90's-vember: Bringing Out the Dead (1999) - Can't Stop the Movies
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90’s-vember: Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

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Bringing Out The Dead is criminally overlooked and features every single one of its players operating at a nightmarish level of intensity.  This is partly expected due to the involvement of Scorsese and longtime screenwriting partner Paul Schrader, whose collaborations with Scorsese brought about Taxi DriverRaging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ.

With films like those to their credit, I've long wondered why Bringing Out The Dead isn't spoken as fondly, or as frequently, as their other films.  It's not lacking in talent, especially with Nicholas Cage operating at a perfect mix of his Leaving Las Vegas era Oscar caliber understatement with a nervy tension that only Scorsese could bring out to fruition.  He's backed by an absolutely pristine soundtrack, with Van Morrison's T.B. Sheets (a song about a girl curled up in bed and on death's door) anchoring the action with perfect thematic clarity.  This is  layered with Scorsese's stained glass imagery that permeates the film as his tortured Catholoicism is very much on display in this film.

Nic Cage fans will be glad to know all flavors of Cage are on display, starting with contemplative Cage.

Bringing Out The Dead just isn't "cool" in the ways that other Scorsese films have been confused as.  It's the story of an ambulance driver stricken with insomnia who can't save anyone's life, is haunted by the ghost of all the dead he's left behind, feeling useless in his current life and unable to leave.  The streets of Bringing Out The Dead are a hell unfamiliar to audiences, even those familiar with Scorsese films.  The film is a non-stop slog through pain an unfulfilled catharsis that is not without its entertainment value (as evidenced by Ving Rhames' shining moment) but without any release like Travis Bickle's bloodbath in Taxi Driver or the "He ain't so pretty any more" moment in Raging Bull.

An examination of real, honest to God pain just isn't cool enough.  Which is a shame, because Scorsese made the best film of the '90s by finally allowing his Bickle to grow up into a different character and genuinely try to help the world.  The film is a document of just how hard this really is, both for the participants and anyone filmmaker who wants to catalogue it honestly.

How does this film exemplify the '90s?

The film allows room for the next flavor of Cage, crazed.

This is the first week where we need to make an important distinction between a movie that is dated versus a movie that is an exemplary film from the era it was produced.  Gags about blocky cell phones and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones date films whereas the films that incorporate ideals and sentiments running strong during the era, intentional or no, make it more a product of the times rather than dating it.

Part of the reason that Bringing Out The Dead is more exemplary than dated is the way it incorporates a lot of the bloated economic success, overindulgent spirituality and reckless selfishness of America in the '90s.  Bringing Out The Dead exposes just how empty all of our celebration and growth really was, utilizing Frank's never ending shift and partner rotation to highlight a different part of America's corrupted idealism.

John Goodman plays a well meaning but perpetually eating partner more interested in filling himself than himself, serving thematic double-duty for America's bloated success as well as it's soon to be discovered penchant for obesity.  Then there's Rhames who, as noted in that clip, definitely embodies the "me first" spirituality prevalent in the '90s (see also: City of Angels, Michael, What Dreams May Come and so on).  Finally Tom Sizemore as a demon of thing repressed and soon to come, an ambulance driver who uses his position of assistance as a way of hurting people as much as helping.  Not a bad representation of where we were after the first Iraq war, and a sad warning of times to come in the new millennium.

Bringing Out The Dead might not be very '90s in the way we've been examining so far.  But as a film that distills the essence of '90s America into one relentless package, it's pristine.

What makes this my pick?

Finally stopping at the spiciest of Cage flavors, threatening and crazed, while still realizing just how wrong it is for Frank to behave this way.

Because Bringing Out The Dead is the film for people who don't know how to be brave but still try while simultaneously lampooning our American hubris of the '90s.  It's not immediately rewarding because the movie is just as hard as the job it presents - night after night of endless ghosts haunting your present and working their way into your daily memories.  There's no cathartic moment like in other Scorsese films because it's catharsis from beginning to end, recognizing those who wish to be really selfless are never going to be able to rest.

It's the optimistic reflection of Taxi Driver, done by a man tired of seeing how callous we had become and just wanted us all to look at the streets and weep.  Scorsese accomplished this so well it's difficult to return to for even his most die-hard fans.  I've dipped from the well about fourteen times myself, returning every time I needed to take in some art showing we can be better people than we may sometimes want to.

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Posted by Andrew

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  1. Since I missed the beginning of the podcast, let me remark on how much I liked your pick. This is one of Scorcese’s unseen gems and is comparable to most of his well-known work. The way the scenes play out and are shot puts you in a hyper-real state and almost feels like you haven’t slept for days while watching the film. Any Scorcese fan (or just a fan of film) should let this film wash over them not once, but at least 2-3 times. Bringing out the Dead is what TV’s Rescue Me was in the first few years of the show and what it should have been the rest of the time.

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