The ideological implications of Scorcese's latest film

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Dec 20 10:00:17 MST 2002

Blood on His Hands

Gangs of New York

Directed by
Martin Scorsese

By Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

For almost the first two-thirds of Martin Scorsese's 168-minute Gangs of
New York, I was entranced. I felt like I was watching a boys'
bloodthirsty adventure story -- a blend of pirate saga, 19th-century
revenge tale (three parts Dumas to one part Hugo), sword-and-sandal
romp, and Viking epic poem, all laced with references to works ranging
from Orson Welles's claustrophobic Macbeth (the beginning of the
prologue) to Pieter Brueghel's spacious Slaughter of the Innocents (at
the end of the prologue) and incorporating romantic touchstones from
Potemkin (a stone lion), The Lusty Men (hidden possessions), Chimes at
Midnight (thrusts and counterthrusts), and The Shanghai Gesture
(prostitutes in hanging cages).

Scorsese once described his concept of the film as a western set on
Mars, which adds two more playgrounds to the above list and helps
explain the kind of historical fantasy he had in mind. I know little
about New York's early history, yet I was impressed by how thoroughly he
wanted to steep me in its otherness. This is undoubtedly why the title
"New York City 1846" doesn't appear until the end of the prologue, after
we've spent a good quarter of an hour watching massive crowds of Irish
Catholics and American "nativists" hack one another to pieces on a huge
foreign-looking turf identified as Manhattan's Lower East Side, each
group trying to eliminate the other.

The same overarching exoticism carried me through most of the film's
long middle section, which begins "16 years later." The Irish Amsterdam
Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) emerges from 16 years in the Hellgate House
of Reform and ingratiates himself with nativist William "Bill the
Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Years earlier Cutting killed
Vallon's father, a priest (Liam Neeson), and now he rules the
neighborhood. The last section of the movie is set during the 1863 draft
riots, and here the personal, oedipal revenge story and the wider
historical epic finally come together in a fusion that seems straight
out of D.W. Griffith -- complete with black bashing. Yet the intended
dramatic peak feels like a pit -- one filled with corpses we haven't
been persuaded to mourn. And instead of adding up to something
meaningful, the movie seems hollow and affectless -- as if all the
spectacular bloodletting has drained the story of its raison d'etre.

The film becomes downright offensive during the final credits, over
which the U2 anthem "The Hands That Built America" plays. If these are
the hands that built this country, as the song triumphantly claims, why
don't we ever see them building something instead of slashing, smashing,
severing, gutting, burning, and mauling everyone and everything in
sight? Is it possible that Scorsese, without meaning to -- he does,
after all, include some ironic disclaimers -- is actually celebrating
ethnic cleansing, as Griffith did in The Birth of a Nation? And is it
churlish to ask why, after making so many allusions to nativists,
Scorsese couldn't allude even once to Native Americans to throw some
ironic backlighting on the label? But who knows? Maybe some real Native
Americans got lost in the final edit. After all, when you're playing
big-money games of this kind, the thoughtful footnotes often get lost.



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