White Men Underground: A Cinematic Retrospectivey

Paper by Patrick Gordon-Davis.

I. Introduction and Background

Individuals aspire to be more than just cogs in a machine, yet this human need is routinely frustrated by the structure of modern society, which systematically endeavors to transform living people into homogenous units of production, in accordance with economic demand. This universally harmful phenomenon, well-represented within the traditions of existential literature and contemporary cinema alike, intersects especially disastrously with Western ideals of masculinity, particularly white male identity. As a historically privileged class among Western culture, white men have grown to expect that their voices will be heard, and that the world will be receptive to their wills. However, the films Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976), Falling Down (Schumacher, 1993), and Joker (Phillips, 2019) exemplify what can happen when this recognition is denied them, and they are made to feel small and passive for too long, always acted upon and never doing the acting: they strike out violently against the world, in revenge for the failure of modern society to provide for their needs and fulfill their expectations, in a desperate attempt to make themselves heard.

Before the birth of cinema, existential literature documented the mounting damage inflicted on the individual psyche by modern society. Existential writers long perceived that the rise of modernity has displaced the human need for recognition: to be seen and acknowledged for who one is as an individual, rather than subsumed by some faceless crowd. Swept up from the communal lifestyles to which humans are adapted and deposited among impersonal cityscapes, bustling with people but lacking in meaningful connections, the individual is forced into a condition of increasing alienation.

Due to the inflated scale of modern society, they can no longer feel their contribution to the whole, and so it seems as if decisions always come from above; this leads to a sense of purposelessness and powerlessness. Almost without realizing it, the individual is oppressed by the nature of modern society. They feel trapped and therefore unfree, insofar as they are unable to take an active role in shaping their lives and their destiny. This quintessentially modern sensation was first memorably captured by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864). His narrator’s life-and-death struggle against the invisibility and powerlessness bred by modernity encapsulates the length to which modern man goes in the absurd effort to free himself from this mire.

It is well worth mentioning Dostoevsky’s Notes in some more detail, not least due to its direct influence upon Taxi Driver and subsequent films. Upon its release, Pauline Kael hailed Taxi Driver as “a raw, tabloid version of Notes from Underground” (Kael, 1976, para. 1). And indeed, Martin Scorsese himself once commented, “I had always wanted to do a movie of Notes from the Underground. I mentioned that to Paul [Schrader] and he said, ‘Well this is what I have – Taxi Driver,’ and I said, ‘Great, this is it’” (qtd. in Kelly, 1991, pp. 90-91). In this way, Taxi Driver and its cinematic heirs constitute modern retellings of Dostoevsky’s penetrating psychological portrait of an “underground” man. As one critic contends: “By virtue of Scorsese’s motivation in making the film, Taxi Driver becomes an exegesis of Notes, and Scorsese’s picture provides the modern reader with a vehicle for applying the critical language of film to Dostoevsky’s landmark text” (Swenson, 2001, p. 269). In order to grasp what makes real or fictional underground men like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle tick, it is therefore helpful to refer to Dostoevsky’s original insights.

II. Underground

Dostoevsky’s nameless narrator is characterized, even by his own admission, as someone consumed by contradictory feelings. On the one hand, he holds himself up as a man of great “consciousness,” possessing a depth of understanding unknown to “active figures,” normal people, who thoughtlessly and ignorantly go about daily life. On the other hand, he idealizes and envies this imagined normalcy, the ability to live effortlessly, due to his being “shamefully consciousness every moment” of his own inactivity and inadequacy (1864, p. 4). He describes an ineradicable sensation of “being a fly before that whole world, a foul, obscene fly – more intelligent, more developed, more noble than everyone else – that went without saying – but a fly, ceaselessly giving way to everyone, humiliated by everyone, insulted by everyone” (p. 52). In short, he feels himself superior to others for the fact that he is a refined European man, acutely perceptive of the cultural values which he has internalized, and inferior for the fact that he is inescapably conscious of his own inability to live up to these “beautiful and lofty” ideals.
The Underground Man’s sense of self-worth is accordingly precarious, vacillating from a vainglorious savior complex to tortuous self-loathing. He writes: “Either hero or mud, there was no in- between” (p. 57). Having read and duly absorbed the high-minded literary ideals of his time, Dostoevsky’s narrator upholds contemporary society’s exalted view of what a man could and should be. Though inordinately proud to be a European man capable of such sophisticated sentiment, he is in equal measure ashamed of himself for failing to live up to this image. Thus, he is ultimately driven underground, into a hellish psychology of perpetual self-torment, by subservience to a cultural ideal of heroic masculinity ill-adapted to the circumstances of real life.

But it is not enough for a man to suffer quietly in his little hole in the ground; he wants to be heard, to have his pain acknowledged by others, and thereby to escape from his frightful loneliness. Unfortunately, the surest way to draw attention to one’s own misery is by making others miserable. The Underground Man explains that when one has a toothache, for example, “one does not remain silently angry, one moans.” Mind you, one moans “not simply because he has a toothache, not like some coarse peasant, but like a man touched by development and European civilization.” The narrator continues:

“His moans somehow turn bad, nastily wicked, and continue for whole days and nights. Yet he himself
knows that his moans will be of no use to him; he knows better than anyone that he is only straining and irritating himself and others in vain” (pp. 15-16). He carries on this way because he wishes to be respected on his own terms, recognized as an individual human being with his own will and desires, even if it means to be despised by others. Better to be a wicked man than a mute insect. So he chooses to make others suffer along with himself, if only to prove that he is a free human being.

Crucially, the Underground Man fears that modern society compels muteness and restricts one’s freedom. He writes: “an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being” (p. 5). Good men, heroes, are cut from an invariable mold: they are rational, selfless, and happy. They are respectable men, active figures, who have friends, and experience neither alienation nor anomie. But in exchange for all this, they have sacrificed their autonomy, their independence of thought and deed. This is a sacrifice which, for better or worse, the underground men of the world are unable or unwilling to make. Ill-fitted to the accepted societal molds, neither completely hero nor villain but something of both, underground men are left in the lurch, undefined, never becoming anything, and all the while conscious of their insufficient character. To be characterless is unfulfilling, unnatural, shameful; so they strive to be good, and barring that, then at least evil – to be something, rather than nothing. Underground men are those who have been reduced to nothingness by society, who have been brushed aside by the overpowering tide of “civilized” progress, forgotten, and who therefore aspire to somethingness in order to restore recognition of their existence, their humanity, their suffering – by whatever means necessary.

III. The Revenge of White Masculinity

An urgent question facing the Western world concerns why men, principally white men, increasingly resort to violent means in their pursuit of recognition. Such crimes as mass murder and serial killing, distinguished by their senselessness violence, misanthropic individualism, and egomaniacal grandiosity, are distinctly underground phenomena. They are disturbed methods by which the powerless assert their power, the invisible make themselves visible, and the wronged take revenge on society. Mass shootings, for example, are a recent phenomenon. Although the United States has always had guns and gun violence, not a single individual before 1949 had ever used a gun in this particular way, killing others almost at random (Sauer, 2015). Indeed, it is a new phenomenon, steadily on the rise, even as the general crime rate falls – an underground revolt staged by victims of progress. The question, then, is this: If most people are psychologically impacted negatively by the rise of modernity, then why should white men, the least marginalized group throughout Western history, disproportionally express their pent-up frustration through carnage? An answer is suggested by the aforementioned three underground character studies: Taxi Driver, Falling Down, and Joker.

a. Bad Ideas

As indicated earlier, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is a paradigmatic underground man. Paraphrasing a song by Kris Kristofferson, Betsy describes him as “a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.” Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, he both envies and despises normal, active figures. Sensing that to be too “conscious” is unhealthy, that it arises from a condition of social isolation, he desperately tries to fit in: “I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.” Yet try as he might, he is unable to forge meaningful connections and overcome his experience of alienation: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.” Trapped in an existence that is not merely solitary but also meaningless, Travis remarks: “All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go.” Progressively, there builds within him a blind hatred of whatever social forces have done this to him, to the beautiful natural world overcome by filth. The pimps, the politician Palantine, and others all begin
to personify for him the moral decay of modernity. His inchoate rage and confused envy coalesce to form the dis-“organizized” character of his behavior and actions.

Ultimately, admitting the futility of reconciliation with his environment, Travis takes it upon himself to redeem humanity. As his envy turns to bitterness, his rage to action, Travis fantasizes that he can become a lone hero – that indeed, the depraved world needs his help, that he has finally discovered his place, his purpose in life (for he can conceive of none other). As Andrew Swenson writes in his study of Notes and Taxi Driver, “the ‘hero’ considers himself a spiritual crusader, a modern evangelical figure lashing out against unrighteousness magnified to an incomprehensible degree” (2001, p. 278). However, such self-proclaimed “heroes” as the Underground Man and Travis are already too damaged by their struggle with society, too warped by their tangle of internal contradictions, that their heroic dreams remain unattainable: “[they retain] an intuitive longing for the ideal but no longer [possess] the capacity for identifying, exemplifying, or realizing it” (p. 283). Moreover, Swenson comments that “such heroes pervert the vision of the saintly hero even as they attempt to fulfill this role”: “Despite any legitimacy to their moral outrage, the Underground Man and Travis ultimately seethe with an insidious misanthropy and also self-loathing, which prevent them from becoming ‘heroes’” (p. 280). Although the Underground Man is eventually discouraged and resignedly abandons his heroics, Travis perseveres to the bitter end.

Travis plans to finally do something, to take action, as all heroes do. First he intends to assassinate Palantine, but when this idea falls through, goes after the pimps instead. There is not much rhyme or reason to his actions, only a vague desire to prove that he is a hero who “stood up against the scum.” Like Arthur Fleck after him, Travis kills these men not to start a movement or become a symbol, but simply because “they were awful,” because he felt they deserved it. While certainly not averse to public acclaim, this sort of “hero” is not primarily motivated by such praise, but rather the inner compulsion to do something about their declining society.

As a white American man, Travis has learned to associate action with violence. This threefold link between action, violence, and white male identity is reinforced throughout the course of the film: for instance, one of the cab’s passengers (portrayed by Scorsese) details what he plans to do to his unfaithful wife – kill her and her black lover; then Travis acquires guns of his own, admiring himself wielding them in the mirror barechested, in an almost autoerotic exhibition of masculinity; and later, he shoots a black robber at the convenience store. All of these experiences doubtless serve to shape the direction which Travis’s “bad ideas” take. They culminate, as he says, in the idea of “true force. All the king’s men cannot put it back together again.” In short, Travis comes to believe that violence is the best and perhaps only way through which someone like him can make any difference in the world.

b. Bad Guys

Falling Down’s D-FENS also longs to be a hero. Indeed, he represents a generation of white men brought up to believe that they were the heroes, the good guys, and yet found themselves inexplicably victimized and vilified (so it seemed to them) by the society of their adulthood. D-FENS feels that society made promises to him which it never fulfilled, debts which were never repaid. “Do you have any idea how much money my country has given your country?” he incredulously asks the Korean shopkeeper, who dares charge 85 cents for a can of that all-American drink, Coke. He is mortified when the shopkeeper accuses him of being a thief, or later when the caretakers suspect he might want to hurt their family. Even as he leaves a trail of death and destruction in his wake, he initially considers it unthinkable that he, a middle-of-the-road white man, is the bad guy. “You’re the thief!” D-FENS tells the shopkeeper, whom he accuses of lacking the “grace” to learn his language. People like him were supposed to be the pinnacle of human progress. Yet suddenly he is stuck in a traffic jam, going nowhere, having lost his dream job, marriage, and life, unable to make sense of it all.

Overeducated and underskilled, or vice versa, no longer economically viable, he has awakened to find that his existence was rendered superfluous by the advance of society. Since he is not supposed to be the ‘bad’ guy, he has nothing against the liberation of women and minorities. Indeed, he espies a sort of class solidarity with the plight of the similarly unviable African-American man protesting outside of a bank. What he is not prepared to understand, however, is the cause of his troubles. As Nicola Rehling writes:

D-FENS’s appropriation of the African-American’s words suggests that while many white men experience similar economic insecurities to people of color under late capitalism, unlike minorities, they are bereft of a discourse and place from which to speak in “a culture that appears to organize itself around the visibility of difference and the symbolic currency of identity politics.” Lacking a discourse of class which might help him comprehend his predicament, […] D-FENS can only experience his losses as an “inexplicable victimisation.” (2009, p. 35).
Whereas minorities are accustomed to maltreatment, white men are not; until recently, the economic system was designed almost exclusively by and for them (and to a large extent still is). But economic stagnation, on the one hand, and increased social justice, on the other, have substantially negated D-FENS’s white privilege. While still better off than some, he cannot help but experience this new reality as a terrible loss.

Because D-FENS thought that the privileges he once enjoyed were a natural fact of life, their disappearance seems to him a great injustice. “Did you know I build missiles?” he rants at the end of the film, “I help to protect America. You should be rewarded for that. Instead, they give it to the plastic surgeon. They lied to me.” While there is here, as with the preceding underground men, a “legitimacy” to his “moral outrage,” D-FENS is also led astray by his uncomprehending, narcissistic hatred of the society which wronged him. Prendergast rightly responds, “You’re angry because you got lied to? […] Hey, they lie to everybody. […] That doesn’t give you any right to do what you did today.” Indeed, without a privileged mindset, a self-righteous sense of entitlement to recompense, D-FENS could not have rampaged across the city in good conscience, as he did.

Over the course of his journey, however, D-FENS slowly realizes that he is no longer a hero, and that his mad quest for retribution implicitly entails the preservation of his own privilege. Although he resists identification with Nick, the neo-fascist (whom he tells, “We’re not the same. I’m an American. You’re a sick asshole.”), Rehling notes interestingly that “when D-FENS shoots at Nick, he also shoots at his own reflection, suggesting a moment of utter self-hatred, as well as pointing to the difficulty the film faces in separating D-FENS’s white male paranoia from Nick’s neo-fascism” (p. 35). In this moment of shameful self-consciousness, D-FENS apparently glimpses that he is not a hero, but an unwitting reactionary fighting to preserve his own unjust social privilege. At last, rather than go meekly to prison as the person he really is – an absurd man who took his legitimate grievances with society too far; a characterless being, neither predominantly good nor bad, with no place in any well- rounded story – D-FENS chooses to die as the anti-hero, in a redemptive “showdown between the sheriff and the bad guy.”

c. Bad Societies

A critique of society implicit within the preceding films, and developed most explicitly through
the character of Joker’s Arthur Fleck, concerns the failure of modern society to adequately account for the needs of its inhabitants. Kicked down by people in the street, scorned by passersby, mocked by the rich and powerful, abandoned by the social safety net, Arthur exists as an invisible and powerless speck on the margins of the cruel system of late capitalism – as his surname evidences. “If it was me dying on the sidewalk,” Arthur observes tearfully in his interview with Murray, “you’d walk right over me. I pass you every day, and you don’t notice me.” Like other underground men, Arthur has been marginalized by this lack of recognition; he is not treated with the human dignity necessary to sustain his psychological wellbeing.

Rather than address the root cause of such suffering, society in fact blames the individual for their difficulties adjusting to modern conditions. For example, at a time when so much focus and determination is expected from increasingly younger children by the education system and society at large, behavior that is not inherently pathological is habitually classified by experts as disordered (particularly the “mild forms” of ADHD, autism, anxiety, etc.), simply because it interferes with their ability to cope with the inordinate pressures imposed on them by the modern economy. However, sometimes it is society that is ill and needful of treatment, not the individual. In his review of Joker, Chauncey DeVega contends that the success of modern society “is predicated on loneliness and social atomization,” and therefore that “Neoliberal elites must create emotionally self-regulating subjects if ‘the system’ is to remain stable and not collapse into chaos” (2019, para. 23). Individuals are thrown overboard by society, with instructions to sink or swim; those who sink are stigmatized, pathologized; whereas clearly, what is truly unnatural and unhealthy is not those who sink, but the society that would demand they swim.

Instead of holding society accountable for its shortcomings, individuals are trained to blame themselves. If they are struggling financially, they are told to work harder; if they are depressed, they are told to smile. Joker documents Arthur’s dawning consciousness of this lie: “He initially wants to be ‘well’ and ‘happy’ and to not ‘feel so bad anymore’ before concluding that it is the world, and not him, that is truly broken” (DeVega, para. 9). By the end of the film, Arthur has given up the inauthentic pursuit of self-regulation: he stops taking his medications, stops laughing, and dedicates himself to the destruction of society.

In so doing, Arthur reasserts his dignity as a free human being. “He ultimately does what he wants, without guilt or restraint,” DeVega writes. “Most people do the opposite: They are ‘civilized,’ which is defined by subjecting oneself to social norms even when they make you miserable” (para. 50). It is understandable that Arthur could no longer stand to live in a society which had not only gravely mistreated him, but went so far as to blame him for his own suffering. Equally untethered from oppressive social conventions and necessary moral norms alike, Arthur becomes an amoral agent bent on revenge. At the film’s climax, he pointedly “jokes”: “What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get! You get what you f-ing deserve!” Arthur has been driven so far underground by society that only through rebellion can he recover a sense of autonomy. What he achieves is not the glorious freedom dreamt of by Romantics, but the squalid freedom of all underground men: to be capable of causing pain in addition to receiving it.

IV. Conclusion

The downfall of these three cinematic underground men consists in their presupposition that
each of their stories needs a “hero.” Because they have internalized the cultural trope that a corrupt world must be redeemed by a masculine white savior, these would-be “heroes,” believing themselves to be uniquely conscious of societal decay, take it upon themselves to rectify some aspect of this systemic wrong – to kill someone who “deserved” it. Their methods are violent, for no better reason than that they cannot conceive of any other way to get through to people, and also because they have learned to associate active, masculine heroes with righteous violence. From the start, their misplaced heroism is bound to be futile: they are too much a product of their warped society and its prejudices, too consumed by rage, whether misanthropy or self-hatred. Toward the end of Dostoevsky’s Notes, the Underground Man writes of himself: “a novel needs a hero, and here there are purposefully collected all the features for an anti-hero” (p. 129). The existence, then, of these three anti-heroes is in fact a veiled indictment of the society which created them, a damning and urgent critique of a cruel and alienating world.

Works Cited
DeVega, Chauncey. (October 9, 2019). “Joker”: A harsh indictment of neoliberalism and gangster
capitalism. Retrieved from Salon.com, https://www.salon.com/2019/10/09/joker-todd-phillips-indictment-neoliberalism-violence/.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. (1864). Notes from Underground, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1993.
Kael, Pauline. (February 2, 1976). Underground Man: Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”. Retrieved from NewYorker.com, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1976/02/09/underground-man. Kelly, Mary Pat. (1991). Martin Scorsese: A Journey. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
Rehling, Nicola. (2009). Extra-Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary Popular Cinema. Lexington Books.
Sauer, Patrick. (October 14, 2015). The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History. Retrieved from
SmithsonianMag.com, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/story-first-mass-murder-us-history-180956927/.
Swensen, Andrew J. (2001). The anguish of God’s lonely men: Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Scorsese’s Travis Bickle. Renascence, 53 (4), pp. 267-286.

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