Scorsese and Schrader's dark vision

"Nobody asked you to suffer. That was your idea." -- "Bringing Out the Dead"

In the movies, it's tough to maintain a cutting edge for five years, let alone a quarter of a century. And that's one reason the continuing collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader is so remarkable.

Ever since their incandescent 1976 modern classic "Taxi Driver," these two have -- together and alone -- kept pressing the envelope, doing some of their very best work together and forming a combination of extraordinary passion, ambition and daring.

"It's like we're from the same bloodline," Scorsese said in a phone interview. "I can feel (Schrader's best lines) in my veins . . . Paul is a Calvinist; I'm Catholic. It's a very different approach. But we found that common ground, you know?"

In fact, they've been hailed so long as a quintessential American movie director-writer combo, their own high reputation may work against them.

How else can you explain some of the more tepid and insulting responses to "Bringing Out the Dead," their new Nicolas Cage movie about paramedics and paranoia in early '90s Manhattan? This picture -- a great modern noir and one of the best, most characteristic films Scorsese has done in the '90s -- has been spottily received by the public and critics, dismissed by some as too slow or derivative, the product of yesterday's revolutionaries grown old.

That's a real failure of perception. "Dead," a triple tour of Hell (or, more precisely, of Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen area), with Cage as a burned-out paramedic racing through three wild nights in an ambulance -- is a great work. Packed with the director's trademark wild humor and eerie violence, it's a movie that recaptures part of the special quality of "Taxi Driver," that strange, electric sense of tarnished urban beauty and existential dread both Scorsese and Schrader can convey so brilliantly.

Scorsese himself said he's very happy with the picture, singling out the work of all the actors, cameraman Bob Richardson -- and Schrader. "When I read the galleys of the novel," Scorsese recalled, "I told (producer) Scott Rudin, the only person who can write this is Paul Schrader. I just knew -- I could sense -- he was the one."

There always has been a voluptuous energy and visual panache in Scorsese's filmmaking and a biting intelligence in Schrader's portraits of life and people on the edge. Somehow, despite their dissimilar backgrounds, the Manhattan Italian-American Scorsese and the Midwestern Dutch German-American Schrader have always clicked. And their mean streets passion and blazing talent are all on view in "Bringing Out the Dead." So is all their old daring and outsider intensity, that willingness to race along the edge, go too far, express the feelings and fever-dreams other moviemakers avoid.

The famous searing "Taxi Driver" shot of Robert De Niro's alienated Vietnam vet Travis Bickle prowling the sidewalks below sleazy Times Square movie marquees remains their signature image: the walking time bomb, the lonely man in the urban jungle, ready to explode.

More important, though, "Dead" is a movie that doesn't just repeat the old motifs, themes and atmospherics of "Taxi Driver," but significantly reshapes and expands them, revisiting an old nightmare landscape with a new mellowness and maturity. As Scorsese explained: "I knew Paul. We had gone through a lot in the '70s and the '80s. There were high points and there were low points. He's still working. I'm trying to work. And we became a little different people, I think, to a certain extent."

Maybe that maturity, ironically, is one of the reasons Scorsese's film finished fourth in last weekend's box-office wars -- behind "The Best Man," and holdovers "Double Jeopardy" and "Fight Club." I don't blame audiences for having problems with a film as dark and challenging as "Dead," any more than I'd fault them for lapping up the absurdities of the month-long box office champion "Double Jeopardy," a slick revenge thriller with very likable stars (Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones), which stays persistently predictable and stunningly illogical from first scene to last."

Praised and envied as they may be, Scorsese and Schrader have remained gutsy. And controversial. In its day -- something we tend to forget since it's become an "official" classic -- "Taxi Driver" was as damned and reviled as it was hailed. ("A horrific and often disgusting panorama. . . . A panoply of moronic and psychopathic images." Nash & Ross, "The Motion Picture Guide.") So, to a lesser degree, was their second great collaboration, 1980's ferocious boxing biography "Raging Bull," about the brutal life and chastening fall of middleweight champ Jake La Motta. ("A monomaniacal, crabbed, limited work. . . . Just gruesome spectacle." -- David Denby of New York magazine.)

And their third film, 1988's "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- from Nikos Kazantzakis' reverent but psychologically modern retelling of Christ's passion -- remains a flash point to this day, though many of its most fervent attackers never saw the film and were grotesquely mistaken about its content.

"Bringing Out the Dead" is exactly the kind of film you'd expect from this iconoclastic pair. Almost a bookend to "Taxi Driver," it's another portrait of a man on the edge, cruising through the city at its worst, facing death or threat, encountering a rogue's gallery and struggling to save a fallen female from the underworld.

These resemblances, to some extent, are coincidental, since the characters and situations mostly come from the original novel, written by ex-paramedic Joe Connelly. But, like the other Scorsese-Schrader collaborations, "Dead" becomes a lyrical and edgy examination of a tormented protagonist seeking redemption in a chaotic, menacing world.

Paramedic Frank is haunted by guilt, for his failure to rescue a dying 12-year-old street girl whose face follows him around the night. He's also stirred by desire for the emotionally vulnerable Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette), the daughter of a cardiac arrest patient whom he literally brought back from the dead and who now rots at Our Lady of Perpetual Misery hospital, repeatedly flatlining and being jolted back to life with defibrillators. During the three nights of his ordeal, Frank, drained and almost suicidally reckless, tours the city with three different partners: phlegmatic Larry (John Goodman), gospel-thumping Marcus (Ving Rhames) and bully Tom Walls (Tom Sizemore), while also descending with Mary into her world.

For Cage, who gives the movie a solid center, it's a partly thankless role: playing the spent straight man to a succession of scene-stealing partners and patients, enduring his dark night of the soul against a frenetic, potently funny backdrop. But without Cage's calm and bitterness, the film would be diminished.

That quietude is part of what's different about "Bringing Out the Dead," which has two qualities often ignored or underappreciated: maturity and compassion. When they made "Taxi Driver," Scorsese and Schrader were Young Turks and rebels, movie-loving loners obsessed with sex, guns and violence. "In the '70s," Scorsese said, "we talked a lot and were concerned about similar things. We kind of became . . . boring guys who walk around with the weight of the world on our shoulders. Dark. And heavy. And `Oh, God we're so bad. And the world is tough. And life is hard.'"

In creating Travis Bickle, they purged some of those obsessions. But, much as I love "Taxi Driver," I've always found the ending a little too pat: the darker moral questions evaded and the last payoff scene with Cybill Shepherd's Betsy a bit too much young guy's payback and wish-fulfillment.

By contrast, the ending of "Bringing Out the Dead" has a feeling of genuine redemption -- and of mystery and anxiety, since Frank has been prey to guilt and hallucinations throughout the movie. "Taxi Driver" showed us a perverted moral quest, fatally contaminated with fear and desire. "Bringing Out the Dead" shows us something similar, while more forcefully revealing both the exhilaration and danger of playing God in a crazy world. Whether you try to be an avenging angel, like Travis, or an angel of mercy, like Frank, you're still succumbing to hubris and confusion.

So bleak and complex is the new movie's viewpoint, and so jolting its shifts of tone -- from nightmarish anxiety to rollicking machismo to yearning romanticism -- that you can understand why it struck mass audiences as daunting or overly disturbing.

What does Scorsese himself think of the cranked-up pace and machine-gun editing of today's movies? "I think we need more time for reflection. I think the public is oversatiated. It's eating up information and spitting it out. And I believe -- but remember, it's an older man talking now -- I believe it's not digesting the emotional and psychological information.

"But then again, I wonder. . . . The work of a culture changes according to the pace of the culture, the perception of the people. . . . It's hard to hold a shot now, I tell you that. . . . On the one hand, I feel that it's too fast, the rhythm is too fast. But the audience perceives quickly now. But are they really digesting it? Is it really sinking in? Are they allowing any emotion to really touch them, at this point?"

In "Bringing Out the Dead," we do feel the emotion, ride the rhythms, pause to reflect. For me, this new Scorsese-Schrader night journey is not just a recycled "Taxi Driver," but a classic example of the work of two superb filmmakers who've remained true to themselves, while deepening both their art and their vision of life. In movies, you always pay a price for both youthful daring and growing old. Yet, if it's the young rebels who can more easily seduce us, it's often the seasoned warriors who give us lasting beauty and grace.

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