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December 22, 2002

Gangs of New York

Posted by Mike on December 22, 2002 1:05 AM

Martin Scorsese considers New York's Five Points slum and the bloody conflict between Irish immigrants and "natives," with the climax of the film latching on to the 1863 New York draft riots.

A lot of noise is being made about Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Bill The Butcher, which is good a few times and well over the top too many others. Leonardo DiCaprio is pretty tolerable, as is Cameron Diaz.

The real star of the movie is the production itself. The sets are incredible, the battle scenes are brutal and wrenching. The problems lie in the story's progression, which is uneven, and a few underpainted characters.

The best part is the sense, felt all through the film, that you're watching a world you've never heard of... the kind that seldom makes it into the staid woodcuts of People of Note you get in the history books. Some of my own ancestors came out of New York immediately after the Civil War, and I've found my conception of the world in which they lived changed. It was a little disappointing to do the standard "post historical flick" Google crawl and learn how many liberties were taken, but still fascinating to have the images to hang on the parts we can accept as fact.

Scorsese's gift for "doing badguys" shines through.

The amount of detail is overwhelming, and made it worthwhile as a "go to the theater" experience.


Got the DVD for my birthday, which is worth it for the bonus features alone: A Discovery channel history special, clearly part of the publicity (film clips), but still full of legit talking heads. Plus another history, an aside to the movie production with advisor Luc Sante, whose book Low Life is pretty much the definitive history of Gotham's underbelly. Plus Marty's commentary track, which I've only listened to with the film's draft-riot segment.

Anyway, my expectations were in a fairly perfect state of neutrality, given the number of raves and pans it received, and my reaction was therefore predictable: I found it enjoyable and fairly compelling/affecting, but also pretty flawed. It was clear where Harvey Weinstein's influence, direct or not, was imposed on the story. I thought DiCaprio and Diaz were just fine, if one accepts that a love story had to be shoehorned into the whole affair. Leo didn't really do much, I guess, but if the actor's job as the stolid central hero is to do no harm, he succeeded.

I thought Day-Lewis was fantastic given the kind of movie it was. He was scary, funny, charismatic, loathsome, and hugely entertaining. Little touches like his disconnected walk, the way he finger-wagged and tsk-tsked Boss Tweed, the way he was both cock-of-the-walk and knowingly doomed. Compared to his cardboard-hero turn in Last of the Mohicans, this was genius. If the cobbler thing doesn't work out, he could have a future in pictures--but he should (and probably will) guard against chewing the scenery in pictures with material any less worthy than this.

I haven't seen many of Scorsese's period films--Last Temptation is probably the only one--but in this case, I thought the sets, impressive though they were, seemed airless, almost as unreal as a CGI effect. I suppose he came as close as one could to the squalor and chaos of the Five Points, but still, it just didn't feel like a world that ever existed. Maybe it was too well-shot and lit: I almost felt, while watching the movie, that I was watching a "making of the movie" movie. You know, where the set is lit "normally," and you can sort of see how the dirt, snow, and rocks are all fake, and the actors are in costume but acting like themselves, drinking canned soda, talking on cellphones. Some of the palpable grit of Mean Streets would have been welcome--as well as SOME visceral (if necessarily subliminal) connection between that world and those streets today. Maybe it just wasn't possible; that world is 150 years gone, after all.

I also just don't know how well Scorsese utilized the history. Boss Tweed (whom I didn't expect to be so central) is depicted as a genial if duplicitous uncle. The conflict between the two major gangs was sort of blurry--half the old Dead Rabbits were now in the Butcher's gang, so how deep did the hatred go? I understand there was ambiguity in the history, and Scorsese allowed some of it to remain, but the big-studio conventions seemed to force upon him a more black-and-white view. Amsterdam Vallon reinstates the Dead Rabbits and they're supposed to be, like, "good," but they weren't--they just weren't the Butcher's brand of "bad." The Butcher talks a lot of Yankee smack, but nobody wants to go off to the War, which is reduced to a device depicting exploitation of the poor, which it was, but it was also, you know, the war that ended slavery. It had its good and necessary purposes.

And then the way the draft riots--the greatest urban revolution/conflagration in U.S. history--are somehow made ancillary, as far as our two gangs are concerned, to their own conflict. I think there are estimates are that the rioters numbered in the tens of thousands over three days. These gangs are set up for us to be the subterranean power centers--yet they simply weren't involved in the riots. I mean, surely they were, right, whoever "they" were? The riots are simply a storm that happened on the day of their picnic. "We're sorry, soldiers, we're having a riot of our own--the rioters you want are up at Astor Place. Thanks!"

I've gone on a bit, but it was odd, and I was really looking forward to the treatment of it. Last nits: Odd that Leo and Cameron are in Brooklyn at the end--I thought they were heading west? And the slow morph into the present--it was effective, finally, in connecting us with New York, I wonder if any thought was given to having the WTC appear and then disappear, to further show that the city is irrevocably changed and shaped by events both good and bad.

Posted by: pk at July 23, 2003 5:41 PM