Warning: "continue" targeting switch is equivalent to "break". Did you mean to use "continue 2"? in /homepages/22/d134208099/htdocs/keith/wp-includes/pomo/plural-forms.php on line 210
Zettel Film Reviews » Gangs Of New York – Scorcese’s shocking awe, a fascist American tale

  • Pages

  • Site Sections

  • Tags

  • Archives

Gangs Of New York – Scorcese’s shocking awe, a fascist American tale

bully bill

bullying 'butcher' Bill Cutting (sic)

The Gangs of New York – Martin Scorcese

This film will delight the large number of people who disturbingly profess to ‘love’ Scorcese’s brilliant and hateful Goodfellas. GONY looks like the film of a bullied child who longed desperately not to be freed from, but to share the oppressive power that had been exercised over him. It insinuates throughout the dreadful lie that the bully’s power is indeed absolute, its random expression thrilling, and worst of all, displays through dramatic development and visual tone, a sneaking admiration for such power. I am sure that Scorcese and others will say that I have totally missed the point and attributed to him, the very cruelty and moral excesses he wishes to destroy by effective, brutally realistic depiction. But look at the images, and the dubious, sentimental story-line they so brilliantly but worthlessly serve. So effective is this master filmaker’s assault on, and seduction of the senses, that one has to mentally pinch one’s mind awake to realise the sentimental claptrap of its political, personal and patriotic assumptions. As for gender – don’t even think of going there. Men are men: and the stronger and more vicious they are, the more ‘manly’ they are. The few women are like furniture; attractive, well-upholstered and anonymously supportive as the men sit or lie on them as the mood takes them. The Chinese have it even worse – as portrayed: ‘Chinky’ little people in funny clothes who only utter squeaky little songs, never a line of dialogue. And blacks? Well I don’t know the history but I gather the token black in Leonardo de Caprio’s Irish ‘Dead Rabbit’ gang is a sentimental fiction, which if true makes the later scenes of mob murder of blacks during the draft strikes, simply phoney, heart-on-the-sleeve offensive. Frankly, if I were Irish, I would be most offended of all but that’s another story.

As ever with Scorcese, the film is brilliantly made, with a cinematic sweep and scale true to its subject matter. And editing that slices images almost subliminally into one’s inwardly recoiling consciousness. That so much instinctive and artistic cinematic talent should be so regularly squandered on an apparently insatiable obsession with atavistic myths of masculinity, religion, blood-symbolism, and national identity, especially Italian and now Irish, is a personal mystery and aesthetic crime of some weight.

The performances are almost as varied in believability as the wonderfully strange accents used. De Caprio is hopelessly miscast drifting about in Gilbert Roland-esque costumes looking about as Irish as Finian’s Rainbow and with an accent to match. As a character he lacks gravitas and as a fighter, any credibility at all. As with most of the characters, Cameron Diaz manages to look spotless throughout though apparently living much of the time in a squalid underground cave. And can that really be Billy Elliott’s dad behaving so nastily throughout?

And so to Daniel Day-Lewis: his performance is at once mesmerising and weird. As if someone had asked Paul Schofield to play a pantomime dame – with menacing intensity. Imagine a cross between the traditional Uncle Sam figure and a demonic circus ringmaster and you’ll get the feel. It is through Scorcese’s deeply ambivalent treatment of Day-Lewis’s ‘Butcher’ Bill Cutting, as with Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas, that we see the worst of his awe-of-the-bully sensibility. Cutting we are asked to believe, “has principles” and subscribes to something ludicrously claimed to be honour. Hence his supposed admiration of De Caprio’s father who he slaughters in the first ten minutes in a pitched battle of unrelieved cruelty and fuelled by racist, bigoted, nationalistic bile. No warrior this: just a psychopathic thug who kills at will and at random. His notion of honour is perfectly demonstrated by his slaughter of the only man who looked as if he might beat him in a fair fight, whatever that might be, with a cowardly axe in the back. Yet there are moments later in the film when Scorcese actually seems to be nudging us into some kind of grudging respect for this evil creep. In an almost obscenely sentimental ending we are invited to somehow bemoan the passing from patriotic memory of these psychopaths and tribal thugs whose hands we are invited to believe forged New York, and by extension, the United States.

I am sure this was a time of profound hatreds, abject poverty and impossibly hard lives for immigrants of all colours, races and creeds in the New York of the period. But it defies belief that there were no good men and women struggling to survive with dignity, stoicism and some sense of moral values personal and social, in conditions deeply hostile to them. This film celebrates in a cunningly inverted, very Hollywood kind of way, the worst in human nature; and insinuates a shameful, furtive fascination and admiration for skillfully honed cruelty, strength, viciousness and sheer force. Its atmosphere of power through force and fear, and collective power of the tribe, is at heart fascist in tone and underlined in blood. Again and again. Reinforced of course by the unrelieved depiction of every politician as venal, corrupt and self-serving and the ‘democratic’ political process as rotten to the core. As such, the film dishonours the true strength and fortitude of the millions of immigrants who arrived and made a new life for themselves and did help to forge a new country.

If Scorcese’s account is true, far from inviting us to feel a slightly guilty, sneaking regret for the passing memory of such men, he should have left them, justifiably unmissed and unlamented in their anonymous graves.

I am sure cruelty, violence and hatred were to be found in the birth of the United States as with any other country. But I am equally sure that there was goodness, self-sacrifice, honour and respect for others as well. The lie of Scorcese’s film is graphically (literally) demonstrated in that there is not a single, morally redeeming act by any character in any context throughout the film (thus destroying any parallel with the press-touted references to Dickens). Unless we take De Caprio’s specious ‘honouring’ of the body of his token black gang member – which must in the context truly be a fate worse than death.

If popular art reflects its society, this film is even more disturbing. Bottom line: bullies are invincible unless you bully them into submission. Only force overwhelms force and shedding blood, your own and others, is the only pure form of honour. The macabre irony of this philosophy post 9/11 is as chilling as it appears to be unnoticed. Cutting asks mockingly “are you willing to die for your country?” His real question is how many n**gers, ch*nks, m*cks, foreigners, aliens etc, are you prepared to kill for your country? I do not impugn Scorcese’s intentions in this film but he is too consummate a director not to notice what is actually shown by the beautifully crafted, morally ugly film he has created. It is as chilling and disturbing as George W Bush’s smirk which sneaks out at the end of his efforts to sound concerned and gravely moved.

(February 2003)

Leave a Reply