The Writing’s on the Wall

Travis is watching a melodrama on television. He is idly rocking the crate on which the set is resting with his cowboy boot, as he sits clutching a .44 Magnum. On TV, a couple exchange painful truths as they come to the end of their relationship. Travis has recently been rejected by the woman whom he has idealised, Betsy, and his growing isolation and distaste for the city in which he lives and works as a cabbie is driving him to take action.

Up to this point in Taxi Driver (1976) we have experienced the city through Travis’s perspective, largely via a diaristic voiceover narration – but we are not privy to his thoughts now. He is not busying himself preparing for imagined confrontations. And he seems unperturbed by the fact that he has killed a convenience store robber with an unlicensed gun. Though quiet, there is a palpable atmosphere of unease; the camera does not pry, it is still for a minute.

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On the wall, towards the top left of the frame, is a sign that reads ‘ONE OF THESE DAYS, I’M GONNA GET – ORGANIZ–IZED!’. This is the sign Travis mentions when he takes Betsy out for coffee and pie, early in the film. Prompted by Betsy’s comment about the amount of effort and co-ordination that has gone into Charles Palantine’s election campaign, Travis admits that his own life could use some organisation. Betsy does not immediately catch on when Travis first tells her, ‘I actually got one of those signs that says One of These Days I’m Gonna Get Organizized,’ and then repeats ‘Organizized’, before adding, ‘It’s a joke.’

In Taxi Driver, playful gestures and off-the-cuff humour are frequently transmuted into violence, as if elements of the world through which Travis moves necessarily become grimly distorted, simply by proximity to his seething fury and psychological unravelling, and are manifested again as acts of terrible cruelty. Instances of gunplay using only the hands as stand-ins are mirrored by the use of real firearms. Similarly, Betsy’s co-worker Tom’s attempt to light a match with three fingers ‘missing’ – his tale of a typical mafia punishment prefiguring the moment when Iris’ timekeeper gets his fingers shot off by Travis at the climax of the film.

The sign on Travis’s wall even falls within this scheme. The sign, as it is positioned in Travis’s apartment, and within the frame, at several points during the film, reiterates the shift in the meaning of a single word: ‘organisation’. By the time that the television viewing scene appears, we have already seen the sign, clearly, above Travis twice. The first appearance is a key moment. After failing to impress Betsy by taking her to a porno movie, and then encountering a psychotic passenger in his taxi – who tells Travis of his plan to murder his wife, along with her lover – we find Travis writing in his diary, desperate for a sense of worth and direction in his lonely life. He narrates:

‘June 8th. My life has taken another turn again. The days move along with regularity, over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next – a long, continuous chain. Then, suddenly, there is a change.’

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As Travis utters these words, the sign that he has talked to Betsy about appears clearly in the frame. The ‘change’ that Travis is referring to is not made explicit through his diary, but it is clear from the writing on the wall what he has in store.

Travis’s desire for ‘organisation’ at first suggests the mundane affairs of everyday life – in fact he specifies to Betsy, ‘little things, like my apartment, my possessions’ – but we are now being given clear signals that Travis has something more sinister in mind. In the following scenes he arms himself and begins a strict health regime. ‘Organisation’ soon becomes rigorous self-discipline, in preparation for decisive action:

‘June 29th. I gotta get in shape now; too much sitting has ruined my body; too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on it’ll be fifty pushups each morning; fifty pullups. There will be no more pills, there will be no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now on it’ll be total organisation; every muscle must be tight.’

Though Travis’ plan is never disclosed to us verbally, the film makes specific uses of cuts that clarify what the writing on the wall is telling us all along – the shot of Travis taking aim with his fingers at the screen in a porno theatre, and a reverse shot of the posters on his apartment wall, for instance. And there is a threatening intimation in the narration:

‘The idea had been growing in my brain for some time. True force: all the king’s men cannot put it back together again.’

Travis’s organisation is, then, directed towards a goal whose result will be destructive. He stands among the crowd gathered for the Senator’s speech and exchanges a few words with a Secret Service agent. His behaviour provokes suspicion. Travis seems less the articulate, lovelorn wanderer and more like a ‘creep’.

And then soon after he kills a robber in his local convenience store – without any grandstanding, no tension, no voiceover explanation from the scene of the crime. Just one guy opening fire on another, quick and messy – and a signal that Travis is hurtling uncontrollably into chaos, rupturing his orderly, self-contained existence.

We also see the sign on the wall as Travis writes a card to his parents wishing them well on their anniversary, and again now in this scene, which immediately follows, as Travis is shown watching television for the third time. The daytime soap characters discuss their marriage – the woman desires to leave in order to be with another man. Travis’s seated position now mimics that of the illustrated figure on the sign, with its feet resting on an almost identical small, wooden table. The television keeps rocking gently until Travis applies too much pressure and the set tips over, crashing down onto the floor and breaking. It follows the trajectory of the falling letters on the sign – the exclamation mark on which seems to represent the sound of the television as it shatters, just as the female voice onscreen says, ‘I love you.’

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What comes between Travis’s unfocused, alienated existence and the organisation, the purpose that he craves? It is foreshadowed by the other stickers that adorn the wall, visible from the first moment that we glimpse the sign about which Travis at first jokes, repeated as if in chant: ‘Palantine’, ‘Palantine’.

The scene conveys what Travis has recently experienced in his romantic endeavours, through the drama unfolding on the television. Has he used this show and those similar to it as his guide in matters of love in the real world (as his matinee idol air, as he walks into Betsy’s workplace, suggests)? It makes clear, too, Travis’s distraction, his desire for action, for that ‘organisation’ he has needed all along, and tells us where that action will now lead him, now that romantic love has failed him. The joke is not funny anymore.

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