Mean Streets--The Prequel

Martin Scorsese looks back at the big apple's rotten core in 'Gangs of New York'

I watched Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York from a seat near the top of one of those brand new, steeply raked gigaplex theaters, no more than 20 feet away from the projector. The booth must not have been soundproofed, since for much of this 168-minute epic I could hear the whirring noise of 35mm film being pulled through the projector's picture gate, the persistent tick-tick of the shutter opening and closing roughly 24 times per second. By the movie's final minutes, another sound--a high-pitched squeal, or whine, really--had been added to the mix, the apparent result of a warped spool once heavy with celluloid losing ever more of its stabilizing load to the take-up reel.

That this squeak registered to me as plaintive, even beseeching, may have been partly a function of your reviewer's status as a new parent, trained to detect and respond to his baby's cries no matter what his state of consciousness. Still (and not only in the tired critic's own defense), I think the wail I perceived behind me had a lot more to do with the cri de coeur emanating from the screen. Set in the mid-19th century, Gangs of New York is Scorsese's impassioned, elegiac portrait of a time when blows were delivered with fists, bats, and blades rather than airplanes, anthrax, or keyboard strokes; it's his look back at a lost world, his urban western, his Once Upon a Time in America.

Fighting the old-fashioned way: Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Gangs of New York'
Miramax Films
Fighting the old-fashioned way: Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Gangs of New York'

And, released in the early 21st century, the film is also Scorsese's only slightly premature lament for the passing of cinema--at least the cinema whose magic depends on the viewer's retention of an image for that split second after the shutter falls, the cinema with a quaintly imperfect tendency to make itself heard. But who wants quaint imperfection these days? Digital-video projectors--scanning rather than flickering, electronic instead of mechanical--will be guaranteed not to weep at the end of the movie, or make any noise at all. No wonder those forward-thinking gigaplex investors didn't bother to soundproof the booth.

So is Gangs of New York what we might call the Last American Blockbuster of the Real World? When digital cosmonaut George Lucas learned that his fellow veteran of the New Hollywood planned to reconstruct 1860s New York on planet Earth--on a studio lot near Rome, in fact--he was reportedly perplexed. Why build those ships in the harbor with wood and nails, Marty, when a computer crayon would do the trick for cheap? Of course, it seems only natural for Scorsese, our preeminent filmmaker-as-film-historian, to render the past using the tools of the past. And yet what's striking about the movie's "New York" is its borderline artificiality: The aerial shots of an antique Lower East Side, with its snow-covered swirl of flimsy-looking barns and brownstones, suggest little beyond the frame except the studio commissary where Leonardo DiCaprio might have ordered his cappuccino. We can assume that's inevitable, even deliberate. As in Scorsese's back-lot musical New York, New York (which the director made in lieu of funding for Gangs in 1977--the year that Lucas hit the stratosphere with Star Wars), the Big Apple here signifies Old Hollywood as much as Old Manhattan. The effect is a sort of double nostalgia: for the city before skyscrapers, for the cinema before computers.

Accordingly, the story itself is nothing if not familiar, simple, mournful. Young Amsterdam Vallon, son of an Irish immigrant priest who carries the Good Book in one hand and a hatchet in the other, watches his dad (Liam Neeson) being gutted by "Nativist Army" leader William Cutting, a.k.a. "Bill the Butcher" (Daniel Day-Lewis)--and quietly plots revenge. And that, not counting the hero's light-fingered love interest (Cameron Diaz) and jealous buddy (Henry Thomas), is about as far as the narrative goes. Once Amsterdam reappears as a grown man (DiCaprio) who shrewdly insinuates himself into the good graces of wild Bill and his gang of toughs, the film begins to probe the sort of parasitic filial relationship that has habitually obsessed New Hollywood movie brats following arrogantly in the old masters' footsteps. But with Day-Lewis doing his De Niro-esque psycho-showman shtick as a supporting role, and DiCaprio encouraged to portray his character's bloodlust as not only justified but healthy, Gangs foregoes the identification with aberrant psychology that has made Scorsese's most vital work so dangerous.

Again, it couldn't be any other way--not on a budget of $100 million, not with the director shrewdly endearing himself to his boss (a.k.a. Harvey the Butcher, gang leader of Miramax). And besides, Gangs of New York is hardly the sum of its plot points. The opening battle is a stunner--Scorsese's long-awaited equivalent of bloody skirmishes staged by Welles and Peckinpah and Spielberg, it will be said. But the stronger influences are Hitchcock and Eisenstein: The scene's subliminal force comes from the overwhelming accumulation of shots in which the swing of a pickaxe or machete is interrupted by the editor's own blade, leaving the gruesome results of the cutting to the viewer's active imagination. (Exclamatory blasts of electronic guitar are used to punctuate the visual grammar; the younger Scorsese originally conceived of setting the mayhem to the rabble-rousing anthems of the Clash.) The film culminates in a more expansively chaotic montage, detailing the unfathomably brutal Draft Riots of 1863 that consumed the entirety of Manhattan for days. It's Scorsese's well-placed reminder that, while Day-Lewis's villain immodestly identifies himself as "New York," the real city is the heavy: a mass of competing interests with a collective cruelty more eviscerating than any one butcher's.

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