Bringing Out The Dead

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    Taxis & Ambulances Bringing Out the Dead, a comedy about paramedics in Hell's Kitchen, resembles Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver in a number ways, and Scorsese doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he invites comparisons, even demands them. Like John Ford making a western, he's telling the same story over again, yet he's not. He believes that the audience is smart enough and generous enough to appreciate what he's doing differently instead of fixating on the similarities. That's admittedly a tall order. The hero, paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), is an alienated loner who drives around all night while ruminating in voiceover about his rotten job, his crazy life and the lovely young woman (Patricia Arquette) he hopes to either rescue or be delivered by. The script is adapted from former paramedic Joe Connelly's same-named novel?a work whose atmosphere and structure are so strongly influenced by Scorsese's 1976 classic that it could have been titled I Love Taxi Driver.

    To further complicate things, Scorsese's last few films have been perceived as (1) interesting but redundant visits to familiar terrain (Cape Fear, Casino), or (2) sociological fishing expeditions that are as overdetermined and academic as they are engrossing (The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun).

    In deciding to direct Bringing Out the Dead?and to hire Taxi Driver scriptwriter Paul Schrader, a specialist in men-driven-to-the-edge stories, to adapt the novel?Scorsese opened himself to charges that he was out of ideas.

    Scorsese playfully invites comparisons and dismissals with his opening credits imagery, then rolls right over the naysayers and moves on. Shot one: Van Morrison's "T.B. Sheets" plays on the soundtrack, the wailing harmonica visually rhyming with the siren atop an ambulance, which rises into the frame and passes through a cloud of what appears to be steam. You can't not think of Travis Bickle's Checker cab making its Stygian entrance at the start of Taxi Driver. Shot two: a closeup of Nicolas Cage's eyes as he looks around, taking in the fallen world outside the vehicle's windows?another calculated echo.

    The remainder of the film is full of references to Taxi Driver, but Scorsese is doing more than trotting out familiar bits to amuse his film-geek fan club. He's recontextualizing his own style. He's asking us to understand how the basic building blocks of a particular type of American movie?the Scorsesean tabloid-gothic excursion, in which arty filmmaking meets street-tough subject matter?can be deployed in the service of a film that, tonally, is unlike anything Scorsese has done before. Bringing Out the Dead has enormous and ultimately crippling problems?problems I'll get to in a minute, problems that caused at least two critics I know to proclaim the film a bore?but a lack of imagination isn't one of them. Scorsese's latest fits into his body of work, yet it also stands apart?a neat trick.

    Frank is a classic Scorsese hero, an insomniac obsessive. (As Travis Bickle says, "All the animals come out at night"?including the narrator.) Frank lives on the fringes of his own existence and is haunted by an inability to act, to change himself, to be great rather than merely committed. The haunting is nearly literal: Everywhere Frank goes in Hell's Kitchen?his childhood neighborhood?he is reminded of people he could not save. It's like Holden Caulfield's dream in The Catcher in the Rye: a man hates himself for not saving more people, but the life he really wishes he could save is his own. There's even a variant of Holden's dream where Frank pulls dead souls through the pavement so that they can live again.

    Schrader's script hews close to Connelly's novel, retaining the book's three-day (or is that three act?) structure, most of its major characters (including Frank's three partners, played by John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore) and its overcooked considerations of guilt, sin and redemption. (To counter literal-minded critics who would protest that the city isn't a hellhole anymore, Scorsese opens with a title card telling us the story is set in New York in the early 90s?before Giuliani washed all the scum off the streets.) Like Travis, Frank is desperate for romantic love with a woman and doesn't feel truly connected even to his closest male friends. But unlike Travis, Frank isn't a violent man. He numbs his pain with chemicals?mostly booze?rather than ritualized "training." And he is afflicted by coiled frustration and doubt rather than coiled rage. Frank, unlike Travis, is a decent man fighting to hold on to his decency; he wishes to find a way to live among people rather than remake or obliterate them. Taxi Driver was about death?fear of death, sex as a substitute for death, fascination with violence and murder. Bringing Out the Dead, its title notwithstanding, is about reconciling life and death. More precisely, it's about admitting the inevitability of death without losing one's willingness to live life.

    All is loss. The opening scene takes Frank into the apartment of an elderly man who just suffered a heart attack. While successfully reviving the victim, Frank meets and falls for the man's daughter, who, as in the novel, is unfortunately named Mary (Arquette). They are bonded by their sense of loss. Mary lost her sense of community when white European Catholics deserted Hell's Kitchen in the late 70s and early 80s; she's about to lose her father physically after losing him emotionally in a series of bruising arguments over the years; like Frank, she has found ways to anesthetize her pain.

    Frank's three partners don't tell tales of loss, but their behavior suggests they are numbing themselves against some kind of pain. Goodman's character is a glutton, Rhames' is a gospel-preaching Jesus booster and Sizemore's is an ebullient thug who aims to intimidate the world. Frank's loss is more melodramatic and symbolic?more cliched, truth be told: he's haunted by his inability to save a young homeless junkie girl who froze to death on the street.

    This last bit, imported from Connelly's book, is a problem?and not just because it's a reworking of a device from Catch-22 that has been done to death and ought to be retired. The virtues of Connelly's novel were its immediacy and sense of detail; it read like a dispatch from an urban war zone written by somebody who knew the territory. But as I read it, I realized the writer was artificially superimposing devices onto his subject matter?the ghost of the dead girl, Frank's descent into drugs and mayhem and his eventual transformation. Connelly was cramming 20 pounds of atmosphere into a 5-pound bag marked "drama."

    Scorsese and Schrader attempt the same feat and don't succeed, either. This is partly due to fuzzy motivation on the part of the main character. Nicolas Cage's too-nice, too-bland lead performance (there was a time when he would have gladly played the Sizemore character, and brilliantly) doesn't help. I didn't believe he was going through any kind of existential crisis?at least not a crisis Frank hadn't been grappling with for years. And there's no visual correlative for Frank's changing psyche; the paramedics' hyperreal misadventures look more or less the same throughout the film's running time. It's the Apocalypse Now problem: when you start out in a phantasmagoric world with a hero who's already crazy, the film has nowhere to go dramatically; all the director can do is serve up a succession of striking but disconnected set pieces. There are only so many ways to photograph an ambulance careening down a Manhattan street or a nurse restarting a man's heart with defibrillators. At a certain point, even forgiving viewers are likely to check their watches. (The job of a paramedic is repetitious, but that's no defense.)

    Still, this is a striking and memorable film in other ways. It seems to me that Scorsese has a strong emotional connection to Frank, the decent observer-reactor surrounded by madness. But Scorsese has always seemed more emotionally connected to his conflicted Inside-Outskie guys (Charlie in Mean Streets, Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, Ace Rothstein in Casino) than to his thuggish men of action, whom he is excited and amused by but does not empathize with.

    Is Scorsese revisiting Taxi Driver territory to reinvigorate a career that became increasingly hermetic as his production budgets climbed? Maybe. It is definitely possible to interpret the title as a description of Frank's own mission to revive himself. He's a walking dead man, anesthetized against disappointment and death?a broken-winged creature of darkness that lives a waking nightmare. Scorsese (perhaps needlessly) externalizes this idea by making up the actors to faintly resemble ghouls, then photographing them in ways that further the comparison. Cage, for instance, is sometimes shot in John Frankenheimer-style closeup, from lower lip to widow's peak. The framing emphasizes his sunken cheeks, his big eyes and his dome-like forehead with its severely receding hairline. It's a death's-head image, or the face of a hero from a German expressionist dream movie.

    Scorsese, production designer Dante Ferretti and director of photography Robert Richardson?best known for his collaborations with Oliver Stone?pair up the book's inevitable Roman Catholic missionary themes with a purposefully medieval atmosphere. One homeless man glimpsed briefly on the street wears a hooded coat that rings his sunken, angular, thickly bearded face like a monk's cassock. The kingdom of New York is plagued with drug gangs that spill one another's blood like warring brigands. The paramedics?wandering clerics?gaze upon the victims with incredulity and anger. A destitute family lives on the highest floor of a rotting empty building, with no electricity, that must be accessed via candlelit staircase; they might as well be living in the belfry of some ancient church. Mysterious, bloodied characters drift into the story and drift out again?dark angels with stigmata whose pain has frazzled their sense of direction.

    Despite the battlefield joshing and the images of blood and death, scene for scene this is the most empathetic movie Scorsese has made since The Last Temptation of Christ. There's real tenderness in it. The Weirdness-of-Urban-Life gags are richer and more humane than in After Hours; the superimposition of religious themes is more surefooted here than in the hysterically overwrought and phony Cape Fear and the bookish Kundun. You can sense Scorsese's empathy in the way he photographs the nameless cameo characters seen for just a minute (or a few seconds) on the street. Cinematographer Richardson bathes them in his trademark ethereal cones of light, hinting at an inner spirituality, a holiness that exists even in the degraded and desperate. The camera often assumes the hero's point of view; it lingers over lost souls, drinking them in with nonjudgmental curiosity rather than the fear and loathing that characterized similar images in Taxi Driver. (Watch how Frank looks at a pregnant black prostitute, then imagine how Travis Bickle would look at her.)

    Bringing Out the Dead can be seen as an attempt to combine Scorsese's newfound skill as a large-canvas social storyteller with his youthful ambition to lock us inside a desperate loner's fevered brain. With better material and more focus, Scorsese's next effort, The Gangs of New York, might capture the best of both worlds.

    Framed Back to the 70s, Vol. 2: That's The Way I Like It proves a lesson that budding screenwriters should commit to memory: If you want to hook audiences, there's no easier way than to show us a likable hero who desperately loves something and dedicates all his waking energy toward getting it. The hero of this film, set in Singapore in the 1970s, is a young, working-class man named Hock (Adrian Pang) whose macho worldview is altered when he sees a ripoff of Saturday Night Fever. He decides he must become a disco dance stud. Ostensibly his interest is motivated by a desire to win a disco contest and use the prize money to buy a new motorbike; but really he just wants to shake his groove thing. He is inspired by the Travolta character, who steps out of the movie to offer helpful advice and encouragement. The film's so corny you could butter it and serve it on a plate with barbecued chicken, but it's a lot of fun. Writer-director Glen Goei keeps things moving along, and he's a whiz with actors. He also realizes that there's more going on here than a disco-themed hybrid of Play It Again, Sam and a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie. Deep down, the film is about the seismic effect of American film on Eastern young people in the second half of this century. (The hero's decision to switch his pop culture allegiance from Bruce Lee and kung fu to John Travolta and disco says it all.)

    It's also about how American ideas of masculinity and sexuality were altered by the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s, and how those ideas seeped into other societies via American pop culture. Disco was a liberating force that encouraged blacks, whites, straights and gays to share the same dancefloor. In limited but noticeable ways, the lure of the beat broke down the straight, blue-collar masculine prohibitions against letting oneself go?against feminized, or "gay," behavior.

    Goei makes this subtext explicit by detailing the complex relationship between macho Hock and his brother, Ah Beng, also known as "Leslie" (Caleb Goh). The character is a gay, crossdressing medical student whose decision to seek a sex change operation he can't afford drives a wedge between him and his parents. Over the course of the film, Hock goes from finding his brother bizarre and distasteful to doing whatever he can to help him be happy. That's an old character arc, but it's also an inspiring and necessary one. You don't have to be macho to be a man.