Praise of "Gangs of New York"
THE BIRTHING OF HISTORY
In Praise of "Gangs of New York"
"Gangs of New York" is a masterpiece. Ripped from the pages
of Herbert Asbury's brutal depiction of nineteenth century Manhattan street
life, it is one of the finest films I have seen in years, and although
I have enjoyed quite a few brilliant offerings at the movies since taking
this post at the Reality Check News & Information Desk, it is only
the second slice of celluloid art I've been motivated to devote a column
to. Needless to say my two viewings of Martin Scorsese's latest effort,
and I deign to write his best, left me in awe of the passion and dedication
of one of this country's most celebrated filmmakers when he is forced
to confront his most beguiling demons; the city of New York and his wavering
faith in human kind.
Scorsese has wrestled with the idiosyncrasies of faith in the backdrop
of the Big Apple before. His early Holy Trilogy includes the painfully
autobiographical "Mean Streets", the disturbingly accurate portrayal
of 70's Manhattan in "Taxi Driver", and the ultimate ode
to blood sacrifice in "Raging Bull". He later vividly expounded
on these themes in the stirring, if not flawed adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis'
"The Last Temptation of Christ" and his up-to-now signature
film, "Goodfellas", but the pure guts and raw honesty of "Gangs
of New York" resonates in those wonderfully grimy artistic beginnings.
Every moment of "Gangs of New York" harkens Scorsese's best
work, but eclipses it simply by tearing at the fabric of his normally
metaphoric characterizations of the New York spirit/curse of true grit
and tough love. "Gangs" takes his vision to a new level, paradoxically
reveling in its victims as triumphant and villains as sympathetic deities.
Set in mid-nineteenth century lower Manhattan's combustible Five Points,
amidst the racial and cultural upheaval of a birthing nation cracking
under the weight of civil war, "Gangs" explores the epic struggle
of humanity in the imposing shadow of a burgeoning city. Peasants from
across the globe pour onto its streets, forced to subsist within the boundaries
of corrupt law and violent religious reprisals, their will for survival
roaring above the cannon fodder of a modernized American dream.
At its core, "Gangs" is a brutally honest psalm to this survival,
the purest form of human survival in a chaotic landscape of prejudice,
fear, pride and greed. New Yorkers trapped in a jungle of political strife
and cultural mayhem which helped to give agonizing birth to the greatest
city in the world.
An overtly violent film from one of the genre's most honest portrayers
of street life, Scorsese strips bare the time-worn vengeance theme to
unfold an almost Shakespearean quandary of good vs. evil, or past vs.
the inevitable evolution of progress. Unlike recent historical epics that
scratch the surface of this subject's moral imperative such as 1995's
"Braveheart" and "Gladiator" of 2000, "Gangs
of New York" presents characters of varying depths. The line between
the villain and hero is constantly blurred, as in true life. There is
no sacred vision, only the eruption of existence in a cold world.
Throughout this film, one does not just view, but experiences a time long
before the veiled era of common sensibilities. Deep within the bloodstained
streets and impoverished neighborhoods ruled with an iron hand by thieving
politicians and frightened thugs the audience can never question the savage
realities thrust from its rage, only wonder time and again how any society
could thrive from it.
In addition to the combined writing efforts of Scorsese, Steven Zallian,
Jay Cocks and Kenneth Lonergan's gripping screenplay brimming with memorable
scenes (my favorites include the burning of a downtown building while
rival fire companies rumble beneath the ravaging flames and a line of
Irish immigrants simultaneously signing for their US citizenship and army
induction moments after exiting the ship, handed a rifle and paraded onto
a ship headed for the front) and quotes (When the participants of a hilariously
dirty political campaign learn the candidate is a formally savage gang
member with an inordinate amount of kills, the comment is simply, "We
should have run him for mayor.") there are a number of memorable
performances here as well.
Leonardo DiCacprio's role as the angst-riddled Amsterdam Vallon breathes
new life into the resume of the once revered, but recently maligned young
actor. He is the eyes and ears of the audience, lending an enticing, yet
monotone, narration that ably accompanies Scorsese's sweeping scenes.
Again, he is a far more believable heroic figure in a story and time when
a steely fortitude was demanded not from the extraordinary but the everyman.
Cameron Diaz supports DiCaprio's dangerous journey with a fiery rendering
of a wise and conniving street lass turned revolutionary and Jim Broadbent's
lasting portrayal of the indomitably corruptible Boss Tweed, the famously
insidious NY political power monger, is right on.
But "Gangs of New York" is all about Daniel Day-Lewis's mind-bending
depiction of the outrageously evil William Cutting, aka "Bill the
Butcher". He forcefully dominates the screen, cajoling, slashing,
barking and bleeding, yet he plays the emotions of this psychologically
damaged soul with a wry sensibility. Cutting is both sinner and saint,
patriarchal charmer and black hand, a gory amalgamation of Scorsese's
Jake La Motta meets Travis Bickle with the mind and mettle of a latter
day mob boss. When considering the British actor's usually polished demeanor,
it is literally mesmerizing.
Finally, "Gangs of New York" soars because it does not turn
away from the nauseous reality of cultural fear and hatred, the perpetuation
of skewered values based on race, creed and nationality. The film dissects
the duplicitous struggle to face the crude nature of our traditions and
generational sins, and for a three-hour romp through the darkest secrets
of our human psyche, it's a damn entertaining ride.
© James Campion 2003
Great review of "Gangs of New York". I will see the film based
review. I was not planning to see it until now. I have one complaint
however, Daniel Day -Lewis is an Irish actor who first came to the
American film goers attention as the physically disabled artist/painter
the Dublin slums in the Irish Indy film "My Left Foot", also
Hawkeye in the latest remake of the Fenimore Cooper novel "Last of
Mohicans" not exactly roles where the character is a polished
gentleman. If you have not seen "My Left
Foot" please go out and see it. One of the most striking films I
ever seen. Keep up the Great work, even when I don't agree with you (Ani
DiFranco Interview) you are always thought provoking.
An excellent look at the new Scorscese film. I've really wanted to go
see this thing, but you've brought the point home for me with this
I laugh about "Gangs of New York" because I recently saw a clip
Scorscese blocking out a scene of the movie, and about five "yes"
were tagging behind, nodding and stroking his ego. He was so incoherent,
so eccentric; I said that if anyone truly likes the movie, I'll pay the
nine bucks to go see it. So thank you for helping me part with no small
percentage of my paycheck.
But tell me. Do I see the movie, or buy the book?
Maintain radio contact,
Dear Mr. Campion,
I'm writing to commend you on the book you wrote about my favorite
guys, the band DogVoices. Not only was "Deep Tank Jersey" interesting
see what went on in the early years, the way you wove the story kept me
going. I found it to be quite "deep" and passionate. From that
can tell you are not a "surface" person, one that does not fail
farther than the back door. I completely enjoyed the book and am quite
thankful I had the opportunity to tell you so.
Thank you, and GREAT JOB!!!!
Hehehehe.. *applaudes* on your "Selective Patriotism" column!
can't go hunting in the forest and expect to get all the animals at once
with one gun.
Great article. No one can say you don't have spunk. Anything that
includes a sentence that starts with "Those crazy fuckers" can't
James Campion gives
a Reality check on Lenny Bruce
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