Robert De Niro, youngish white man with a mohawk hairsut and sunglasses smiling with his arms crossed, wearing an army jacket with patches

I've been thinking about a couple of decades-old movies lately, Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Full Metal Jacket and Martin Scorsese's 1976 Taxi Driver.

Don't know why for sure.

It just might be a sign of the times.

Both tell stories of male characters descending into the inhumanity of violent madness – one an individual's, the other an organized societal group. Both involve alienation. Both are disturbing. Neither makes sense we want to be familiar or comfortable with. But I don't see how we have a choice anymore.

Full Metal goes full-bore into the deterioration and death of a mentally and physically unfit recruit in Marine Corps basic training while his cohorts successfully adapt to the dehumanizing process of being turned into our nation's first line of defense – killers, in other words.

That's Jacket's first part. The second is a tale of our now-blooded Marines getting the hell shot out of them by a very young NVA or Viet Cong sniper girl. Kubrick getting in his humiliating anti-American licks.

Taxi Driver has the Mohawk-wearing loner Robert De Niro as veteran-turned-civilian pursuing or running from his own war demons, presumably from Vietnam, as he spends his days and nights driving a cab in the physical and moral squalor of '70s New York City. His character's name is Travis Bickle.

I doubt you'll find it far-fetched when I say America has been hovering around its own Travis Bickle psychological moment – with plenty of Full Metal gun weirdness thrown in for bad measure.

Bickle's existential dilemma devolves to him planning a political assassination upon a candidate for unknown reasons. De Niro in real life has been threatening Trump with a beating.

Personally I find De Niro's politically-based threats to Trump obnoxious, undignified and self-defeating. Better he orchestrate a re-release of Taxi Driver and publicly explore his character's journey into darkness in interviews and what that may or may not mean to Americans.

It'd strengthen the art and impact of movies at a time when Hollywood is becoming nearly irrelevant, perhaps? If we can't save America, maybe we can save great cinema and by the way, am I turning into Travis Bickle? Is the whole country? Is there a Bickle in each of us or just the men and boys?

My wish: Scorsese could gab-fest for hours about Taxi Driver's motivations, meanings, religious references, urban New York-isms and other undercurrents the three men – the director, the writer and the main actor – brought to their collaboration. He loves to talk, I love to listen. He was great at the Wex years ago.

"There was a strain of severity and even self-hatred in the film," writes Shawn Levy in his 2014 De Niro bio, A Life, derived from Schrader's Calvinism, that harmonized with Scorsese's Catholicism." So there's that – as if Catholics and the Catholic Church aren't going through their own hell, too, these days – victims of the nuns and priests first.

Thus the intensity of Taxi Driver and Full Metal Jacket rattle the viewer.

America's intense public political psycho-drama rattles itself and the world.

I am rattled.

I thought about getting a Mohawk a few weeks ago. Uh-oh. But I don't like guns. Calm down.

Trust me, I'm not watching '80s comedies these days. Psychosis – our collective psychosis is on. Welcome to National Lampoon's National Insane Asylum Vacation.

This is one peculiarly crazy period in our history.

Both movies were there before we were in a way. Or rather, they were describing similar realities. It just seems as if Kubrick, Scorsese, De Niro and Schrader were 30 to 40 years ahead of our political/national psyche evolution.

Where was Travis Bickle's loner-getting-lonelier schizophrenic is front and center, how does Full Metal Jacket fit in? In littler ways perhaps.

Guns, for one thing.

We're not at war – but we could be. We're still haunted by Vietnam. Could happen at any time, any place on this planet, or so it seems.

Dehumanizing ourselves over politics, doing everything we can to convince the other guy he is non-human...that is how Marine drill instructor Lee Ermey terrorizes his young recruits and turns them into terrifying defenders of our country: by dehumanizing them.

Ultimately, Vincent D' Onofrio, the lone poor recruit who simply cannot march in time or exercise hard or clean his weapon, commits an infraction like sneaking a doughnut, gets caught and catches a brutal, game-changing beating at the hands of the company.

Which sends him over the edge – and are we not pushing each other every hour, every day, in every media known to us over-indulged slobs who can't tolerate jack out of our fellow disagreeing Americans? Are we not brutalizing each other psychologically? Dehumanizing each other every minute of the day? Are we going to blame it all on one man? Can one man drive 300 million people crazy?

And then there are the guns in both movies.

When the drill sergeant asks the gathered company who Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald were, Ermey is soon bragging they found their killing skills with a rifle in the United States Marine Corps.

Think about that: Whitman killed 12 from high atop a college library; Oswald changed history with three trigger pulls where upon at 250 feet he "scored 2 hits including a head shot," Ermey is proud to acclaim.

As we bounce from one mass shooting to another, from one school-turned-cemetery to another.

In the second half of Jacket, the Marines are pinned down by a NVA sniper who wounds or kills American after American after American – despite massive Marine firepower. Once they take out the sniper they find out it's a young teenaged girl.

Sometimes that's all it takes: a crazed 17-year-old with dubious parenting, or a nut job gamer, or a disgruntled nothing going nowhere. Bang, bang, bang – instant celebrity forever. Can we get any crazier?

Did these movies give birth to our current multi-level insanity? Maybe they had an invisible hand in it. Our culture coarsened from Bonnie and Clyde on. And coarsened. And coarsened.

America was also getting richer and wealthier and wealthier and richer by the decade. And you know what they say about being careful what you wish for. We have prosperity on a scale unbeknownst to the rest of mankind. And all that wealth produced...Donald Trump...and an uncertainty like I have never seen in my five decades being able to read newspapers and books and magazine articles. Just as there are no answers in either movie, for all our smarts, we have none now.

I have admired the late Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack to Taxi Driver from the moment I first heard it in the theater back in 1976. It is the most perfectly foreboding yet dreamlike music I have ever heard, a cross of dread and fear and then alternating with split-personality melodic mellowness. Very sour, very sweet. Travis's dual nature. Planning on killing a candidate while dating his beautiful campaign manager, Cybil Shepherd.

But it's the sense of foreboding you remember, an atmosphere so fetid with swamp fevers it could easily work as a horror film soundtrack. And the great Herrmann, an immigrant who loved jazz too much to make a living in classical-oriented Europe and classical too much to make a living playing jazz in America? He died the night he finished final mixing it. Spooky as hell.

Sometimes art and life intersect like a son-of-a-gun. Maybe son of a preacher man would be better. I'm sick of guns.

That's the thing that bothers me: I have never felt such foreboding in America, that things are going to get worse – much worse – before they get better. Is it wrong to think we are the only ones who can destroy ourselves? We did a pretty good job of it in Vietnam. Travis Bickle wiped out evil in a whore house and liberated an underage whore as his big finale. Nothing seemed resolved however.

Sympathy, empathy, understanding – where do we start with the disaffected. Is it too late?

Can't say it's gotten me to the point of anxiety. I like Trump. It's just that goddamned foreboding music, the sight of Travis in his Mohawk and how many versions we've seen of him in recent years. Jesus, I don't know.

 Who is more deranged – the Left or the Right? Blame it on Trump and the logical solution is a Travis Bickle. People, we're heading into Bickle-Land one way or another. Great.

You could say watching these two utterly brilliant movies repeatedly perhaps isn't the smartest thing in the world.

Or maybe I just like meaningful art.

 

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