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Memphis Flyer Night of the Living Dead

Scorsese's disturbing All-Hallow's Eve.

By Hadley Hury

NOVEMBER 1, 1999:  Director Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead is a harrowing venture into the mad grotesqueries that are the daily work routine of a New York City Emergency Medical Service paramedic. The film is an unlikely melding of naturalistic drama, arch stylization, millennial metaphor, and deeply mordant humor, and not everyone -- including even some of Marty's fans -- will like it. But with his trusty editor Thelma Schoonmaker riding shotgun, and a caustically elegiac script by the master of mournfulness, Paul Schrader (with whom the director teamed more than 20 years ago on the classic Taxi Driver), Scorsese takes the viewer on a wild ride around the asphalt jungle that many will find difficult to forget any time soon.

It's not that the venue -- the chaos of urban emergency rooms and the mean streets that engorge them -- holds anything new for audiences weaned on television serial dramas. What resonates in this vision of the defiantly sloppy border between life and death is the fact that Scorsese, through the central character's search for meaning in his rescue missions, so hauntingly opens it out to become an examination of the value of life and the possibility of humanity in our society's overburdened (and, consequently, increasingly desensitized) social infrastructure. The job of Frank, beautifully played by Nicolas Cage, is to wade into the violence day in and day out and save the lives of crack addicts, gun-wielding gang members and drug lords, would-be suicides, illegal immigrants, mentally ill or alcoholic street people, and hookers. As he begins to burn out in his admirably dogged quest for transcendence, the film ineluctably begs a question of the viewer: Why should he (we) bother? With a crisis of generational illiteracy, poverty, welfare dependency, fatherless children, and violent crime -- why should so many of our resources go to repeatedly bringing back from the brink those bent on self-destruction, those whom some would say are dead, and dead weight, already? What degree or quality of living constitutes human living? Scorsese has created a disturbing mirror image, not only of one man's life in our cities' bloody trenches, but of our collective spirit as we grasp at teleological clues and practical questions of social survival.

Frank has managed to carry the repetitive horrors and stress of his work so long as he has been able to focus on the bottom line: He is saving lives. And even if some of his rescues in his Hell's Kitchen turf are, week after week, the same stinking street addicts or hopeless homeboys, he holds the pervasive sense of doom at bay with the selfless concern and conscientiousness of a loving brother or uncle in a wildly dysfunctional family; they may be lost souls, but they are his lost souls. In the nature and insistence of the questions it raises, Bringing Out the Dead is one of Scorsese's most overtly theological films to date; it could just as well have been titled My Brother's Keeper or The Least of These. Frank's problem is that "every death leaves a mark" and he has become an open wound from the relentless futility of his work; he cannot sleep or eat, and has begun to drink heavily as the ghosts of those whom he could not save, as well as the pleas of those who wish to be released, engulf him.

As Frank careens around in his EMS vehicle with a series of partners (John Goodman, Ving Rhames, and Tom Sizemore), Scorsese, and editor Schoonmaker create a hyper-real visual purgatory in which the dehumanized, debilitating squalor and the neither-living-nor-dead affect evoke a bizarre, but ultimately unsurprising, range of psychic defense mechanisms -- primary among them a sort of gonzo humor. It is seen appealingly in Rhames' character, who keeps his head above the fray by loving Jesus and preening in his role as a sometime evangelist and full-time ladies' man; and frighteningly in Sizemore's, who has crazily come to confuse his paramedic's mission with that of a brutalizing vigilante. (Both actors give assured, vivid performances.) Scorsese takes a big chance with both this black humor and the occasional riffs of visual lyricism, but after all is said and done, the gamble seems less obtrusive than necessary. This is a film no less about existential despair than any of Samuel Beckett's plays and, not dissimilarly, humor becomes one of the most basic necessities for an investigation of the physical and spiritual twilight.

One or two of Scorsese's cinematic motifs --- and even larger patches of the script, which bears the usual Schrader impairments of pretentiousness and redundancy -- are, indeed, miscalculated. (The controlling image of a young street woman whom Frank feels he might have saved is over-controlled; the sound track occasionally seems trivializing rather than illuminative; and the performance of Patricia Arquette as a young woman who like Frank is in search of redemption, though thoughtful, is rather maddeningly mannered.)

But Scorsese has used the unique talents and physical mien of Cage to fine advantage in limning both Frank's unassuming courage and his vulnerability; it is a moving portrait of a savior who, uncomprehendingly, uncomplainingly, is being pulled under. Cage and Scorsese articulate Frank's quandary more powerfully than Schrader's rather pontifical first-person voice-over narrative; Scorsese manages several reverberant images of the actor that have the hauntedness of a medieval saint or an El Greco.

If Bringing Out the Dead does not belong near the top of Scorsese's canon, it nonetheless reveals the eye and the hand of a master filmmaker at work, and, perhaps even more telling in anticipation of the rest of his career, it reveals a more unabashedly questing heart and soul. It lacks the almost neo-classical neatness of Taxi Driver's nightmare vision, and the technical and idiomatic integrity of Raging Bull and Goodfellas, but it roils with the same Scorsesian obsessiveness and risk-taking. As in his underappreciated Kundun, Scorsese can be seen here moving beyond his brilliant depictions of individual pathology, urban anomie, and violence, to a more profoundly poetic sense of metaphor -- and a much broader canvas, the shifting landscape of the human spirit.

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