Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

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Directed by Martin Scorsese

Did you know that Nicholas Cage almost played Superman?

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It’s ridiculous, to imagine, but I think that’s only because Superman is a purely ‘good’ character.  He’s a challenging character to make a film about, and I guess what I’m getting at is I can’t imagine Cage playing the role.  That’s because he plays a lot of twisted individuals, whether they’re outright cartoonishly evil (like Caster Troy in the beginning of Face/Off) or simply lunatic in… well now I realize I can’t think of a specific role, maybe Con Air, but I haven’t seen that movie in sometime.

Cage is good at playing insane.  In Bringing Out the Dead he plays a paramedic who sees the dead and then starts talking to them.  He’s burned out, manic, depressed and high on something.  The film takes place over three nights and shows a part of New York that is dirty, violent, and drug and coffee-fueled, like a more twisted version of Las Vegas or just the same world from Taxi Driver (another Scorsese directed and Paul Schrader written film).

This film is crazy, and it’s all over the place, yet at the end it feels cohesive.  It’s like Scorsese’s 2013 film, The Wolf of Wall Street.  That movie was 3 hours long, and though there was plenty of criticism over the runtime, some people defended it, saying that the film is about over-indulgence, so it makes sense that the film would run long, as if it’s drugged out of its mind on itself.

I think the point is that Scorsese’s films completely live in their own world.  He does a great job of creating these different universes, often and almost always within the world we recognize.  It’s like the upside down world from last summer’s show Stranger Things.  It’s slightly recognizable, but the tone, atmosphere and even the people are so foreign to us.

Okay, so a lot of films “live in their own world.”  I know that’s very vague, but Scorsese goes out of his way to make it clear that this world isn’t your world.  He does this though different stylistic means.  Think about the quaaludes-fueled night in which Leo smashed his car in The Wolf of Wall Street.  In Bringing Out the Dead, everything is lit with such high amounts of contrast so as to make this feel like a noir-film.  And Scorsese uses time-lapse techniques to speed up the film, a trick often used to portray some kind of drug trip.

I should back up a little and focus on one thing at a time, but I feel like there is a lot to discuss with this film.  First, the lighting.

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There are a lot of shots like this one above.  Most of the film takes place at night, and Scorsese does a great job of making it feel like real life actual night.  In movies, the night scenes are often still very bright because you have to be able to see the environment.  It only matters that you believe it’s night, then the crew lights the scene so it’s possible to see everything.

Here’s an example from a recent film, Mad Max: Fury Road.

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This film was also very unique in its visual style, a little manic as well, like Bringing Out the Dead, but notice how much detail you can see in this “night” scene.  The nights scenes in this film were filmed during the day and processed to appear to be night, which isn’t something many films do, but they’re much different.

Okay, one more example that I just remembered, from Django Unchained:

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This is the lighting set up for a night scene, meant to represent moonlight.  There is so much light blasted onto the field, and it’s very unrealistic, but when you watch it onscreen you don’t blink an eye.

This is all to point out how dark Bringing Out the Dead is.  Night feels like night.  The blacks are too black, and the whites are too white.  In the Nicholas Cage image above, the light glows off of his white uniform.  This could represent a variety of things.  It makes him appear angelic, like he’s doing the work of God, which Cage’s character Frank says he feels like he’s doing when things go right.  The glow also feels like the beam of light from a UFO or just some sort of spotlight.  He’s on center stage.

Frank is a paramedic who hasn’t saved anyone in a while.  In a voiceover he tells us that the high of saving a life can sustain him for weeks at a time, but it’s been a while, and the constant deaths (particularly untimely ones) has been getting to him.

So the lighting, as well as the overall story, paints this portrait of a man with a halo, trekking through the dark depths of New York’s underworld, trying desperately to hold onto himself as much as he’s holding onto the bleeding victims around him.

We first meet Frank and his partner, Larry (John Goodman) when they help an older man who suffered a heart attack.  The man appears to have died, and his family is appropriately distraught.  One of them is the man’s daughter, Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), who Frank appears to take a liking to.  He tells her to put on some music, music that the man may have liked.  She tells her brother to put on a Frank Sinatra tune, and Frank discovers the man has a pulse again.  While the man is still almost dead, he’s not quite dead.

It feels like a heroic moment.  Frank came in, pronounced the guy dead and then brought him back.  But the movie doesn’t make it heroic at all.  They take the man to a small hospital with an overworked staff and crowded with drug addicts like it’s a Black Friday sale at BestBuy is BestBuy sold heroin.

The hospital staff says they can’t take on another patient, but they do anyway.  It’s only after Frank’s shift is over that he dwells (in voiceover) on all the people he’s lost, including a young girl named Rose who haunts him every night.  So despite saving a man’s life, he isn’t satisfied.  It’s like it didn’t even happen or he just ignores it in favor of the pain.

Frank has two more shifts, one with an energetic paramedic named Marcus (Ving Rhames), and one with what appears to be a coked-out paramedic named Tom (Tom Sizemore).

Marcus crashes the ambulance near the end of their shift, after both he and Frank are drinking.  This comes right after they deliver two babies from a young mother, the one Marcus holds survives, and the one Frank holds doesn’t.  When they go to the hospital, Frank tries to give mouth to mouth to the baby, something he told a coworker he had only done once before.  Then he sees Noel (Marc Anthony), a drug addict restrained to a gurney, begging for water.  This too is something we saw earlier, and I started to believe maybe we were reliving Frank’s past or he was reliving it too, possibly falling further into insanity.

After the ambulance crashes (flipping over in brutal fashion), Frank walks away, saying he quits.

But he’s back the next night, with Tom, the vindictive and aggressive paramedic who tortures Noel, earlier beating him up with his fists and then later hammering at him with a baseball bat.

While this is going on, Frank develops affections for Mary Burke, the daughter of the man he saved at the beginning of the film.  She is a former drug addict too (everyone seems to be doing or having done drugs), and he follows her to the “oasis” (read: drug house) of Cy Coates, a creepy mix between a pimp and a drug dealer.

In his last night on duty, with Tom, Frank responds to a call at the “oasis,” where Cy is impaled on a spike a couple floors below his apartment, having apparently jumped off his balcony.  He saves the man, almost falling over himself, but this life-saving moment still doesn’t seem to bring him any comfort.

Earlier in the film, about halfway through, Frank responded to the man he first saved (but who’s still barely alive) by administering CPR.  The nurses said it was his dozenth code of the night, but they keep bringing him back.  The man tells Frank to let him go (though only he can hear this as he’s not really speaking to him).  Frank can see the ghosts of the recently dead, and now he sees the ghost of the soon to be dead.

When the man is resuscitated, he curses Frank.  So later in the film, Frank removes the man’s breathing tube and lets him die.  No one realizes there was any tampering as he has now coded about 30 times, so it feels natural that he finally didn’t make it.

This is the moment that brings Frank some peace.  Instead of saving a life, it’s letting one go.  The moment is presented as a tender one, and he goes to Mary’s place after to give her the news.  She brings him inside, and she cradles him so he can fall asleep.

I was a little taken aback by how much what Frank did felt right.  The man wanted to die after all, right?  But then he never said that.  Frank only imagined it.  So when you take a step back, you see an insane paramedic who kills a patient because he imagined the patient spoke to him.

The end of the film gives Frank the zen attitude he’s been searching for this entire time, finally allowing himself to not be tortured by Rose’s ghost anymore, but it seems to confirm that he is insane.

This film has moments like the following: Paramedic promises man he will kill him, same man sprays blood on paramedics from blood-soaked dreads, drug dealer impaled on a spike, paramedic beats up dreaded man twice, paramedic experiences a drug trip and pulls ghosts out of the New York sewers, paramedic speaks to ghosts, paramedics drink and drive and destroy their ambulance, etc.

It’s an insane film, and it’s all presented through Frank’s perspective, justifying the insanity.  The characters around him are all heightened, as if battle-tested like the soldiers in the second half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.  The characters in this story have all been conditioned to live in this world, whether they are drug addicts for whom a trip to the hospital is a daily routine, or paramedics who have taught themselves how to overlook the pain and suffering they experience on a daily basis.  The difference between this and war is that the action occurs in the civilized world that they themselves live in.  The film, though, paints the landscape as a world outside of our own.  They basically do work in a battlefield, or a demonic version of Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.  There are familiar faces (Mr. O and Noel) as well as familiar landscapes (the hospitals, hooker-lined streets and drug addict-overrun abandoned homes and the ambulance itself).

This is en entirely different world, yet it’s the inverse of the world we live in everyday.  It’s the opposite in almost every way, and everything is about surviving the night, nothing more.  There is no long term solution, just temporary ones.  The paramedics dread responding to the nightly Mr. O call, having to take him into the hospital where nothing will happen and he’ll be back the next night.  There is no solution put in place to help Mr. O become a healthier individual, rather they know the cycle will continue.

The paramedics chug coffee, eat pizza or chinese food and struggle to sleep.  From Frank’s perspective, it feels like evrery one should have gone insane already.  That moment when Frank appears to be reliving his own past is reflective of his entire life where everything is the same.  Between the familiar patients and the stress of his job, he sees the same people at the hospital each night.  There are the same nurses, doctors and security staff.  Insanity is dong the same thing over and over again and expecting new results, right?  Well that’s what’s going on here.

The only difference is Mary.  I’m trying to figure out what she inspires in him.  She tells him how she hated her father and wanted him dead, but now she wants him to live, whether out of guilt or true feelings of love.  When Frank tells her he’s dead, she seems okay with it.  He feels like he gave her peace of mind, as life or death would be better than the purgatory in which the man was stuck.  There was a moment when Mary witnessed her father wake up from his valium-induced sedation and try to pull the tubes from his throat.  The doctors quickly sedate him once more.  Again, it’s about calming the moment rather than any longterm solution, at least in the world presented in this film.

Mary explains how much her father would hate being touched and messed with, he even hated the dentist.  So when the man tells Frank he wants to die, it’s probably influenced by what Mary told him.  She wants her father to live, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that he won’t.  So is Frank right to let the man go?

I’m not sure, but I think it says something about the health industry or at least aspects of it.  It’s not new to suggest that certain health workers are overworked and hospitals are understaffed, and I think this film tries to reinforce that idea that we could do better with public funding for hospitals.  Everything is immediate, and the only step taken to give a man “peace,” is to kill him.  Look, I’m sure Frank was a nice guy and still is, but I don’t want him responding to a call for me or a loved one.  Paramedics shouldn’t be as sullen, manic or wild as Frank or Tom or Marcus to a lesser extent (though his drinking in driving is obviously nothing to ignore).

So I still don’t really know what to make of this film.  It’s a story with people trying to save lives who instead seem only to make things worse.  I’m thinking of course of Frank letting the man die, but also of Tom nearly beating Noel to death.  Like how war films show characters remade in war, born of blood, this film shows paramedics remade in their own war.  They get excited when they hear about a particularly grisly crime scene, again like soldiers in films who are portrayed as blood thirsty and eager to fight.

Paramedics should only fight when they’re fighting to save a life, but the characters in Bringing Out the Dead often seem to start the fight with no one to finish it, no one except Frank whose idea of finishing a fight is to kill a man.  He finds peace not by saving a life, but by taking one, suggesting that he sees the world as a dangerous place where the only way out is death.

I still don’t know what to make of this film, but it’s worth the analysis.

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