Can a Martin Scorsese movie be considered truly underrated? Scorsese has produced one well-regarded film after another for the majority of his career, and his bonafides remain untouchable. But nestled within Scorsese’s impressive filmography might be one truly underrated gem: his 1999 effort Bringing Out the Dead. It’s a wild, energetic, but ultimately compassionate work. It was also a major box office flop that barely made a blip and still hasn’t been released on Blu-ray. Twenty years later, Bringing Out the Dead is overdue for a reappraisal.
Here’s how Paul Schrader‘s Bringing Out the Dead script starts:
After World War One it was called Shell Shock.
After World War Two it was called Battle Fatigue.
After Vietnam it was called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Frank Pierce drives an EMS vehicle for Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, New York City. He has been a paramedic for five years.
Schrader appears to be partially quoting a George Carlin stand-up bit, but he’s also setting the stage for what’s to come. Frank Pierce is a man at war. His enemy is death itself. Not his own death, but death as a driving force stalking the mean streets of New York, taking the lives of the unfortunate. Frank is a paramedic, and to say he’s suffering from shell shock or battle fatigue, or PTSD is an understatement. He’s a haunted, hollowed-out man.
Nicolas Cage plays Frank and turns in one of the best performances of his career. Cage had yet to tip over into self-parody mode in 1999, but Bringing Out the Dead allowed the actor to blend both quiet poise with manic madness. Frank is overtired – he just can’t sleep, and he keeps pulling nightshifts. It’s left him with heavy, corpse-like circles under his eyes and a slow, drawling way of speech. But every now and then Frank will be in the midst of an experience that increases his adrenaline and sends him over the edge. Scorsese ens this with sped-up montages – Cage behind the wheel of the ambulance, moving in fast motion while bathed in flashing red lights while The Clash’s “Janie Jones” screams across the soundtrack.
“He’s inventive and he goes from an expressive style, almost like silent film, like Lon Chaney, whom he adores, to something extremely internal,” Scorsese said about Cage, adding that the first thing he thought about when he read the source material – Joe Connelly‘s novel of the same name – was Cage’s “face and his eyes.” Those sad eyes and that hangdog face take up the center of the frame more than once in Bringing Out the Dead, and we can feel the weariness – the bone-tiredness – lurking behind it all.
“Help others and you help yourself,” Frank’s narration tells us. “That was my motto. But I hadn’t saved anyone in months.” People keep dying on Frank, and it’s thrown off his entire life. One death in particular – a young girl named Rose – haunts him the most. He sees her face on nearly every corner, looking at him, judging him, asking him why he couldn’t save her.
There’s a selfishness in Frank’s outlook – he’s saving people’s lives as a way to make himself feel better. The conflict within makes him feel God-like. “Saving someone’s life is like falling in love,” he says. “The best drug in the world. For days, sometimes weeks afterwards, you walk the streets, making infinite whatever you see. Once, for a few weeks, I couldn’t feel the earth – everything I touched became lighter. Horns played in my shoes. Flowers fell from my pockets. You wonder if you’ve become immortal, as if you’ve saved your own life as well. God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there – why deny that for a moment there, God was you?”
For Frank to get beyond this twisted hell he’s trapped himself in he’ll have to evolve. He’ll have to, as Scorsese said, “get beyond the tremendous ego to get to the heart of what [he’s] doing – which is compassion.”
Bringing Out the Dead marked the reunion of Scorsese and Schrader for the first time since 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Before that, Schrader penned scripts for Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Like the protagonists of all three of those films – and like protagonists of virtually all Scorsese films – Bringing Out the Dead‘s Frank is tortured, and in the midst of a spiritual crisis. But he’s also perhaps the kindest of the Scorsese/Schrader characters. Yes, even kinder than Willem Dafoe’s tempestuous Christ in Last Temptation.
Schrader structures Frank’s saga over three nights, giving the narrative a perfect three-act structure. Each night sends him out into the dirty, dangerous streets in an ambulance. Each time he’s paired up with a different partner: the lackadaisical Larry John Goodman, Bible-quoting ladies man Marcus Ving Rhames, and finally, downright psychotic Tom Tom Sizemore. Each of these partners brings out the best – and worst – in Frank, and he grows more harried in the process.
During the course of these nights, he encounters Mary Patricia Arquette, the daughter of a heart attack victim Frank hauled off to the hospital. Mary is a recovering drug addict, and Frank finds himself drawn to her again and again as if she were some sort of lighthouse beacon calling him across choppy seas. There’s a sense of potential romance here Cage and Arquette were actually married at the time, but would divorce soon after. But Frank is also kind of sexless. He doesn’t seem to want to sleep with Mary in the sexual sense, but rather just literally sleep with her – lay down beside her in a bed and close his bleary eyes for a good night’s sleep. “You have to keep the body going until the brain and the heart recover enough to go on their own,” he tells Mary in relation to her father, but he might as well be talking about himself.
Frank’s sleep deprivation and caffeine-induced bursts of energy are highlighted by stunning, oversaturated cinematography courtesy of Robert Richardson. Anyone who has ever suffered from insomnia will find familiar sights in Richardson’s imagery here – streetlights that seem to bleed and blur, and darkness that almost seems cognizant. Richardson’s trademark top-down light – lights literally mounted above people’s heads and beamed down on them – adds an almost saintly halo to Frank.
But is Frank a saint? He’s certainly a good person, but that eternal, internal struggle is real. His long night journeys into day take him to the darkest, dankest parts of the city, forcing him to encounter the unwashed masses and the downtrodden. “I grew up with the homeless, and the alcoholics, and derelicts, and I was sort of split between a decent family and the bottom of the barrel,” Scorsese said. “The dregs. They become non-persons. They just wait to die. There was a conflict in me, and probably still is, about how one feels compassion towards a person like that, but is also repelled by it. And that’s one of the reasons I did the picture.”
Scorsese is often lambasted for his portraits of violent, destructive men. But here is a movie with a man learning to heal. Indeed, it’s a destructive act that finally triggers a massive change in Frank’s life. While riding with the dangerous Tom, Frank loses his grip on everything and proclaims that he wants to get into a fight, or break something. Tom talks him into attack a homeless man Marc Anthony who is clearly suffering from mental problems. But Frank has a change of heart. He comes to his senses and helps the afflicted man instead.
He saves a life. But he takes one, too. Mary’s father has been hooked up to respirators and other life support systems in the hospital for days – being artificially kept alive well past his expiration date. Frank fancies he can hear the man’s thoughts in his own head – pleading to let him die. So Frank does just that. He gives the man a peaceful send-off, and the night finally ends: daylight arrives. And with it comes a moment of forgiveness. When Frank staggers over to Mary’s apartment to tell her her father has passed he has one last vision of Rose. He begs her to forgive him. “It’s not your fault,” Rose’s ghost tells him. “No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea.”
“You can’t forgive yourself,” Scorsese said of this ending, which wasn’t in Connelly’s book, but rather something Schrader came up with. “You want everybody else to forgive you.”
In that moment of self-forgiveness, Frank’s long battle against death hs. The war isn’t over – this is merely a ceasefire. You can’t defeat death, after all. But at least you can try to finally find sleep, rest up, and head back out into the fray. And keep the body going until the brain and the heart recover enough to go on their own.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has entered intermission, so it would appear that our culture is filling the void by assessing the state of Marvel movies. Or, rather, the media has filled the void by assessing whether we should be assessing the state of Marvel movies, since this question has been thrust on us by an abrupt surge of backlash from major auteurs.
While the starting point for this debate — do Marvel movies qualify as cinema, or just theme park rides in movie form — came from an off-the-cuff remark by Martin Scorsese, today's polarizing internet-based discourse saw it as a battle cry.
The lines have been drawn: Fandom arbiters Kevin Smith and James Gunn on one side, defending superhero movies for all their worth; Scorsese, Coppola, and other aging auteurs on the other, decrying their vapidity. First things first: It’s time for a moratorium on cornering major directors whose work falls way beyond Hollywood's purview and asking them to assess Hollywood product that has nothing to do with them. Alas, poor Ken Loach.
However, at the root of this argument lies an age-old debate about the work of art in a commercial landscape, and whether or not some aspect of said art can survive under that constraint. As much as this argument may invite disdain from some members of the critical community, it stems from legitimate concerns, especially as Marvel movies make billions of dollars worldwide while major filmmakers struggle to get their original visions made and seen.
Having said all that, these are tough times for even-keeled assessments, but I'd like to suggest a radical proposal: Both sides are right.
From a pure technological perspective, this debate was over before it started. Of course Marvel movies are cinema: They're feature-length, narrative-based blockbuster experiences, with precise characters and long-standing pop culture currency. At the same time, they clearly exist within a different category of cinematic expression, one mandated by capitalist pressures above all else. Otherwise, they wouldn't have a shot in hell at coming together in the first place.
While Scorsese may not find much to appreciate about the Marvel storytelling mold, the most appealing aspects of Marvel movies involve their capacity to go beyond the call of duty as it pertains to the soul-sucking blockbuster cliché: Iron Man works not because Tony Stark has a lot of fancy tech, but because the best movies in the series pair those visuals with whip-smart dialogue and gadget-based slapstick that owes more to “Modern Times” than other CGI spectacles. The joy of “Guardians of the Galaxy” stems from dopey chemistry between its space-faring adventurers more than cosmic visuals accompanying them. And that first hour of “Avengers: Endgame” is probably one of the most costly studies of societal grief in Hollywood history.
But these are fragments in a larger, busy tapestry, one that often doesn't work in individual ingredients so much as the way they speak to a larger whole. A true appreciation for Marvel movies involves serious investment in the way in which they've been engineered to tell one continuous story. No studio has ever pulled off the same storytelling achievement on that scale.
To that end, we may have reached a breaking point, in which the obvious definition of cinema requires a revision. Marvel movies are a certain kind of cinema, but they exist in a different category altogether from the ones that other filmmakers consider their vocation. And that means there is zero sense in asking filmmakers from that other, non-Marvel category to assess Marvel movies in any way that might reflect back on their own work: It's like asking Picasso to assess Banksy: One might have an opinion about the other's work, but it's hard to imagine why it would matter any more than anyone else weighing in.
Of course, some aspect of the Marvel movie phenomenon stems from the desire to be taken seriously by certain facets of the film community even as it entertains the masses. Scorsese and Coppola most likely have philosophical problems with the mandates driving these movies rather than the movies themselves. Hard to argue with those. But anyone paying close attention to the MCU can see the visible attempts — usually by directors and screenwriters rather than the studio itself — to rise above the crass mold of big-budget mayhem and find some greater substance at its core.
With promising new Marvel installments from the likes of Chloe Zhao and others in the pipeline, the quest to keep Marvel movies both profitable and director-driven continues; filmmakers will have plenty of opportunities to consider whether these movies actually deliver on the potential of the medium. The best filmmaking exists outside of any preordained expectations, or at least transcends them, and the surprise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date has been that its best entries managed to go beyond the call of duty, generating real depth and intrigue even as they satisfied the bottom line.
That quest continues, and it sure beats the alternative. But even if it makes for a compelling challenge for the directors and Disney, there's no reason to assume other filmmakers will cheer it on from the sidelines, at least until they wind up on the payroll. Scorsese and his ilk have better things to do, and so does anyone who delights in the broad range of possibilities that movies offer up. Marvel movies exist. It's time to move on.
We’re a few weeks into the endless outrage over Martin Scorsese saying he didn’t much care for Marvel movies, and if anything the furor has grown louder. The legendary filmmaker has inspired other colleagues to join his ranks, including Francis Ford Coppola, and as of yesterday acclaimed British filmmaker Ken Loach, who compared them to “hamburgers.” All the while the MCU’s directors, stars, and especially fans have tried to defend their beloved product from such marked criticism. On the plus side, that means superhero movie-heads have gotten to learn about Ken Loach, who’s very good.
So far these defenses, courtesy of James Gunn to Kevin Smith, have struggled to balance hurt feelings with respect for their storied work, as well as the idea that not everyone has to like Marvel movies. One exception, arguably, is Jon Favreau, who’s basically responsible for the MCU in the first place. His response, told to CNBC Tuesday morning and picked up by The Hollywood Reporter, didn’t try to condescend to directors who, between them, have created many of the greatest motion pictures of all time.
“These two guys are my heroes, and they have earned the right to express their opinions,” Favreau said. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if they didn’t carve the way. They served as a source of inspiration, you can go all the way back to Swingers.” He concluded: “They can express whatever opinion they like.”
As well-known by now, Scorsese — whose gangster epic The Irishman hits theaters next month, with a Netflix drop around Thanksgiving — said that Marvel movies are “not cinema,” and compared them to theme park rides. He recently tripled down on this statement. Coppola, meanwhile, called them “despicable,” and the fact that he made The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and a very much improved recent recut of his 1984 gangster-music movie The Cotton Club did not stem the tide of angered Marvel fans.
Still, Favreau didn’t try to say the films are not for them, as Gunn and others have. The man who paid loving homage to Goodfellas’ iconic and acrobatic nightclub Steadicam long take via a similar one in Swingers didn’t qualify his comments; he let them get away with not enjoying the franchise he helped birth, having directed the first two Iron Man movies and has hung around as Happy Hogan. Perhaps he will inspire others to feel likewise.
Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola’s Marvel movie criticisms have set off a chain reaction of responses from talent both inside and outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe yes, even two-time Palme d’Or winner and kitchen sink drama master Ken Loach has weighed in comparing Marvel films to hamburgers. While MCU names such as Natalie Portman, Taika Waititi, and James Gunn have defended Marvel films against accusations they are “despicable” and not real cinema, “Iron Man” director and MCU actor Jon Favreau is choosing to be a bit more diplomatic.
“These two guys are my heroes, and they have earned the right to express their opinions,” Favreau told CNBC on Tuesday via The Wrap. “I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if they didn't carve the way. They served as a source of inspiration, you can go all the way back to ‘Swingers.’ They can express whatever opinion they like.”
In addition to directing “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2,” Favreau has starred in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Happy Hogan for over a decade. Favreau’s character popped up in both “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” this year. Favreau’s directorial career as of late has gone heavy on pre-exiting IP thanks to “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King,” two Disney remakes that Scorsese might also consider “theme parks.” Favreau is also behind the upcoming Disney+ “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian,” which debuts November 12.
Scorsese was the first auteur to come out strong against Marvel movies. In an interview at the start of October, Scorsese was quoted as saying, “Honestly, the closest I can think of [Marvel movies], as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn't the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Coppola joined the anti-Marvel train October 20 by saying, “When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he's right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration...I don't know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it's not cinema. He didn't say it's despicable, which I just say it is.”
Martin Scorcese? The guy who said all those mean things about Marvel? He’s apparently… [checks notes] …an Oscar-winning filmmaker who has a new movie coming out. The Irishman re-teams Scorsese with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time since Casino; it’s also Pesci’s first movie, from any director, in nearly a decade.
It wasn’t easy getting the Home Alone star on board, either: Pesci was reportedly asked over 40 times to join the cast. “I would have done it for free the first time,” said Background Mobster #3 on The Sopranos. When questioned by Entertainment Weekly why Pesci was hesitant, Scorsese replied, “These are individual choices and sometimes people don’t want to do something for different reasons. It could be, financial issues. You could have that — I’m not saying he did, right? It could be family issues. It could be health. It could be boredom from doing a certain kind of film. Playing a certain character. Ultimately, if Bob asks enough and he pushes enough, does this make sense? Let me put it this way: It would have to be comfortable for [Pesci] to make it, you know?”
But the real reason Joe Pesci is now The Irishman star Joe Pesci?
Pesci ended up agreeing, the director says, after Netflix decided to finance the film… “When Netflix got into the picture — because then we had the backing,” Scorsese says [about] Pesci’s tipping point. “It’s not even about the money or about being compensated and appreciated for your value. It’s about the physicality of [making a film] where nobody’s giving you anything. At a certain age and physicality for the actors, it may not be worth it.” Via
Maybe, if the nation catches Joe Pesci fever, Netflix can finally make that sequel to 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag everyone has been asking for. Guess what it’s called.
What if there’s no ending to the “Marvel movies are/aren’t cinema” argument that has taken over social media? Everyone from Martin Scorsese three times! to Natalie Portman to Francis Ford Coppola to James Gunn to Ken Loach “They’re made as commodities like hamburgers” to Damon Lindelof has weighed in — we’re THIS CLOSE to headlines like, “Zack Snyder Comments on Forky’s Comments on Young Will Smith in Gemini Man‘s Comments on The Old Guy From I Think You Should Leave‘s Comments on Martin Scorsese’s Marvel Comments” and I, for one, can’t wait.
Besides, Kevin Smith thinks he already solved this dilemma, well before Marty piped up.
“Thanks to a few folks in film saying that the @MarvelStudios movies are not ‘cinema,’ this Brodie Bruce moment in #JayAndSilentBobReboot has been playing through the roof – like it did at the Chicago stop on the #RebootRoadshow last night,” Smith tweeted on Tuesday. The comedy was obviously made months before Scorsese’s comments made the round. He’s referring to a scene from his new film, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, where Jay played by Jason Mewes mockingly asks Brodie Jason Lee if he’s “going to make another Marvel movie.” Brodie’s response: “Hey man, those Marvel movies are a triumph in cinema,” leading to a loud ovation from a theater full of Smith’s fans watching Reboot. Brodie then adds, “I watch those Marvel movies more than I watch PornHub and I cum twice as hard doing it,” because, well, it’s a Kevin Smith movie, isn’t it?
Silent Bob recorded the moment and uploaded it for his followers.
Thanks to a few folks in film saying that the @MarvelStudios movies are not “cinema”, this Brodie Bruce moment in #JayAndSilentBobReboot has been playing through the roof – like it did at the Chicago stop on the #RebootRoadshow last night. Get tickets at https://t.co/LU79HZC1Ql pic.twitter.com/fszYpD536r
— KevinSmith @ThatKevinSmith October 22, 2019
Watch Jay and Silent Bob Reboot if you want more prophetic Marvel quotes, and check out The Last Temptation of Christ if you want to see the “biggest superhero movie ever.”