New York has often been the backdrop of Martin Scorsese’s films. In most of these films, the image of New York City has often not been a flattering one. However, it is often a very real portrait that presents a clear look at what the city embodied during different periods in time. From the perspective of the city in two of the director’s classic films, TAXI DRIVER and MEAN STREETS, we can view New York as the symbolic representation of a number of societal ills. In TAXI DRIVER, New York City develops and appearance of a squalid, post-apocalyptic world where social order has been replaced by nihilism and depravity.
Ironically, this post-apocalyptic world is actual one of historical fact. In the 1970s, the government of New York completely lost control over the city and the Times Square and 42nd Street districts quickly devolved into a world or pornography and prostitution. While this seedy underbelly was not an underbelly at all (it is not like miles upon miles of a major city can be hidden) most would prefer to pretend the wasteland of New York City was something that did not exist. More importantly, they would prefer to pretend the denizens of the squalid sections of the city did not exist either.
What kind of a person would congregate in such sleazy locales? There are three types: those that cannot leave those that feed off the pestilence, and those that cannot exist elsewhere. Most of the characters in the film are either people that who feed off the misery created in Times Square or those that live there because there is no where else for The Darkness of NYC in TAXI DRIVER and MEAN STREETS – 2 them to go. Travis Bickle is an outsider. He has returned from the Vietnam War a hero but he has also become psychologically damaged as a result.
He aberrancy and loneliness is made somewhat less painful because he exists in a world of freaks and degenerates. In another environment, Bickle would be considered a thorough lunatic. In the New York City of TAXI DRIVER, he simply blends into the background with all the other oddities. Bickle does try to break free a little when he becomes involved with Betsey but this turns out to be a disaster. While Betsey lives and works in New York, she is not part of the underbelly Bickle belongs to. Their union turns disastrous and Bickle sinks into mental illness.
He starts to lash out at the city by both attacking and protecting its inhabitants. Specifically, Bickle tries to save the prostitute Iris from the pimps and degenerates that have created the wasteland of New York City. He also focuses his rage on the politicians who have allowed the city to slip into its decrepit state. In a way, Bickle seeks to destroy the city by altering the status quo of the city’s inhabitants. Is this a sane goal? No, but it is “par for the course” as far as New York City is concerned.
The city is near unredeemable and angels of vengeance such as Travis Bickle are needed to set things straight. Or, at least that is his demented plan. Is New York City the problem? To refer to the city as the problem is to ignore a very obvious fact: a city is little more than the population that inhabits it. New York City The Darkness of NYC in TAXI DRIVER and MEAN STREETS – 3 is comprised of people from all walks of life. Some of these people have issues and when they cannot fit into the fabric of society they will seek each other’s dysfunctional company.
This is the core problem within New York City life as aspects of it will cater to violence, isolation, and anarchy. This can occur in the over the top manner of TAXI DRIVER or in the more reserved mayhem of MEAN STREETS. As the title of the film implies, New York City can be a harsh place. The streets are mean and tough and only the strong will survive. One of the ways to maintain one’s strength is to be an outlaw. That way, the rules of society no longer apply and you can take whatever action is necessary to protect your turf and, in turn, your very life.
But, what if you are conflicted over this situation? In MEAN STREETS, the main character, Charlie, is an Italian-American who is conflicted over rising in the ranks of the mafia and living a normal life. Living a normal life, however, can be difficult for him since he does not fit into the traditional Anglo-Saxon culture that makes up the crux of New York City’s elite. As such, he is locked into a world of violence as determined by his heritage, ethnicity, and social class. To circumvent this, Charlie seeks to be two different people.
He is the mob thug who does what he needs to do to survive on the means streets and he seeks to find solace in a budding romance with a girl named Teresa. While the exterior world of New York City is one of social limitations and violence, the spirit can become free in love. Of course, this can only occur if the environment allows love to flourish. Unfortunately, the The Darkness of NYC in TAXI DRIVER and MEAN STREETS – 4 Charlie can not escape the violent world of mobsters and cannot leave the mean streets behind him.
This eventually turns into resentment that leads to his downfall. Can someone truly escape the mean streets of New York City? Not if the person defines escaping and trying to alter the status quo while remaining firmly entrenched in it. This is Charlie’s dilemma. He cannot alter his situation because he does not leave the city. In a way, New York City is an anchor to him. He cannot leave it because he knows no other life. Yet, he despises staying due to his contempt for the culture he lives in.
Needless to say, this makes for a very conflicted character who cannot accept his place in the vile mean streets he is part of. But, should be leave? Would he be able to survive in a different environment? More than likely, Charlie does not believe he could. This is probably the reason why he never attempts to actually leave. Does this mean that New York City is the only dysfunctional realm on the planet? No, not at all; in fact, Taxi Driver was originally scripted to have been set in the squalid Hollywood Blvd section of Los Angeles as opposed to the decayed Times Square of New York City.
However, the darkness of New York City and all the subtext that accompanies it is not exaggerated. There was much to dislike about the New York City of the 1970’s and Scorsese captured this darkness quite well. This was achieved by presenting the city through the eye of the anti-heroes Travis and Charlie. From this, a garish yet stunning perspective of New York City is achieved.
Mean Streets. Dir. Martin Scorsese. 1973. DVD. Warner Bros. , 2005. Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. 1976. DVD. Warner Bros. 2003.