when one of these guys, with whom I’d continued to correspond after finishing school and entering the working world, threw a weird fit in a Facebook conversation upon learning I had a serious boyfriend. We’d never had a romantic relationship – in fact he’d never even asked me out – yet he seemed to feel betrayed by me living my life and having banal human experiences.
I’m not going to use the “i” word here, or invoke any frogs or saints or anything ending in “-chan”, because it’s all been done to death. But I will say that certain atrocities we’ve seen from young men in recent years are clearly branches of a tree I saw fertilized long ago but never thought to name. Though it seems Scorsese in 1976 already had a thorough comprehension of this tree’s ideal growing conditions.
Given my personal fixations, it might be unforgivable that I never watched Taxi Driver in its entirety till this past weekend. Sure, I’d seen the iconic scenes, even read an analysis or two, but I’d never given it my undivided attention. Now that I’ve seen it, what sticks with me is not the violence, but the waste. Travis isn’t too terribly off the mark when he identifies Betsy’s and Iris’ circumstances as prisons of a sort (never mind that they don’t view them that way). Also, the scene where he confesses his “bad ideas” to a fellow cabby shows he is not completely beyond seeking help and connection; it just happens that the person he chooses is neither perceptive nor equipped enough to respond effectively.
Adrift in the bubbling stewpot of America in the mid-seventies, Travis can’t cope. He thinks on a binary of good and evil and is unable to process grey areas – though he himself exists in one, maintaining fantasies of his own righteousness and heroism while still dabbling in seediness that both sickens and fascinates him. He also harbors old-fashioned ideals of feminine purity.
Discerning viewers will recognize that the most disturbing thing about Travis Bickle is not a villainous “other-ness”, but a relatable familiarity. After all, I was drawn to the problematic young men of my past because I saw part of myself in them. Though I’ve since figured out how to acknowledge that without absolving them of inappropriate behavior. That’s something that heavily informs the album: the process of learning that having empathy and holding people accountable are not mutually exclusive.
"When I first was writing the script I thought it was about loneliness. What I learned while writing the script was that this was about a man who suffered from the pathology of loneliness. He wasn't lonely by nature; he was lonely as a defense mechanism. And he reinforced his own loneliness by his own behavior. And the pathology grew until it became malignant and violent." - Paul Schrader
It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized some of the same troubling thought patterns had existed even in guys with whom I’d had meaningful relationships, who I believe cared about me deeply, even if in insufficient ways. They failed to realize that my decisions about how to present myself, indeed, my very way of being in the world, had precious little to do with them. Their condescending instructions, their paternal admonitions, their audacious voicing of unsolicited opinions and preferences… all were unwarranted and driven by a strange inability, or refusal, to view me as a human in the same way that they were human: undignified at times, enraged, horny, messy, gross, crude. They romanticized me, as Travis romanticized Betsy, and they grew disgusted at evidence to the contrary.
Admittedly, when I listen to some of my favorite artists – Reznor, Cohen, Cave – some sentiments strike me as similar. Elevating a woman to mythological status, while it may temporarily feed her ego, is arguably as damaging as demeaning her, because both acts are dehumanizing. Both fail to recognize her as cut from the same cloth as yourself and equally entitled to complexity and transcendence of easy categorization.