Saturday, May 13, 2017

JRO's #78: Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999)

Starring: Nicholas Cage, Patricia Arquette, John Goodman
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Joe Connelly (novel), Paul Schrader (screenplay)
Release Date: 22 October 1999

IMDB Synopsis: Haunted by the patients he failed to save, an extremely burned-out Manhattan ambulance paramedic fights to maintain his sanity over three fraught and turbulent nights.

First Time
Most likely a video store rental in 2000. I watched it repeatedly back then and bought the DVD and the soundtrack. I used to buy film soundtracks pretty often. That's something I haven't done in a while.

Why it's on the List
"For this, for everything, we are out of tune;"
-William Wordsworth

"Sanctity is made up of heroic acts. Therefore, in our work we are asked for the heroism of finishing properly the tasks committed to us, day after day, even though they are the same tasks. If we don’t, then we do not want to be saints."
-Josemaría Escrivá

"Williams assumed that we could and should take on one another's emotional and spiritual burdens of pain and fear.  For him this might include something as limited as sympathizing with another, but it moves far beyond that to the idea that we might actually bear the weight of another’s pain and fear. It is not just being willing to pick up one end of a heavy load; it is taking upon yourself the full weight of that load. In that process the burden of the other is relieved – so there is substitution. This is an act of will and an entering into another’s reality as if it were our own. We live by Christ’s death on the Cross. And in a more humble sense we may lose our lives for one another as citizens of the City."
-Robert Gallagher on Charles Williams idea of the City and Way of Exchange

This is my favorite Martin Scorsese film. It doesn't quite have the energy of the early films (it's close). What it gains in its place is a sort of simmering weariness punctured periodically by bouts of mania.

I've included the above quotes because they capture the feeling of this very spiritual, very earthy film. What I've always specifically loved about the film is the idea of bearing witness, of co-suffering as something of value. Living in the City means relationship, human beings relating to one another for good or ill. Outside of the city, one can live in isolation and never see one's neighbors. In a city environment, neighbors are always present and the neediest make themselves known. There can be an anonymity to the city, but BotD stresses the community. The paramedics in BotD cover the same beats, deal with the same emergencies, and see the same people. They must learn to do the same tasks properly day after day with no relief. Much of this film is dark comedy, because dark comedy is one serious way of making it through shared suffering.

The above is a positive way of looking at the themes of the film. There is also a clear negative strain. Cage's paramedic is not burdened by death. "We're all dying," he says almost cheerfully at one point. He is not haunted by death. He is burdened by life. He is haunted by the City being too alive, which includes daily dying. Not only are the living suffering and weighing down on him; the dead won't stay dead. It's a City of Ghosts. Every street corner is full of life, even in death, and life means pain. The problem explored in the film isn't how to live with death. It's how to live with so much life.

The ending is powerful. Throughout the film, the Paramedic wallows in despair, ignoring or actively destroying his own health as if doing so will allow that health and vitality to be transferred to those without it. It is only in a final moment when he stops choosing to die for others and instead chooses to live for another, literally taking on pieces of medical equipment so that his life signals are regarded as the life of the other, does he find some peace. Paradoxically, this moment in the film perfectly illustrates the way of exchange. The paramedic gains the father's body's fight to survive while the father gains the paramedic's heart's desire for the rest of death.

Additional Notes/Stats

  • "I realised that my training was useful in less than ten percent of the calls, and saving lives was rarer than that. After a while, I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop. It was enough that I simply turned up."
  • This is a flawed film. I know that. It's more interesting to me for that. The performances especially are a mixed bag. Goodman is mostly okay. Arquette passively floats through this. Rhames gets some funny stuff to do, but that's offset by the weakness of goofy goth kids, etc. Sizemore and Anthony are okay. This is not an actor's movie and I sort of like that. These actors are there more like Bressonian models, for Scorsese to pose in various ways to achieve an overall effect of the city that he is going for. Each character is not so much individual as part of a greater whole.
  • I guess I'm a fan of the Scorsese-Schrader team. I [mostly] like their work together more than I like any of their work apart.
  • According to IMDb trivia, "This, along with Sleepy Hollow (1999), was the last movie to be released on the LaserDisc format." RIP LaserDisc.
  • This is the only Scorsese movie of the 90s to have no Oscar nominations. Obviously my taste and the tastes of the Academy are out of synch.
    I just watched this this morning. More than anything else, it reminded me how sad it felt to lose Gene Siskel in 1999. (Nothing against David Poland.)
  • “If you think of it, ‘Last Temptation,’ ‘Kundun’ and then ‘Silence,’ our next one, will be the sort of trilogy of religiously-based films, and I think ‘Bringing Out the Dead’ is almost in there,” Schoonmaker says. “That is the one that has never gotten recognition. But I can’t tell you how many people talk to me about that movie. There is a ripple that’s going on. Bertrand Tavernier, the really wonderful French director, just wrote a review of it again. I have friends, when they have friends over for dinner, they make them watch it. It never got its due because it’s about compassion. That’s why.”
  • This is the only Scorsese on my list. He's never been a favorite of mine, but I get why he's so beloved. I'll watch every new film he directs. I still regret missing Silence at the theatre. I was out of town at a game convention the week it opened. I planned on going the following week and Regal had already pulled it. I decided not to put any documentaries on my list (there were only a tiny handful that were even considered), but his Personal Journey through American Movies is absolutely essential, my favorite thing that he has ever done.
  • This is the second and last Nicholas Cage film on my list. Raising Arizona just barely missed being on the list.


  1. Great post. Everybody here needs to start a blog n post at their own convenience. I miss reading u guys

  2. Chris' repeated excellent posts were shaming me. I finally crawled out of my TV coma and re-watched one of my picks, putting in a little bit of effort! I just finished a major project that was taking up a lot of my free time and most of my mental energy, so it felt good to relax into a great film that means a lot to me and inspired some reflection.

    I'm open to the idea of a new blog, especially one with no pressure.

    As you know, I've spent most of the past month watching TV. Fargo. Better Call Saul. Re-watching Breaking Bad. This past Wednesday, I made it to Cinemapolis for Lost City of Z. I enjoyed every minute of it and it was good for my soul to get a pure shot of cinema medicine, but Zed was oddly uninspiring for me. I'll agree with anyone that it's a great film (and the sort of film that would have won all awards 60 years ago), but I already feel a distance towards it. None of it has stuck with me in a meaningful way. That's one of the pleasures of this specific project, that if I'm actually faithful about re-watching these movies that I've selected, then I know that I'm in for a treat, a film that will provoke me once again.

    I've had the Quai des Orfèvres DVD at home from Netflix for a few weeks now. Stupid Netflix DVD service. When I'm watching things regularly, it's great. When a DVD sits around like this, I start to wonder why I'm wasting the money on the service. Anyhow, my slump is over for the moment. I hope to watch it in the next couple of days.

  3. I'm in the exact same Netflix dvd slump. In fact, I'm canceling my service soon.

  4. I just (re)watched Breaking Bad S2E09, which I've seen at least 3 times. I already thought this was one of the greats. At the end, this time, I heard Hank quote, "just when I tried to get out.. they pulled me back in," which I don't even think I registered the first few times I watched this. Now I love it even more. Breaking Bad is the Great American Novel of the early 21st Century. There is nothing else even close.

    This is unrelated to everything here. I just want to share my abiding love for Breaking Bad. But maybe if I had a new blog, I could write about Breaking Bad all of the time. :-p

  5. For a split second, I thought that I had seen this...but no, I was thinking of the great Joel Schumacher film, Flatliners. Still need to see Bringing Out the Dead and will probably bump it up my watch list now that we're only covering one movie a week.

    Thanks for your kind words about my posts, John. I enjoy writing these and I don't hate my writing nearly as much as I hate my old CR5FC posts.

    I wouldn't be opposed to non-top 100 posts on this blog. Or we could create a new site for television. Or yeah, we could fire up some new blogs. I'll participate in whatever else we decide to do.