Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Portraits of the Postmodern Person in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull; and the King of Comedy

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Portraits of the Postmodern Person in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull; and the King of Comedy

Article excerpt

In Martin Scorsese's 1982 film, The King of Comedy, the protagonist, Rupert Pupkin, becomes a comedian by playing one on TV. Through this amusing yet startling narrative premise, the film articulates a postmodern theory of identity that links Scorsese's major films. In addition to The King of Comedy, his Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), in particular, demonstrate an aesthetically subversive approach to character by portraying identity in the traditional sense as a fabrication. Each film insists that selfhood is externally rather than internally produced, an effect of signification, and the protagonist, played in each case by Robert De Niro, must perform or enact his selfhood. Identity, then, becomes a matter of impersonation.

Postmodern theory asserts that the subject as coherent, integrated, discoverable self is a fiction of modernity; subjectivity is understood to be organized through signification and therefore to be externally rather than internally "driven." As Ellie Ragland-Sullivan puts it, "The idea of a static and substantive inner reality waiting to be found or that of a deep structure waiting to be uncovered . . . is merely an example of a comforting myth of wholeness and ontological resolution" (14). In other words, the sense of a coherent, stable self is an enabling fiction that has not so much been abandoned in the late twentieth century as exposed. Through their character portraits, Scorsese's films participate in this postmodern expose of the fictive self.

Yet, ironically, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy at the same time retain a traditional view of gender as a fixed category of identity. Scorsese's films typically involve a male protagonist's struggle to assert a distinctly masculine identity, a struggle both prompted and thwarted by women. Through the protagonist's efforts to fashion a self, these films ultimately posit postmodern subjectivity as a crisis of masculinity, for each protagonist's incoherence exists in relation to a woman's presumed power of "self-possession."

Woman's identity in Scorsese's films is portrayed as coherent, stable, and therefore enviable and threatening. Remarkably, woman's potential agency within the narrative is shown to be both intimidating and banal. The contradictory politics of many of Scorsese's films from Taxi Driver on can best be understood in relation to their perspective on identity. Specifically, while the notion of a clearly bounded, coherent inner self (indeed the very notion of "character") is discredited in these films, the concept of masculinity is not.

Taxi Driver: Identity as Impersonation

Although a number of critics have noted the pastiche of genres and styles in Taxi Driver, the film's strikingly postmodern theory of identity-formation has been overlooked.' Robert Kolker has pointed out that Taxi Driver and other Scorsese films mix the stylistic codes of the documentary and fiction film (165), and Robert Ray has shown that Taxi Driver invokes both the classical Hollywood western and the films of the French New Wave (350-60). The point, however, is that these borrowings and juxtapositions work in aesthetic terms to portray identity as a cultural production, a fantasy forged through the discourses of popular culture.

In the film, taxi driver Travis Bickle (De Niro) attempts to script himself as hero of a narrative-specifically, the story of his own life. The film was commonly reviewed at its release as a compelling case study of a psychopath, yet Taxi Driver actually documents the predicament of the postmodern subject. Jack Kroll came closest to recognizing this in his review for Newsweek, which acknowledged De Niro's performance as crucial to the film's meaning:

If the best actors inevitably reflect the psychic preoccupations of the time, then De Niro embodies the desire of people today to create authentic selves. His powerful and disturbing creation of Travis Bickle, a man who fits nowhere in society, becomes an emblem of all those who are trying to become human beings while society lies in disarray (83). …

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