Monday, August 5, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #71 - Bringing Out the Dead (1999, dir. Martin Scorsese)

"I'd always had nightmares, but now the ghosts didn't wait for me to sleep.” – Frank Pierce

 Martin Scorsese is well known for films such as Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Casino, Gangs of New York, etc. The list could go on and on. Unfortunately, when most people list off their favorite Marty flicks, there is one that is almost always missing: the 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead. Even though this film shares themes that audiences seem to enjoy under different titles, for whatever reason Dead gets left out in the cold. I’m here to turn you on to what is surely one of the most unique cinematic experiences you will have.
To begin with, this is the fourth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the first three being Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. Excluding some controversy with Christ, these are routinely accepted as masterpieces. So, why the disconnect this time around? This writer thinks it is almost entirely a problem of preconceived notions. Even before the foolish critics of the time (excluding an excellent write up from Roger Ebert) labeled it as Scorsese-lite, people were turned off by the film. For unknown reasons, the all-star cast, including Nic Cage, John Goodman, Ving Rhames, Tom Sizemore, Patricia Arquette and Marc Anthony, didn’t fire up people’s curiosity. A good chunk of this trouble could be blamed on the film Marty directed prior to Dead – the unfairly maligned 1997 epic Kundun. Especially since Casino had come two years before that, people were in a gangster mood when the screen said Scorsese. Between the relative dislike of Kundun, the fact that not many people saw or cared to see his excellent documentary that served as a journey through Italian cinema (My Voyage To Italy), and the fact that this wasn’t a gangster film, Bringing Out the Dead was near destined to be a failure.
But, lucky for you, DVD exists and you still have a chance to dive headfirst into one of Scorsese’s most visceral films. Nic Cage plays Frank Pierce, a seasoned paramedic that works the graveyard shift in Hell’s Kitchen, in the early 90’s. For those who don’t know, this is New York at its worst: a vicious crack infestation (called Red Death in the film), unacceptable housing conditions, and crime at levels so high it almost becomes satirical. Your average filmmaker wouldn’t put in all the time necessary to recreate such a horrible time. But for Marty, this period is the absolute perfect setting for a tale of redemption through debilitating sacrifice and pain.  The cinematography by Robert Richardson gives an addictive energy to this oppressive tale of guilt and loss. One of the best things about Scorsese is that he will almost never judge characters in his films. Yes, Hell's Kitchen is shown as the crack-addled, violent, sleazy mess that it was at the time, but it rarely feels voyeuristic or superior. The purpose isn't to point fingers, but to study human behavior. Many will say that this is simply a poor rehash of Taxi Driver. Those people are fools. The two films are certainly related, but never the same. Taxi Driver is a story of revenge and redemption; Bringing Out the Dead is never a story concerned with revenge. Frank Pierce is a man haunted by his past and crippled by guilt over the lives he has lost. In particular a teenager named Rose, whom Frank couldn’t save, haunts him as if a ghost. Frank sees her face supplanted onto nearly everyone he comes into contact with. He hears her calling out for help and asking why he couldn’t save her. Through voice over narration, Frank lets us know that it has been months since he saved someone. This is where Scorsese drops us into the story. Frank is at (or very near) his lowest point. He drifts through his night-to-night existence fueled by whiskey, cigarettes and soul-crushing guilt. The film disorients the viewer almost immediately. Within minutes, we are part of this fever dream existence that Frank is trying to sustain. We begin to empathize to an almost uncomfortable degree made possible by Scorsese's ability to pull excellence out of Nicolas Cage. 
 Although Cage had offered up some great performances prior (Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas), this marks the first time that someone could actually control him. Cage's normal performances range from vapid, blank stares to earth-shaking bursts of crazy. Bringing Out the Dead gives us his first performance that wobbles unsteadily in the middle. Without it, the film would've failed. The free flowing, unpredictable acting on display gives the film its shaky center, setting the stage for this brutal tale of suffering and the tension created from the line-riding is palpable. If a single line, either narrated or spoken, doesn’t hit home, the entire film falls apart. Scorsese wisely gives Cage a lot to do. We meet a wide array of people that all bring out some corner of Frank’s psyche that had yet to be exposed. John Goodman is Frank’s first riding partner in the ambulance. As always, Goodman brings an enormous energy and gets the film moving. We then get Ving Rhames at his best, as an energetic EMT who uses every opportunity to praise Jesus and deliver the Word. Last we get Tom Sizemore playing a man that can only get by taking his aggression out on whatever's around. Whether it's a crazed homeless man named Noel (a surprisingly solid turn from Marc Anthony), or the ambulance that acts as chariot to the hell that every night brings, Sizemore's character is on the verge of catastrophe at every turn. Along with Frank Pierce, the character Mary Burke (a slightly unenthused but solid Patricia Arquette), gives the story something to come back to after each vignette. Scorsese has been obsessed with faith, specifically Catholicism, since his first film. This time, he decides to be very overt in naming the character that Frank is drawn to for guidance, help and appreciation, Mary.  I shall now stop with any other plot details, because the rock n’ roll fueled energy that comes from seeing this film unfold would be foiled if more is revealed.
Moral of the story: why wouldn’t you want to watch a dizzying descent into one man’s personal hell, full of wonderful performances, a soundtrack that includes Van Morrison, The Clash, The Who and The Melodians, gorgeous, disorienting cinematography by Robert Richardson (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Casino), earnest balls-out direction from Scorsese and a brooding, psychologically probing screenplay from Paul Schrader? And of course we can’t forget – it’s a really great dark comedy. If I haven’t convinced you, here is a single quote from a better-spoken man than I that should do the trick.
Once again, this carnival of lost souls gives him the stylistic equivalent of an adrenaline boost; intellectually, Scorsese may not pine for the early nineties, but they're custom-fit for his perpetual theme of redemption through suffering, and the vistas -- the steam heat rising like hellfire from the streets, the phalanx of hookers and dopers, the whole vast detritus of the human comedy -- leave him rapt. Scorsese used to make movies about this world when it was right on top of him; in Bringing Out the Dead, he's serving up what amounts to livid pictographs from the cave of an earlier era. Not too much earlier, though. His point may be that there's still a lot of Then in Now.” – Peter Rainer

   - Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center

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