By Matt Zoller Seitz | Press Play May 9, 2012 at 3:52PM
Bryan Boyce's brilliant short film "Walt Disney's Taxi Driver" cherry-picks scenes between psychotic cabbie Travis Bickle and his love object Betsy in Taxi Driver, but substitutes Disney imagery for Travis' obsession with urban decay. This is a masterstroke: not a gimmick, but a flourish. Much writing on Taxi Driver tends to situate the film within its era, and fixate on certain details established by director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader and star Robert DeNiro: specifically Travis' traumatic experience in Vietnam and his culturally reactionary response to seedy New York circa 1976. Part of what makes "Walt Disney's Taxi Driver" so wonderful is the way that it lifts Travis' character out of context without actually losing the context, so that you can see him more clearly as a literary creation, and recognize that his mania is adaptable and timeless. The 1976 New York setting turns out to be important in this mash-up, but not until the very end. The first part of the video disentangles Travis from his world, lifts him out of the muck (and the almost purely subjective structure of Scorsese's film) so you can get a better look at him. When it returns him to his context, Boyce's short becomes a cinematic time machine, connecting Travis' past and our present. Watch it here:
The first time we see Betsy through Travis' eyes, she's got an animated bird on her arm, which effectively transforms the "angel" Travis describes in voice-over into a Disney princess (same difference, given how asexual Travis is). When Travis takes Betsy to the movies, it's to see Disney cartoons instead of porn. But while the marquee advertises Lady and the Tramp and "Steamboat Willie" as "Explicit! Provocative!", when Travis and Betsy look at the screen we're watching unaltered Mickey Mouse. The images seem faintly sexual only because they've been inserted (heh) into Taxi Driver. Yet the sense of Travis as a tone-deaf, maybe socially autistic misfit still shines through. He's taking a sleepy-eyed bombshell to see G-rated cartoons on their first date? It's not exactly a romantic mood-enhancer. When Betsy shifts uncomfortably in her seat, her reaction now seems to have less to do with the content onscreen than the fact that Travis chose a film program that was of interest only to him. Suddenly the scene isn't about sickness, but how casual narcissism can prevent two people from connecting. "I don't know why I came in here," she says, storming out of the theater with Travis in pursuit. "I don't like these movies!"
The piece builds to a giddy, surreal climax, inserting Disney creatures into Travis' "All the animals come out at night" monologue and superimposing a Mickey Mouse Club cap on Travis during his "You talking to me?" rant (that it's clearly animated makes it seem like Travis' unhinged projection). The asexual, paranoid, controlling traits exhibited by Travis in Scorsese's original movie manifest themselves differently here, but they're alternate versions of the same urges. When Boyce replaces a 1976 object of Travis' ire, couples dancing sensuously on American Bandstand, with the parting theme of The Mickey Mouse Club ("'C' ya real soon!'), it confims that the Disney imagery is all in Travis' head -- an aspect of this Travis' pre-sexual, childlike fantasy of cleanness that's different from, but connected to, the original film's fantasy of bloody, righteous cleansing. The filmmaker mucks with Taxi Driver's famous final shot of Travis glancing at himself in the rearview mirror, then slapping the mirror away to avert his own gaze. In this version, Boyce replaces Times Square circa '76 with a composited, modern Times Square that literally been Disneyfied: made bright and cheerful, harmless. It's a genius embellishment that connects present-day megacorporate dominance of Manhattan (and urban life in general) with mid-'70s Silent Majority resentment. The world we live in now is the one that Joe the construction worker, Archie Bunker and other '60s and '70s symbols of conservative disquiet dreamed of; once it became clear there was money to be made in catering to them, their wishes upon stars came true. The Disneyfied Times Square means Travis Bickle won. A real rain came and washed all the scum off the streets: a rain of money.