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Bringing Out the Dead: A Pandemic Dialogue

Two fans of Martin Scorsese's 1999 urban thriller talk about its relevance to the pandemic.

Scout Tafoya: Grief has no fixed interval. It can last a few minutes, a few hours, years, your whole life. Every trauma has its own rhythm and pace, and without warning sometimes we can look back and see that we’ve been knee-deep in a swamp of the stuff for weeks now without realizing it. Though in hindsight it does tend to explain our compulsive behavior during these periods. Eating the worst food, listening to the music that tends to hit like a syringe in the most sensitive parts of our insides, and watching the same movies over and over again. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic (which as of this writing, is still killing people), people reached for art in a way that they usually did during particularly traumatic episodes because well, this was one. A shared yet distinctly horrifying traumatic episode suffered by everyone in different ways. 

I found myself wanting to re-visit two kinds of movies: the ones that provide a kind of easy comfort and the ones that seemed to be waiting for me in the haze of despair and lethargy. Movies that were already living in the season of depression that descended on me. I never left the house, I didn’t have any physical exercise, I barely had the energy to carry on conversations, and I watched two kinds of movie: George A. Romero’s "Day of the Dead" and Dean Devlin’s "Geostorm." I wanted to feel bad, or I wanted to feel nothing. You do realize some things about yourself and about the things you prize from art (or “art”) when the ordinariness of life becomes like an oppressive humidity. I wanted movies that recognized I was in pain whether by leapfrogging over my emotions to raw, stupid spectacle or the ones that took for granted I’d already divined the true pain of existence and were reflecting it back to me while accepting some of my pain as their own. 

If you wanted to think of a movie that really seems to feel, impossible as that is, I’d nominate "Bringing out the Dead," starring a sleepless (and almost never-better) Nicolas Cage as emergency medicine technician Frank Pierce. His job it is to absorb people’s pain as he ferries them from every bruised corner of New York (rendered here in the neon of emergency vehicles and the spasmodic motion of its dying and drug addicted citizenry, like a game of Operation with a real bleeding corpse beneath the fingers of children) to a hospital ringing with the horrifying sound of indifference. Phone calls with lawyers and aggrieved nurses, patients screaming, machines beeping and buzzing, sick men's final breaths wheezing out of them. And that’s before Cage starts hearing the voices of the dying in his head. He begs to be fired but his boss won’t oblige him; at times it’s like they’re having different conversations entirely, like some Barthes-ian Marx Bros routine. His life is a nightmare, and it’s one I’ve always felt more like a memory than a movie I saw. 

Willow, I understand you watched this during quarantine with some regularity. What did it give you? Why wouldn’t it leave your thoughts?

Willow Maclay: Like you I spent the vast majority of the past year and a half watching films that asked little of me, or genuinely reflected back the feeling of our current state. I tried to give myself viewing projects to stay focused, and some of these worked like revisiting much of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography and finally digging into "The Sopranos," which I loved, but with most of these commitments I let them fall away, because I didn’t have the mental capacity to give myself to them in the way that I’d like. During this same period I rewatched Scorsese’s "Bringing Out the Dead," and I kept coming back to it again and again, because it was the only movie that made sense. 

This is a picture that glides across the less-trod streets of New York as if it were a river of death. Nicolas Cage plays a character somewhere between a guardian angel and a grim reaper. Because this is Scorsese with a script from Paul Schrader, the movie was considered as something of a b-side to their previous collaboration "Taxi Driver" (1976) upon release, and to this day it still hasn’t quite found its audience in a way that a lot of deeper cuts from Scorsese have. "Bringing Out the Dead" is only comparable to "Taxi Driver" in a skeletal sense, because this is not a movie of self-destruction or even alienation, but one that is painfully human. 

The weary exhaustion of Cage’s worn-out eyes tells us he is a man cursed with too much empathy for his own good. What he does with his face in this movie felt to me like a mirror of how everyone I knew felt during the height of the pandemic, because he’s seen too much death, and knows deep down he’s powerless in some regards. Cage plays Frank Pierce like someone who can see the in-between where the difference between ghost and man is thin, and Scout, the world has filled up with ghosts in the past year and a half.

We’re all going to have a bit of Frank Pierce with us long after we get past this pandemic. We keep hearing the phrase “get back to normal” from those in power and those in the medical community, but I’m not sure that’s possible. We’re going to carry with us the wounds of having lived on the precipice of a potential extinction event, and even while writing that very phrase, I’m still not sure that won’t happen when we consider how this virus mutates. Frank Pierce is haunted by those he couldn’t save, and he hears the voices of those who he did “save” who are then hooked up to ventilators and machines to keep them alive. 

"Bringing Out the Dead" is so stricken with survivor’s guilt amid all the death rattle that being alive makes less sense than being dead, and strangely enough, I found that comforting. While rewatching it so many times I wondered if the only real afterlife is how we hang around in the memories of those who are still around, and while I was very fortunate not to lose anyone close to me last year, I experienced my fair share of close calls. 

Scout, having lived in New York during the pandemic, do you think this movie replicates the mood of having been through the worst of it and surviving? And what do you think of its specificity as a New York clouded in death through the eyes of Nic Cage?

ST: Not to overdramatize my own existence the last year but the feeling of New York during the pandemic was absolutely similar. The truly enervating part was, you’d look out the window and just see the same empty street, so you'd chance a walk around the block, and there’s the ambulance carting someone away. "Contagion"'s depiction of the eerie calm of living during the “fall” of a civilization is, I found, largely accurate. There was no looting, there wasn’t violence, it was just silence punctuated occasionally by some ghoulish sight out of a Brueghel canvas. "Bringing Out The Dead" certainly gets that right about New York. It’s a place where a million “normal” things happen every minute but if you look down the wrong alley you’ll see something medieval in its peculiarity and primitive desperation. Being locked away from it, hearing every day about an obscene death toll and also seeing people walk around without masks on? It made you feel like you were going mad. 

Of course the New York of Martin Scorsese is not everyone’s New York. In "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" it’s like an open wound, a sweltering, festering nightmare. A place only the criminally deranged seem fit to occupy. By the '90s it was clear how those people had just become an underclass screaming for someone to recognize that they existed, same as the rich and powerful who’d “cleaned it up.” Now everyone just sort of pretends all that’s over and that everyone is just a gleeful participant in a new economy. That’s a lie, but it’s too late to change things. We just have to wait for the inevitable crash when the city is nothing but the extremely poor freelancer class firm in their belief that they’ll become rich tomorrow, and the scamming, scheming pornographically wealthy giving them the false belief all the work everyone does for them is worth it. Everyone’s a winner and nobody sleeps. 

"Bringing Out The Dead" is a movie that still captures what it feels like to know you’re trapped here. Cage’s performance is among the most relatable he’s ever given, someone who sees only suffering and tries to help but knows he can only do so much. Some people are beyond help and some people don’t want it. Cage cuts a figure not unlike Conrad Veidt as the sleepwalker in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," his fate not his own, doomed to tramp through life at someone else’s behest, whether it’s the ghosts of the victims he couldn’t save, the other drivers who keep threatening to get him killed, his boss, or simply the patients he has to save. He is compelled like a puppet to go through the motions of his job, and even on his off-hours he can’t help but check in on Patricia Arquette, who is waiting for news of their dead loved ones. Death is everywhere. 

As you said above, that’s how it feels. I didn’t lose anyone to Covid but before the pandemic struck I had just had a four funeral six month stretch. So reeling from my own brushes with the deaths of loved ones, and to suddenly be assailed by news that more people were dying every day than had ever happened in our lives … it was overwhelming. It was exhausting. I couldn’t sleep anymore. Every phone call was a series of sighs and a sort of apology for having no news to share. 

It did make you feel like Cage’s Frank Pierce. You want to help, to do something, but you can’t. The monstrous New York of "Bringing Out The Dead" feels like a waiting room, the antechamber to the afterlife. I remember it from my childhood visits to the city when I still lived in Pennsylvania. Or maybe the movie left such a strong impression that it’s now what I remember. You can still reach it, though it’s absent the harsh beauty of Robert Richardson’s camera work (this is my vote for the most Richardson movie - you can hear the light). This is a place that feels like the last gasp of a city invaded by demonic forces. New York in '90s movies was truly godforsaken. "Mimic," "Pi," "Jacob’s Ladder," every other Abel Ferrara movie, and finally "Bringing Out the Dead" was the last true classic of Giuliani’s ghoulish boom town. Pierce is the man who absorbed the pain and suffering of the place, each life he couldn’t save pinned to him like the arrows pinioning St. Sebastian. He’s the kind of hero Scorsese didn’t often locate, a man who knows exactly how bad he’s got it. Most of his characters have dreams. Pierce’s life is a nightmare. 

Why do you think only some of us relate to this movie? I made an Unloved essay about this film half a decade ago, and it still doesn’t feel like its status has improved much in that time. Are those of us begging for an end to our feeling of responsibility for everyone we can’t and couldn’t save doomed to look into this broken mirror and see ourselves alone?

WM: That’s a tough one. It’s hard to say why people don’t respond to a movie. I do think there is something off-putting for some viewers to have their face pushed up against death and dying in such a manner, but I wish even then they could see the beauty in the construction of this movie. I believe that "Bringing Out the Dead" is one of Scorsese’s strongest pictures on the terms of locking into the subjective reality of his lead character. His direction, and for that matter the cinematography of Robert Richardson, is in complete communication with Frank Pierce. They are all as a whole with one another, and those movies where Scorsese succeeds on those terms tend to be my favorites from his oeuvre. 

I am a critic who is driven by the ways the emotional reality of the film is tied into the form and they are stitched around one another in such a precise manner in "Bringing Out the Dead." Frank Pierce slums through all the strange happenings of mortality with far too much experience for anything and everything that might require of him with his job as a paramedic, and he is snakebit with the knowledge that he hasn’t saved anyone in months. What Scorsese doesn’t tell us deliberately, but we know this intrinsically, is that it is impossible to really save anyone. There’s an inevitability that comes with living where we will see people we care about die and one day die ourselves, and I think it could perhaps come with a deep understanding of that knowledge where a fondness for Bringing Out the Dead can come into focus.

Even with that knowledge, I think there are certain things we believe we are owed when death does happen, and one is the gathering of mourners to receive closure. This is something the pandemic took from many of us, and I had my experiences with that in the earliest months of this crisis. A member of my extended family who was only ever kind to me passed away from natural causes of age, but no funeral could take place. I thought to myself what a horrible sadness it is that even the kindest of us are sometimes robbed of the most significant of rituals. She didn’t deserve the point-blank ambivalence that came with dying at the wrong time, and to this day I still find myself circling back to how horrible that was for my family. Even a movie like "Bringing Out the Dead" doesn’t contain the sheer loneliness of the family totally broken and separated from one another when they need each other the most, but I think it still manages to say something profound on these grounds through Patricia Arquette’s character.

Arquette plays Mary Burke with a hardened quality, but she’s almost child-like in what she believes she is owed when it comes to her father. She’s her father’s daughter in the truest sense of the words, and is borderline pathetic in her neediness, but it’s a quality that is endearingly messy when it pertains to family. One reason why I love her dynamic with Cage so very much is because Pierce doesn’t have the heart to tell her that no one is owed anything in death, and that it’s totally ambivalent in who it chooses and what time it happens. He wants to protect her, give her good news about her father, and chase what little solace there is in the very sick seeing marginal improvement. Cage has to enact a type of bedside manner, but his eyes give away to the reality of having experienced the end of a vast many cardiac arrest cases. Cage is incredibly restrained, almost repressed, but he acts with a bellowing need for justice from a God who won’t answer his prayers. He feels like a fuse ready to go off, but can’t, because the wick has drowned and won’t light. It can be frustrating watching his life unspool, but that’s entirely the point. He’s a paramedic who can’t seem to save anyone.

Both Pierce and Burke chase euphoria, with Burke being a recovering drug addict and Pierce’s life-saving being like an adrenaline rush of its own. They can unconsciously sense a kinship with one another, but Pierce is at the end of his rope with what this job can offer. He’s saved many and seen many others go, becoming a key character in the lives of the worst moments for so many people. I think about that too when watching this movie. It’s been more than twenty years, but I can still remember the exact way the man who broke the news to me that my grandmother had died spoke those words, and I wonder if being characterized as such in the minds of people can have a negative effect on the spirit. "Bringing Out the Dead" has an understanding of that, through the almost blinding lights that come with the arrival of ghosts, but I think these are ghosts of our creation that we choose to haunt us. 

I think I like "Bringing Out the Dead" as much as I do because it has a spiritual obedience to death that has followed me my entire life, from the stained glass images of the crucifixion in my childhood, to the suicide of my grandmother, and my own suicidal ideation when I was an adolescent. All of that context is wrapped up in myself when I’m watching "Bringing Out the Dead," and during the pandemic the movie became like a monument to the never-ending grief I felt for the situation we found ourselves in. My relationship to the movie became stronger and more profound, and I’m wondering if something similar has happened for you with this movie in the years since you created your great Unloved video essay about the film. 

I’m also curious if there were any other movies that were of utmost importance to you during the pandemic that helped you survive.

ST: My relationship to this movie strengthened absolutely, especially as I prepared to leave at the end of pandemic. New York is no longer what it was when Scorsese shot this movie. It’s no longer what it was a year ago. It will keep changing, hopefully at some point for the better but for now it seems headed for worse things. New York since 9/11 in Scorsese’s cinema is a place beyond repair. May explain why he left for Boston afterwards. Couldn’t handle seeing it so broken, turned into a hopeful tourist destination. In "The Wolf of Wall Street" it’s a playground for the soulless, a place beyond help, a mute witness to crime. In his work with Fran Liebowitz the city itself feels like a ghost or a museum piece, something completely inaccessible (and that is how it feels now). He tried to capture it again in "Vinyl" but the show was hopeless, wrapped up in the exploits of guys that Scorsese would once upon a time envied like demi-gods. 

Regardless, the city of "Life Lessons" and "After Hours" is gone. I was watching "1990: The Bronx Warriors" the other day just for the absurd sight of warring gangs of phonetically-speaking actors standing in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers as a drummer plays just off to the side. Spontaneous nonsense like that used to be a given. Now the cinema of sensation and spectacle is sealed like a Ziploc bag. Nothing gets in or out. As we said to each other in our private conversations about this film: one can’t imagine this being made today at this scale. 

This movie is one of the few films I can truly stomach that hints at the truly religious. Two of cinema’s most devoted Catholics (in imagery and investigation, if not practice) survey a kingdom of the damned, a place they only check in on fleetingly now, and still find god or something like godliness in amongst the raft of sinners. Is it not godlike to give and take life? 

One of the most memorable scenes in this film comes when Cage keeps showing up almost to take confession from the ghost of Mary’s father, trapped in his body like purgatory. Cage takes his life-support off and wears it himself to end the man’s life mercifully at long last. The image of a man giving his life force to a machine to release someone from their body is among the most powerfully spiritual and heart-breaking in all of Scorsese’s cinema. Outside nothing changes but Pierce has finally saved one man. During the pandemic I watched a few things over and over and most could broadly be said to be about hope, despair, or absolute nothingness. 

I watched a number of Cage films repeatedly, from the crunchy big screen nihilism of "The Rock" to the punk-rock thrill-junkie antics of "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" to the utter safety and vacuous patriotism of the "National Treasure" films. I liked seeing Cage. He’s a survivor, and now so are all of us. I watched Spielberg’s "Lincoln," suffused with a dusty, cramped scoundrel’s idea of progressivism. I watched "Day of the Dead" to see my own utter despair shot right back at me. And I watched "Bringing Out The Dead" again, a movie that loves us poor sinners and the ghosts who won’t leave us alone. I’ve said it before, but surviving is one of the most taxing things human beings can do. When I watch "Bringing Out The Dead," I don’t feel alone in feeling this way. We’ll never be the same, but that’s true every day of our lives.

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