Bringing Out the Dead: Scorsese’s Tale of Guilt and Compassion.
“This is not about New York. This is about suffering, it’s about humanity. It’s about what our part is in life.” — Martin Scorsese (Quoted in Ebert, 2008: 320)
Barely making it into the top 100 grossing films of the year, Bringing Out the Dead (Scorsese, 1999) has never been one of Scorsese’s best efforts commercially as a director, making back just $17 million of its $55 million budget. After Kundun (1997) and Casino (1995), the director returned to both New York and to his screenwriting collaborator Paul Schrader, adapting a semi-autobiographical novel by Joe Connelly about a burned out paramedic, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) working the night shift in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Unlike The King of Comedy (1982) for instance, Bringing Out the Dead has never enjoyed a re-evaluation. Perhaps now is the time?
As with many Martin Scorsese pictures, the film owes much to his long time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker. His editor has shed some light on the film’s initial reception and why she believes it was difficult for audiences to connect with the picture:
“It’s the only one of his [Scorsese’s] films, I think, that hasn’t gotten its due, It’s a beautiful film, but it was hard for people to take, I think. Unexpected. But I think it’s great…. it was about compassion, and it was sold, I think, as a car chase movie. When I saw the trailer I said, “Wait a minute! That’s not what the movie’s about!” I think people were made nervous by the theme of it, which I think is beautiful. I think it’ll get its due…I can’t tell you how many people talk to me about that movie.” — Thelma Schoonmaker (Quoted in Lambie, 2016)
Set over three nights, Frank is paired with a different partner, each one more unhinged than the last as they patrol the streets in an ambulance waiting for emergency calls to come through on their radio. The story begins as Frank is at his absolute lowest ebb; an exhausted wreck perpetually haunted by the ghosts of the people who died under his care (one in particular, a young girl named Rose, haunts him the most). In voice over he reveals that it’s been months since he last saved a life, which is why every street corner triggers a guilt ridden flashback. Despite being skilled at his job, it increasingly feels like a futile pursuit even though it’s clearly his life’s calling. Frank repeatedly attempts to get himself fired by arriving late to work, which begs the question: why doesn’t he just quit? For one thing, his humanity means that he would never simply run away from the streets full of people that need his help, nor would he deny himself the eventual thrill and adrenaline of saving a life, which he says in voiceover is the “greatest drug in the world”.
Ultimately however, he’s looking for redemption. Nyce argues that ‘his spiritual craving is a desire to be released from guilt rather than desire for immortality or godlikeness’ (2004: 157). Frank has patrolled the streets as a shattered being for months, unable to escape from his culpability or end his loosing streak of deaths under his watch — deaths that only increase as the days go on.
“Help others and you help yourself, that was my motto. But I hadn’t saved anyone in months.” — Frank Pierce, Bringing Out the Dead
Comparisons with Taxi Driver (1976) are inevitable. The same low lives and dead beats inhabit the dirty New York streets and still, 15 years on (Bringing Out the Dead is set in the early 1990s), the city is presented as being in a state so dire that it seems beyond repair; where poverty and crime are engrained within the environment. Set at a time ‘before the city was transformed from an X-rated cesspool into a more PG metropolis’ (Rudolph, 1999), Bringing Out the Dead is a nightmarish portrayal of the city most synonymous with its director. LoBrutto even argues that ‘in look, atmosphere and attitude, the film spiritually takes place in the 70s’ (2008: 365), the same decade as Taxi Driver’s release. Drug dealers, gangs, prostitutes and murderers populate the wasteland, which is a cold, dank, filthy vision of the city, full of graffiti filled interiors and neon lit shop fronts.
Schrader’s script even opens by stating that Frank is scanning the cityscape while driving, apparently looking for “hidden danger”. This is much like Taxi Driver’s disturbed vigilante Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in the red-soaked opening of Scorsese’s 1976 film, who is similarly restless in his observation of the streets and people around him. Schrader also makes it clear that although Frank is no veteran like Travis, he is still fighting in a war and suffering the repercussions of all he has witnessed:
After World War One it was called
After World War Two it was called
After Vietnam it was called
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Frank Pierce drives an EMS vehicle for
Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, New York City.
He has been a paramedic for five years.
— Paul Schrader, Bringing Out the Dead first draft screenplay (1997)
Travis and Frank are insomniacs who wish to cleanse the streets, but while Travis looks down in distain at the people he witnesses, Frank wishes to help them. Where Travis uses violence, Frank uses empathy. Hoffman argues that like in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), our main character’s ‘capacity to save others pushes him to self sacrifice and renders him incapable of living an ordinary, comfortable life’ (2007: 141). It’s fitting that Scorsese himself provides the voice of the radio dispatcher in the ambulance, acting as Frank’s conscience and guide, reminding him that the city is full of people who need his healing hand. Frank’s third partner Tom (Tom Sizemore), is closer to Travis Bickle than Frank ever is — disturbed, angry and manic — genuinely wanting to rid New York of the scum through violence rather than care.
If Taxi Driver is about a man who believes himself to be the god-like hero of his own life-story, Bringing Out the Dead is the opposite. It is the journey of a person who must learn to accept the fact that he’s no god, despite his ability to save lives.
“What’s very fascinating …. is the conflict of feeling like they [paramedics] are God when they bring someone back to life. They have to get past that enormous ego and sense of pride to get to the real heart of what they’re doing, which is compassion.” — Martin Scorsese
Those who walk the streets and populate the manic and overcrowded emergency room are often recurring patients that tend to be unwanted drug users, drug dealers and gang members on the fringes of society. The aforementioned futility of Frank’s profession is expressed by the fact that many of the people who are brought into the ER are “frequent flyers” who will ignore the advice of doctors and find themselves back in hospital in a few days. Because of this, Frank sometimes struggles with the inner conflict of administering medical aid to bad people who may be responsible for deaths themselves both in the past and future, as well as those who will simply sink back into their self-destructive ways. In this sense Bringing Out the Dead is quite a personal film for Scorsese:
‘Although he grew up in a decent family, they lived in a neighbourhood that was less than a block from the Bowery, and he saw the derelicts, the dregs of society, that is, people who are waiting to die. According to Scorsese, because of the human misery that he witnessed as a child, he has been conflicted by between feeling compassionate for the unfortunate on the one hand, and feeling repulsed by them on the other hand.’ (Miliora, 2004: 119)
This sense of repulsion is characterised in pitch black humour by Nurse Constance (Mary Beth Hurt), a woman in the ER who is often seen chastising the regulars; questioning why it is that they should be helped when they will go back to their harmful substances as soon as they leave the hospital. Frank’s aforementioned conflict bottles over when he berates a homeless man after his failed suicide attempt, pointing out that the city is full of individuals who have been viciously killed and that wanted only to live. Often those who wish to die are doomed to spend their life in the limbo of the emergency room, while the different suicide cases that Frank attends to are always failed attempts. His death streak has resulted in him viewing himself as a person who witnesses suffering rather than someone who helps to alleviate it:
“As the years went by I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop. It was enough I simply showed up.” — Frank Pierce, Bringing Out the Dead
Bringing Out the Dead follows its protagonist at a time when he is starting to lose sight of what his job is for, and he must come to realise that everyone in the city deserves saving.
Frank’s redemption of sorts comes in the form of a woman called Mary (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of heart a attack victim named Burke who Frank and Larry (John Goodman) treat in the opening of the film. Mary is a former drug addict and someone who Frank feels that he can save, but whether he knows it or not she’s also someone who can save him. Mary is the closest that he has to a real companion after his first (and seemingly only sane) partner Larry quits and their quiet conversations together appear to be the only moments where Frank seems to experience any serenity. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson hint early on that this woman will help in Frank’s healing process when he is resuscitating her father. Here, the lighting shifts in intensity, which Richardson did in order to emphasize the dual nature of Pierce’s experience: “He’s burned out, and his patient is dying, so Pierce feels like hell, however, at the same time he is seeing a glimmer of hope in the man’s daughter”(Quoted in Rudolph: 1999).
Similar to After Hours (Scorsese, 1985), Bringing Out the Dead is a nocturnal picture, like Frank and Paul (Griffin Dunne) we rarely get to see the city in daylight and when we do, it’s almost transient. At one point Scorsese shoots the city through Frank’s apartment window, using a time lapse to quickly shift from morning to night — when Frank has to wake from his much-needed slumber and work his graveyard shift. Here, Scorsese shows us how Frank’s moments of respite are often fleeting, emphasising the relentless nature of being a paramedic. The urgency of Frank’s job is further undercut by Thelma Schoonmaker’s sometimes rapid editing, most noticeable during certain driving scenes. Here, montages highlight the individual parts of the ambulance that is Frank’s office: the sirens, strobe lights, handbrake, windows and mirrors which are often shot at distorted and unusual angles to bring us into the disturbed psyche of Frank. On several occasions, time is also sped up as we see the ambulance race though the streets in fast-motion as the surrounding lights and buildings become nothing but a blur as they whizz by. Scorsese himself rode with EMS teams for research and stated that he began to see surroundings in an unfocussed daze too: “I was only out on the streets for a few nights, so I can imagine what that must be like for someone who has been on the job for years” (Quoted in Rudolph, 1999), he has said. These techniques serve to give the film a hallucinatory feel perfectly in-keeping with the haggard mental state of Frank.
Hamilton states that the content within Schrader’s script was what made Scorsese ‘interpret the film with an MTV-like surreal use of heavy pop music, upside down angles and general wah-hoo craziness every time the EMS bus careened its way through Hell’s Kitchen’ (2004: 27). Scorsese and Schoonmaker don’t let these techniques outstay their welcome however. Only about a third of the picture takes place within an ambulance and even within this confined space they find consistently interesting ways of highlighting Frank’s battle. At one point Frank delivers an inner monologue stressing his desire for sleep while staring out of the window — here we are reminded of cinematographer Conrad Hall’s famous happy accident in In Cold Blood (Brooks, 1967) as the rain streams down the screen and gives the impression of teardrops falling from the eyes of the character. Time quite literally screeches to a halt when Frank witnesses the ghosts of the dead while sat in the passenger seat of the ambulance — “I’d always had nightmares, but now the ghosts didn’t wait for me to sleep,” he says in voice over. Often these ghosts roam the sidewalks and meet Frank’s eye, seemingly goading him into his intense feelings of culpability for their deaths. The slow motion serves to highlight the suffering he has been subject to for many years — his visions are protracted, painful and drawn out, just as his guilt has been. The fact that he seems to have these visions whilst in the passenger seat rather than when he’s in control of the ambulance underlines his feelings of helplessness and vulnerability.
Scorsese eschews the temptation to use shaky, handheld camerawork when Frank is treating patients, a technique another filmmaker might have employed in order to give the film a realistic, documentary like aesthetic. Smooth Steadicam shots when Frank and his current partner are making their way through a building to administer help to the next victim give the impression of routine and concentration, while Schoonmaker’s cutting highlights the intricacies of the paramedic’s duties that they must fulfil in intense detail. Such techniques are important in establishing Frank’s expertise and dedication to his job, so that we believe in his competency even if he’s doubting it himself. During scenes of quiet conversation between Frank and Mary, Scorsese made sure not to over stylise the camerawork in order to contrast this against the frenzied experiences he has in the ambulance and to emphasise the aforementioned emotional connection between the two individuals:
“I didn’t want to be distracting, he’s [Frank] a complete, utter spiritual wreck. He’s cut off from people. He has a great need for forgiveness, but first he must forgive himself. When you’re dealing with that sort of material, you don’t want to move the camera, you leave it alone.” — Martin Scorsese (Quoted in Rudolph, 1999)
While the three-day narrative does give the film an orderly structure, Roger Ebert states that there is no real sense of plot to the film, owing to the profession of its protagonist: ‘the paramedics days have no beginning or goal, but are a limbo of extended horror’ (2010: 316) he stated. Similarly, Juan describes the picture as consisting of a series of ‘interconnected vignettes depicting Frank’s life as a tired, tormented paramedic’ (2020: 142) in leu of a plot. It’s clear to see that Frank’s mental deterioration gets gradually worse as each day progresses, until the third night when he sees the aforementioned ghost of Rose with greater consistency; something which manically spurs his desire to save a life before the night’s end.
This three-day time span not only mirrors Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, but also ‘the time that Dante’s pilgrim spends in the inferno’ (Obrien, 2018: 167). Towards the end of the picture Frank even has to literally descend a set of stairs until he is well below street level, only emerging after he has saved a life. Religious overtones are of course common in Scorsese’s work and Bringing Out the Dead is no different, much of this is achieved narratively but also visually though Richardson’s expressive lighting which tends to bathe characters in an almost angelic halo at several points throughout the film.
This unrealistic lighting returns again at the end of the film, when Frank has finally found his absolution and solace. The redemption that he seeks comes after he is finally able to save not just one life, but two; the suicidal recurring patient Noel (Marc Anthony) and drug dealer Cy (Cliff Curtis), whom Frank rescues after he is impaled on a balcony fence in a crucifixion-like pose. In a reversal of these events, Frank’s third redemptive action on this night involves him freeing Mary’s father from his suffering by allowing him to die. Hamilton states that ‘the act is as much about reliving Frank’s exhaustion as Burke’s’ (2004: 27), something which becomes clear is absolutely necessary as we see Burke being violently shocked back to life time after time each time he flatlines. Frank’s merciful actions here are partly a result of his hallucinations, which have him being taunted by the bed-ridden Burke almost telepathically — who pleads with Frank to allow him to pass on. It also references a line Frank speaks when treating Burke for the very first time, when he implies that his resuscitation of some individuals feels like nothing but a pyrrhic victory given their still detrimental physical state: “I had come to believe in such things as spirits leaving the body and not wanting to be put back”. In accepting that Burke’s injuries are irreversible and that he will never be able to bring him back to his normal self, ‘Frank overcomes the temptation to adopt the false transcendence of thinking of himself as god’ (Hoffman, 2007: 154), and accepts that he can’t ‘reverse the course of the natural deterioration that is the essential fact of the human condition’ (Shary, 2013: 125).
The aforementioned, heavenly lighting comes into play in the film’s very last scene, in which the ghost of Rose not only forgives Frank but tells him there was no need for him to suffer through the guilt of not saving her. Shone states that ‘no Scorsese film before or since has ever finished on quite the same note of weary, well deserved peace’ (2014: 162) and as Frank finally rests in the arms of Mary, the blinding bright light illuminating the frame suggests that Frank is finally at peace and his mind untroubled at last.
‘With that sleep, with “mother” Mary’s presence, there is forgiveness and redemption — forgiveness in the lives he could not save and redeeming love that is grateful for his vocation, the self sacrificial calling that is his destiny.’ (Hamilton, 2004: 27)
Even though it’s a relentlessly grim vision of 1990s New York on the surface, Bringing out the Dead turns out to be one of Scorsese’s most optimistic films. It’s certainly one of his most underrated. Filled with genuinely funny macabre humour throughout, Sotinel says that this humour has ‘nothing in common with the sadism prevalent in American cinema at the time’ (2010: 72). Such sadism is indeed markedly different to Bringing Out the Dead’s message of sympathy as well as its clear distain, rather than relish, for violence. Damon Smith, writing on the website for New York’s Moving Image Museum says that Bringing Out the Dead does not need to be rescued from oblivion; it needs to be resuscitated (2014).
“To look at Bringing Out the Dead–to look, indeed, at almost any Scorsese film–is to be reminded that film can touch us urgently and deeply.” — Roger Ebert (316: 2010)
Originally published at https://www.dialmformovies.co.uk on October 29, 2017.
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