Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese

One of the greatest films of all time, Scorsese’s look at the disintegration of American culture following the Vietnam War won four Academy Awards in 1976.

Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle – electrifying. Twelve year old Jodie Foster as child prostitute Iris – astounding.  Everything, and everyone in this film was so realistic, and so good, I could smell the sweat pouring off these guys – summer in New York City before everyone had air conditioning – fuhgeddaboutit!

I hadn’t seen this movie since it originally came out, so I’d forgotten how slowed-down it was in places. Not “Blade Runner” slow, but pretty damned close. This wasn’t a deal-breaker, but it did require the viewer to forget the last 40 years of movies and just go with it. Slow down a little, baby. It’s worth it.

Travis Bickle, our Vietnam vet, has chronic, pernicious insomnia (probably as a result of what he’d seen, and done in Vietnam, although it’s never spelled out). So he figures why fight it? He will work a night job, like drive a taxi. Genius. And it’s as a New York City cab driver that Travis gets to see the city’s, and by extension the country’s, dark and dirty underbelly – violence, crime, drugs, prostitution – it’s all there, all night, every night. The result is that it just feeds, and feeds, Travis’s growing rage.

I had my doubts about this assignment, because even though Travis Bickle does technically kill several guys, they are all bad guys! Travis is not your mother’s serial killer. He is instead a vigilante of the highest order – a good guy who knows all this shit is wrong – and he tries to right that wrong in the only way available to a small fry like him. (And no, the answer is NOT through a vigorous leaflet campaign, or by voting for the best candidate.)

Travis gets a gun; in fact he gets a LOT of guns. He practices, he poses – there’s his iconic “You lookin’ at me?” line – and just generally prepares for … what? With a problem as big as “What is wrong with America?” it’s hard to know where to point the gun. Travis flirts briefly with shooting a local politician, but then doesn’t. Although it’s never made clear, I figured Travis chickened out because the guy was too much of a cardboard cutout. There were bigger, more immediate threats to humanity right there in his own backyard. Enter Jodie Foster’s character, Iris. Travis had encountered her briefly when she got in the back of his cab one night, only to be pulled out of it a moment later by her pimp. The pimp, Sport – played by a dazzlingly young Harvey Keitel – tosses a $20 bill at Travis and tells him to “forget about it.”

But Travis can’t. He finds the pimp and pays to meet with Iris. Only instead of adding to her degradation, he tries to save her. He tells her this – prostitution – is “No kind of thing for a person to do.” I love that. He could have gone so many ways in his condemnation – you’re just a kid, prostitution is wrong, it’s a sin, blah blah blah – but instead, he looks at Iris and sees a person. Not an “unfortunate” or a “stupid kid” or a hopeless slut, but a person who should be living a real person’s life. Unable to convince her to leave the life she’s grown accustomed to, he returns later, only this time as an avenging angel.

The violent and bloody gunfight that ensues ends with a bunch of bad guys dead, a seriously wounded Travis Bickle, and a crying Iris huddled behind the couch. The police arrive and the newspapers make Travis a hero. Iris’s parents later write to him, thanking him for saving their daughter’s life – she’s back home with them in Pittsburgh and going to school. Travis even re-connects with a woman he tried to date earlier, Betsy, played by Cybil Shepherd.

There has been some speculation that the ending was all just a dying dream, and that Travis actually dies in the shoot-out. However, I think that Scorsese wanted to show us how whimsical fate can be, and just how thin the line between villain and hero can be sometimes. If Travis had been a little quicker with his gun and actually shot the politician instead, he would have been reviled as a murderer. Instead, he kills a pimp, a drug dealer, and a Mafioso – all to save a little girl’s life – and becomes a hero.

As far as I’m concerned, Travis Bickle did not fit the psycho stereotype we’ve come to know and love — no messed up childhood filled with physical and sexual abuse, and killing isn’t the only way he can find emotional satisfaction or sexual release — he was just a guy who got pushed to the edge, and who finally fell over it.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry

Charles Manson is the first, and only, “true crime” serial killer we have looked at in this course. He is also the only serial killer to come with his own soundtrack, specifically The Beatles’ White Album. He was convinced that every song on the album held hidden significance aimed only at him. He was a lot like Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes in that he felt his musical idols, The Beatles, were speaking directly to him in their music. Only instead of creating romantic fantasies as a result of this belief (like most starry-eyed fans), Manson became convinced they were telling him to start a race war with their song lyrics, specifically the song, “Helter Skelter.”

This book is the work of the prosecuting attorney – Vincent Bugliosi – who was pretty much responsible for realizing that a seemingly unrelated series of murders in the Hollywood hills actually were related.  And, that they were the work of one man and his “family”. It was fascinating for the most part, even when I felt like I was getting bogged down by the weight of all that detective work.

Charles Manson, like nearly all of our fictional serial killers, had a shitty childhood. As a result, he’d spent most of his life in prison by the time of the murders. And of course, he has been in prison ever since.

Manson is a lot like John Doe, the serial killer in “Seven” in that he gets others to do the actual, messy killing. Only in his case, the motivation is not personal, or sexual, or moral. It’s political. With a little crazy thrown in there for good measure.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine what was passing for philosophical thought and political discourse back then, but personal charisma went a long way towards smoothing any rough edges. And Manson apparently had that in abundance. Even so, it is hard to imagine all the hopeless drifters wandering around looking for something to believe in. Instead of joining the Peace Corps and making the world a little bit better, they ended up being part of a “family” who believed their leader was a man of vision who would help them survive the coming Armageddon. The fact that they were creating the seeds for that biblical event by committing these shocking, high-profile murders seems to have only made it sweeter.

If this post has not been full of my usual, snarky comments and wacky pictures it’s because, unlike every other killer we’ve encountered this term, Charles Manson and his “family” of weak-minded toadies was real. And their victims were real. Somehow it’s not as much fun poking holes in a serial killer’s motivation and methods when it’s the real thing. Manson is still alive, and still in prison. Most of the “family” is also alive. Before “Helter Skelter”, Manson was a wannabe singer-songwriter, and a number of musicians have recorded his songs.  There is a Charles Manson Fan Club.

Helter Skelter, the bookwas an amazing opus, an operatic rendition of the end of the Sixties. Complete with all the trappings – sex, drugs, rock and roll … and Death. If you were alive then, and you ever had a moment when you thought it would never, could never end – the publication of this book, with its 50 pages of black and white photographs of all the victims, their houses and properties, along with almost 700 pages of painstaking details and mind bogglingly horrifying facts was the final, orchestral blast of the decade. Kind of like the last song on another Beatles album

The Silence of the Lambs, directed by Jonathan Demme

There is so much going on in this movie, so many conflicting sensations. It’s like standing in the surf up to your waist in the middle of August – you have the light and heat of the sun beating down on you, the chilly water sluicing around your body as the waves rise and fall, the soft sand between your toes, and the knowledge that most shark attacks occur near shore in two to three feet of water.

Part of the fun of this movie is having not one, but two, serial killers to play with, er, worry about. The first one we’re supposed to worry about, Buffalo Bill (played by the always delightful, and always surprising, Ted Levine).  Bill is running around killing and then skinning women (thank God it’s not the other way around), and making the FBI crazy. And the second one who is “safely” behind bars, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (played by a chillingly urbane Anthony Hopkins). Lector is a brilliant psychiatrist and a bloodthirsty cannibal.

When the calculating head of the Behavioral Science Unit, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn), sends little FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), to go see Dr. Lecter on a fake “mission” to get his serial killer profile it made me cringe. Talk about sending a lamb to the slaughter! However, as is often the case, by the end of the movie everyone in this little threesome gets more than they bargained for.

I have to admit I felt sorry for Buffalo Bill. He was all kinds of messed up and it looked like he had experienced a bad childhood along with mental illness. He was horribly alienated from himself (suffering from gender dysphoria), and other human beings as well. His classic line, “It uses the lotion on its skin, or else it gets the hose” when speaking to one of his captives pretty much says it all.

The U.S. Senator’s attempt to humanize her captive daughter on TV definitely fell on deaf ears in his case. Besides, I don’t think Bill even owned a television.

On the other hand, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is a whole different kind of serial killer. Unlike Buffalo Bill, Lecter finds it easy, maybe insultingly so, to hide what he is. He’s smart, wealthy, accomplished … he could easily be living a great life, but instead he’s driven by dark desires to do unbelievable things.

At least, we hope he’s “driven” by those desires, and not the other way around. Unlike Buffalo Bill, Lecter seems more “driver” than “driven” when it comes to his murderous impulses. Then there are those creepily heightened senses he possesses – smell definitely, hearing yep, taste probably (ick). Lecter the psychopath is the kind of over-endowed human being who makes me wonder just where humanity is heading, evolutionarily speaking – smarter and kinder? Or smarter and crueler?

But let’s leave these two losers behind, and talk about Clarice Starling. Smart, driven, unbelievably tough – I want to be just like her when I grow up. It is Starling, with her “good bag and cheap shoes” who pierces through Dr. Lecter’s egotism and boredom, causing him to recognize her for that rare bird, an authentic human being. Dr. Lecter, to his credit, returns the favor and acknowledges Starling’s worth and professionalism. (Something it takes her boss, Jack Crawford, an entire movie to do, by the way.)

So it’s no surprise at the end when she could conceivably shout at Crawford (who is slowly going upstairs), and tell him Lecter is on the phone right now, but she doesn’t. You could take the cynical approach and say Lecter was playing Starling (and who would know how to better than him?), but I think at the end they were just two outsiders who’d grown to respect, and maybe just a little bit, like each other.

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Kristen Lamb

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