Gangs of New York

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Cleolinda: ***

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson

Rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language.

Gangs of New York has moments--many of them, in fact--of startling and terrible beauty: The square of Five Points, its snow muddied with gore. A tenement front missing, giving a dollhouse view of your poor and hungry within.  A traitor laid out on a saloon table like a pig to be slaughtered as the crowd around him howls. A man, wrapped in an American flag, sitting in his protégé's bedroom at the oddest hour of the night.

And yet I have no idea what this movie is about.

I think the problem is that Scorsese likes--or at least feels sympathy for--all of his characters, and he forgets to take a stance on the entertwining stories until the end. A director shooting for a God's-eye view, for example, takes no stance at all, clutters the movie with none of his own opinion. A director trying to tell a specific story with more intent than that--and this is most directors and most movies--will take a stance. A complex and ambiguous stance even, perhaps, but he takes one. By the final, "triumphant" shot of GONY, Scorsese has definitely taken one. I'm just not sure what the hell it is.

Let me explain. I read in one review--I think it was Ebert's--that the critic in ques-tion thought Scorsese wasn't totally engaged because he didn't like these characters, as people, as much as the characters of some of his other movies. I disagree. I think Scorsese likes them, all of them, too much to take sides, and then he tries to take sides at the end to give the movie a cohesive punch, and--I can only guess which side based on who lives and who dies, but that doesn't help much. You can tell he loves all of them by the zest with which he unspools their lives across the screen: noble war-rior and Irish gang leader Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), con-woman coquette Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), flamboyantly pragmatic Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent); two followers of Vallon's, one who jumped the social fence to become a (dirty) cop (John C. Reilly) and another who won't forget the Dead Rabbits gang and shows up at all the worst moments to remind Vallon's son of his heritage. And then there's Vallon's son (Leonardo DiCaprio), going only by the name "Amsterdam" to obscure his parentage so he can infiltrate Bill the Butcher's "native" Americans-only gang, find the "king" who killed his father, and execute him in full view of his court--in the process letting his need to belong obscure his need to avenge, and then regretting it.

And then there's Bill the Butcher. Someone called him "perhaps the best character in the history of movies"--yeah, all of 'em--and while I'm pretty sure that's over-stating the case, he is a fascinating and even Shakespearean character. I will also admit that I laughed at nearly his entire first scene in the movie, because Daniel Day-Lewis has chosen to take this character to close to the top that he does, indeed, go over it several times, and it's unsettling to see Captain Hook's psychotic brother swagger out in plaid clown pants and with a New Yawk / Marlon Brando accent. Oh, and he also has a glass eye and a meat cleaver. I'm just saying. And Day-Lewis throws himself into the role with a totality that his younger costars can't quite manage--Diaz and DiCaprio let glimmers of modernity escape a few times--and as the layers are exposed, Bill finally emerges as this tragic character who admires only one man--the man, Priest Vallon, who he killed so brutally sixteen years ago--because he lived and died with honor, and when you find out how Bill lost that eye, I'm fairly certain you'll be as shocked as I was. (That scene with Bill wrapped in the American flag by Amsterdam's bedside is just an astonishing piece of character work.) And you begin to realize that, no matter how crude and bigoted and psychotic Bill is, he lives his life with a certain honesty, and thus Amsterdam's deception is probably the worst possible sin. Of course, if your father was slaughtered before your eyes, you'd want to have it out with his killer, too. You see where the "taking a stance" dilemma starts to rear its ugly head here.

I mean, you'd think that maybe Scorsese's against Bill at some level, because Bill's a corrupt bigot; but by the same token, Boss Tweed's corrupt but he feeds the same Irish Bill spits on; Amsterdam becomes quite the leader of His People (and I find DiCaprio miscast in this role somehow, for reasons I can't quite articulate--the baby face? I don't know), but he's sinned against a man who said he loved Amsterdam like a son--a man whose life he's already saved once. And so on. Even Amsterdam's friend Johnny insists on re-choosing sides so many times that in the end, neither one wants him, but you can tell he likes Jenny and Jenny wants only Amsterdam, etc. Every-one's deliciously complex and conflicted, which would make for an excellent character study, and Scorsese wouldn't even have to choose sides because it would just be a portrait of a community and the loves and betrayals within it...

But no (sorry--I guess these are
spoilers coming up in this paragraph--skip ahead to the next one if you want to avoid them), he also has to bring in the Union Army draft, the Draft Riots that nearly burnt New York to the ground (by the way--why were we never taught about all this in school?), and the plight of the penniless Irish immi-grant, perhaps best illustrated when Army officers pull new arrivals out from the incoming line at Ellis Island, slap Union uniforms on them, and put them on a boat right back out to the battlefields of the South, even as the coffins of the dead soldiers are being unloaded mere yards away. So we've got a definite sympathy towards the Irish, right? Towards immigrants in general? Or something? Because those same immigrants are the ones who start looting and burning the city to protest the draft, murdering every black person within sight, policemen, wealthy citizens--but then the Union Army comes out to put the riot down, and I am telling you, I had no idea who to root for at that point.

I feel bad insisting that I need a side to take, like I'm too obtuse to just appreciate the story for what it is, but when you put out posters that say AMERICA WAS BORN IN THE STREETS, and then you show, in the triumphant final shot (okay, for real now--swipe if you want to know):
1863 New York morphing into 2000 New York (with Twin Towers and all), you start asking yourself the question: How was America born out of what I just saw? Gleefully corrupt Tammany Hall buying and selling votes; Bill the Butcher seething with honor and bigotry; Amsterdam's new gang emerging just as corrupt as the old ones--corrupt to the point that it's not even questioned in the film, but rather celebrated as political maneuvering; the Union Army's cannons firing on the city, and then out of the ashes rises modern New York. What? And that end-ing--it is definitely triumphant. With the towers there, perhaps defiantly so. I just can't figure out why. I mean, if you kind of drew the connection that America is still like Five Points, and left it as trenchant social critique, well, all right then. But I just can't figure out what the director is saying was born in those streets, or how, or why. I feel like Scorsese's math teacher, looking at his test answers and taking off half credit because he didn't show his work.

Which is too bad, because it's an astonishing piece of filmmaking at times--I even liked things that other critics seem to have not liked, such as the anachronistic guitars in the opening fight scene, although the singers wandering about with their plaintive period songs just about drove me crazy (go figure). Dante Ferretti's sets are amazing, particularly when you consider that Scorsese had them built, entire, on the Cinecittŕ soundstages of Rome, a world unto themselves. (Although it cracks me up to hear that
George Lucas visited the set and told him, "You know, you can do all this with computers now." It also makes me very, very sad.) I even liked Sandy Powell's costumes, after my eyes got used to the purposeful garishness of them; the score, the cinematography, the characters--all superb. The movie is a big, beautiful, epic--something. I wish I just knew what.
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