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3. GANGS OF NEW YORK: THIS FIERCE, FLAWED MASTERPIECE (May 2003)
I would say
that very early on Martin Scorsese had a revelation about the world, a hard one
for many to swallow, and a comforting one to reject, that the male at his most
violent and extreme is a creator, with beauty and magnificence in his wildness
and evil. This is not a modern notion, always polite and achingly
correct, but a throwback to the drunken, roaring celebrations of warriorhood
that rocked the wooden halls of Vikings, or the blood-chilling screams of
Mongols racing to their kill as the mighty kettledrums commanded. The Irish
drums start banging early in Gangs Of New York, right after Priest Vallon
has given his little boy Amsterdam wisdom on being a man (don't wipe the blood
from your blade), and then taken him walking past his tribesmen. Where are we?
Bearded faces, animal skins, spears and axes, clubs, we're in some sort of
tribal hovel, aren't we: the Dark Ages? Earlier than the Dark Ages? The very
beginning of the film seems in a cave, it's prehistoric in feel, absolutely
Cro-Magnon, regardless of the costumes. The keening pipes, thumping drums,
darkness, fire, wild people-- all of it an artist is doing to us, overwhelming
our senses, maybe our sense, we're into this world like a great dream more vivid
than our tame waking, though we can mock its reality later if we wish.
All this leading up to a great Scorsese set-piece, when we're flung outside into the wintery square of a New York City slum, just a long lifetime-and-a-half ago.
The violence in Scorsese films-- Joe Pesci killing killing Spider in Goodfellas, the fight scenes in Raging Bull-- are primal, unexplained, unapologized for. This is like the violence in life, which comes simply without text. This is what men do. Why? Because what men do is this. They have something inside of them, don't ask a lot of questions. You think it's meaningless? If it's meaningless, where did New York City or Las Vegas come from? Huh? Maybe it's not meaningless. It's a very harsh, unsentimental view of things, like his view of women, and very un-Hollywood, which likes to be comforting and sappy. How did this man ever have a career?
Here. Here's how he's had a career, and one of the great careers too.
The set-piece to come is a street battle between two small armies of seeming nobodies trapped in a contemptuous pigsty of a slum called Five Points: Priest's Irish immigrant horde, and a top-hatted company of "nativists" (i.e., their boats arrived three or four generations earlier) led by the ultimate top-hat of them all-- William (The Butcher) Cutting, embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance that already has become a screen legend. This gang brawl is for a patch of swill, but Scorsese has a Shakespearean sense of men's size of spirit, and nobody is a nobody here. The gangs' entrances are operatic, tall, proud, full of pose, fearless, wildly committed to their small cause, they carry themselves like princes, and Priest and Cutting carry themselves like kings, so maybe it's not so small. Scorsese is an image manipulator, and we can spot the obvious-- how Priest and Cutting are given greatcoats, for instance, to differentiate them from the others. But that's okay. The scene is bigger than life, and when the two armies roar, charge and fight they fight like the world is at stake. It's this size that compels us-- it flatters us. There is no small cause in the world. The violence is both beautiful in its choreography and stomach-turning in its bloodiness, but it's never fully real. It's never as bad as real, some things aren't shown (have never been shown in any film). It's better than real: thrilling, beautiful, dramatic, sickeningly, maddeningly compelling, fabulously staged, perfectly timed out, ended with a powerful death scene. Well, it's art. We can love it like we couldn't if we were there.
If you have any interest in the cinema you probably know the film's course. It jumps ahead to 1862, and Priest Vallon's little boy is grown up, released from his orphanage/prison, and returning to Five Points for revenge. He's Leonardo DiCaprio now. Bill The Butcher is still there, the local political power and main crime boss, seething with inner demons of such magnitude that we know his own explanation of his rage-- hatred of "others" (basically Irish and blacks)-- is a front for something deeper and more monstrous in him. He's a compete psychopath who's also funny, charming and totally in control. It's a miracle for an actor to be able to make such a monster real. It's a miracle, too, that an actor could play him in an evil-looking top hat, with a "villainous" handle-bar mustache yet-- and be so real it is awesome and chilling. But Amsterdam, beautiful, soft-spoken Amsterdam, is actually a villain too, who takes to the violent, criminal life with ease, so that Bill takes him under his wing. Like all of Scorsese's criminals, he moves easily into the heightened world of the illicit, with all its rewards (crime pays in Scorsese's universe, as long as you can stay alive), and Scorsese, as always, seems to be saying: This is a man's place.
The third main character, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), beautiful master pickpocket, is, like Sharon Stone in Casino, Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas, a bundle of energy, tainted too, and a mere appendage to the men's world, however she tries to establish herself. Scorsese doesn't make too much of women. It's one of the many things I like about him, how unromantic he is, how cold and uninterested he can be, though they have their place. It's bracing, amidst Hollywood sentimentality or feminist exaltations, to find a great artist who thinks women are-- overrated?
The film moves ably but fitfully for a while, Amsterdam goes carefully and violently into Cutting's world, so that Cutting will eventually take him as a surrogate son. In the background's the Civil War, which The Butcher and Amsterdam hold in contempt: To Cutting it's a war for "niggers" (a word well-used throughout the film) and Amsterdam hates it for using Irish immigrants as cannon fodder in a conflict as distant as the moon-- and whose service rich men can buy their way out of.
Gangs Of New York catches and becomes supreme starting with the scene where the girls are hanging from the ceiling in cages. (Men are a fairly obscene bunch in Gangs, corrupt amidst all their pieties, with a boundless hunger for power, money, women and respect.) The film goes like a magnificent opera from this point, everything heightened, played for peak drama, saturated with music-- Irish, Chinese, marching bands-- with a rollicking and immense momentum from scene to scene, filled with color and fun and violence and comedy and blood, every single man seeming to have the time of his life being as big and evil and Shakespearean as he can. Men have to, with at least some part of themselves, love this apotheosis of their primality; cinema aesthetes will give themselves over to the master hand creating it; and women may be disgusted or perhaps be drawn-- "bad boys" at their most charismatic. The twin peaks of this stretch of Gangs are two scenes set in theaters-- one a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the other a sort of vaudevillian potpourri-- where Cutting and Amsterdam go for blood, and the decorums on stage are overwhelmed by huger, wilder drama in the audience. Day-Lewis is at his most magnificent here, practically roaring through the scenes, surviving assault and assaulting and thrilled with every drop of blood that results. Yet inbetween is a scene of beautiful quiet, as he sits beside Amsterdam and Jenny in their bed and, without ever simpering, and with no apparent jealousy that Amsterdam has taken Bill's lover for a spell, offers the nearest thing he can to love, for the man of course.
This great stretch ends, and the film will now run to its conclusion, edited against a clock, and partly falling to its own contradictions. The scene where Amsterdam and Jenny suddenly run in-- as if from Stage Left-- to find the impaled snitch Johnny (he ratted out Amsterdam's true identity to Cutting) begins this last portion of the film-- hurried, choppy and sometimes overblown (Yeats' "will trying to do the work of the imagination"). The imposition of a draft on New York's proletariat leads to the Great Draft Riots of 1863, yet the intimate and personal story of Amsterdam and Cutting remains unresolved, and Scorsese tries to resolve it in something bigger, which in truth connects to it only tangentially-- their story is really primal and eternal, battles of Kings, and battles of fathers and sons. But Scorsese tries to "package" this violence, trying to say (through Amsterdam's voice) that creation is through "blood and tribulation". (U2's unnecessary and intrusive song "The Hands That Built America"-- one of the puerile cliches of period film-making today is the contemporary [hoped-for Top 40] song that runs through the credits-- says the same thing.) Scorsese seems to have no sense that law-abiding hard work, undramatic stick-to-itiviteness, quiet life, doggedness-- or technology or inventiveness-- or dry, honest business-- or the politics of reformers-- or steady religious faith-- has even greater power. These, not the cavemen, built America-- and New York City. But here the critic writes sensibly afterward. The fire and fury of the Draft Riots fill the screen, as Scorsese's camera races through the city, as if trying to show every window-smashing and lynching and rifleshot it can, reaching for too much, catching some of it, while trying to let the gangs (and the two leaders) have their ultimate apocalyptic rumble in the midst of the urban holocaust. Think of it as trying to marry West Side Story to Apocalypse Now. You can't, but he tries, and if he at times makes a cinematic fool of himself, so what?-- what's a heaven for? The final scene, when New York rises over New York till the Twin Towers themselves soar over everything-- you have to be dead not to be overwhelmed by it, and, if you're a real New Yorker, not to have tears fill your eyes. The fact that, contemplated later by the intellectual pen, everything doesn't connect-- again, really, so what, and who cares.
Scorsese's other faults can be listed, if you wish, applicable not just to this film but to others (some of them masterpieces). He can be inappropriately comic (that merry hanging scene!). His love scenes lack heat. (He's too unromantic.) He glorifies violence. (He does.) He's not a deep thinker. (He's not.) If he was capable of more subtlety and reality he'd be greater. Instead he's Scorsese. Why doesn't he just compose operas? He composes operas.
Last to be said involves understanding that the film Gangs Of New York I'm writing about is not the Gangs Of New York that the future will love and value. That Gangs remains in the can, the unreleased director's cut that, born free of commercial pressure (the film did ok commercially, nothing more) will be the true triumph. Typical of artists who don't want to cut their work but are made to, Scorsese preserves as much as he can of the beginning and middle, which forces him to hack away at the end to get under the artificial time limit, leading to aesthetic imbalance and less reality. In the director's cut he will be able to add the extra 15 or 20 minutes the film needs, giving it moments of quiet and good sense to balance out the rest, the same way Apocalypse Now Redux benefits from the quiet and political thoughtfulness of the restored plantation scene. Maybe even Scorsese has some quiet, politically astute ("talky") minutes he can bring back, to the film's benefit. He also needs to add balance to the characters. Daniel Day-Lewis is so huge his performance at times almost buries DiCaprio's and Diaz's smaller yet very underrated work. They need more moments of their own, to establish themselves fully. Lastly, I'd carry the final scene all the way out. Go back to the studio, if you have to. It doesn't matter if DiCaprio and Diaz are older. Let them age as far into the future as they can. People that young in the Civil War lived into the 1930's, even the 1940's. Then go all the way-- take their descendents all the way to 9/11. It's what Scorsese wants to do anyway-- why else the police sirens (but you have to sit through to the very end of the credits to hear them)? End with the true apocalyptic rumble that Scorsese no doubt thinks can only make us bigger and fiercer and greater and more triumphant for surviving it.
Fierce. Flawed. Masterpiece.
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