Vol. 4 No. 12, May 2000
Martin Scorsese's Invisible City in _Bringing Out the Dead_
_Bringing Out the Dead_
Directed by Martin Scorsese
(Paramount Pictures Corporation and Touchstone Pictures, 1999)
And Polo said: 'The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.' Italo Calvino 
Since any text can be read and enjoyed at different levels of knowledge and sophistication, as Umberto Eco has often clarified when asked about his constructed narratives, I would like to read Martin Scorsese's _Bringing Out the Dead_ in light of an apparently unobtrusive presence that appears within the film and opens up a wide semiotic web of signifying references. I am referring to the presence of Italo Calvino's book _Invisible Cities_ that is stealthily revealed by a somewhat casual panoramic camera eye.
Based on Joe Connelly's eponymous novel, which is an autobiographical recount of the author's experience as a paramedic, Martin Scorsese's latest movie _Bringing Out the Dead_ returns, with scriptwriter Paul Schrader, to New York, his favorite city, the city of _Taxi Driver_ (released in 1976). Filmed over 75 nights in the neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen, the film captures the 56-hour filmic period of the adventurous life of a paramedic with an interesting name: Frank Pierce. _Bringing Out the Dead_ continues Scorsese's cinematic journey, re-routing some old themes into new directions. However, the film points to a quite different investigative path for the filmmaker whose endeavor takes, this time, the element of hope a step further. Hope, which had always been something to strive for in Scorsese's films, is here made more overtly evident. It becomes the element that helps in escaping the suffering of an inferno-like tormented (postmodern) condition. It helps in recognizing the second way out mentioned in Calvino's quotation. Frank chooses this way. He chooses to see, to seek and learn, in the midst of a hellish condition, 'who and what are not inferno', and decides 'to make them endure and give them space'.
Paired off each one of the three nights with three different fellow drivers, Frank, the insomniac paramedic who has been working for five years on the EMS (Emergency Medical Service) at Our Lady of Mercy hospital, is on the verge of a collapse. After having been unable to save lives for quite some time he is haunted by the death of Rose, a young woman he could not resuscitate -- the memory of her ghostly face accompanying him everywhere. Working with Larry on his Thursday shift, the first one of the film, he is able to revive Mr Burke from a heart attack and take him to the ER followed by members of his family. Mary, Mr Burke's daughter, a former drug user, is also a soul in distress and attracts Frank's attention who gradually begins to feel affection for her. Unable to cope with the stress of his job Frank tries, unsuccessfully to get himself fired. Unaware of where he is going, Frank accompanies Mary to Cy, a drug dealer who gets her drugs that make her sleep. Allured by Cy, Frank decides to take some drugs and immediately goes through a series of chilling and distressing hallucinations that bring back the faces of the people he could not save.
Every time Frank goes back to the hospital's emergency room (ER) he visits with Mr Burke and keeps hearing his voice begging him to let him die. Among the many local drug addicts who gravitate around the ER area we continuously find Noel, an old acquaintance of Mary. Finding himself on the ambulance when Frank is called to the site of a gang shooting, Noel begs him to let him die. On the Friday night shift with Marcus, called to a nightclub, Frank is able to revive a young man from an overdose. During the same shift Frank and Marcus are called to rescue a woman who delivers twins, one of which dies in Frank's arms. Driving around the neighborhood Frank continuously sees Rose's face and hears her ask him why he could not save her. After this episode Frank finds himself at Mary's door. In her apartment he crashes on the sofa, being able, for the first time in months -- so he informs us the following morning -- to have a night of uninterrupted sleep.
The following night, the third in the film, Frank and Tom, accompanied by a team of other paramedics and policemen, arrive at Cy's apartment where a woman has been killed and Cy has been impaled -- after the attack of a rival gang -- on the spiked railing of a terrace leaning onto the void beneath the building. Cy is rescued. Later on in the film Frank lets Tom convince him to beat up Noel, but, after the vision/hallucination of people lying in boxes in a subterranean opening, he reconsiders at the last moment. Back at the ER he finally listens to what he believes to be Mr Burke's eerie voice and decides to spare him the umpteenth return of his electrocardiogram from a flatline to the zigzag line of a coma. He lets him die peacefully by detaching the cord that ties him to the life support system. Upon getting to Mary's apartment to inform her, he once again sees Rose's face when Mary opens the door. During this vision/hallucination he hears her telling him it was not his fault and he did all he could. The vision disappears and Mary invites him in. Finally able to make peace with himself we see him resting his head on Mary's breast, who holds him as he falls asleep. The image freezes and an intense light comes from the window on the left of the screen.
Scorsese's intentions -- filming in the streets, especially in the gritty part of the city, and letting his characters mingle with real people -- are clearly laid out in a CNBC interview with Tim Russet in October 1999: 'At a certain point, at a certain point [he likes to repeat phrases in his quick speech], you really don't know anymore who's part of the extras that you cast, or that they are really street people. It happened once before in _Taxi Driver_ back in '75.' But this comparison is only superficial and although Scorsese's new film retrieves some signifying problematics from _Taxi Driver_, it is no out-take from the old one. The spiritual and emotional crisis of Travis Bickle in _Taxi Driver_ makes him cross over from reality into fantasy and, as Scorsese puts it in the same interview, it makes him 'live out his fantasy in violence'. On the contrary, Frank's spiritual and emotional crisis, although burdened by a strong sense of guilt, is more productive, more hopeful. It manifests itself by helping other people, empathizing with their pain and sorrow, even when -- he comes to realize in the end -- he is unable to heal them.
Visually, the film starts 'before itself'. The city noises are audible on the Touchstone Pictures logo and are immediately followed by a brief message on a black screen: 'This film takes place in New York City in the early 90s.' A word-sign follows to indicate the day of the week. Thursday. After acknowledging itself *as a film*, the first shot shows an ambulance suddenly coming into the frame after an abrupt turn from the right of the screen. It is followed by an extreme close up of Frank's blood-shot eyes. The combination of a long shot and extreme close-up that appears at the very beginning will be repeated several times throughout the movie, emphasizing a filmic grammar that takes the film's perspectives toward hidden, oblique meanings transcending the visible. These strategic editing choices that combine speeded-up long shots, close-ups, and unexpected slow motion sequences help the viewers apprehend the story's emotional content, and helps take the film to a condition of being where confusion reigns and the spatial coordinates are out of sight.
In *noirish* first person narrative we hear Frank's voice-over informing us of his disillusionment: 'I hadn't saved anyone in months.' It is a statement that proves to be essential for the understanding of his many faceted dilemmas. Defining the space and the time of the action, the film becomes an extended elaboration on the topic of 'being', and the ability to influence it -- that is, the possibility of bringing out (of bringing being again to) the dead. This signifies being in control, being in charge, and having power over death. But this is out of reach for Frank. In voice-over he keeps reminding himself and telling us: 'more than saving lives it was enough that I simply showed up, bearing witness'. This condition of frequent impotent witness is rendered through the recurrent use of extreme close ups of his eyes. It is not the chronicle-like droll of _Goodfellas_ or _Casino_. It is a close and personal confession, very much like the *noir* narratorial strategy.
Among the many interesting turns the film takes and the many references it makes -- to other Scorsese films, his personal life, religious rhetoric, the self-conscious use of non-diegetic music -- there is one that certainly has a compelling impact. It is the reference to Italo Calvino's _Invisible Cities_. We become aware of it after the first third of the film. A traveller in the *invisible* nocturnal city, Frank is also introduced as a reader, and a cultivated one. This happens at dawn when Frank goes home after his Thursday night shift has ended. In his house the camera tracks quickly and surreptitiously along a small array of books where we recognize, from the spine of the book, Italo Calvino's _Invisible Cities_. The camera continues to track away, travelling from right to left and takes in a window showing the skyline image of the city. Frank is silhouetted on the right side of the window looking out in plaintive, melancholic contemplation. The regressive motion of the camera from right to left denies the advancing of the character's story and signals the end of the day -- a momentary suspension. The screen goes to black for a moment before the word-sign Friday appears on the same black screen. It is day number two.
Although the camera has left it behind in its counter-clockwise motion, the implications of the revealing presence of Calvino's book lingers on. The allusion to the book makes the film's range of signification gravitate around the philosophical implications of Calvino's sophisticated treatise and its city stories. The discussions nested within each city story is widely built on the concept of (the) physical matter and nature of the universe discussed by Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, c.95-55BC) in his _De Rerum Natura_, a six-book treatise based on the theories of Democritus. Lucretius maintains the existence of a universe explicable in scientific terms so as to banish fear of the unknown and superstition. In 'Lightness', the first of his _Six Memos for the Next Millennium_, Calvino discusses the importance of Lucretius's work in relationship to _Invisible Cities_, which contains a combination of fabulous stories ruled by rational, almost scientific thought.
The poetry of the invisible and the poetry of nothingness appearing in Lucretius's philosophy are of course nothing new to Calvino or Scorsese. They have been elaborated and have kept reappearing throughout the centuries. One of the most influential writers who comes to mind is William Shakespeare, and the use he has made of these concepts in his plays, especially in _King Lear_, which is highly woven on the idea of the King 'reduced to a zero', in the Fool's words, to nothingness, to a naught. The King's painful transformation from nothing into something, via the endless dialectical discoursing with his wise Fool, relies on ability to bring things into visibility and being able to discern what often does not appear to be there.
The 'dialectically induced' transformation of nothingness into something is explained in Calvino's _Invisible Cities_ with the theoretical meandering of Polo's stories regarding the fabulous cities encountered during his journeys. Telling these stories to the Kahn he convinces him that the apparent nothing he sees is only an illusion. In fact behind what one does not see is what is really there. The Kahn is made to see that the 'nothing' that appears to be on a chess board is in reality the combination of many things: ebony and maple, fibers and knots, and that so much can be read into the existence of these elements. Frank's dilemmas are, like Polo's, of a philosophical nature. They examine the fundamental issues that relate to the question of being and non-being -- of being able to see the seemingly apparent nothingness; to feel the pain of the less fortunate, of the suffering, of the dying, to rationalize it, to empathize with it, and 'give it space'.
Moreover, the fabulous cities are made of a series of 'other spaces', seemingly inconceivable impossible spaces that contain, however, probable things. These cities -- whose attributes condense in the description of one city -- fit the Foucaultian definition of *heterotropias*. Michel Foucault discusses this concept both in _The Order of Things_ and in the short treatise 'Of Other Spaces'. In _The Order of Things_ Foucault analyzes the concept of heterotropias as the impossible spaces of a great number of possible, fragmentary, but incommensurable probable order of worlds that escape set notions of boundaries. The mere fact of bringing them into the descriptive power of recognition, by giving a detailed account of them, makes their impossibility possible. In 'Of Other Spaces' he slightly modifies his definition of heterotropias as the embodiment of Other, of spaces of incommensurable differences; external spaces that can be traced in all societies. Both in Calvino's _Invisible Cities_ and Scorsese's _Bringing Out the Dead_ we can recognize the presence of these fragmentary, 'impossible' spaces.
As also noted by Brian McHale in _Postmodern Fiction_  there is a close relationship between Calvino's cities and these concepts of heterotropias. The invisible cities that populate the Empire of the Great Khan are discontinuous juxtapositions of worlds of incompatible structures. Unaware of them, The Kahn *sees* these cities in Polo's narrations. The following are just a few examples of the heterotropic configurations Polo finds in the many cities he describes: Isidora is the city that contains all a person can dream and/or desire; Zaira, consists of relationships between the measurements of its spaces and the events of its past; Fedora's metal building with a crystal globe in every room shows the way the city could have been if it had not become what it is at present (by looking at every room's globe each person can choose the Fedora that mostly resembles his/her dreams and desire); Eutropia is the city that can transfer, together with its inhabitants, its own identity to another place that becomes Eutropia all over again; Berenice (the last one in Polo's stories) is the city which is a temporal succession of different cities, and contains, already present in every instant, all the future Berenices.
The descriptions of these heterotropic spaces that arrange and juxtapose discontinuous worlds of incompatible structures parallel the heterotropic configurations addressed by _Bringing Out the Dead_, where the 'impossibility' and 'unthinkability' become possible by means of narrating, remembering, acknowledging, in many forms, the invisible, the subterranean, and come to terms with them. Coming to terms with those worlds, those 'other spaces' that escape set notions of boundaries via memories, hallucinations, desires and hopes will allow Frank, in the end, to finally rest. Like the invisible city (Venice) that is contained in the many invisible ones described by Marco Polo in Calvino's book, Scorsese's film centers on one city (New York), its many facets and its hidden, subterranean aspects. Perhaps indiscernible to many, these aspects are brought into visibility in great detail by the inquisitive eye of the camera. This city, this particular New York, like Polo's Venice, is also an imaginary one. It is an assemblage of 'other spaces', the product of memory, desire, and dream-like states that have been present in many of Scorsese's works but stems from an originally real place: New York. Looking back at his filmography we see that his interest in this city remains constant. The name of the city will even appear spelled out in the film following _Taxi Driver_, _New York New York_, and in 1989 his 'Life Lessons' will be the first part of the anthology film _New York Stories_ also featuring Francis Ford Coppola's 'Life Without Zoe', and Woody Allen's 'Oedipus Wrecks'.
Years back, commenting on _Taxi Driver_ Scorsese acknowledged that:
'The whole film is very much based on the impressions I have as a result of growing up in New York and living in the city. There is a shot where the camera is mounted on the hood of the taxi and it drives past the sign 'Fascination', which is just down from my office. It's that idea of being fascinated, of this avenging angel floating through the streets of the city, that represents all cities for me.' 
Travis as avenging angel has, transfilmicaly, been replaced in _Bringing Out the Dead_ by the more complex persona of Frank, an angel of mercy, an ailing soul with a lot of queries about the question of living a degraded city life in a city space that has become inconsistent and discontinuous, both changed/changing but incongruously, like one of Calvino's cities, still the same. It is the recording of the changed/changing sense of society in a state of distress one feels when living in a city, that Scorsese is trying again to represent in _Bringing Out the Dead_. The film explores the 'invisibleness' of certain spaces of the city, its many-faceted ways, and the displaced inhabitants that live at the margins of society. It also centers on the philosophical status of things in decay, their being in the emblematic status of the postmodern condition(s). It also investigates the queries of the main character who is set on a personal crusade to bring some hope and some relief to the pain of the less fortunate.
The characters who gravitate around him provide an interesting repertory of human behaviors played against the background of the city's state of decay. They constitute a kind of chorus, a dialectical counterpart, a means for interpellation, and each of his three partners on the job -- one for each night -- appear to be one crazier than the other, and provide examples of contemporary idiosyncrasies. The first one, Larry is obsessively concerned about his eating pattern; the second one, Marcus behaves as Jesus's intermediary, and comically makes a group of youngsters in a rock club follow his prayer to God in resuscitating one of their friends fallen victim of an overdose. The last one, *Major* Tom Wolls, is taken over by his own violent temper and sense of justice. The other important character is Mary, the reformed junkie daughter of a man Frank has saved from death, but now lingering in a coma.
In the film, the dialectical venue that makes the unveiling of the invisible possible happens through Frank's dialogues with his partners, during his hallucinations, through his conversations with Mary, and also via his voice-over both addressing himself and the audience. In the revealing hallucinatory sequences Frank envisions taking all the dead people he could not save out of the city sewers. He also relives/remembers on several occasions what supposedly took places when Rose died. Earlier he had relived a descent into the gutter of the city where people lie down like forgotten pieces of garbage. Here he reminisces about Rose, then he returns to the present when he sees Noel beaten by his third colleague. With Mary he is brought to discuss the difficulties of living in such a troubled city like New York. Like Polo's Venice it is an assemblage of the qualities of many other imaginary cities.
For the viewers, this unveiling of the invisible occurs at another level: through Frank's voice-over narrative and ultimately by the eye of the camera which captures paradoxical moments. There is one revealing instance, however, when the camera manages to create a *distancing* effect. It happens when, sitting near Frank inside the ambulance, Mary smiles for a moment. Lulled by the non-diegetic music Frank and Mary sit side by side facing left in the back of the ambulance and share an intense silent moment of closeness, each one looking straight ahead. Mary shaping up a smile unseen by Frank. The smile is both diegetic and extra-diegetic. It appears in the filmic space, but we also recognize it is a spontaneous smile from actress Patricia Arquette that director Scorsese has decided to leave unedited, and to give to it its own place within the film. In the film the audience also takes the place of the interlocutor, occupied by Kublai Kahn in Calvino's book. The level of interpellation being underlined by the frequent close-ups of Frank's eyes and his voice-over which is addressed to us.
What is interesting in this film is that Scorsese's presence, his intriguing dialectical camera-eye, is not limited to these unusual extra-filmic perspectives, like Arquette's smile, that pertain to vision only. He is also present as a voice. He is, together with Queen Latifah, one of the two dispatchers whose voice on the radio gives directions to the driver and provides some kind of ironic, comic relief. His signature is also present in remarks like Frank's response to Mary's statement that he has gentle, caring eyes: 'My mother always said I looked like a priest.'
Frank, a postmodern Marco Polo figure, reports to us and ponders on his mental and physical travels. These are rendered in an unusual, mesmerizing and somewhat opposing ways. The frenzied, speeded-up sequences when the ambulance suddenly picks up speed is unusual -- a totally Scorsese experiment that greatly conveys the imaginariness of the *extra-ordinary* experiences the main character is going through. Then, in contrast, a slow motion technique, used to retrieve moments from Frank's past, is coupled with seemingly unrelated musical themes -- seemingly only, because these themes are remainders from themes used in earlier films. These moments are knowingly pared off with Scorsese's camera movements which present the action to the viewer either as slowed paced motion or as a dizzying rollercoaster ride. The filmic construction of the way the streets run together and the images are edited together is a feast for the eye. Scorsese uses a graphic style that makes extensive use of unusual point-of-view shots, long identificatory tracks, and energetic cross-cutting. The slow-motion parade of people who live in the neighborhood is both eerie and poetic and often accompanied by non-diegetic music that charmingly clashes with the screen image.
The idea of movement, associated with the concept of travelling, of being in transit both physically and emotionally, offers another link to the transitional explorations discussed in Calvino's _Invisible Cities_. In fact, another aspect that ties the film to the philosophical implications of Polo's stories is the fragmentary, fleeting nature of the film's narrative, that also renders, like the book, the mercurial abstract adventures of the main character. Calvino's/Polo's descriptions turn out to contain the multiple ways of being of one city. This ultimate invisible city which lives in the imaginary parallels Scorsese's New York, the ultimate invisible city he is still trying to represent in his films. Scorsese also shares with Calvino the idea that invisible realms can be understood, represented, and narrated only with a highly detailed and meticulous consideration of the physical world and the objects and people that inhabit it. In filmic grammar the physical world, rigorously rendered by Scorsese's precise camerawork, parallels the endless, almost obsessive enumerations that define Calvino's complex detailing style.
Absent from Calvino's book, but present in the film, as in almost all of Scorsese's films, is a very deep religious undertone that takes many shapes and forms, and can ultimately take itself under scrutiny, or even laugh at itself. We see that in the middle section of the film when Marcus knows the young man is 'coming back' from his heroin overdose helped by an adrenaline shot, but he still cannot resist the temptation to stage a Baptist rhetorical interpellation of God with the other youngsters who participate in awe. It is still a calling on the Lord that presents one of the many aspects of religion. He thunders: 'We are going to bring you back from the dead -- the first step is love, the second is mercy.' On a more serious note is the religious reference at the very end of the film. As seen by David Thompson, the final scene when Frank is resting in Mary's arms is 'a kind of *pieta*'.  He also adds that it is tempting to read this as a Bressonian moment of grace. I would agree with this. Scorsese's admiration for Robert Bresson is no mystery. Scorsese even brought it up, in discussing his films in general, in his Russet interview remembering a line from _Diary of a Country Priest_: 'God is not a torturer. He just wants us to be merciful of ourselves.'
A firm believer that music plays a great role in our understanding of filmic images, Scorsese is one of the first filmmakers to have made a 'counter-traditional' use of rock music as soundtrack, and in _Bringing Out the Dead_ his choice of music continues to be as intriguing as in all of his films. Here, music self-citationality prevails as a trait referencing the utilization and the function of rock music in Scorsese's earlier films. The at times dissociative use of music comes to Scorsese from his own personal experience. He remembers it as a background element to the facts of his daily life when he was growing up. Discussing it with Tim Russet he remembers that music surrounded him as far back as he can remember. He recalls that there was music: 'out of windows in the neighborhood, all kinds of music together accompanying every day of my life'. The presence of this source music playing in the background is elaborated to the point of becoming the score for many of his films. In fact, he later admits: 'Music scored my life.' On his use of Philip Glass's music in _Kundun_ Scorsese clearly explains in the introductory note for the film's trailer: 'Philip Glass's score for _Kundun_ is the realization of a long-cherished dream. For me, the images of the film no longer stand on their own without music.'
Another aspect that shapes the intricate web of references that constitutes Frank's journey is the presence of humor, often black, that reveals Scorsese's often overlooked sense of irony. Such as Noel's desire to be peacefully killed by Frank in the ER and Frank's continuous menace of not killing him if he does not do what he is told; the funny figure of the cop in the ER who refers to himself in the third person and menaces to remove his dark glasses (!) if people do not behave properly in the ER waiting room recalls the *miles gloriosus* (the braggart soldier) of the Roman theatrical farces of Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus c. 254-184BC).
What mostly strikes in thinking back on the film as a whole, is the incredible co-existence of many references and philosophical issues, all very well integrated together. Surprisingly touching the territory of irony, this comedic (and I mean it in the way intended by Dante), mercurial, and volatile travelogue holds highly erudite considerations on the significance of being and dying. What appears to be most obvious in Scorsese's latest film is his constant commitment to evade Hollywood's mainstream parameters. Yet, very few have done what he has done and is still doing to preserve the wealth of American cinema. In his documentaristic appearances, like his commentary remarks in the film studies television course and PBS Series _America Cinema_, and his own _Personal Journey Through American Movies_, he is very candid in discussing how much he owes to the many great directors who came before him and how much he learned from their films. A true connoisseur of film history, he always shows the humility that only the truly great filmmakers can afford.
University of Arizona, USA
1. Calvino, _Invisible Cites_, p. 165.
2. McHale, _Postmodern Fiction_, p. 44.
3. Thompson and Christie, eds, _Scorsese on Scorsese_, p. 54.
4. Thompson, 'Death's Cabbie', p.13.
Calvino, Italo, _Le citta invisibili_ (Turin: Einaudi, 1972).
--- _Invisible Cites_ (San Diego, New York and London: HBJ, 1974).
--- _Six Memos for the Next Millennium_ (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988).
Connelly, Joe, _Bringing Out the Dead_ (New York: Knopf, 1998).
Foucault, Michel, 'Of Other Spaces', _Diacritics_, Spring 1986, pp. 22-27.
--- _The Order of Things_ (New York: Vintage, 1980).
McHale, Brian _Postmodern Fiction_ (London and New York: Routledge, 1989.)
Russet, Tim, Interview With Martin Scorsese, CNBC October 23, 1999.
Thompson, David. 'Death's Cabbie', _Sight and Sound_, December 1999, pp. 12-14.
Thompson, David and Ian Christie, eds, _Scorsese on Scorsese_ (London: Faber and Faber, 1989).
_American Cinema_, PBS Series, 1995.
_Casino_, Scorsese, 1996.
_Diary of a Country Priest_, Robert Bresson, 1951.
_Goodfellas_, Scorsese, 1990.
_New York Stories_, Scorsese, Coppola, Allen, 1989.
_Kundun_, Scorsese, 1997.
_New York New York_, Scorsese, 1977.
_Personal Journey Through American Movies_, Scorsese, 1995.
_Taxi Driver_, Scorsese, 1976.
Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000
Cristina Degli-Esposti Reinert, 'Martin Scorsese's Invisible City in _Bringing Out the Dead_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 12, May 2000 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol4-2000/n12reinert>.
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