The first reviews of Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead are the latest evidence of the director's status as a critical favorite. This is not because the notices have been uniformly glowing--it's been some time since a Scorsese picture won unanimous praise from reviewers--but because Scorsese remains, almost uniquely among American directors, an embodiment of the beleaguered idea that filmmaking, and therefore film criticism, can be a serious, important, life-and-death matter. Here, for instance, is Roger Ebert, all thumbs:
To look at Bringing Out the Dead--to look, indeed, at almost any Scorsese film--is to be reminded that film can touch us urgently and deeply. Scorsese is never on autopilot, never panders, never sells out, always goes for broke; to watch his films is to see a man risking his talent, not simply exercising it. He makes movies as well as they can be made.
Never? Always? This is pure ideology--which is not to say that it isn't, to some extent, true. Even Scorsese's weaker films bristle with energy and intelligence. But look closely at what Ebert says: To be reminded of the power of film as a medium is not quite the same as being moved by a particular film, and Bringing Out the Dead is, for all its hectic pacing and breakneck intensity, an oddly unmoving experience. Yes, you think, movies can touch us urgently and deeply. Why doesn't this one? If Scorsese makes movies as well as they can be made, why does one so often feel that his movies--especially over the last decade or so--could have been better?
Above all, to look at Bringing Out the Dead is to be reminded of a lot of other Scorsese films. Critics have noted its similarities with Taxi Driver, Scorsese's first collaboration with screenwriter Paul Schrader (who also wrote The Last Temptation of Christ and the later drafts of Raging Bull). Both movies feature a disturbed outsider cruising the nightmarish, as-yet-ungentrified streets of Manhattan in search of redemption. In place of Sport, Harvey Keitel's suave, vicious pimp in the earlier film, Bringing Out the Dead features Cy, a suave, vicious drug dealer played by Cliff Curtis. The mood here is a good deal softer: The scabrous nihilism of Taxi Driver is no longer as palatable--or, perhaps, as accurate in its response to the flavor of the times or the mood of its creators--as it was in 1976. Nicolas Cage's Frank Pierce saves Cy from a death as gruesome as the one De Niro's Travis Bickle visited on Sport, and when Frank does take a life (in the movie's best, most understated scene), it's an act of mercy.
Aside from these parallels and variations, there's plenty in Bringing Out the Dead to remind you that you're watching a Scorsese picture. There's voice-over narration. There's an eclectic, relentless rock 'n' roll score and a directorial cameo--this time Scorsese provides the disembodied voice of an ambulance dispatcher. There are jarring, anti-realist effects embedded in an overall mise en scène of harsh verisimilitude. And, of course, there is the obligatory religious imagery--the final frames present a classic Pietà, with Patricia Arquette (whose character is named Mary) cradling Cage, the man of sorrows, in her arms. To survey Scorsese's oeuvre is to find such echoings and prefigurations in abundance. Look at Boxcar Bertha, a throwaway piece of apprentice-work he made for schlock impresario Roger Corman in the early '70s (if you've never seen it, imagine Bonnie and Clyde remade as an episode of Kung Fu), and then look at The Last Temptation of Christ, the controversial, deeply personal rendering of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel which infuriated some Christians a decade and a half later. Different as they are, both films prominently feature 1) a crucifixion and 2) Barbara Hershey naked.
Well, that may be a coincidence. But it's hard to think of an active director who has produced such an emphatically cross-referenced body of work who seems not so much to repeat himself (though he does some of that) as to make movies by recombining a recognizable and fairly stable set of narrative, thematic, and stylistic elements. In other words, Scorsese is the last living incarnation of la politique des auteurs.
That old politique--the auteur theory, in plain English--was first articulated in the 1950s by a group of French critics, many of whom went on to become, as directors, fixtures of the Nouvelle Vague. In a nutshell, the theory--brought to these shores in 1962 by Village Voice film critic Andrew Sarris--held that, like any work of art, a film represents the vision of an individual artist, almost always the director. The artists who populated the auterist canon--Howard Hawks and John Ford, pre-eminently--had labored within the constraints of the studio system. But even their lesser films, according to auterist critics, could be distinguished from mere studio hackwork by the reiteration of a unique cinematic vocabulary and by an implicit but unmistakable sense of solitary genius in conflict with bureaucratic philistinism.
The auteur theory was quickly challenged, most notably by Pauline Kael, who shredded Sarris in the pages of Film Quarterly. But the "new Hollywood" of the '70s--with Kael as its champion, scold, and Cassandra--was dominated by young directors who attained, thanks to the collapse of the old studios, an unprecedented degree of creative autonomy, and who thought of themselves as artists. What resulted, as Peter Biskind shows in his New Hollywood dish bible Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, was an epidemic of megalomania, sexual libertinism, money-wasting, and drug abuse--as well as a few dozen classics of American cinema.
The avatars of the New Hollywood were mostly "movie brats"--socially maladroit, nerdy young men (and they were, to a man, men) who shared a fervid, almost religious devotion to cinema. Scorsese, a runty, asthmatic altar boy from New York City's Little Italy who traded Catholic seminary for New York University film school, was arguably the purest in his faith. Unlike Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, or Steven Spielberg, "St. Martin" (as Biskind calls him) did not see directing as a route to world domination but as a priestly avocation, a set of spiritual exercises embedded in technical problems. Scorsese's technical proficiency won him some early breaks. While making Who's That Knocking at My Door, his earnest, autobiographical first feature, independently, Scorsese was hired to edit Woodstock into a coherent film. His success (more or less) led to more rock 'n' roll editing assignments--a traveling sub-Woodstock "festival" called Medicine Ball Caravan; Elvis on Tour--and then to Boxcar Bertha, which allowed him to join the Directors Guild and gave him the chance to make Mean Streets. That movie helped launch the careers of Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, and taught generations of would-be tough guys the meaning of the word "mook."
K ael called Mean Streets"a triumph of personal film-making," and even though it may be the single most imitated movie of the past 30 years--cf The Pope of Greenwich Village, State of Grace, Federal Hill, Boyz N the Hood, etc.--it has lost remarkably little of its freshness and power. Watching it, you feel that you are seeing real life on the screen, but real life heightened and shaped by absolute artistic self-assurance. Or, to quote Kael again, "Mean Streets never loses touch with the ordinary look of things or with common experience. Rather, it puts us in closer touch with the ordinary, the common, by turning a different light on them."