Friday, January 15, 2016

The book that inspired 'Taxi Driver' is actually a lot closer to 'Ziggy'

Arthur Bremer in 1972: This man thinks he's about to become famous.

Arthur Bremer's book.
Arthur Bremer, now 65, barely qualifies as famous in 2016. Start typing his name into Google, and the search engine will come up with about a dozen other, more popular autocomplete suggestions first: Arthur Bowen, Arthur Blank, Arthur Berzinsh, Arthur Brown, Arthur Boorman, etc., etc.

There is a bitter irony in all of this, since few people have gone to such drastic lengths to become well-known as Bremer did. Way back in 1972, when he was just a 21-year-old ex-busboy from Milwaukee with a high school education, Arthur Bremer shot and permanently paralyzed George Wallace, the notorious segregationist Alabama governor who was then noisily campaigning for the White House. Bremer had originally wanted to assassinate incumbent president Richard Nixon but had settled for Wallace when his preferred target proved unreachable.

None of this was done out of political malice; the mildly conservative Bremer simply thought the act would gain him historical immortality. His thinking was not unlike that displayed in Jessica Delfino’s 2006 satirical song, “I Wanna Be Famous.” Like the deluded young lady in that song, Arthur Bremer thought his name would forever be attached to that of a famous person, the way John Wilkes Booth's is to Abraham Lincoln or Lee Harvey Oswald's is to John F. Kennedy. Bremer's writings show him to be fixated on famous assassins, including Sirhan Sirhan.

"Maybe I won't be a star," go the lyrics of Delfino's song, "but I'll at least be famous."

For a few years in the mid-to-late 1970s, it looked like Arthur Bremer's extreme gamble had sort of paid off. His handwritten journal, recovered from his car after his arrest, was published by Harper's Magazine Press in 1973 under the title An Assassin's Diary, complete with a heady, sympathetic introduction by writer Harding Lemay, who largely portrays the young would-be assassin as the redheaded stepchild of our empty American culture.

Pop culture referenced him, too. Bremer was name-checked by Divine in John Waters' Female Trouble in 1974, for instance. Divine's character, Dawn Davenport, claims that she "bought the gun that Bremer used to shoot Wallace." The actual revolver was auctioned off in late 2014. Peter Gabriel wrote a song about him called "Family Snapshot," which ended up on the same self-titled album as "Biko" and "Games Without Frontiers" in 1980. And most famously, in 1976, Arthur Bremer and his diary served as the partial inspiration for Taxi Driver, written by Paul Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese.

But that was all decades ago. The Watergate break-in, which led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency, proved to be the immortal, history-changing story to emerge from the 1972 election, not the Wallace assassination attempt.

Today, as George Wallace's own name ebbs further into the past, Arthur Bremer has been demoted to a historical footnote. By 1991, when the conversation on Mystery Science Theater 3000 briefly turned to the subject of political assassins during the Cave Dwellers episode, host Joel Hodgson had some genuine difficulty even recalling Bremer’s name, tentatively referring to him as “Arthur Bremmel.” After 35 nearly incident-free years in a Maryland prison, Arthur Herman Bremer was released to minimal fanfare and a near-total lack of outrage in 2007. An Assassin's Diary, once a hot item, has been out of print for years.

Much of this can be attributed to a total lack of charisma on Arthur Bremer's part. Scorsese nerds will be able to find numerous parallels between An Assassin's Diary and Taxi Driver, including some uncomfortable run-ins with Secret Service agents, but Arthur Bremer has very little in common with Travis Bickle, the cabbie-turned-vigilante played by Robert De Niro. Bickle is a dark, tortured anti-hero with strong, albeit misguided, principles. His stint in Vietnam gives him an intriguing backstory. And the diary he keeps during the movie has flashes of poetry within it.

Bremer, on the other hand, is just kind of a clueless, hapless dork, closer in spirit to De Niro’s fame-obsessed Rupert Pupkin character from The King of Comedy. He's an utter nobody trying to become a somebody in the worst way possible.

Arthur Bremer and Radar O'Reilly.
Today, despite its foreboding title, An Assassin's Diary does not provide chilling insight into the twisted mind of a would-be killer. Instead, it reads like a very, very dark comic novel about a guy who's in way over his head. The author's spelling, dialogue, grammar, and punctuation are all atrocious, making the diary seem like a kid's sloppy homework. In his mug shot from the period, Bremer strongly resembles actor Gary Burghoff as timid, mild-mannered "Radar" O'Reilly from M*A*S*H.

More than anything, the deluded young man's diary is highly reminiscent of Tom Wilson's Ziggy, a comic strip that debuted in June 1971, less than a year before the bungled assassination attempt. To put it frankly, Arthur Bremer is the Ziggy of political assassins: a luckless, ineffectual doofus who receives nothing but shabby treatment from the world. That is, when the world bothers to notice him at all.

Like Ziggy, An Assassin's Diary is largely devoted to the title character's poor customer service experiences at various sub-par businesses: hotels, restaurants, and auto mechanics. Because this is a young man's journal and not a family-oriented comic strip, Bremer's misadventures also include an unsatisfying trip to a massage parlor, which he visits after seeing an ad in Screw magazine.

Bremer followed Nixon and Wallace on the campaign trail in the unhappy spring of '72, waiting for his perfect opportunity to strike, and the miserable road trip proved to be a protracted comedy of errors. In his diary entry for April 21, 1972, for instance, Bremer talks about what happened one night when he pulled into one service station and then another to get a tire patched:
A high school kid and his girl were there talking quietly. Kid seemed disturbed that someone would pull into his station, a big name place like the first, and disburbe his romance. He didn't have the patches! 
"If a service station doesn't have the patches who does?" 
"I don't know". 
"Maybe I should try a negligy store". 
He walked back to his girl in silence.
Previously, on April 19, Bremer had written of his unmistakably Ziggy­-esque experience aboard an overcrowded airplane.
A fat boring sheltered slob of a theology student talked non-stop with an equally sheltered & fasinated (always smiling) high school student. I waited 30 minutes for dinner & when I got it, last in the whole plane, we had turbilence & the "fasten seat belts" sign went on. Impossible to do with the dinner table down. I hurreyed & drank down half my coffee before it spilled over my pants. Got away with only a tie stain and an everlasting preduice against theology students & capacity plane trips.
Like Tom Wilson's bald-headed cartoon everyman, the aspiring assassin is plenty incompetent all on his own, without any assistance from others. In those pre-Google Maps, pre-GPS days of the early 1970s, Bremer had to find campaign rallies and whistle stops by himself, and An Assassin's Diary shows him to be perhaps the world's crummiest navigator. He spends a lot of his time hopelessly lost, sometimes even having to ask his hated foes, policemen and Secret Service agents (whom he refers to as "the SS"), for help.

And the guy is all thumbs when handling firearms. Once, in preparation for a border crossing into Canada, he secrets a gun so deeply within the bowels of his car that it cannot be retrieved again. And the book's arguable comic high point occurs when, while holed up in his depressing little apartment, he accidentally fires a very noisy shot he then pathetically tries to cover by turning the television to a war movie. Only the apathy of the landlady saves him.

That's one of the great, unintentional lessons of An Assassin's Diary: Arthur Bremer, hopeless though he is, catches America napping on the job. The young man's strange, jittery behavior should have set off alarm bells and possibly gotten him arrested at any number of points along his journey, way before he got close enough to George Wallace to fire a shot. But it seems that nobody was paying this schmuck the least bit of interest.

The book's pathetic postscript reveals that virtually no one had bothered to get to know him. What did Arthur Bremer's few acquaintances recall of the suddenly famous man? "Somebody else remembered," reports the epilogue, "that his mother had refused to let him try out for the high school football team." Apparently, the only way people had to define him was by negation. He was the guy who didn't play football in high school. Some legacy.

Had anyone actually taken a few minutes to get to know Arthur Bremer, they'd have met a young fellow who, while no Rhodes scholar, was capable of some piquant commentary about the emptiness of our culture. At one point in An Assassin's Diary, apropos of nothing, he criticizes Diana Ross for selling out to please white audiences. Elsewhere, he rants about the unfairness of American vending machines not taking Canadian coins. He routinely mocks hippies for the uselessness of their protests and demonstrations. He gives politicians, policemen, and other authority figures no respect either, casually referring to Nixon as "Nixy-boy."
Poster for ZPG.
And he even does a little amateur movie reviewing, too, making the decision to switch his target from Nixon to Wallace while watching Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, "fantasizing myself as the Alek on the screen come to real life." True to Bremer’s virginal nature, he’s more concerned with “the old ultra violence” in the film than he is with “the old in out.” He praises Michael Campus' now-forgotten sci-fi film Z.P.G. as a movie that "really hit home with people playing with dolls, paste-food, super-smog, etc." But he says that Otto Preminger's Such Good Friends is "probaly the worst picture he ever made" and "as bad as Vixen by Russ Mayer. Dog shit with a plastic flower in it."

In his humbler moments, Bremer sends a few zingers in his own direction, too. His tone throughout the book swings wildly from self-aggrandizement to self-abasement. Sometimes, he thinks he’s writing a book for the ages; other times, he seems to realize that he isn’t. He knows, for instance, that downgrading his target from Richard Nixon to George Wallace means that his story is much less newsworthy and may even be ignored by the foreign press entirely. And although he considers his diary to be an important historical document, he's often unsure what to put in it. 
"Funny," he writes at one such juncture, "I've got nothing to say. Have I ever said anything?" This from a man who, at an earlier point in his manuscript, expected his words to be as carefully scrutinized as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

History, as we now know, had other ideas about that. Now retirement age and basically forgotten by the country he tried so hard to impress, Arthur Bremer is out of prison and on probation until 2025. During that time, he is expressly forbidden from venturing anywhere near an elected official. That's probably for the best, even today. Back in 2005, when John Waters reprinted the Female Trouble script as part of a book, he gave his fans a little update on Bremer's condition: "According to a friend who was in jail with him for decades, 'he's still nutty as a fruitcake.'"