Switching Gears

God's lonely man takes communion: Nicolas Cage in Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead

In the years before Ronald Reagan became our acting president, no one from American cinema delivered as many bad vibes as David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. Indeed, could there be a more unsettling pair of urban-nightmare noirs than Eraserhead and Taxi Driver--or a more flamboyantly morose set of bio-pics than The Elephant Man and Raging Bull? But nowadays both men are pushing 60--it had to happen eventually--and more than a hint of the easy rider has crept into the anguished souls of these raging bulls. Still, each auteur has maintained the good sense to change directions at a key point in his career: This week Lynch exits Lost Highway for the squeaky-clean oasis of The Straight Story, while Scorsese, following the exquisitely contemplative Kundun, returns to New York's mean streets for the tortured purgatory of Bringing Out the Dead.

Scorsese's latest protagonist is another guilt-ridden insomniac half-consciously seeking peace in the midst of doing a job he doesn't much enjoy. Yet, more like the Dalai Lama than Travis Bickle, Dead's graveyard-shift paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) is at least a humanitarian masochist, a salvation junkie: Recounting the gory details of a long weekend on duty, he begins the film by lamenting in voiceover that "I hadn't saved anyone in months." Dealing with the dead and dying has taken a fierce toll on Frank, whose hollowed-out eyes are lined with blood-red, bruiselike blotches. He looks nearly as sick as his patients, who include a ripe-smelling drunk, a suicidal vagrant (Marc Anthony), and an elderly man whom Frank miraculously saves from cardiac arrest by calling for a little mood music (Sinatra to the rescue). Some of this material is as morbidly funny as it sounds; not so the paramedic's ardent struggle to make up for his earlier failure to save a young asthmatic woman, whose ghost haunts his every waking hour. The moral ambiguity of said struggle is trademark Scorsese: Does saving a reformed drug addict (Patricia Arquette) and her dealer (Cliff Curtis) constitute redemption?

Alas, Bringing Out the Dead may strongly invoke Taxi Driver's story and style--right down to the short-skirted hookers walking the steamy streets while the protagonist broods--but it hardly burns with the same hellfire. Granted, this is a different movie, not to mention that it comes 23 years later in the lives of the director and his periodic screenwriter Paul Schrader. Still, I never thought I'd see a Scorsese scene like the one in which Frank and his new friend Mary (Arquette) share a bumpy ride in the back of his ambulance, her face blushing while Natalie Merchant belts out the ebullient "These Are Days." (Jesus--was Marty screening You've Got Mail for inspiration?) Clearly, the filmmaker means to juggle convention and realism, religious allegory and tabloid reportage, yet the drugged-out dream sequence of the medic pulling spirits through the cobblestone streets seems too literal by half; and by the third or fourth appearance of his guilty conscience made flesh ("Why did you kill me, Frank?"), the hero could use a fresher foil for his salvation.

Bringing Out the Dead is baffling for reasons that seem to defy Scorsese's well-reported hyper vigilance. Never mind that the would-be ferocious hospital-intake drama plays like warmed-over E.R., or that editor Thelma Schoonmaker's embarrassingly pretentious elliptic dissolves fail to resuscitate dialogue scenes that are D.O.A., or that Scorsese's typically driving use of pop music hits a pothole in the soundtrack's ungainly mix of Van Morrison, the Vandellas, UB40, and an R.E.M. rocker that came out well after the film's early-Nineties timeframe. Rather, the movie's biggest burden is that Cage's self-described "grief-mop" is something of a wet noodle--and less pointedly so than the auteur's last three lonely protagonists. As the film races from one grisly vignette to another, the actor's earnest hangdog expressions and De Niro-esque intonations simply can't lend the requisite weight to a malnourished role. Just why does this beleaguered saint start smashing the windows of parked cars with a baseball bat? Well, the director may want to type this guy as a savior--but he needs some tension, too.

As a cineaste, Scorsese has professed particular admiration for those veteran craftsmen--Hawks, Walsh, Minnelli, Lang--who returned repeatedly to familiar genres and narratives, redeploying them in what he has termed "sometimes perverse variations." Thus Bringing Out the Dead is to Taxi Driver as Hawks's Man's Favorite Sport is to Bringing Up Baby, or Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is to Fury--that is, a footnote providing evidence of the auteur's maturity, if not a boon to his reputation. Conveniently, the behind-the-scenes doc In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese (playing this weekend at U Film Society) offers not only a more indelible study of an obsessive's last temptation, but compelling proof of a long-suffering artist's newly enlightened state. So too the fascinating final scenes of Bringing Out the Dead depart radically from the profound isolation of the director's last three masterpieces by allowing the hero to partake in communion. I congratulate Martin Scorsese on this miraculous triumph over his personal demons--and pray for the swift recovery of his art.  

David Lynch changes gears just as dramatically with The Straight Story, telling the true tale of a stubborn Midwestern codger's riding-mower trek across two states--Iowa and Wisconsin--to visit the ailing brother with whom he hasn't spoken in a decade. I think it's fair to say that the downshift has come just in time for this commercially floundering master of abrasive surreality. Where Lynch's little-appreciated Lost Highway began in overdrive, the yellow lines of a very dark and curvy road zooming past the frame at lightspeed, his latest is motored by the aged protagonist's very leisurely ride into the sunset. It's "America at four miles an hour," as one viewer reportedly told the director after a screening. Or one could say that The Straight Story is a twilight Western on the order of Unforgiven, except that the pale rider here mounts a snail-paced John Deere instead of a stallion.

And yet it remains Lynchian to the core, mostly through the filmmaker's precise accumulation of aural and visual details: the growl of an old grain elevator at harvest time, the bucolic sight of three dogs chasing a car down a small-town street, the way the moonlit reflection of dripping rainwater seems to spill tears down the hero's weathered face. Like the character of 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, in an uncannily affecting performance), the film is keenly aware of death. Alvin, whose declining health hasn't taken away his taste for Braunschweiger and Swisher Sweets, is experienced enough in the ways of human frailty to know that when his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) picks up the phone and stutters, "Oh, no," it means that another old-timer has fallen. This time, it's his long-estranged brother Lyle, who has had a stroke. And so Alvin, whose dimmed eyesight has claimed his driver's license, simply hitches a trailer to his backyard rig and hits the road. "I've gotta make this trip on my own," he tells Rose, who seems to understand that sometimes (or always) a man's gotta do what he's gotta do--even (or especially) when he's 73.

With its gently satiric gee-whiz-isms and aerial shots of golden cornfields that extend to the horizon, The Straight Story is a Midwestern movie of classic proportions. Nonetheless, my former editor in Madison warned me long ago that I needed to hate the film because of its co-screenwriter John Roach--a conservative Wisconsin newspaper columnist and bigshot adman who runs TV campaigns for the state's more virulent right-wing pols. This was news to me, but it made sense: Lynch, you'll recall, is an avowed Reagan-lover whose movies have purveyed an offensively simplistic conception of good (cherry pie, the Fairy Godmother) and evil (whorish females, trash-talking black men). It's perhaps worth noting that among the old patriarch's good deeds in The Straight Story is feeding a wiener to a pregnant young runaway and then convincing her to go back home. (What she might be going home to is never addressed.) And indeed it's a new Morning in America when the menace of the modern world is limited to those pesky 18-wheelers that blow Alvin's hat off his head when they pass, or the hysterical lady driver who blathers on about her attempts to avoid hitting deer by blaring Public Enemy. (Lord have mercy.)

For his part, Lynch appears defiantly apolitical, if not oblivious, in the description of his work. "People react to things, and I reacted to it," he said at Cannes of his inspiration to make such an uncharacteristically tame picture. "Something is in the air. It seemed like the right thing to do." Uh-huh. Likewise, it's simply impossible to read Lynch's cinematic cornfield against the grain: It is what it is and that's all. Simplicity is the operating principle of The Straight Story: We don't know much about Alvin beyond his former alcoholism, his widowed status, and his traumatic call of duty in the Second World War--and, Lynch would say, we don't really need to know, given that he's a Darn Good Man. And sure enough, by the time the weary traveler reaches his brother's driveway, with Farnsworth's cobalt-blue eyes expressing every shade of hope and longing, what's on the screen is nothing less than an emotional monument.

As heartland heroes go, Alvin Straight may be as stubbornly old-school as Pat Buchanan (or Forrest Gump), but he's infinitely more charming, and in any case I certainly don't begrudge him the right to sit on the porch with his brother and gaze up at the stars. Nor is it beyond the pale for David Lynch to start over on the straight and narrow, bidding fond farewell to the Midwestern male of the 20th Century.  


Bringing Out the Dead is playing at area theaters; In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese screens Saturday at 5:15 p.m. and Sunday at 4:15 p.m. at U Film Society's Bell Auditorium; The Straight Story is playing at Lagoon Cinema and Har Mar Theatres.

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