Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bringing Out the Dead

In preparation for the upcoming Martin Scorsese Blog-a-Thong for the Large Association of Movie Blogs, the following is a re-write of the first Scorsese movie I ever reviewed on this blog. I've scrapped the first entirely in favor of this review for two reasons: 1) My opinion of the film, which was already positive, has changed considerably, to the point that I consider it the director's second-most underrated film after his satirical masterpiece The King of Comedy, and 2) because the first article was unsatisfactory on every level, a shoddy reiteration of plot with little interpretation.

David Bordwell recently posted an article -- to call attention to its quality would suggest that Bordwell (or his wife, Kristen Thompson, for that matter) is ever not at his best -- that outlined Martin Scorsese's use of both French Impressionism and German Expressionism in his work. Anyone who truly pays attention to the director's films will know that the "realism" label bandied about without a care holds no weight: Scorsese's impeccable eye for detail and character certainly add a bedrock of verisimilitude to his corpus, but even the exacting production design of Gangs of New York is interpretative.

This is relevant because, of all the director's films, none throws any pretense at realism to the wind quite like Bringing Out the Dead. Its first moments, a shot of an ambulance speeding through Hell's Kitchen that cuts to the eyes of its driver, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), being processed through numerous color filters as he careens through the city at warp-speed (a direct reference to the first shots of Taxi Driver, albeit played in fast-forward). These shots, and their existence as a frenzied update of Scorsese's greatest film, set the tone of the film: Taxi Driver cooled enough to use its protagonist's mental state to explore larger issues, but Bringing Out the Dead never leaves its tortured insomniac, never allows for anything but the slightest break for air.

It's fitting that, to date, the film should mark the last collaboration between Scorsese and Paul Schrader, as the film shares stylistic -- even narrative ties -- to not just Taxi Driver but Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ as well. The imagery of blurred lights, ubiquitous steam and cascading colors updates Taxi Driver with better technology and more money, yet Scorsese heightens them not simply because he enjoys a bigger budget but because of the lack of control Pierce has over his life; unlike Travis Bickle, Pierce is not the steady pilot of the vessel that ferries him through hell. Objects appear normally, after all, in the windshield; they only blur as you pass them. Pierce agrees: "The biggest problem with not driving is that whenever there's a patient in the back, you're also in the back. The door's closed. You're trapped."

Pierce himself contains elements of Jake LaMotta (his blindness to anything but his own pain and desires) and Bickle (take your pick), but the character he most resembles, after a fashion, is Scorsese's Jesus. Pierce cannot sleep because he's been unable to save any of his patients recently. This failure to literally save people recalls Jesus' doubt over his own message, which the people in Last Temptation begin to distort even before his death, centuries before His word would be completely corrupted by the Crusades and various inquisitions. Pierce, however, cannot seem to manage any sort of salvation: in his first shown assignment, he tends to a man in cardiac arrest who by all accounts is a goner. But he instructs the family, crowded around in fear and the mounting grief of lost hope to play some music that the man liked, as it "helps." Pierce than manages to get a pulse, but this "miracle" clearly had little to do with the Sinatra croon wafting through the apartment, its purpose merely to distract the family from their pain. The man, as we'll see throughout the film, didn't die because of the music, or even because of Frank and his defibrillator, but because Hell's Kitchen has torn him down too many times without killing him that he's not about to start now.

That patient hangs over the rest of the film, in a constant flux between life and death -- he flatlines a dozen times a day and is brought back each time. References are made to his "fighting spirit," but the darker implication is that he fights to die, not to live. He instructed his family not to call 911 and even locked himself in the bathroom to prevent easy access. Thus, this patient comes to embody Pierce's growing self-doubt and his troubling new ideas: "In the last year," he says, "I'd come to believe in such things as spirits leaving the body and not wanting to be put back. Spirits angry at the awkward places death had left them." Frank, with his twisted messiah complex, slowly kills himself for the sake of his patients, and his constant losses wreak havoc with his head. Suddenly, his ideas of saving others begin to lose their pull: "I came to realize that my work was less about saving lives than about bearing witness," he says. "I was a grief mop." Ergo, Pierce serves not only as a Christ figure but his own apostle, attempting to save lives and consoling others (and himself) when he fails.

The other reason that the ever vacillating man plays into the story is in the introduction of his daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), one of the more compelling female characters to grace a Scorsese film. Mary, like Frank, cannot decide whether she wants her father to live or die, having suffered abuse as a child yet still unable to let the man go. Arquette excels at these characters, broken women fragile enough to need help in this world yet strong and determined enough to boost others. As such, she becomes Pierce's focus, neither as a love interest nor (à la Bickle) a symbol of anything but simply as the person who may hold the key to his stability, just as he, a kind man in a horrible city, may give Mary the support she's never had.

It's scarcely conceivable that anyone could get by in Scorsese's image of Hell's Kitchen on their own, though so many are made to. Taxi Driver spread its hellish effect over all of New York City, but Bringing Out the Dead reveals that the expanse of New York's hell was actually a dissipation of evil. Hell's Kitchen concentrates that evil into a subsection filled with despair, and its nightmarish imagery is all the more arresting because it's so much easier to identify with Frank and his perception of this nightmarish world. The hospital where he brings his patient, Our Lady of Mercy, is dubbed Misery by its patients and staff; whenever Scorsese returns to it, scanning over its aisles choked with patients who outnumber the rooms, the cops who spend so much time dealing with the wounded criminals and overdosing junkies that they, in their harsh black uniforms, become as much a part of the hospital staff as the white-clad nurses and doctors, who are hardly more sympathetic than the merciless cops. The streets are covered with brain-fried, punch-drunk loonies who cannot be called gutter trash because the gutters are too full to accommodate them. It's such a terrifying microcosm that a dying man (Michael K. Williams) swears that if he lives he'll join the army "where it's safe."

As is fitting for the work of a paramedic, Bringing Out the Dead is very episodic; spread across three nights, each night pairs Frank with another EMT who also suffers from the constant stress of so much death and pain, and each night he travels through segments of the larger segment that is Hell's Kitchen. On the first night, Frank travels with Larry, who attempts to outpace his own breakdown by focusing on the next meal. He cannot eat the same meal two nights in a row, because remembering what he ate the previous night might also conjure memories of the trauma to which he attended. Larry would typically like to avoid as many jobs as he can, so Frank must take the initiative to respond to any call. By the second night, though, Frank is the one who wants a break, which he never receives as Marcus (Ving Rhames) zealously pilots their ambulance to every incident in search of "miracles." Marcus spends the night railing about the Gospels and preaching like an evangelist at the scene of an accident, but his constant flirting with the female dispatcher with whom he shares a dalliance undermines his piety. Marcus and Frank are even present for what someone insists is a virgin birth, of twins no less, but Frank cannot accept this as the miracle that Marcus does as one of the twins -- the one he handles -- dies from complications. Of course, no one really believes that the woman gave birth as a virgin, save the man who saved himself for her.

Marcus' outlandish personality -- as well as his hair, which manages to be both curly and slicked back -- somewhat recalls Screamin' Jay Hawkins, which is appropriate for what is by far Scorsese's most pop music-oriented film; Martha and the Vandellas, Van Morrision, Sinatra, The Who, The Rolling Stones and so many more make appearances, generally increasing in rocking edge as the film wears on and Frank's resolve wears.

So, by the time that Frank teams up with Wolls (Tom Sizemore), whose own frustration with his job has manifested itself in anti-Hippocratic rage against his patients (or victims), the soundtrack is dominated by such punk rockers as The Clash and Johnny Thunders. Frank teeters on the brink by this point, and what is most affecting about Wolls' outbursts is not how insane and violent they are but how closely they mirror the final stages of Frank's self-annihilation. Despite his constant warnings against Wolls' behavior, Frank's first major breakthrough comes when he screams at a suicidal man and offers to help the man kill himself, who flees in terror; "We cured him!" Wolls laughs, but the absurdity of the moment is undercut by the realization that it really is the first person we've seen who might be better off for Frank's intervention. Later, a junkie, Noel, who appears every night in some fit of chemical (internal and external) imbalance and incurs Wolls' wrath, manages to redirect Frank's own budding madness; Frank and Wolls catch him smashing cars with a baseball bat, but when Frank agrees to help Wolls catch and beat Noel, he ends up venting his anger by hitting a car of his own.

The dark comedy of this moment pervades the film. Frank, disillusioned with his role as a savior incapable of rescuing others, wants to stop his torture but cannot bring himself to stop self-harming on his own (a Scorsesian theme that stretches back to his 1967 short The Big Shave). So, he reports to each of his shifts late, or leaves early to try to get some sleep that never comes; his captain finally confronts him on this, but he's got a wild hair up his ass that transforms his anger at Frank for sloppy work into self-righteous defiance of the system. Frank does everything but come right out and beg to be released from this torment, but the captain interprets the rage as a sign of dedication and not only retains Frank but offers the "unlucky" son of a bitch an extra week of sick time. So many people return to Misery for drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning and brawl wounds that the head nurse (Mary Beth Hurt) knows many patients by name and chastises them and threatens to withhold treatment like a mother exercising tough love.

This lunacy adds to the warped perception of Hell's Kitchen, which results in some of Scorsese's boldest visual invention. The lights around the ambulance seem to blur as they're seen through the tears caught in Frank's eyes: he never quite cries after all, no matter how close he comes. The ambulance moves through Hell's Kitchen in such a frenzy that Scorsese films it from above, or with the camera entirely on it side, and images are often processed through the windows and mirrors of the vehicle, distorting if not completely destroying them. Just as Scorsese had characters glide in Mean Streets and GoodFellas to show how they perceived the places they felt most welcome, so too does he fluidly rush up the stairs to get Frank and Larry to Mary's father. Frank hallucinates a stoned dream of the ghosts of those he failed to save reaching up to him from a street pavement as he literally raises the dead, and a recurring image of a young girl named Rose, whose death set his collapse in motion, tortures Frank (this would of course be reworked and used again in Shutter Island). And few scenes in all of Scorsese's canon are as shamelessly Expressionistic (or bizarre) as his rescue of the drug dealer, somewhat kind and somewhat evil, impaled upon a metal girder below his apartment window. As Frank makes his first unmistakable, physical save of the film, the blowtorch cutting the girder sends up sparks. Almost romantically, with Frank cradling the weakened dealer's head, no less, Cyrus remarks that he can feel the heat of the warming metal, which pierced his chest. With such unabashed artistic touches, is it any wonder that the usual hospital dispatcher who sends Frank on these assignments is voiced by Scorsese himself?

Cage pours all of himself into the role, as the part could not work with any less an effort. His hangdog expression is perfect for such a downtrodden character; when he tiredly counters Mary's fleeting attempts to justify her father's past behavior as a method to make her strong to survive the city with, "The city doesn't discriminate. It gets everybody," his fatalism seems more human and strangely empathetic than cynical. That perverse humanism defines his final act, in which he puts Mary's father out of his misery rather than force the man to live with a micro-defibrillator in his heart for the rest of his life simply to sate Frank's need to keep someone alive. Searing, white light often highlights action in Bringing Out the Dead, usually when focusing on the dead and dying. It's an ironic use of holy light to show the terrible act of death, but then there's always been a certain contradiction between the horror of mortality and the hope of everlasting life it brings. By allowing Mary's father to die, however, and by returning to Mary, Frank not only releases the messiah complex that keeps him up, he also attains some of the holiness he so desperately chased, at last falling asleep in Mary's arms as Scorsese bathes in light. Travis Bickle's "redemption" was caked in blood, but Frank attains his by the absence of the red stuff that coats him everywhere else. As perfect as they were for each other, Schrader and Scorsese would do well to not undermine the chapter-closing image of this last shot, content to let it summarize their remarkable work together and to bide its time until people at last realize what they've overlooked.


  1. Superb review, Jake, of a film that I like very much. And you've done a splendid job of locating the film within Scorsese's filmography.

    I felt that this was the best comic-book movie there could be - both visually and tonally. And it's also a film of such gargantuan ironies. Truly remarkable stuff.

  2. Huh, that's an interesting way of looking at it. Now that you mention it, the aesthetic of BOtD doesn't look too radically different from the trailer for Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs The World, an adaptation of a comic book that itself reads like a video game of a comic book. But I think that this film is so sadly underseen, and it mixes this bold and hyperstylized look with some genuine emotion. I'd actually place it just under GoodFellas, and I'd wager that this film grabbed me in a number of places more than Scorsese's highly engaging mob picture.

  3. excellent review of an excellent film.