Dead Man: Bringing Out The Dead

What looks like being the last Martin Scorsese film of the 20th. century, Bringing Out the Dead (1999), exhibits some of the flaws of Scorsese’s ’90s work (Cape Fear [1991], Kundun [1998]) without any of its brilliant virtues (Goodfellas [1990]). In fact, that decade’s hallmark cinematic deficiencies are very much in evidence. There is a high reliance on speed, and editing syncopated to the rhythms of a fast music-track, regardless of context. So there is in practically every first-run mainstream movie. Most viewers, it seems, have come to accept as the going norm a film indistinguishable from the 10 minutes of trailers that have preceded it, or from its own.

There is a curious flaw in the conception of how the film overall should look and sound; a strange misjudgment of style found throughout, and noticable from the start. Bringing Out the Dead lacks a sense of proportion-a ratio of the kind that would have sharpened the edges of its situation and lent the crisis of the leading character conviction. As it stands, it is barely believable. The reason relates back to the marred logic of the scenario.

Frank (Nicholas Cage), an ambulance driver based at the chaotically-crowded Mercy Hospital in the Lower West Side district of Manhattan, is entering a guilt phase occasioned by his failure, over some months, to ‘save’ any of his critical patients-a normal enough experience, after all, of paramedics, and certainly no surprise given the nightly intake at the Mercy: junk, stabbings, chronic suicidals, psychos. But Frank’s inability to ‘save’ is only a symptom of his job-crisis, a convenient and visible excuse for a growing incapacity to handle the nightly butcher-shop of his work. So he is in crisis-phase, as we are told from ‘go’ by his own running voiceover: inability to save, inability to sleep, things “catching up” with him.

Not only by voiceover: every new job, every location almost, occasions a guilt-triggering flashback, to do with an Hispanic girl who worked as a hooker that Frank tried (and failed) to help, and who ended up dying in the very Casualty Department out of which he works. Just how is not made very clear, but it hardly matters since she is only present to get the ‘guilt’ message across and is never allowed to speak for herself (a silent ‘apparition’). In any case, we are acclimatized from the start to a crisis state as the normal state for Frank. As a consequence, this ‘crisis’ is made almost impossible to convey, either with intensity or conviction. Why? Because his job, as a matter of routine, is a crisis job: its tragedies and failures are part of its normal nightly workload. His momentary shudders of guilt and misery are every city paramedic’s stock-in-trade. The script itself leaves us in no doubt here: “We’re a grief-mop,” intones the voiceover about a third of the way through, “It’s enough for us just to be there.” In short, you don’t expect to be able to save or to help too many-not in a city like New York, which runs on grief-adrenalin; and certainly not in Hell’s Kitchen.

What this means, as far as the experience of the film goes, is that it is either impossible to believe that Frank had ever handled his job more ‘normally’, or to believe in his present ‘crisis’. We get no sense of the routine ways of an ambulanceman; and consequently, no sense of Frank’s crisis either. The one thing (the job’s normal state-of-crisis) short-circuits the other (his crisis in the normal-state-of-crisis) every time they meet; each effectively masks or obliterates the other. There has been a failure to logically think through the relation of the scenario to what transpires on, or from, the screen. For the illogicalities of the scenario, of course, Scorsese is not necessarily to blame; it is the work of Paul Schrader-not a noted bedfellow of logic and its relation to what viewers perceive. Still, as executant and chief player on the credits, Scorsese must take the chief responsibility. The choices of what to accept or reject were his.

It must be said that some effort is made to compare Frank with his fellow-paramedics, by way of getting his crisis to stand out with greater relief. The normal escape or defence mechanisms of parameds entail a degree of innurement that can often look like callousness when on a job; different degrees and different mechanisms define the identities involved. But those shown in Bringing are of an eccentricity and exaggeration that quite smudges the point. Compared to the callousness of Frank’s fat partner (shown at the start) or the prayer-screaming antics of his cigar-chomping replacement, or the bat-wielding eccentricities of the World Series/Law-and-Order fanatic with which we close, Frank seems quite.well yes, reader, it’s a word you can easily fill in. But my point is also that he seems morally rather pristine next to his co-workers; which to viewer-instincts (at least at a popular level) also means right. Once again, the abnormality of his present situation is being sunk out of view. In crediting it at all one is reliant on the narrating voice.

But, voiceover aside, how is all this conveyed to the viewer? By underlining each point with thick Expressionistic marker-strokes in fluorescent colors. By a high-octane rush of speed, color, fancy-angles, and sound every time Frank goes out on a call. And between calls, at the Mercy. And while parked on snack-breaks. Always in different combinations: at one moment in Keystone Kops fast-motion, at the next tilting the camera 90 degrees to give us a vertical street surface; now in a single continuous shot, now in fast, almost strobic syncopated cuts to a turned up rock-track-with a full complement of tint and texture filters to help things along. Each transition to a new scene promises a new circus of Cinema Delights in digital neon; one follows another, all through to fadeout. Does it result in a riveting ride of treats? No: the ‘effects’, after the first two or three, have no effect. Monotony, if not exactly uniformity, is the result. Whose decision it was to style the entire film this way I don’t know, but it seems a particularly unhappy choice in the present case. Anyone who has ever watched life-support graphs for any period of time knows that there can be no such thing as a constant peak, a continuous acme; any continuous reading means that readings have become redundant: the continuous line is mortality’s own signal. It goes together with the sonar pulse: when its beeps become continuous-no more beeps, no more pulse.

Well, the patient died under the present reviewer about midway through the second reel. Translated: the monotonously noisy f-x, having nothing to set them against, soon lose their perceptual figure; the ‘expressionist’ style, for being constant, ceases being expressionist and settles down to stylelessness, i.e. expresses nothing. The streetscapes, buildings, hallways, even the exact locality of, among other places, the Mercy, become hard to place, hard to sense coherently. This, combined with the zap-zap-zap transitional rhythms, makes ‘what is happening’ rather hard to stay with after a certain time, variable with viewers. Not that it is a case of ‘sensory overload’-but of a rapid decline into bored shutout of the kind that nightclub and amusement-park habitués are probably accustomed to, along with the suspicion that the noise is covering an emptiness. One settles back at a great distance, giving an occasional ear to the voiceover when one wants to know what is going on.

It is not only style and narrative that work against each other-but style and setting as well. The two quick blinks we get at the drab daytime West Side setting belong in this fireworks-carnival like plastic-surgeons in an AIDS ward. Other than transitional, they serve no purpose; most viewers wouldn’t even remember them. Never for a moment do we get a handle on how life is lived normally by the New Yorkers of the district. Our glance at the family on Frank’s first ‘job’ is Frank’s glance, filtered through a crisis-intent style that glances away too quickly, forsaking the means by which the magnitude of the ‘crisis’ might be gauged. And this is a real pity because, despite these misjudgments, there are some remarkable visual touches thrown in, which a greater fidelity to lived experience could have underpinned and intensified: a few of the aquarium-fish flipping on the carpeted corridor floor of the Mob-hit street refuge; and the sparks from the police flamegun suddenly metamorphosed into fireworks over New York’s nocturnal cityscape (still one of the loveliest manmade creations on earth). But even that bravura piece is fudged a little: as every New Yorker knows, it is precisely the drabness by day of the ground-level human spaces-the garbage in the gutters, the liquor-stores, carparks and building-lots-that lend this cityscape by night its great sublimity. And of that garbage, those buildings, we see practically nothing. What could have been (and was probably intended to be) a superbly Baroque moment of celebratory human transcendence doesn’t quite get there, thanks to all the surrounding noise. Like most films edited to look like their own trailers, Bringing is a film to savor (if you savor it at all) for its moments: its ‘now and then’.

None of this would matter if there was some demonstrable fusion of style and theme, style and acting, style and place, style with style. But no: the incoherence, and the illogicality, are patent. The only real question, again, is how much of this is attributable to Scorsese and how much to scenario-author Schrader. The trademark Schrader harping on ‘guilt’, Hitchcock references, ‘redemption’ at the fadeout (a particularly unconvincing one)-all are here. Did Scorsese, fondly remembering the collaboration on Taxi Driver (1976), take them as ready money, merely adding some window-dressing? The result-as with the Kazantzakis and Wharton adaptions-does rather look like a case of misplaced trust in the source-material. This reverential attitude has not served Scorsese well; to judge by the results, it has only been an inhibiting factor, producing work that is flat or frigid by turns. Keeping one’s filmic intuitions deadened during shoots for the sake of other people’s loves, hurts and urgencies goes against the grain of this director’s life-textures, his best works and strengths. Agreeing with something intellectually, and obeying what one’s body whispers to you, are two very distinct things and produce distinct results: one warm and tumid, the other-a necropsy.

That is how I thought of it at first. There is so much of Schrader in Bringing that one is naturally inclined to load the film’s deficiencies on him, castigating Scorsese for not taking a firmer hand with its contents. Not only to Vertigo (1958) but also to Spellbound (1945) is reverential homage paid by Scriptwriter Paul: a quite gratuitous shot down the long well of a tenement’s fire-exit stairs-most of us would be aware that stairs have wells-is followed by the discovery of the street-refuge boss impaled on an iron railing spike which, unlike that in the boy of Spellbound, has missed any vital arteries, but sticks out through the ‘exit’ side like a heart staked in an old Hammer Dracpic. It is here that the police go to work with the flamegun mentioned earlier, ‘loosening things up’ so to speak, while our live kebab-a neighborhood would-be independent in drugs and girls-converses with Frank, who unwisely grips his forearm. The flame does its work.and the railing collapses and dangles, just like the roof gutter in a well-known late-’50s film. Alas, both get hauled up-and this film lurches on. That makes three ‘Hitchcocks’ within five minutes.something of a record, even for Schrader.

And there are other Schraderisms: hints and contrasts of urban religion, the misty glow of light contouring Frank and Mary (Patricia Arquette) in bed at the end, in a would-be halo of ‘transcendence’-or is it ‘redemption’? In any case it is Schrader, and the pair come out looking radioactive. In fact, all this street/sheet, hellfire/halo, red/white business has a crudity of effect, a comic-strip simplicity of conception, that unmistakably shows Schrader’s hand. They make one think of the neon hosts in midwestern fundamentalist congregations-or L.A. revival halls of the 1930s, complete with their ‘miracle’-healers: a milieu famously described in Nathaniel West. (A quasi-comical ‘healing’ scene even appears in Bringing, with Frank’s cigar-chomping pal doing the honors.)

Among these Schraderisms, I at first placed two ‘visionary’ scenes: one a fantasized street-view of Frank’s while ambulance-cruising, the other a nightmare in the street-refuge when he collapses from exhaustion into an armchair. Both, far from being impressive, still less frightening, have a kind of burlesque vulgarity, even a comicality about them, which might have been effective in a different (or more believable) context. The first superimposes bodies onto the localities Frank recalls them from; starting from the bottom of the screen, hands rise, open in supplicating gestures; then forearms from the bodies we see further off, one by one, before each fades quickly out-all with the same open hands, and backed by Frank’s voiceover. The second one shows Frank and the Hispanic girl slouching along a snowed street, cuts of butcher-meat dangling from hooks in a long row beside them-an ‘association’ that plays on the resemblance of powdered snow to the frost in a meat-freezer. The girl looks drunk or stoned; both are dishevelled; the sound is muffled and echoed, and blood, frozen in its track, hangs like icicle-snot from the meat. Then droplets on the ground: the girl, revealed to be pregnant, begins to bleed uncontrollably, and Frank wakes up bellowing.

Both these tableaux have a Little Theater feel to them: hardly wrong in itself; but in their context, their respective placements, they jar. Once more, there is that clash of theme and setting-both drab and grim, if wilfully so-and style. That a degree of comicality was intended can be confirmed from the fast-motion mugging as Frank drives off with his last partner (the baseball fan). Yes, I thought to myself as I watched, here is Schrader’s pawprint. And then I remembered the talking desert-lion-“I told you we’d meet again!”-in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988); and other strange lapses of taste and missed effects, not excluding the ‘ecumenicities’ of the recent Kundun, a film for children. No: the weird mix of failed-effect and off-beat humor is not at all un-Scorsesian. In Schrader the humor wouldn’t be there.

A final point to be made about the film is its color. More exactly: its skin-tone. It is a very muted, almost monochromatic tonality whose most striking feature is its pallor, like something born and permanently living under white ceiling-neon-the lighting source, diegetically speaking, in about 80 per-cent of the film. Even under daylight, the characters’ faces have the same exsanguinated cast: another curious reminder of Vlad the Impaler in some of his popular guises. Everyone in Bringing needs a transfusion. Meaning? Well, everyone looks sick-and in the American cinema, how you look is what you are. “We’re all sick!” No marks for originality.

As for the dubious morality of being master over life and death by the mediation of a few tubes, and the even more dubious morality of deciding to ‘release’ a life-support victim by unhooking them (after first taking a few deep lungfuls of his ‘out’ air)-these are purely thematic matters, about which the film in any case leaves us none the wiser. The pros and cons of mercy-killing will continue to provide a convenient coffee-break on afternoon TV for years to come.

It is a little dismaying to have to point out the flaws in a Scorsese film. One realizes how much the director’s best work has spoilt us. But these flaws, as I began by saying, are not unakin to those of ’90s films in general; they are symptomatic in their field (the American mainstream), though admittedly in a particularly Scorsesian way. And chief among them is that lack of ratio which makes theme, mood and viewer-perceptions miss their junction. Like the majority of current films with some pretension to seriousness, Bringing Out the Dead fails to connect. Its ‘big’ moments are not felt as big; they are even hard to discern (which are they, in Bringing?) in a style that tries to make every moment a big one. That magical fusion of style, settings, and incidents that cannot be other than as they are is what powers the experience of cinema at its heights, when present. It depends on an almost lost art: that of calculating one’s ‘big’ effects against a feature-length norm of rhythm. It isn’t easy: it requires a constantly active brain, from pre- to post-production, with the willingness to work it; and taste above all. How many U.S. directors have either? They have over-cashed crackbrains like Cameron and his Mills and Boon Titanic, of the year ’98. Whence a munificently moronic mainstream drowns the arts.

So what I have called ‘fusion’ is absent; the cinematic peaks turn into the filmic flats. Wherefore the dismay: it happens that Scorsese is one of the very, the too few in the U.S., with the sense for proportion and the mind to scale the peaks-when he chooses to exercise those qualities. In the present case he has evidently not done so. The only fusion is that of Bringing Out the Dead with every other film playing or due to play at the cinema complex where I saw it. (A monitor-bank in the lobby kept cycling through excerpts.) On the actual programme, several trailers preceded it; and with two in particular Bringing seemed to blend. One by coincidence also featured Nicholas Cage, and consisted of nothing but staccato shots of high-speed cars getting injured, with intercut gibberish-snatches of ‘dialogue’; the other showed the same zip’n’explode staccato, with the Cruise this time, and similar intercuts of chimpanzee-gibber simulating human speech. Out of these trailers Bringing Out the Dead seemed to sort of grow; the indifferentiation was complete. By the style alone you could not have told, and I still can’t remember, precisely where it began and they ended. (The distributors’ logos are no help here; they recurred too many times.) Which is the most dismaying thing of all to say about a Scorsese film: one would think its identity would be unmistakable.

But “Scorsese”, like any living signature, is a thing constantly redefined by what it labels: a point too often lost sight of in discussing the work of extant auteurs. It is only to inextant ones that questions of an identity in their work make any sense, for only around a corpus does identity begin to harden into permanency.

This is certainly not a case for castigating the usual soft-option of working American directors: the money-makers turned out between the films they want to do (The Color of Money [1986] and Cape Fear in the present case). Bringing Out the Dead hardly looks like anyone’s idea of box-office, even on paper. No: what discourages one in Scorsese is the flatness and superficiality of his projects from the heart, the ones he did want to make-the deadness of The Last Temptation, the laminated emptiness of Kundun or the Wharton adaption. Gorgeously dressed as some of these may be, they force us to realize that Scorsese is at his (superb) best only within a fundamentally narrow range: that where the kind of personal knowledge only acquired from having been felt on one’s skin is at work, directing him, dictating every choice with the assurance and certitude of a sleepwalker. Instincts that strong don’t make the mistakes found in Bringing Out the Dead.