Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 12/28/02 at AMC 1000 Van Ness, SF, CA

Scorsese’s overblown, lugubrious epic was pretty disappointing for me> Not that it was an abysmal film or anything, just not nearly as strong a film as I would have hoped. I am having a hard time articulating exactly what the biggest problems I had with the film were.

I don’t know if it’s just me (it probably is), but I am finding myself reading great political discourses into a lot of films lately. Gangs of New York clearly addresses itself to issues of what America is and how it evolved into such a thing, all focussed very specifically on the rough world of the city during the middle of the nineteenth century. New York City, the largest, most significant city in the United States is quite often used as an exemplar of American culture, an extreme example, but highly representative. It’s an epic tale that Scorsese has woven from an eponymous 1928 non-fiction account of the period by Herbert Asbury. It’s a strikingly barbarous period, surprising, really, in that it’s only a few generations removed from the present.

Scorsese had supposedly had this project in mind since the late 1970’s, though it was only finally greenlighted for production by Miramax in the late 1990’s and mostly shot during 2000, I believe. So how much of the film directly addresses the current political world into which it was released in 2002 is highly speculative. The issues that Scorsese focuses on, the clash of immigrant cultures with the “Natives” (who are defined as at times only third generation immigrants themselves), the physicality of the New York setting, and the historical situation of the period may reflect on the present and may have some inflection from it. However, I am sure that my “reading” of the film is influenced by my constant awareness of the current “American” situation.

This idea is crystalized in the closing shot, a view from the graveyard across the river back at the city as it changes through time upwards towards the present. The shot simply states that the world depicted in the film is the same world of current times, that these events occurred on the same turf. Inevitably, the shot morphs from the digitally painted 1860’s New York skyline into a skyline that includes the World Trade Center buildings and other skyscrapers as the screen fades to black. The shot does not evolve beyond that to a truly current image, one in which those buildings no longer exist. Is it perhaps that Scorsese is saying that this was an idea that he had that really addressed the very recent past and no longer resonates in the true present?

The xenophobia and “Know Nothing”-ness of the character of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (played so brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) represents a still strong element in American politics. The character is the highlight of the film, complex and sympathetic, perhaps even noble despite his outright brutality and racism.

I can’t get my head around this film the way I would like to. I wish that I had been able to like it better though.

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