(fwd from Yoshie Furuhashi) Re: The ideological implications of Scorcese's latest film

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Mon Dec 23 07:50:00 MST 2002


Mark Adams wrote:

>Couldn't the point possibly be (I haven't seen the film) that the
>nation was built on violence and bloodshed, rather than the John
>Wayne romance of the wagon trail? To me, the reviewer takes for
>granted that "The way America was built must have been good". That
>being the case, "it can't have been built by thugs like that!"

It is certainly possible that viewers interpret the film in this way.
Boss Tweed can control the city without making his hands dirty,
dispensing patronage in return for first the Nativist gang's and then
the Irish gang's use of extralegal violence to marshal votes for him
(Tweed switches from the Nativist to the Irish gang, as more and more
Irish immigrants arrive in New York).  Bill "the Butcher" Cutting,
the leader of the Nativist gang, suggests that either "Tammany boys"
do their own "muscle work" or Tweed get cops to do it; Tweed replies,
"Oh Jesus, no.  The appearance of law must be upheld, especially
while it's being broken."

Extralegal violence of individual revenge (Amsterdam Vallon's
avenging his father by killing Bill), ethnic strife (deadly
competition between Nativist and Irish gangs), and racist assault
(working-class whites' lynching of blacks) is literally and
symbolically overshadowed by overwhelming legal violence of state
power.  Union troops shoot into crowds of rioters, and gunboats
bombard the city, indiscriminately killing all -- Nativist or Irish
-- in the way.  Ashes and debris of bombardment create a visual
symbol: the bodies of Amsterdam and Bill locked in final combat are
covered by them, and their visions are blocked by them.

The state restores law and order, not to rescue the black victims of
lynching, but to protect the properties of elite New Yorkers
(including such liberal elite New Yorkers as Horace Greeley) whose
houses and offices were under attack by working-class crowds.

The final voice-over narration by Amsterdam goes against the above
interpretation to some degree, though.  He speaks of how the city was
"saved" from the "mob."  Only if Leonard DiCaprio delivered the words
"saved" and the "mob" in a tone of irony could the final narration be
squared with the meaning of the preceding sequence of the riot and
its suppression.  Alas, DiCaprio's delivery is flat.  That may be,
however, the actor's limitation, not the director's.

Louis Proyect wrote:

>Alas, Martin Scorsese is not much of a social critic. He is
>fascinated by the outsider figure, whether it is the homocidal
>Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver", raging bull Jake LaMotta or mafia
>criminal Henry Hill in "Goodfellas". Although I have not seen "Gangs
>of New York", which has not even opened in NYC, I assume that it
>will be standard Scorsese fare: brutal men in a Hobbesian universe.
>I will be particularly interested to see how he handles the Irish
>draft riots.

Martin Scorsese is no Gillo Pontecorvo, but he is interested in the
question of class in his own way.  His major works (among which I do
not count Goodfellas) concern the fate of free-floating class anger
that cannot develop itself into class consciousness and politics of
cross-ethnic & cross-racial solidarity.  A very American problem
indeed -- the problem that we have yet to overcome in the real world.
--
Yoshie

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* Anti-War Activist Resources: <http://www.osu.edu/students/sif/activist.html>
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