Fifteen Years Hence: Gangs of New York

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The title was more amusing in its original “Twenty Fifteen Sixteen Years Hence incarnation, but I can’t do strike-throughs in titles, so it loses any semblance of me making fun of my late posts and my willingness to bend my review-series frameworks to fit whatever review I want to write. Anyway, that’s not as clever in reality as it is in my head, so I suppose just enjoy the review!

Obviously enlivened by the possibility of animating the fledgling, wild-west days of his beloved native New York, I’m rather certain that the sense of possibility Gangs of New York affords director Martin Scorsese is as much albatross as boon. What in the world to make of it? I certainly do not know, except to note that Scorsese, having gestated this project for 25 years, is clearly delirious to be giving mid-1800’s pre-pre-pre-pre-Koch New York a stylistic workout. But his zeal has gotten the best of his reason in this particular picture. And, more importantly, his vision. Or lack of vision. Or, more accurately his (very) many, many visions, and the appeal of the film will largely relate to how satisfying you find its uniquely confused dialectic between multiple competing strands of New York, between the many valence this particular city holds in both Scorsese’s and the world’s imagination-space.

To wit, does Scorsese visualize a too conspicuous dialogue between the city’s romantic, primordial import and its contrapuntal, brutal reality in factual, ground-level anthropology and social history? Of course, the mythic caliber of the city, its artificial existence in the imagination of so many, is also a fact. But how does Scorsese mobilize this compulsion to romanticize? As a self-conscious moment of self-critical romanticism that pits Scorsese, both a romantic and realist, in conversation with a city that is always porously permeable between romanticism and realism? Or as a rote regurgitation of romantically masculine platitudes about honor, vengeance, and virility? Does Scorsese imbibe in his characters’ lusty urges and moral viewpoints? Does he criticize them? Does he have his cake and eat it too?

And, most crucially, what is the character of this New York? Compared to the deliciously strung-out, entirely-interiorized vision of New York in his previous film Bringing Out the Dead as a psychic-schism, Gangs of New York is extraordinarily confused, occasionally bending over backward for historical specificity and at other times willfully disregarding any such compunction in favor of a gloriously disreputable carnival. The latter implies a histrionic and decorative city, one that could refract history and image New York as a sort of proscenium history, a heated cornucopia of sights, sensations, and emotions that embarrass the city with its own overflowing, uncontainable creative manifestations, the city as it has been exteriorized and internalized in the public imagination. But while Bringing Out the Dead singularly evokes New York as a mental theater, a mythic nightmarish construction, exposing a primacy of vision, Gangs has multiple minds about its location, visions it doesn’t so much reconcile as smash together in a heated, orgiastic, totally untidy jumble of themes and attitudes, a topsy-turvy disarrangement that leaves the film decomposing in an extraordinary shambles.

Decomposing, with life, I might add. Although the basic narrative is primordially simple – it’s mid-1800s New York and young Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks to avenge the murder of his father Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) at the hands of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) – Scorsese imbues it with mythological vigor. Obviously aspiring to a more ecstatic temperament than textbook history, the film’s constitution is mighty, as is its capacity for bloodletting and its mentality of extraordinary, enormous, egg-beaten melodrama. The opening sets the tone, dethroning historical veracity for historical-adjacent narcissism. Which is fine, on its own terms, and my, oh my is the opening mighty fine, up to and including an incredulously loopy, deranged techno-rock blast barking down the back of the film’s neck and whipping it into a chaotic maelstrom. Early on, our protagonist refers to this New York as “a furnace” out of which a city will be built, and Scorsese merely turns up the heat, imagining squalid undergrounds at once palatial and cramped and, well, gangs not only as motley crews but as men and women who have apparently also seen Walter Hill’s 1979 cult classic The Warriors, as a later montage of caricatured tribalism attests.

It also attests that Scorsese’s concoction aspires to mythic import, operating not only in the cramped corridors of legitimate history but the baroque luxuriousness of myth. The early battle, the film’s prelude, begins with lilting dialogue – who will win, either “us natives, born right-wise to this fine land, or the foreign hordes defiling it” to be decided via the presumably “ancient laws of combat,” the sort of rhetoric which Gangs then activates with the spirit of divine fervor. And sometimes, Gangs does germinate a sprawling, throbbing, glaringly overzealous fire, mostly courtesy of Michael Ballhaus’ luxurious, crimson-dyed cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s positively over-populated production design. And, of course, in Daniel Day-Lewis’ vigorously strapping, forcefully sybaritic performance, all external effusions and caricatured, slantwise line readings, each motion wonderfully tectonic, if more brassy and bilious than truly psychological in nature. Which is, again, both the film’s blessing and curse: Scorsese is clearly infatuated with Day-Lewis and the mano-a-mano of the opening scuffle, but is his camera animating the street theater of American lore in order to critique it or simply enjoying the horrid, outsized, toxic masculinity that his other films so adeptly analyze, texture, and disown?

Gangs of New York sometimes exhibits a truly boundless energy, but does it break any thematic boundaries? Any moral ones? At some level, Scorsese’s aims are divergent rather than cotangent. His three-ring circus New York is the offspring of a cinephile, but one who here fancies himself a social historian as well. He embeds himself deeply in half-baked narrations spewing out the mouth of protagonist Amsterdam, in DiCaprio’s awful Irish accent and even more stilted performance, each of which relegates the heavy lifting of genuine engagement with various competing and conflicting facets of New York culture or any causal interrogation of this city’s then-current whereabouts. Not interrogating these facets is entirely legitimate for a film, but Scorsese is obviously belaboring under the assumption that his cartoon is.

I also suspect the surrogate father-son relationship between Bill and Amsterdam which develops as the latter ingratiates himself into the former’s company is Scorsese’s bid to self-complicate his mythopoetic tone, to cast this story as, or burden it with, a Biblical or Shakespearean clout. Obviously both burnished and burdened by the extreme and unfulfillable passion behind its twenty-five-year quasi-production schedule, Gangs of New York wants to contain masses, to have it every way, particularly as folkloric tale and as a folkloric critique of folklore. But his desires do not fan the flames of each other. They merely douse each other, keeping each other from spreading to the outer regions of cinematic possibility. The whole film is vaguely disorganized, but not spiritedly so; it never operationalizes its disorganization in any way, toward any thematic venture or purpose. The superficiality of the characters and the surface-skirting of everyday life hinder any serious engagement with lived history, and the delusions of engaging with history, or reflecting history, disown the film’s more vigorous stylistic excursions into the realm of theater, dreamland, or nightmare-world. It’s a gloriously imprecise exercise, but one whose imprecisions eventually mitigate one another, amounting to a film not fascinatingly at war with itself but one trying to cover all its bases to the satisfaction of none.

And a film whose observations grow more tedious by the minute. One character informs us that St. Michael cast Satan out of paradise. Many of Scorsese’s best films imply that these two figures wage within the same person. Not only is Gangs often disappointingly Manichean, but its dialectics wane quickly. The film wants to exhibit a flair for decorum and thirst for spectacle and to examine a world in which these itches are mobilized for a violent and unforgiving worldview. Likewise, its observations on the necessity of public theater and social performance in society are initially becoming, but it’s an entirely or exclusively external construction. Never does Gangs plunge into the depths, or even the only slightly chthonic impulses, of these characters as anything more than Manichean figures dressed up in the pomp and circumstance of 100 million dollars and historical allusions. Never is this an exploration of the theater of the mind, of why these characters are corrupted by an adherence to traditional philosophies and performances of racism, masculinity, and nativism, why they engage in theater. And, rather than analyzing Amsterdam’s quest, the film is entirely willing to endorse an essential morality of personal vengeance. Gangs of New York is well-adorned, but it doesn’t furnish anything except almost Pavlovian satiation of its physical lusciousness.

At times, Scorsese’s film seems wonderfully off-center, as if wronged by some specter of the past it cannot right, as though lost in a toxic headspace in search of a nebulous argument that confounds Scorsese’s abilities to locate it or pinpoint it. This is a statement of respect and chagrin for the film, chagrin because it mutilates itself structurally to no end, and respect because it reveals a roving directorial mind tackling questions that cannot be summed up in a film, a mind surging with questions it tries to wrangle and which threaten the mind’s mastery over those questions. While Gangs of New York is transparently a construction of hubris, this could also suggest a humbling film, a film aware of the limits of its desire to explore everything. But as the film waddles along to its essentially expected conclusion, never accruing any aura of tragic inevitability so central to the Greek dramas from which this film draws fire, all of these possibilities disappear underneath the sheer size of Scorsese’s concoction.

The film in my head, and I suspect the film in Scorsese’s head, is truly a fulcrum of his career. It retroactively rereads Scorsese’s present-set films as remnants of this foundational dramatic epicenter, gamely extending and diminishing them by implying that they were less singular tales than maddened spasms of a perennial masculine conflict that plays itself over and over and crucially fails to complete itself. A tragically doomed history, in other words, and a tale which probably cannot complete itself in a world where the masculine vernacular of brutish city-conquering and American nativism is insatiable, where men still choose to dress as the personal ringleaders of their psychic circuses and play out toxic fantasies of power-mongering in the guise of leadership.

The final image of the film Scorsese has made, a mournful camera zooming out to reveal this one drama to be but one minute specimen in a much larger tapestry, suggests that even this episode, though, is not foundational. It cunningly suggests that the gilded, gigantic slab of cinema Scorsese has shoved down our throats amounts to much less than its baroque, monumental framing implies, that there is much leftover that has eluded Scorsese’s eye. The ending’s secret is that this sort of humility, however, is what makes a film amount to much, much more than we think it does, reflecting a film’s drama undercutting itself and exploring its own limits rather than hiding from them. Does the conclusion, then, imply that the long-arm of the government stamps out and devalues personal and/or ethnic conflicts, homogenizing all? That unrepentant masculinity and tribalist infighting has brought this onslaught upon themselves? This ending radiates pointed questions, then, not only historical but dramatic and cinematic in nature. But that is an ending in search of the film that exists in my head, a bold and formally adventurous and self-critical climax of a film that, frankly, hasn’t earned the right to self-criticize.

Score: 5/10

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