Uncaged - 8 MM (1999) & Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
This year, I am going to try to get through the whole oeuvre of Nicolas Cage because my fascination with this man and his contradictions is endless. God help me.
8 MM is reminiscent of the work of Paul Schrader, not just because the plot is almost identical to his movie Hardcore, in which a father tries to track down his daughter in Los Angeles where she has gotten herself involved in the pornography underground, but because of the surprisingly conservative attitude it has towards sex and sexuality. Due to his intense Dutch Reformed upbringing, Schrader has written many movies about sex, but more specifically, about the marginality of sex and those who work with it.
This film has the prurience of a Schrader film as well as the strangely normcore morality, though one unburdened by religious concerns. A snuff film would still shock today, but bondage and S&M as being really extreme and deviant forms of pornography would be seen as a somewhat quaint attitude, especially since it has been played for laughs for decades at this point. The movie also assumes that women have absolutely no agency and that they are all victims of these smut peddlers when the truth was probably much more complex. It makes sense that this movie was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, the writer of Seven, who is certainly a great storyteller, but complex, interesting female characters are not his strong suit.
I was expecting something a bit more subversive in this story. The 90’s was the era of Lilith Fair and the riot grrrl movement, as well as New Queer cinema, which makes this movie seem woefully out of step with the ethos of this time. Director Joel Schumacher himself is no stranger to non-traditional sexuality. His personal sexuality aside, Schumacher’s heightened style often hinted at the kinky, such as in his infamous Batman movies (those of the Bat nipples and crotch and butt shots). In the movie’s defense, I will say that the movie clips along very well and that the criticism of this movie came from male critics with a strangely conservative view on the sexuality portrayed.
Nicolas Cage is suitably intense and focused, and his struggle to realize how badly he has been played and how much he is a tool of people more powerful than he is was well-done on his part. Perhaps the better performance and the more interesting is Joaquin Phoenix’s adult store clerk, Max California. I think the movie would have been far more interesting if it had focused on his character since he is presented as someone who is too smart for his job. He is also ultimately a decent character despite his seedy exterior because he does end up helping Cage in his quest to find this girl, though mainly for financial reasons. The best feature of this movie is that it examines quite well how power and money can make evil more possible, but it doesn’t do it in an interesting or new way. It is ultimately just competent.
Bringing Out the Dead (1999)
This was a hell of way for Scorsese to finish out the most interesting decade of his work. Starting with Goodfellas, veering into sheer pulp with Cape Fear and luxuriating in period drama with The Age of Innocence, he rejoined Paul Schrader for possibly Nic Cage’s best performance in a decade full of them. I mean, the fact that Cage wasn’t even nominated for a Best Actor Oscar is criminal, especially when a real criminal (Kevin Spacey) won for a movie that has not aged well. Scorsese’s bold and highly stylized filmmaking is quite a good fit for a story about an insomniac paramedic whose personal hell is a combination of the intense nature of his job and his own psychological hangups.
On paper, Schrader and Scorsese should be at odds with each other. Schrader focuses so much on the psychology of his characters that the drama that takes place in his characters’ heads doesn’t necessarily translate on screen (I’m thinking of his flawed, lifeless Hardcore, which is very similar to Taxi Driver). Scorseses, while one of the greatest filmmakers, isn’t necessarily a deep thinker. He’s not as concerned about conveying ideas on screen as he is presenting bold images and strong impressions. Which is why I think he needs an actor on the caliber of Robert DeNiro or, yes, Nicolas Cage to make his films work, otherwise they come across as merely stylistic exercises. That essentially is what After Hours is, which is a film I love but I know what it is. It’s not a guaranteed formula, but Scorsese is still producing great work in his later years doing essentially this.
Cage is so compelling mainly because of his subtlety, which may not be the first word that comes to mind when asked about his acting. His sunken eyes and his quiet demeanor, which only occasionally blows up into hysteria is just as haunting a presence to us as his nightmares are for him. There are big performances in this, especially from Marc Anthony and Tom Sizemore, and Cage easily could have been up there. Most actors would have played this character as either practically inert, or frenzied and delirious. Cage does neither and he goes for quiet desperation. He is merely trying to get through another shift and escape the harrowing hell that his job inflicts upon him. Scorsese’s style makes this mostly internal story come to nightmarish life since everything is either just a little too harsh, such as the sharp editing and pace of the scenes in the ER, or dreamy and hazy, such as the scenes involving Rose, either her specter, or the crucial scene itself when Cage tries to save her but fails, which was presented in reverse to add to the dreamlike quality.
I never felt as if Scorsese was “showing off,” because the story felt so honest and consistent within itself. Even if Scorsese did not enjoy shooting this film, he was clearly in command of his craft and Nicolas Cage gives exactly what is required of him and beyond in this performance. This is a film that will stay with me for a long time.