Friday, February 12, 2010

Revisiting 1999: The Top Ten Films of the Year, #2 --- Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese)

Here's what I've covered so far...

The Top 10 Films of 1999:
5- The Insider (Michael Mann)
4- Three Kings (David O. Russell)
3- Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)

In a decade (specifically the years 1998 and 1999) most memorable for the new wave of American filmmakers, Martin Scorsese reminded all of us that even though the kids (Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell) may be sitting at the adult table, this old master won't be relinquishing his seat at the head anytime soon. Bringing Out the Dead is one of Scorsese's most memorable and manic pictures; filled with countless energy and the director's particular élan that reminded me of his 70's films that introduced the world to a crazy actor named DeNiro, needle drops, and a new way of looking at editing and camera movement. I admire a lot of Scorsese's films of the mid-80's (After Hours, King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ) and early 90's (Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Casino), but it seems like Bringing Out the Dead is (arguably) his most energetic film since the 70's, and (again arguably) his most misunderstood and underrated film of the past 20 years.

The film is a manic two hours of smash cuts, zip pans, crazy tracking shots, an energetic soundtrack, and crazy performances…surprisingly not by Nicolas Cage. Cage gets a bit batty in some scenes as the overworked Frank, but for the most part he dials it down here as he plays a weary paramedic who is haunted by a pregnant teenager that died on his call. Throughout the night he rides with three different partners (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore), each crazier than the last. Scorsese and his screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) decide to script the film with any "real" plot, as the paramedics often have no real beginning or end to their long days on duty. This tactic works well in making us not just feel the craziness of the job, but also Cage's weariness as he is often bathed in shadows and donned with makeup that makes his eyes look sunken in.

Like any good Schrader/Scorsese collaboration the film is rich with religious allegory (the number three is prevalent as Frank has three co-pilots – or personalities – and we follow Frank through three days of his life, each inhabited by a different partner; and Frank befriends a drug addict named Mary, played by Patricia Arquette, who is shot in the Madonna pose at the end of the film comforting Frank), and one can't help but think that the writer and director aren't trying to evoke the same feeling they did with another film of theirs that took place in dingy streets of New York City, Taxi Driver. Like that film Bringing Out the Dead also has its lead actor narrate the story and lead the viewer through the streets of Hell's Kitchen, giving us an inventory of the destitute and hopelessness that inhabit the streets. Frank is like the river man, ferrying people to hell. However, even though the similarities are there, Schrader himself stated that the film wasn't exactly a sequel to Taxi Driver but more of a "bookend".

The aesthetic is typical Scorsese: harsh lighting, sped-up film, disorienting editing techniques (this is some of the best editing his longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker has done), and ethereal scenes that appropriately displace the viewer because the characters often don't know what's going to happen next. One of my favorite ethereal moments is where Frank, after taking some drugs, hallucinates that he is helping all of the ghosts of the people he's seen die rise up from under the ground.  As that scene ends Scorsese then gives us a drug-induced flashback to the one person Frank couldn't save, the aforementioned pregnant teenager Rose.  Scorsese employs a neat trick here where he films the scene backwards so it looks like the snow is fluttering towards the sky, instead of falling on the ground.  I couldn't help but think of James Joyce's "The Dead" during this scene, and Scorsese is obviously going for the same kind of effect (just in reverse): as Frank tries to save her life he is trying reverse death, hence the "backwards" snow.




In another one of my very favorite moments Frank is sitting next to Mary's dad who keeps dying but is being ordered by the family to remain "alive" because they want to "believe in miracles", even though it would make more sense to let the man pass on without the pain of having to be shocked back to life.  Frank can see that the man doesn't want to live anymore and to make things worse he begins to hear the man talk to him telling him to quit resurrecting him with the defibrillator.  Frank has had enough and seeks to ease Mary's pain that comes with waiting for such a miracle.  When Frank looks at her father one last time (Scorsese evokes another literary master who wrote about death, Dylan Thomas, by giving the scene a green hue to it) he finally lets him go in a scene of great power. Scorsese does something very subtle at first in this scene that compounds on the powerful moment: he dims the lighting on the old man and keeps the same lighting in tact on Frank. It's a masterful way of shooting someone's passing on, and at first I didn't quite notice it until I realized the scene had gotten darker, but when I went back and watched it again you could see Scorsese slowly dimming the lighting in the scene. It's a great effect that reminded me of the superimposed zoom he did in Goodfellas where Liotta and DeNiro are talking to each other in a diner and at first the scene just seems kind of "off", but then we realize that the characters are staying in the same shot in the foreground, but outside in the background the image is being zoomed in. It's moments like these that make Scorsese the king.

Bringing Out the Dead is the embodiment of what made 1999 such a memorable year. The film is teeming with energy. It's a joy to watch because like Goodfellas we're never quite sure where the camera is taking us and we're almost always energized by the music that accompanies each scene. The film has appropriately manic performances delivered by Tom Sizemore and Ving Rhames (there's a great scene where Rhames "resurrects" someone) and one of the better performances by Nicolas Cage as a man who clearly is burnt out and tired of a job he took because he thought he was going to be saving lives, not losing them. Scorsese shows Frank and his partners as glorified taxi drivers at times, and at other times they play a role that is more "consoler" than "life saver"; and that's what fascinated me about the film: it gave me a glimpse (a heavily stylized glimpse, but still a glimpse) into the night-to-night operations (the film is based on a book by Joe Connelly who was a NYC ambulance driver) of a profession I knew nothing about. It's one of Scorsese's most entertaining pictures, and I think it's a crime that it often goes forgotten when people discuss the great films of the master's oeuvre. It's the last great film Scorsese has made, and even though I know he has another great one in him, nothing has come close to the energy of Bringing Out the Dead.

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  1. I love this film, and I love the way its directed. I hate myself for not having seen it earlier just because it was a film about paramedics!

    I never thought I would be enjoying a film about paramedics so much! My favorite scene is the one with Ving Rhames pretending to be a preacher...awesome sequence!

  2. Another excellent choice in what appears to be an excellent list (although mine wouldn't include the Limey and Magnolia would be number one). This is easily one of Scorsese's most underrated movies although every Scrosese movie that isn't universally hailed could be classified as one of his most underrated movies if you see what I'm saying. I think a lot of people were turned off by the subject matter, the unusualy approach to the directing and, sad to say, Nicholas Cage. However when you look closely this is very much a Scorsese movie and follows very closely to what he was trying to explore in Taxi Driver and After Hours.

    Anyway, great post to a great movie. Can't wait to see what number one could be.

  3. "Don't make me take off my sunglasses!" heh, I love that guy in the film.

    This is a fantastic post and a potent reminder of just what a great and underrated film this is. It's weird, I sometimes forget about this one even though I enjoy it every time I watch it and I guess because it is not as discussed or as beloved as a lot of other Scorsese films which is a damn shame.

    I would also point out that Scorsese's use of music is as fantastic as ever with the high point, for me, being the manic drive through the streets to "Janie Jones" by The Clash, including a great shot of Cage's ambulance flying through the streets but shot upside down! Very cool indeed.

  4. TFC:

    I love the scene you're talking about with Rhames. I always get a chuckle out of "RISE UP...I BE BANGIN'!"

    Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Mike:

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Great to have you here and a part of the discussion. I agree that this movie seems to have gotten lost in its own advertising...either people didn't want to see a movie about NYC paramedics or they didn't want to see Nicolas Cage in a serious movie (remember Bringing Out the Dead was on the heels of films like Face/Off and The Rock). I just don't think the studio knew how to sell this movie to the masses. It's too bad because I think it's a hundred times better than the stuff Scorsese has been getting tons of credit for lately, specifically The Departed.

    You're right too about the close parallels to Taxi Driver. Like I mentioned in the piece here Schrader called this film a "bookend" to his classic.

    Thanks again for stopping by and commenting!

  6. J.D.:

    Yeah, the sunglasses guy is great. There's little bits of humor like that and the aforementioned "resurrection" scene with Ving Rhames sprinkled thoruhgout this dark movie. It's a nice balance.

    And yes...the music in this film is some of the best in any Scorsese picture. I love the use of that The Clash song also. One of the best moments of the movie and a perfect example of the manic and unpredictable nature of the film's aesthetic.

    Thanks as always for stopping by, J.D.

  7. It astounds me that this film got so little appreciation on its original release (and is still undervalued now) while 'The Departed', with its tired retreads of tropes, mise en scenes and musical cues that Scorsese had done better twenty years ago was rewarded with Oscar glory.

  8. I was never much of a fan of this film, I'm sorry to say, though naturally I love the director deliriously and appreciate the effort. But no, in response to what Neil Fulwood says above, I feel THE DEPARTED is a far better film than BRINGING OUT THE DEAD. But I think I previously broached this with you Kevin, and your position is superlatively presented. It appears most are in agreement too.

  9. Neil:

    I completely agree with you. I think that the film is his King of Comedy or After Hours of his post-Goodfellas career.

    Thanks for the comment.

  10. Sam:

    Thanks for stopping by. As always it's great to see you here. I remember you saying you didn't like this one, but I don't recall what specifically bothered you about it. Also, for the record I quite liked The Departed I just thought his Best Director Oscar was more of a lifetime achievement award...but no complaints from me. I'm glad he finally got one...I just thought it was ironic that it was for one of his "lesser" films that I don't even see as being on par with some of his more passable films like Cape Fear. Aesthetically arresting? Sure, what Scorsese picture isn't...but I think the universal praise for The Departed was a bit much.

    Anyway...I'd love to hear your thoughts on this film...and I can't wait for next weekends MMD because I'm sure you'll be seeing Shutter Island opening weekend. I know I will be! Talk to ya later, Sam.