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Ambulance Chaser: Is Bringing Out The Dead Scorsese's Last Great Film?
Fearghas Cleary , October 24th, 2014 06:54

Fearghas Cleary revisits Scorsese's 1999 flop and asks if it was the veteran director's last moment of real greatness

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It has been 15 years since the last true Scorsese film.

This week marks the fifteenth anniversary since the release of Bringing Out The Dead (1999), Scorsese’s drastically underrated and comparatively unknown noirish dramedy. More to the point, it is his last film to pack the punch and verve with that we have come to associate the veteran director. Written by Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and starring Nicolas Cage in one of his more immediately affecting roles, Bringing Out The Dead is shaped around Frank Pierce, a broken and beaten paramedic who struggles to hold onto his sanity amidst a steady onslaught of soul-sapping night shifts and fatalities. Washed up, alcoholic and semi-deranged, his sole objective is to save someone and save himself in the process. Such dusky subject matter has long been a fruitful stomping ground for Scorsese, and he shoots it with an intense style and dynamism here.

Bringing Out The Dead was a categorical box-office flop. Produced on a budget of $55 million, it earned just shy of $17 million worldwide. Nevertheless, the film garnered critical approval, with seminal critic Roger Ebert awarding it a perfect four stars. Applauding the film’s uncompromising potency he said, “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.” Ebert outlines what, exactly, film – as an art form – should seek to do, and how Scorsese in this film, and a great many before it, achieves that.

Bringing Out The Dead is astounding in its impact. Scorsese works like an unhinged puppet master, as he coerces his principal character further and further towards the abyss. Deftly encouraging the aesthetics and mise-en-scène to obfuscate Frank’s world, Scorsese creates in New York City an unrelenting cycle of misery and death. Nothing is straightforward – Frank is desperately hopeless, but wants nothing more than to provide hope to others. Instead he is a ferryman, transporting the dead to the other side, rather than saving the living. Every single decision made by Scorsese compounds this narrative journey, making the horror all the more immediate, the bleakness all the more enervating.

The flashing blues and reds of the ambulance lights bleed into the surrounding nighthawk environment, throwing ghostly shadows across Cage’s face. The wailing squawks of Van Morrison’s ‘T.B. Sheets’ – an artfully selected leitmotif – syncs with the cacophony of the siren. Scorsese is thoughtful in his utilisation of this device; deploying it here and there at opportune moments, the yawping harmonica penetrating each scene. Yet, it is the more subtle implementations of this song that have the most resounding effects. There are moments, when Frank is driving the ambulance, city lights flickering across his face, and Morrison howling on, that the tone shifts slightly, the sounds muffle, and the song bleeds from the non-diegetic world into the diegetic. The song becomes a part of Frank’s universe, thus signifying the fragmented reality of the film.

Despite being set in a very specific area of New York at a very specific time, Scorsese effectively deconstructs period and place into ethereal webs that cling to Frank Pierce, effectively aiding in further disrupting his disposition. This is perhaps most evident in the unearthly aesthetics of the hospital – Our Lady Of Misery. Time and place are fluid in this location – doctors and nurses are constantly working regardless of date and time; bodies are piled up in the corridors; every bed full, the same patients and the same cases repeatedly roll through their doors. It is a Sisyphean nightmare. These qualities are intensified by the visual construction of the hospital – a typically Scorsesian choice, but a signifier of the otherworldly nature that haunts the film’s very core. The green, ectoplasmic hue that clings to the hospital walls and saturates the fluorescent lighting has enormous capacity to further distort reality. A spectral ether flows through the physical bounds of the building. The place becomes purgatorial, as if the very strands of reality have been dismantled and reconstructed time and time again, ultimately becoming a cyclic theatre for Frank to navigate.

It is these touches – particular the use of lighting, colour and leitmotif – combined with the subject matter of a broken man haphazardly negotiating with a dangerous city that are so prominent in Scorsese’s earlier, more classic works and so woefully absent in his films of the last fifteen years. One only has to look at the scene in Mean Streets in which Robert De Niro’s character enters into the bar to see the how far back these techniques stretch – the camera floats deliberately through the crowd, the image is purposefully soaked in red and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ blasts over the top. These three elements all work in conjunction to not simply introduce De Niro, but to introduce Scorsese as a director of great power and impact.

Further to this point, there are direct lines that arc between Bringing Out The Dead and Taxi Driver – both penned by Schrader. Each narrative follows a man staggering back and forth across the thin demarcation between sanity and insanity- an internal landscape that is in no small part reflected by the perilous urban environment. Both glide up the stygian New York streets observing sickness and death, witnessing first-hand the afflictions that plague the city streets. Both Bickle and Pierce, in their own way, endeavour to cure New York of its ills and both ultimately succeed at this, if only in a microcosmic sense. This narrative trope has long been prominent throughout Scorsese’s career and to an extent remains intact today. However, it has not been seen in such succinct and harrowing terms since Bringing Out The Dead.

Scorsese no doubt has an extensive and varied filmography. After all, between 1980 and 1988, he moved seamlessly from Raging Bull (1980) stopping off at After Hours (1985) before arriving at The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). His interests have always been far-reaching. Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we are now at the fag end of Scorsese’s career, and while those preferences remain eclectic, the driving forces behind them have undeniably waned. He has, in recent interviews, stated that he likely does not have many films left in him. It is, then, all the more painful that his films since the turn of the century have left so much to be desired. There has been an undeniable shift since then in both his thematic predilections and stylistic decisions. Looking at, say, the entertaining but overwrought exultation of the nascent years of his home town in Gangs Of New York (2002), or Hugo (2011), his often charming and tender tribute to the origins of motion picture, this shift in focus is all the more clear. Whereas once, Scorsese’s fixation lay with troubled individuals struggling to stay afloat in a broken and dangerous city, his aim, now, seems to be to inspect and eulogise an assembly of dead relics that he holds dear.

His psychological thriller, Shutter Island (2010), emulates the stylings of classic film noir in its aesthetic, staging, and even narrative. Whilst Scorsese’s technical aptitude is unquestionable, here, his fascination with cinematic titans Otto Preminger and Bernard Herrmann is so undeniable and apparent that it in fact takes centre stage.

The Departed (2006)is in itself a rather more flaccid affair, even more so than many of his more recent works. Granted, it is certainly a watchable picture, even if it is a nigh on carbon copy of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs (2002). However, that is in no small part due to its pandering to some of his more populist traits as laid out in Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995). Outside of those quasi self-referential aspects, there is little to be applauded. The film is so patently unsubtle in its conveyance of its central themes that it borders on the absurd, to the point that, by the final scene in which we see a rat scurrying across Matt Damon’s balcony – in case you’d somehow managed to miss the constellation of other references to rats and infiltration that permeate the film – you’re left with a feeling that Scorsese, despite winning an Oscar, may have just phoned this one in.

Scorsese has remarked that, at his age and with his familial priorities, cinematic experimentation no longer takes as great a precedence in his life as it once did. That, however, doesn’t necessarily ring true. After all, can one really say that Hugo – a CGI-laden 3D children’s film with a didactic breakdown of the birth of cinema – has no sense of cinematic endeavour? Really though, any envelope that may have been pushed in this film, has been inched away from the heady altitudes of Scorsese’s seminal films, towards rather more limiting and saccharine depths. Indeed, much of Hugo is arguably text book, from the opening scene over a Parisian cityscape to the final long take, and the multitude of filmmaking allusions that are scattered throughout. And perhaps that is the problem. It is all too ordinary, too textbook, and let’s face it, too boring.

His most recent offering is perhaps evidence enough that any essence and experimentation Scorsese may once have had has all but turned to ash. The Wolf Of Wall Street (2012) – despite its utterly superfluous run time – is an entertaining romp through the boom and bombast of the New York Stock Exchange. Whilst it still manages to showcase a number of adroit directorial manoeuvres, it is utterly devoid of any notable substance, any of the hard-hitting psycho-social analysis and character deconstruction that made his films so bold and unflinching in the first place. Rather, what we are left with is a superficial story about an amoral banker with a predilection for coke and hookers who, at times, manages to present himself in a half way charismatic manner. It is a far cry indeed from those urgent and forceful punches that Scorsese has delivered time and time again throughout his stalwart career.

With his upcoming production, Silence, certainly one of his last films we are likely to see, can we expect something of a return to form from the veteran director? It is certainly doubtful that he will retreat to the more familiar stylistic waters of say Taxi Driver or even Raging Bull. However, given the storyline – a 17th Century Portuguese missionary who attempts to bring Christianity to Japan - Scorsese may well return to the territories he once trod when making the beautiful and episodic – if often difficult – Kundun (1997). As electrifying as that may be, given his recent form and the all-star cast attached to Silence, it is quite unlikely that he will retrace those steps to any particularly exciting degree.

Even the best falter, at times. Even Ali got knocked down. And yes, Scorsese too. But yet, in spite of his ostensible faults in recent years, his prolonged history of cinematic enterprise and storytelling with the ability shake, rattle and rile on an immediate and primal level speaks for itself. That is what Scorsese does in Bringing Out The Dead; he doesn’t pander or pussyfoot, he throws all caution to the wind and turns up something truly electrifying. Even if he has not done that since, just think of De Niro, standing atop the pool table in Mean Streets, flailing a pool cue, lashing out at the world. Even after 15 years of disappointment, that is Scorsese, that is his legacy. Even now, viewing after viewing, Bringing Out The Dead, Mean Streets, really any of his seminal works have the unrelenting power to be mad and captivating and utterly impossible to watch without a dropped jaw and a sensation in the pit of your stomach that burns and broils long after you’ve finished watching.

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chris donkey
Oct 24, 2014 10:10am

never seen. all but had given up on him even at this stage. will watch thanks to review.

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Luke
Oct 24, 2014 12:29pm

Scorsese is quite consistent. This supposed drop of in quality, or dramatic change in style, in the last 15 years just isn't there. 'The Wolf of Wall Street' is as close to 'Goodfellas' as anything post-2000. You mention 'Bringing Out the Dead' (a film I haven't seen) garnered top marks from Roger Ebert, yet 'Hugo' (a film I can't remember much about) earned an equal score. No mention at all of 'The Aviator'. Even when trying his hand at a type of film outside his comfort zone, a subtle, romantic piece like 'The Age of Innocence', he succeeds.
The only major difference over the last 15 years is his replacement of his early muse, De Niro, with his later muse, Di Caprio. If it wasn't for 'Raging Bull' you could easily make a case for the period after 'Taxi Driver' as his ''15 years of disappointment ''.

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Dan
Oct 24, 2014 12:45pm

The 'TB Sheets' opening is amazing.

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jude111
Oct 24, 2014 10:36pm

I saw it at the time and thought it pretty terrible. On the other hand, The Departed was excellent - although I do prefer the original Hong Kong version, and its sequel.

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jude111
Oct 24, 2014 10:36pm

I saw it at the time and thought it pretty terrible. On the other hand, The Departed was excellent - although I do prefer the original Hong Kong version, and its sequel.

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Oct 24, 2014 11:40pm

Shutter Island, the Deaparted, and Gangs of New York were all great. Scorsese is a consistent film maker who fluctuates in quality like every artist, but he's been on a roll lately. The Wolf of Wall Street and the Aviator have been his weakest of the last 15 years, but they were still excellent films.

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Joe
Oct 25, 2014 12:11pm

Thanks for doing a piece about this film! It's a lost masterpiece. The Departed is risible. Scorsese's worst film by miles.

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Joe
Oct 25, 2014 12:22pm

This is an absolutely brilliant piece.

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jgb
Oct 25, 2014 7:31pm

I don't care what Roger Ebert says, Scorsese's strength has at no point been to remind us that 'film can touch us urgently and deeply.' Rather, I'd dare call him one of the best directors I am personally familiar with, because of the consistently appropriate and inventive decisions he makes, which work together to channel a deep sense of truthfulness. Bearing this in mind and considering that you did not like The Wolf of Wall Street, a film which for the first time in I don't know how long shows Scorsese actually moving in a new direction (the physicality of the acting in the Quaalude scene, e.g.), I am not the least surprised that you loved the ponderous banality that is Bringing Out the Dead, a film so much defined by its time, as to be indistinguishable from any other director's work.

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Oct 25, 2014 11:50pm

No- that would be Cape Fear.

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Aaron Goldberg
Oct 26, 2014 11:24pm

Great article. It was his last great film. Paul Schrader collab too! 'departed' was a mash-up, 'wolf of wall street' was pretty good, but neither were 'heavy', like Scorsese used to be.

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Aaron Goldberg
Oct 26, 2014 11:34pm

Great article. It was his last great film. Paul Schrader collab too! 'departed' was a mash-up, 'wolf of wall street' was pretty good, but neither were 'heavy', like Scorsese used to be.

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Richard Johns
Oct 27, 2014 10:52am

In reply to Luke:

Couldn't disagree more.That period held films as diverse as King of Comedy (which gets better and more prescient with age), After Hours,Last Temptation of Christ and if we are keeping to your 15 years after Taxi Driver then we have to add Goodfellas and Cape Fear to this list.This is hardly a record of failure here.I watched the Wolf of Wall Street last night and it is just not in the same league as Goodfellas.For one thing there is a total lack of depth to the characters,and unlike Goodfellas, I just didn't care what happened to the characters.That isn't to say it isn't an entertaining film which it is.

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Thierry Ennui
Oct 27, 2014 1:16pm

Good article. Scorsese's canon is never quite as black and white as being able to explicitly mark a point in time and claim that THIS side has great films (or perhaps even great 'Scorsese' films) and THIS side doesn't.

Take his post-Raging Bull 80s work, for example: most people see it as a lull before he gets back to the proper business of making trademark Scorsese films like Goodfellas and Casino, but King of Comedy and After Hours stand with any Scorsese film you care to name. It's a credit to his directorial hand that they're tonally a million miles away from his best-known films but are easily as good.

The Departed is often considered the last great Scorsese film, but I have to admit it did nothing for me - not only was it a very pale imitation of what was already a brilliant film, but it felt like Scorsese-by-numbers. I think that's probably why some liked it and yet dismissed films like After Hours - some people are more comfortable with what they believe is a 'typical' Scorsese picture.

For all its weaknesses - the unwieldiness of the script and the unwavering scenery chewing - I really enjoyed Gangs of New York and view it as his last great film. It manages to achieve a bizarre alchemy between the subtle intimacy of a Mean Streets and the bombast of a Lean epic.

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Luke
Oct 29, 2014 12:19pm

In reply to Richard Johns:

I'd disagree with myself if I interpreted my post as you did. I'm not saying Scorsese produced poor films between Taxi Driver and Goodfellas (I wasn't including Goodfellas in the 15 years, I think it's one of his best and used it as a benchmark of quality in the comparison with TWOWS in my initial comment), but instead am saying that his post-2000 films all compare favourably to his 80's works. Is The Departed any worse than The Color of Money, or TWOWS worse than The King of Comedy? Obviously we're in the realm of subjectivity and the argument is pretty moot, but my point was that I see no discernible difference in quality across Scorsese's entire oeuvre. (I'll add like 'Bringing out the Dead', I haven't seen 'After Hours' as it just doesn't seem to ever be shown on TV whereas Goodfellas and The Departed seem to be on every week).
Lastly, to all the people who rate Infernal Affairs higher than The Departed, unless you speak fluent Cantonese, I don't understand why? Both are great films but one has a higher filming budget, (arguably) a better cast, a more acclaimed director, and most importantly all the additional nuances of a film being in your native language. I'm not saying all English remakes are better than the foreign language predecessors, and many times they fail to capture the essence of the film, but in this instance, I don't get it.

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