Talking this idea over with B., he told me to watch Bringing Out the Dead for two reasons. One, he said it echoes Taxi Driver though I had no idea what he meant by that, and the second, becoz he thought I'd be able to relate to it. Turns out that he's right on both counts.
I've never seen Bringing Out the Dead before and quite frankly I did not expect to be so deeply moved by it when I read about it. It's about a New York paramedic named Frank, played by Nicolas Cage, who's spent night after night for five years roaming the streets in an ambulance, dispatched to save dying people who need help on an emergency basis. Frank is actually really good with people, he wants to save their lives and does the best he possibly can.
But he is possessed by the idea that for the last six months, he has not successfully saved a single one of the people he gets called out to help and he increasingly feels like his real job is not saving lives but bringing out the dead. He tries to get out of his job by any means he can think of. He starts to drink on the job, calls in sick, turns up late for shifts, anything, anything to avoid having to face the next person who he's certain will die on his watch. To add to his deepening misery, he is haunted by the ghost of a young woman he tried to save one night but cudnt. Now almost every hour of every night he sees the spectre of her staring at him, on the streets, through windows in restaurants, in the emergency room. Frank all but admits his sickness, he knows that he is coming apart at the seams.
And he's not the only one we watch who we suspect is losing their mind. The ambulance drivers on every shift alternate between a man who drives like the best way to reach an accident is by causing an accident and a man who wallops a defenseless loon on the street with a baseball bat, out of sheer frustration.
The movie follows Frank on three nights, from Friday night until Sunday morning and the Biblical reference is immediately obvious. But one wonders if there is any redemption or resurrection to be found on Sunday, or if it's just a temporary respite from an endless cycle of horrors that begins again on Monday night.
And I think I get how this movie 'echoes' Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle also drove thru streets saving people, the only difference was, he saved people who didnt call for help. Frank, on the other hand, attempts to save those who're struggling to live, but all he can do is helplessly bear witness to their deaths. He cynically calls himself 'a grief mop'.
Whatever he may say, we can see that Frank cares about this job. He's actually good at it. He knows how to handle the confusion and chaos surrounding a man who's had a heart attack at the dinner table at home, how to reassure the girlfriend of a junkie who has overdosed in the toilet of a night-club, how to deliver twins in a dingy room in an abandoned building when the Mexican immigrant mother is so far in denial that she claims she's a virgin and the birth is a miracle, how to scare a homeless man who slashes his wrists every other week, into never trying to commit suicide again. He even throws himself off a balcony trying to save a drug dealer who's jumped off the roof, although he admits a part of him wanted to go down along with the unfortunate man.
As gloom and doom as this movie may sound, it is actually pretty darkly funny in the way it treats its life versus death moments, like in a fabulous scene in which a man dies imagining that sparks from a welder's blowtorch are fireworks against the sky. Also it is extremely visually arresting. The whole movie looks like a vivid acid trip with the camera turning ninety degrees in a matter of seconds and staying like that for minutes as scenes play out with the red and blue lights of the ambulance flashing rapidly, Frank's face alight with manic desperation. The soundtrack spews songs at us, that seem completely incongruous at first, but are a perfect fit in some twisted and wickedly funny way. For example, when Frank walks out of a lift onto a blood-stained floor, the song that plays in the background is hilariously, 'Red, Red Wine'. Nicolas Cage himself is awesome as a man teetering at the edge of the abyss, on the brink of insanity, slowly but surely losing his footing, his blue eyes filled with a world of hurt, his pain starkly visible etched all over his pallid face.
Frank riding in his ambulance to and from his hospital reminded me of the mythical boatman on the River Styx charged with ferrying the souls of the dead to the underworld, the steam rising from the manholes cud be smoke from hellfire. New York looks unusually and incredibly grimy, so unlike the summery glittering clean city that is the backdrop for Woody Allen movies.
And unlike what the American dream may tell you, there are many, many lost souls here. Beggars near subway stations, the homeless underneath bridges, illegal immigrants in hovels, crack addicts in crumbling buildings. These are the people Frank tries to save every night and we understand why he's fighting a losing battle. In my favourite scene, the daughter of the first patient we saw him resuscitate tells him that only the toughest of people can survive in this city. Frank shakes his head slowly and says, "No, the city doesn't discriminate. It gets everyone. We're all dying here." And we know that he's right.
And I had an instant sense of recognition every time the action shifted to the Emergency Room of the hellishly overcrowded hospital at night, on the rare occasions that Frank does manage to rescue someone from certain death, with the all-too-familiar (to me) characters of the harassed looking doctor, unhappy to be stuck here at night but trying to do his best without yelling himself hoarse, the nurse who knows the first names of all the "regular" patients and is as kind as she can be, the security guard who deals roughly but efficiently with drunk brawlers and high-as-a-kite junkies, the pizza guy who delivers pizza after midnight from an all-night pizza place and who points out the visible irony in calling a night shift at a hospital, a 'graveyard shift'. There's the same old medication trolley, the same ventilator beeps, the bloody gauze rolls and the same tubing and syringes. If I cud smell the movie, I'm sure I'd know that smell. Every hospital emergency room in the world is exactly the same, in all probability. I kept thinking how this could be the same place that I worked once a week, populated by pretty much the same people.
The ending is at dawn on Sunday morning when Frank falls asleep as the sun rises, after what he claims felt like months of staying awake. He feels like he's broken the endless cycle of death by finally having saved a life and now, he can get back to his job which he does so well, a job that is never, ever over.