Sooner or later, there would have to be fireworks in Bringing Out the Dead. On the pretext of dramatizing three nights of a Manhattan ambulance driver, Martin Scorsese has made a film that’s pure pyrotechnics throughout, lighting up the theater’s darkness with red pulsers, white screamers, jets of orange flame and the pinwheeling hazel of Nicolas Cage’s eyes. The character Cage plays, Frank Pierce, has acquired his fiery stare by going sleepless for too long, drinking too many dawn suppers of coffee and booze, delivering too many of his clients dead on arrival. “Ghosts,” he calls the ones he’s lost; but you don’t see much here of the wan and diaphanous. As if shot through Frank’s burning eyes, Bringing Out the Dead views late-night Manhattan as a spectacle of spiraling, strobing rocket-trails.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” someone asks Frank when at last the fireworks become literal, bursting over the skyscrapers as the soundtrack goes Gershwin. It is beautiful–and grotesquely funny, too, since the ambulance-bait who is granted this Woody Allenish epiphany is a drug dealer, impaled through the chest on a balcony rail.
I would like to save that moment, as Jean Cocteau wanted to save the flames from a burning house. The prefab structure of Bringing Out the Dead may ultimately collapse; and since it wasn’t really inhabited–not by anyone of flesh and blood–I let it go without regret. But how can I give up the sarcastic splendor that blossoms from this waste, this imposture, this display of excess?
Of course, Scorsese and his screenwriter, Paul Schrader, would like us to think that the waste, etc., represents the soul of Manhattan, rather than comprising the movie itself. Scorsese and Schrader deserve the benefit of every doubt; so I will proceed to give it to them.
Though based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Joe Connelly, Bringing Out the Dead can immediately be identified as one of Schrader’s screen stories of a man burdened by a sense of guilt, who struggles through violence, substance abuse and heaps of garbage toward the redemption of a woman’s love. The most similar of Schrader’s collaborations with Scorsese, Taxi Driver, bypassed the main character’s conviction of sin, preferring to dwell on his rage against other people’s misdeeds. But if you’ve seen Light Sleeper, which Schrader himself directed, you will easily recognize the pattern in Frank Pierce.
One character in Bringing Out the Dead says Frank looks like a cop; another, that he’s got the face of a priest. Either vocation, if strenuously followed, might hollow the eyes and sharpen the beak, drive the hair upward from a throbbing brow, weight the head till it lolls forward, vulturelike. Years of witnessing humiliation and pain, ushering people out of a brutal world and rarely, all too rarely, saving another soul: Priests and cops sometimes show the effects, and so may ambulance drivers such as Frank, who by the start of Bringing Out the Dead has turned into Nicolas Cage in his death’s-head mode.
Months have passed since Frank last saved anyone, during which time the memories of lost lives have pressed on him. So it’s understandable that he overreaches at the movie’s beginning. He resuscitates a heart attack victim who’s already been declared dead. During the next three nights, Frank will suffer for this sin of playing God; but through his transgression, he will also draw closer to the man’s daughter, Mary (Patricia Arquette), whose middle name must surely be Magdalene. Sometimes she dresses like a Catholic schoolgirl (complete with hair cut in bangs), sometimes like a biker chick. She has been a great sinner herself, she informs Frank, in a monotone that bespeaks both her current vulnerability and a chronic sense of worthlessness. No wonder Frank trails her from the emergency room into the wilds of New York–he’s caught the odors of perfume and absolution wafting from a single tough package.
Meanwhile, though, there’s a lot of acting-out to do. Each night’s shift brings Frank a different partner, in increasing order of derangement. Thursday is Larry (John Goodman), who just wants to put in his time, eat regularly and move to Long Island. Friday is Marcus (Ving Rhames), a man with joyful passion for the job. He drives an ambulance the way a Pentecostalist preaches, for the same purpose and with the same recklessness. Full-moon Saturday belongs to Tom (Tom Sizemore), a guy who truly enjoys being around blood–and when it doesn’t pour on the streets, he’ll take the initiative in letting some.
Exposition, development, climax: When a film about suffering and redemption does not merely rely on such a structure but flaunts it before you, the gain ought to be a sense of inevitability. You feel deep forces working through the characters, and their power moves you, too. But Bringing Out the Dead is a film of surfaces. Goodman, an actor who can bring immense gifts to his roles, is used here just for his face and body, as if he were no more than a signboard for the Working Stiff. Rhames looks splendid with a mustache and a wavy wig–he resembles a fleshy, black Clark Gable–but the part would turn into an embarrassment if he didn’t take such lip-smacking pleasure in it. The role is a mixture of Soul Daddy and Preacher Man, best suited to a skit on Saturday Night Live. As for Sizemore’s Psycho, he does what he can, considering that all he’s been asked to do is slaver and pop his eyes.
You might argue that these three figures seem cartoonish because they’re not meant to be characters at all, just projections of Frank’s inner selves. But then, you’d only be delaying the moment when you’d have to justify Frank.
It’s another burnout role for Nicolas Cage, to which he brings his vast repertoire of grimaces and shuffles, as if he were variously impersonating a gargoyle on amphetamines and late Elvis on downers. Cage can be touching in such roles, as he was in Leaving Las Vegas, or wildly funny, as in Face/Off. He has moments of both in Bringing Out the Dead; I’m just not sure that he has many moments as Frank Pierce. He spends most of the movie pushing away as Nicolas Cage, knowing he has to compete for attention against an even more hyperactive performer: Martin Scorsese.
No one else who is alive today, and very few among the dead, can put together a film the way Scorsese does. But, that said, does he remember why he’s making the picture? I can remember an Italian-American friend, someone who was not a committed filmoid, carrying on to me for half an hour about the great “documentary” he’d seen, Mean Streets. To this man, Scorsese’s bravura revealed truths; it was an expressive power. Now it’s power, period. Scorsese dazzles you; he demonstrates, with his left hand, that he would be the best director E.R. ever had; he even rises to the delirium of those fireworks on the balcony. And he tosses away all this stuff about vagabonds and junkies and deeply bruised women and men who can’t sleep.
In the real New York, these people have already been tossed away. They don’t need to have it done again in a movie–especially one that pretends, in its off moments, to care about them.
On the topic of people who have been tossed away, I recommend Annie Goldson’s documentary Punitive Damage, since its subjects have refused to go quietly.
The person on whom the film focuses is Kamal Bamadhaj, who died violently in East Timor at the age of 20. With a mother who came from New Zealand and a father from Malaysia, Kamal grew up as a child of the Asian Pacific. Upon entering college in Australia, he plunged into studies about regional affairs and developed ties to Indonesia’s pro-democracy student movement. A trip to Indonesia, and to its occupied territory of East Timor, confirmed him in his activism. East Timor staggered him: the magnitude of the slaughter that had been inflicted, the pervasiveness of the military, the atmosphere of terror that hung over daily life. When he returned, for the second and final time, he came as an agent of the East Timorese resistance.
Leaders in exile had approached Kamal, asking him to contact their people in Dili. He was to bring them the itinerary of a joint delegation from the United Nations and the Portuguese Parliament, which was scheduled to visit East Timor in October 1991. In the event, the delegation canceled its trip, and the populace, which had begun to come out of hiding, suddenly found itself exposed before the Indonesian military, without the expected shield of the international community. Kamal stayed on. On November 12, he attended a memorial service and rally as one of a handful of foreign observers (among them Nation contributor Allan Nairn). Soldiers opened fire on the crowd. Some were killed on the spot; some were carted away, presumably to be tortured, and have not been seen since. Kamal, though wounded, managed to walk away from the massacre; but within half an hour, soldiers found him on the street and put a bullet through his head.
That was the end of the story for Kamal but the beginning for his mother, Helen Todd, whose strong presence dominates Punitive Damage. In interviews at her home, she eloquently recalls Kamal’s life and shares old photos; in more startling sequences, she re-enacts the testimony she gave in court in a 1992 lawsuit against one General Panjaitan, the officer who oversaw the massacre.
The lawsuit, brought in US District Court in Boston by Todd and the Center for Constitutional Rights, resulted in a $14 million judgment against Panjaitan. He is, of course, secure in Indonesia and is unlikely to pay a penny. But he can no longer freely visit the nation that underwrote Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. (At the time the suit was filed, he was living in the Boston area on an academic fellowship from his government.) And wherever Punitive Damage is shown or written about, people will know what Panjaitan and his government did to Kamal Bamadhaj, and to some 200,000 East Timorese.
Punitive Damage is being shown in New York City for a limited run at Cinema Village. The film is distributed by First Run/Icarus Films: (212) 727-1711 or www.frif.com.