Into the Auteur - Catholicism, Whiteness, and Masculinity in Scorsese's Bringing Out The Dead
by Craigen Z. Oster
This is the first in a series of reviews that will be released every week on Saturday, critically analyzing a film by an American auteur released within the past 50 years. This project will be an attempt to probe deeper into my own understanding of film, as well as placing the films in context with one another to achieve a wholistic picture of how auteur filmmaking in America has changed over the past half-century.
The Dead Speak!
There’s a spectre haunting New York City in Martin Scorcese’s 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead - the spectre of white, male, Catholic guilt. This isn't a simple critique of the film for having some white savior complex like The Blind Side or A Time to Kill. This is an attempt to illuminate what it appears Scorsese was, consciously or not, grappling with. This guilt seems to be a very specific type of guilt, a guilt that stems primarily from being raised staunchly Catholic in modern America as a white male.
Dead is the rare Scorsese bomb, having made only $16.7 million against a $32 million dollar production budget. But numbers don't concern me. What I'm interested in is not why this film flopped, but why audiences rejected such a masterfully crafted movie. I suspect that it is precisely because of what this film is really about: the destructive nature of the burden created within a devout religious culture, a burden that white Catholics (and Christians in general, to different extents depending on denomination) specifically are made to feel. I posit that the film is actually showing how this burden, this desire to act as a savior for the world, becomes a restraint ones ability to provide the actual help and care necessary for those truly in need of it. When many white Christians place the burden of saving the world on their shoulders, the focus of salvation becomes their own souls, rather than those of the souls that they’re supposedly seeking to care for.
In Dead, Frank Pierce (performed by Nic Cage, perfectly toe-ing the line of sanity) is an EMT, a vessel for the pent up concoction of guilt, empathy, love, and compassion within white, Catholic culture. The audience follows him over the course of three nights, on the verge of total collapse, as he attempts to reckon with the life of an 18-year old hispanic woman that he couldn’t save, an elderly white man he has brought back to life that is now teetering between existence and nothingness in the ICU, and his romantic pursuit of the man’s daughter Mary (played with grace by Patricia Arquette). Throughout the 2-day stretch, Frank works with three different partners, all with singular approaches to the line of work. He encounters pain and suffering at every turn down the dark, wet corridors of New York City at night.
Watching this film, I found myself questioning what exactly Frank’s motives are for being an EMT. What pushes a person like Frank to work in a field where they are surrounded by death, despair, and constant suffering? He never directly vocalizes, or explains how he went about choosing such a profession. Therefore, it must be gleaned from the tangential words that he does speak and the imagery that Scorsese surrounds him in throughout the film.
Saving someone's life is like falling in love. 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?
This quote is quite telling when trying to decipher just why Frank keeps pushing on as an EMT. Throughout Dead, Frank constantly vocalizes his desire to his partners not to answer calls, to quit, to leave the world of pain behind. He uses alcohol to numb the pain, among other things. But somehow, he keeps going back, call after call, body after body, life lost after life lost.
Frank’s desire to feel messianic, to literally raise the dead as Christ did for Lazarus in the Gospel According to John, must stem from his Catholic upbringing. He was raised Catholic, something that he and Mary bond over as they sit outside her father’s room in the ER, discussing how they both attended Catholic grade schools.
In the Catholic faith, something both Scorsese and myself are intimately familiar with, there is a constant feeling that one must suffer in order to find fulfillment, to achieve a state of grace that will allow one to eventually transcend the trappings of the material world and experience everlasting love in heaven with God. This is presented constantly throughout the bible in the stories of Job, Noah, and even Christ himself, both his wanderings in the desert and his night in the garden of gethsemane. Not only is it present in the bible, but in the literal mass as well, where patrons are made to constantly kneel, sit, and stand in repetition, all while reflecting on the sins that they’ve committed before ultimately coming to Christ in the Eucharist.
Another telling sign about Frank is his name, a derivative of Francis. St. Francis of Assisi desired to quite literally live life as Christ did, shirking his belongings and the trappings of the modern world in which he found himself to live humbly as a servant of others. Much like Francis, Frank himself seems to be pursuing this path, to do away with all else in his life to achieve a state of grace. But unlike St. Francis, Frank isn’t able to achieve grace through the pursuit of a simple life. It takes much, much more than that. Ultimately it is through reconciling his desire to save life with his ability to take it that he is able to seemingly achieve peace and grace in the film. But I think this is almost a false reading of the ending.
We need to look at the identity markers at work here and go further. Race matters here. Gender matters. Age matters. Faith matters. It’s impossible to deny it. We have a white, Catholic man working in lower-income neighborhoods, dealing with elderly alcoholics, pregnant hookers, zen drug dealers and crackheads. Frank clearly wants to help these people, constantly pushing to have them admitted into the hospital despite the overcrowding, and trying to prevent drug addicts from committing suicide.
What does it mean that he is able to overcome his guilt over not saving people of color, like Rose the hispanic woman, Noel the black man, and the other young black man who was shot, by coming to terms with the death of an elderly white man? He is only able to achieve the supposed grace he desires by allowing someone to die who was already old and didn’t really need assistance or saving.
This leads us to the Pieta-esque image at the end of the film. Frank, the would-be Christ figure, at rest in the arms of Mary. In Michaelangelo’s statue, Christ is dead in his mother’s arms, having just been removed from the cross. It is easy to read the final image of Dead as merely making the visual connection between Frank and Christ, between Arquette’s Mary and the Blessed Mother, where Frank can now rest having served his purpose. However, when one considers that in the Pieta, Christ had not yet actually achieved his purpose, as he has not yet resurrected. It was only through the resurrection that Christ had fulfilled the supposed prophecy that would save humanity from their sins.
So what does it then mean for Frank? I’d proffer that by the end of the film, he has actually only achieved a false state of grace, one that is self-serving, rather than serving others. Internally, he can feel good about himself. He can rest precisely because he is a white, Catholic male who have fulfilled the supposed burden placed on him by his race, gender, and faith. He has made the difficult choice to end the life of Mary’s father, in order to allow him to pass on rather than live life like a vegetable strapped to a host of gadgets. This decision has apparently enabled him to also come to terms with his previous demons, as well as brought him closer to the pursuit of his romantic affections. However, how can this one act allow him to fully be at peace, when previously he has left and old drug addict, whom they initially brought in, sitting outside the hospital, with the audience never finding out what became of him? How can he truly be at rest when he has allowed Noel to continually be abused by the system, despite his supposed care for him? I'd conclude the he cannot be. He has achieved momentary grace, but only within the framework of his own, white male mind.