New York icon Fran Lebowitz once wrote that “life is something to do when you can’t get to sleep.” Of course, in the city that never sleeps there’s an awful lot of life – and plenty of the other thing too. Martin Scorsese, scribe of endless New York love letters, explores both in his 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead via Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage), a paramedic on consecutive graveyard shifts in Manhattan. Driven by compulsion and a shot at redemption, Frank’s burnout is turning the sleepless city into a nocturnal nightmare of death and decay.
The film was a commercial flop – recouping barely a quarter of its budget at the box office – and a critical misfire. No one quarrelled with Scorsese’s craft, but reviews saw complaints of an awkward tonal inconsistency, with wild lurches from absurd comedy to tense action, and a deep vein of mawkish sentimentalism.
There’s no denying that it’s an odd and fitful film. The opening set piece alone, where Frank and his partner climb an apartment complex to resuscitate a cardiac arrest patient, undermines its own propulsive tension with a ponderous monologue from Cage on the afterlife, complete with an ethereal score and a pan across the patient’s family photographs. When the patient comes back to life it’s not from dazzling medical skill but because the family put on his favourite record: Frank Sinatra’s September of My Years (a schmaltzy track even by Sinatra’s standards). This sets the tone, or rather lack of it. There’s no one energy to the film; it’s restless and inconsistent. This is, I can only assume, a good reflection of an EMS night shift. Nocturnal emergencies can turn on a dime between grotesquerie, melancholy, and humour.
This twitchy, insomniac spirit seems to characterise ‘the city that never sleeps’ to a sometimes parodic degree. When Charles Lindbergh took off from New York for his 33½ hour flight across the transatlantic, he had already been awake for a whole day. The effects of sleep deprivation were so intense that he was joined in the cockpit by ghosts who offered help in guiding him. Piloting his ambulance Frank Pierce is similarly haunted – particularly by Rose, a young homeless woman whose life he failed to save. Lindbergh’s method to stay awake was to fly his plane just a few metres above the wave tops, letting the freezing ocean spray soak his face. Frank keeps his eyes open with a combination of caffeine and bespoke chemical cocktails looted from the medical supplies. For both men, to nod off would mean destruction. Even so, insomnia is no defence against the ghosts; these nightmares no longer wait for sleep.
Whereas most of Scorsese’s New Yorker characters tend to draw out the city’s debauched and degenerative aspects, Frank is a sensitive soul. His bookshelf features such romantics as Percy Shelley, Italo Calvino, and Gabriel García Márquez. His motto of ‘help others and you help yourself’ is letting him down, as he hasn’t saved a life for months.
Like many Scorsese men he has a voiceover narration, but it is unfashionably lyrical. He even tells us that ‘saving someone’s life is like falling in love: the best drug in the world.’ His experiences don’t make him closed off to the world but more fully vulnerable to it: a living presence in the land of the dead.
Bringing Out the Dead is Scorsese at his most Dickensian: a mawkish and soft-eyed look at the wretched souls of the modern city. Dickens scholar Valerie Purton notes the etymology of the word ‘mawkish’, with ‘mawk’ originally meaning maggot. For Dickens and Scorsese both there is a fierce connection between sentiment and sickness, so little wonder a film about an ambulance driver should be told with so much feeling.
The film was shot mostly at night, and Robert Richardson’s high-contrast photography blows out the whites of paramedic uniforms and fluorescent lightbulbs, while the nocturnal shadows are as black as can be. The night is fast and fierce, and Scorsese (along with Thelma Schoonmaker) pulls out every stop to capture it: fast motion, quick cuts, whip pans, soft focus, timelapse – one crucial scene even plays entirely in reverse. But all of these bells and whistles are not in the service of the MTV hyperactivity of Generation X. Rather, they capture the frantic sensations of a sleep-deprived mind. Time is compressed or drawn out, events lose their sense of proportion, and paranoia always lingers at the edge of vision. Such overt and manipulated artificiality is a route to a gritty realism of sorts. The few daytime scenes are when everything slows down – a somniferous, hypnagogic drug den that Pierce visits even calls itself ‘Dayrise Enterprises’. Even if New York never sleeps, it might rest its eyes a little when the sun comes up.
A pedantically vague title card situates the story: ‘This film takes place in New York City in the early ‘90s’. This is New York at the precipice of change, the peak of the crack epidemic and violent crime, the last days of the old order before Rudy Giuliani and Bill Bratton waged war against petty crime. Screenwriter Paul Schrader captures this mad, mythological era in ambulance dispatch calls that read like street poetry: an elderly woman abducted by her cat, a three-car accident of two taxis and a taxi, a man with a noose around his neck and nothing to hang it on. It’s an exhilarating evocation, but as Johnny Thunders’ refrain repeatedly warns us: you can’t put your arm around a memory. The danger of nostalgia lingers along with sentimentalism. This ‘old New York’ is ugly and scuzzy, and it seems that only Frank is determined to hold onto his innocence – a struggle that is sending him slowly insane.
In a way, this is familiar territory for Scorsese. First with Goodfellas and then with The Wolf of Wall Street, he’s been charged with glorification for demonstrating that unethical, immoral, and criminal behaviour can be rewarding and fun, and that joy can blossom even amidst the carnage.
With Bringing Out the Dead the dial swings, perhaps unexpectedly, the other way. In the New York of the needy, acts of compassion can be thankless, unpleasant, and met only with disappointment.
Frank is called to a drug overdose at a goth club with his evangelist partner Marcus (Ving Rhames, never better). While Frank gets to work reviving the young patient with naloxone, Marcus forms the clubbers into a prayer circle and beseeches Jesus to save their friend’s life. It ‘works’ and the man is revived, with the clubbers amazed at Marcus and his direct line to God. Marcus turned a deathly situation into something hopeful, communal, and moralistic. The fact that it is fake hardly seems to matter.
These bizarre moments litter the film in a haphazard way (a shapeless narrative is another common criticism). Popstar heartthrob Marc Anthony plays the misfortunate and insane Noel, who literally runs in and out of hospital begging strangers alternately to give him a glass of water or stab him to death. The shrewd casting gives rise to a moment where Noel, already imploring with puppy dog eyes, shakes blood off himself like a wet dog, splattering Frank and a crowd of bystanders. It is absurd, filthy, subversive, dreamlike, and melancholy all at once. Noel is too innocent to hate, too woeful to admire – an indigestible character, someone who can only belong to the night. Yet in Anthony’s charming manner there is an imploring sentimentality, daring us to find the goodness in the pitiful.
In the year Bringing out the Dead was filmed, a right-wing and dystopian-sounding think- tank called The Social Affairs Unit published a book lamenting ‘the sentimentalisation of modern society’, by their reckoning the root of the world’s ills. In the book they call sentimentality an ‘inappropriate emotion’ as its only real purpose is to deny reality. It is, they argue, a feeling for the naive and irresponsible.
Is sentimentality inappropriate? Is Bringing Out the Dead a hard-boiled urban thriller held back by soulful and quasi-romantic meanderings? The key charge against sentimentality is its insincerity – emotions are inhabited but the authentic route towards them is bypassed. But it’s this very insincerity (argues Purton, at least) that makes sentimentalism a perfectly appropriate approach for the self-reflexive, post-modern 21st century. What better way to examine feelings than to signpost their artificiality?
This is the question asked by Leslie Jamison’s review of Short Term 12 in the Los Angeles Review of Books (the film is almost inarguably sentimental, though this comes as no surprise for a debut indie rather than, say, the work of a 57-year-old auteur). Jamison was moved to tears several times by Short Term 12; her review interrogates her own spectatorship as much as the film itself:
Every time I cried, or almost-cried, was a little different, though each contained a similar parfait of feelings: a layer of sadness (for the unreal character); a layer of hope (for the unreal character); a layer of skepticism (what does it mean to feel sadness or hope for an unreal character?); a layer of curiosity, both emotional and artistic (how have I come to feel this sadness/hope for an unreal character?); a layer of pride (I feel things so deeply I can even feel sadness/hope for an unreal character); a layer of shame (I feel more for this unreal character than I did for the homeless man I just passed in the street); another layer of shame, this one more specifically inflected by my role as a consumer (how have my emotional responses been so manipulated?) but also – it cannot be denied – a layer of consumer satisfaction: I am having a powerful experience, which is part of the implicit contract made between a film and its watchers. We give our time, and maybe our money, and in return we are given an experience that will somehow make us different than we were before.
Such is the dilemma of the post-modern sentimentalist. Jamison’s convoluted thought processes are what happens when the unstoppable force of the world’s ugliness meets the immovable object of belief in its goodness. Scorsese’s swings in tone and mood are unsettling, but they form a ‘parfait of feeling’, throwing everything together to involve his audience actively in the complex and painful journey of navigating goodness in a bad city.
We are quick to suspect sincerity that comes from nowhere, even our own. The experience of being manipulated is precisely why we might flock to great filmmakers like Scorsese, but it is dizzying to jump in with both feet. He and other, similarly pop-savvy directors of this time are easy to admire but difficult to trust. Sentiment in the films of the Coen brothers, for example, can be hard to parse because we feel that we should be in on the joke. We’re slow to really feel for Harry Pfarrar or Larry Gopkin when their misfortunes are the object of so much hilarity. Tarantino practically drenches his films in cathartic emotion, but does so at a safe remove, his goal ultimately to escalate sentiment to its outsized, illogical, and anaesthetized endpoint.
And we bring this baggage to Scorsese – a director whose style of violence, even from his earliest short films, is shocking for how carelessly it enters the scene. Can the man who whacks characters mid-sentence and buries them alive really be asking us to shed a tear for the unfortunate miscreants of New York City, early 1990s? Are we buying into something phoney here?
The theatrical mushiness finds its apex in a sequence where Frank faces the ghosts of his dead patients, lifting them out of the ground and into the streets. It asks a cynical soul to indulge a mawkish moment – to let in a feeling even if it makes you sick. Bringing Out the Dead may be hard-headed, but its heart is soft and tender.
Towards the end of the film, Frank is called to a scene where drug dealer Cy Coates (both a kind soul and ruthless killer) has been impaled on a railing, and is left dangling 14 floors above the street. Both the police rescuers and the crowd below jibe that it would be better to let Cy fall to his death. Frank, though, tenderly holds the criminal’s head and comforts him: the last good man in New York. Even literally hanging on the edge of death, Cy is infatuated with his city’s skyline.
When sparks from the police blowtorch fly, they light up the Empire State Building like an Old Hollywood musical and Cy marvels at its beauty.
This is Scorsese’s educated thesis on sentiment. Here is the scuzziest Old New York image he can muster – a pile-up of drugs, violence, and callousness – put before a tired and sentimental mind. The dream and reality of New York collide into something that may be phoney, but it’s still a piece of spectacular showmanship. We even get some unaccountable fireworks and an echo of Gershwin on the soundtrack as Cy, bleeding and broken, proclaims: “I love this city!”
We live in ironic times. Sentimentality does not have to corrupt because it can be coupled with intellect, as it is for Scorsese and Jamison. It’s possible to lower the drawbridge to tender feelings once we are equipped to ask where they come from, what they need, and where they are going next. Choosing to believe in goodness or feel nostalgia for a scuzzier New York or buy into the romance of the night may demand a bit of insincerity, but the magic turns real once you believe in it. Scorsese’s cinema, like a ghost, is the waking dream that does not wait for sleep.
Joel Blackledge teaches Media & Communications at Coventry University. His writing on cinema has appeared in Little White Lies, Bright Wall/Dark Room and Vague Visages, and he has published short fiction with Unbound, Post-to-Print and the Architecture Foundation. He runs the Birmingham short film night Neighbourhood Shorts and the video series Feast Your Eyes, whichlooks at how great films tell stories with and about food.