Gangs of New York

dir: Martin Scorsese
[img_assist|nid=1041|title=Fear the moustache, fear the glass eye or the huge hats I wear. For your sake, fear something|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=400|height=300]
History is replete with examples of grand folly. Times where people were inspired by big ideas that outstripped their ability, their budget or the laws of physics and failed spectacularly in ways so tragically overblown that they have become the stuff of legend, despite being remembered, perhaps incorrectly as time stumbles inexorably forward.

As an example, how about the plans of Arthur Paul Pedrick, who came up with a scheme to irrigate the Sahara by flinging giant snowballs from Antarctica using catapults? Or Howard Hughes’ ‘Spruce Goose’, the biggest, goofiest model aeroplane ever constructed, with its seventeen separate engines and its wingspan exceeding that of a football field by 20 metres, and possessing enough cabin space to carry two railroad carriages side by side? Perhaps someone should have told Hughes that railroad carriages already had a way of being moved around. It might have saved him some cash. And time. Lots and lots of time. And glue, probably.

In the realm of film there have been an abundance of examples where a director’s vision and ability failed to coincide, or where unforeseeable circumstances either rendered or almost rendered their projects abject failures. There are those grand follies that were nearly stillborn but triumphed in the end, ultimately being loved by the great unwashed masses the world over. Apocalypse Now (the original version, not the unnecessarily inflated Redux), Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Chinatown; these were films that people expected to flop, that had studio heads trembling in their Italian patent leather shoes. Difficult, unconventional films that in some cases went horribly overbudget and at some points looked like they were never going to see the inside of a cinema. Not only did they do this, but they went on to great commercial and critical success.

Between these films and the outright bombs you have the films that the studios thought would fail and fail miserably, and they were right, because they hampered the filmmakers at every stage. These films managed to find an audience on the reissue and DVD markets: films like Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, plenty of other films that don’t have Once in the title. You could even factor in Blade Runner and most Terry Gilliam films under this arbitrary heading.

The last, most beloved category is that of grand folly productions that cost absolute fortunes, teetered on the brink of catastrophe from beginning to end, went wildly overbudget, had multiple people die, fired or replaced and turned out to be cataclysmic failures. The kind of ignoble tragedies that destroy careers and bankrupt studios. We’re talking about crapfests like your appropriately named Bonfire of the Vanities. Cleopatra. Heaven’s Gate. The Cotton Club. Cutthroat Island. Hudson Hawk. Films so tragically mishandled that they make you want to punch kindly old people in the face when you think about them. Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a new would-be applicant for the Hall of Shame: The Gangs of New York.

These days of course, with the massive budgets allocated to film productions that seem second only to the money required to launch an invasion of a foreign country, it seems that even modestly successful films barely break even. This of course depends on the level of veracity you attribute to the accounting practices endemic to Hollywood, where there’s more creativity behind the scenes financially than ever appears on the screen. So it’s hard to tell these days, especially since the concept of a blockbuster having a budget near or over $100 million is kind of redundant, since most Hollywood films seem to be heading that way regardless.

Martin Scorsese is of course an American treasure of a director. Many of his early films are deeply loved and admired. More recently of course, the films made by the director of such alleged masterpieces as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas languishes in that pile reserved for critically adored directors whose films don’t connect any more with audiences. Or whose films seem to repeat their previous achievements too closely to be worth an extra ticket just to bask in his radiance once again.

At least that’s how it seems in regards to this film. Allegations of tampering by the Weinsteins, the fact that the production went massively overbudget, the threatened initial running time of something like 5 hours, the bizarre fact that this garnered a sympathy Best Picture nomination despite the fact that no-one could be found to say a positive thing about it, all of this is now part of cinema’s rich history of gargantuan egos and runaway productions. It also calls into question what kind of blackmail technique the Weinsteins over at Miramax have mastered in order to be able to get their annual ‘prestige’ picture nominated in categories it clearly doesn’t deserve (think about it; Chocolat, this film, Shakespeare in Love, last year’s hollow ‘epic’ Cold Mountain). How do they do it? Enquiring minds want to know. But then again I’d love to know how a piece of superfluous, already forgotten piece of shit like Chicago wins Best Picture as well. Truly the members of the Academy must look back every now and then and wonder what the fuck they were thinking.

In all fairness the film was neither the complete critical turkey it was portrayed as, neither was it a flop of Battlefield: Earth proportions. The film seems to have made its money back (barely, according to: when overseas grosses are taken into consideration as well), and did at least garner praise for its scenery-chewing villain, Bill the Butcher, adeptly and insanely played by Daniel Day Lewis, if for nothing else.

The film attempts to do two things: create a believably real simulacrum of 1860s New York from scratch without CGI in a manner so meticulous so as to let the audience practically smell the squalor, and create a passionate story of love, hate and revenge. Guess which one Scorsese gets right and which one he fucks up. Go on, I dare you.

The Five Points set looks amazing. You understand partly why the film would have been so expensive to make when you look at the built-from-scratch sets. They look truly convincing. And it doesn’t look like a set, it looks like an actual ‘new’ city plucked from the 1900s and plonked down in front of Scorsese’s camera (or even cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s camera) for our consideration. Ballhaus has had a long standing professional relationship with Scorsese, have shot most of Scorsese’s films thus far, and he works overtime on this one, trying to get that ‘epic’ look and feel and mostly succeeding. Where in Age of Innocence both Ballhaus and Scorsese tried to give us an idea of the stateliness, grandeur and remarkable privilege that the protagonists lived in with the use of set design, location choices and the structure and set up of shots, here they give us a frontier world of violent tribalism, scrabbling poverty and desperation. It’s an interesting difference.

The location itself is meant to be ye olde Manhattan, during the Civil War. The Five Points are overflowing with people fleeing the war and those that are fresh off the boat in their pursuit of the American Dream. At that stage the Dream being the pursuit of soap, lard and toothpicks. With this influx of people you have those ‘established’ people that wish to prey upon them, and others that want to aid them in their troubled times. All throughout history I think we can agree to there being a surfeit of the former and the dearth of the latter. In other words shitloads of exploiters and fuck-all samaritans. And by default we also have to have those that don’t care whether you live or die. Which tends to constitute the vast majority of humanity then and now.

But enough about what I learned at the seminary whilst training to be a Catholic priest. Speaking of priests, at story’s beginning we are introduced to Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the leader of a gang called the Dead Rabbits. This shows how poor these Irish immigrants are: they can’t even afford a decent gang name.

The Dead Rabbits have a rumble with another gang called the Nativists, who aren’t so much a gang as a group of tough nuts with interests in the local community and ties to the real powerbrokers (people with money) who hate recent immigrants, especially the Irish.

Sure it’s not logical, since many of them would only be a generation removed from being immigrants themselves, but then again prejudice itself rarely has anything to do with rationality. The fight is built up to in quite a tense manner, and there is this bizarre off-key tin whistle type music which wheedled its way into my subconscious during the mobilisation of the gang which I haven’t been able to get out of my head since seeing the film.

Medication helps but chemistry only goes so far.

Up until the point where the gangs fight and Priest is killed by Bill the Butcher, I doubt anyone would find much to complain about in regards to the film. In fact had they stopped there it probably would have been one of the most expensive but enjoyable short films ever made. Much to the audience’s dismay, the story keeps going on afterwards for about 3 more hours.

The purpose of Priest’s death is to give our main character, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio, as if you didn’t know) motivation. I mean it couldn’t be an epic film about revenge if there isn’t some reason for the main character to be pissed off about something. So after languishing in an orphanage for sixteen years Amsterdam has presumably lathered himself up into a fury and now has a thirst that only bloody vengeance can slake. But since Bill killed Priest Vallon in a fair fight, you have to wonder why we’re supposed to be so driven to sympathise with the son’s objective.

It probably would have been a better film if they’d left out DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz entirely, who plays an unwanted and unneeded female token role, and just made it about the rivalry between Priest Vallon’s gang and The Butcher’s gang. Let’s not be coy about it, Scorsese has long been obsessed with the kinds of men that belong to gangs and kill other men for fun or profit. Here is no different. Only the location, accents and clothing differs from any of the other Mob worshipping stuff he’s been responsible for.

You’d think that there would be an opportunity for some kind of complexity to the relationships, but it really isn’t there. There is a modest amount of character arc for Amsterdam Vallon, from the point where he starts off hating the man he wants to kill, then for a while admires him as a surrogate father figure, even protects him, and then wants to kill him again. Wow, that’s called dramatic range.

For all the criticisms levelled at DiCaprio and Diaz, I don’t feel that their work was all that bad. In fact I’ll risk eternal damnation by saying that DiCaprio was decent in the role. Anyone was going to come off second best compared to Daniel Day Lewis in this film, and whilst the laddie does indeed come off looking second best, it’s to his credit that he went toe to toe with the guy in the first place. Respectable, that’s what I’ll call it.

Lewis, for all the praise levelled at him certainly didn’t deserve the Best Actor Oscar that many feel was his due, which went to Adrien Brody for his work in The Pianist instead. The reason for this is because, as far as I know, the little engraved plate at the base of the award doesn’t say “Annual Yosemite Sam Award”. For those too young or culturally deprived to know who I’m referring to, or living in a place where Warner Brothers cartoons were never shown, like Siberia, Bhutan or Utah, Yosemite Sam was a short, bearded and long moustached nemesis of that modern day Buddha of the last century, Bugs Bunny. Suffice to say that he acts like an amphetamined-up lunatic with anger management problems, who continually chews up and occasionally humps the scenery after spitting it out whenever it takes his fancy.

He’s a joy to behold, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that he completely overbalances the film. Nothing else seems as ‘real’ around him, rendering even the sets somewhat transparent. Still, it’s not the film’s fault that he Method acts so completely for the entire film’s duration.

Also, the hats they give him are pretty deliberately stupid. There’s this leather headguard type hat that he wears during rumbles that looks like the leather football helmets Ronald Reagan was wearing in those appalling films where everyone kept being told to do this or that one for The Gipper. Then there’s the stovepipe hat which makes him look both like the moustache twirling villain that would tie damsels to the train tracks in silent era movies, and like a dastardly rascal from Oliver! The Musical. It seems petty to harp on such trivialities, I know, but they were pretty bloody ridiculous.

So Amsterdam goes from hating to liking to hating Bill, until right at the end where we get another gang brawl repeating the events sixteen years previous during the Draft Riots. Along the way there the story takes a thousand hours and a dozen subplots as it meanders towards the inevitable. Some of the subplot stuff works or is at least interesting. Much of it is not. The implied argument that the film suffered from studio meddling would seem credible if not for the fact that additional meddling could have resulted in a better film. Scorsese does love taking the time and effort to establish the milieu that his characters inhabit, but in this instance the emphasis is misplaced.

I did enjoy many of the details included in the film about the era, I have to admit, despite my protestations that the film was too long and lacked focus. There is a sequence where Vallon follows his object of desire Jenny Everdeane as she embarks on her daily work as a thief: the narration (to me) was fascinating, outlining all the various types of styles and techniques used to rip off the wealthy. There’s plenty of these little details thrown in to the story, which don’t really have anything to do with anything, but as they say, the devil’s in the details. And Scorsese certainly loves his details. Anyone that’s seen the sheer amount of work put in to getting the details right regarding the look and the lifestyle of the Bostonian upper crust as depicted in Age of Innocence knows just how meticulous Scorsese can be. It’s up to the beholder to work out whether it adds to the story or whether it takes them out of the story, as unnecessary voice-overs often do.

The political machinations between the various people, gangs and powerbrokers are interesting at first, and then seem to be drawn out if only to delay the inevitable showdown between Vallon and Bill. Admittedly the film is called The Gangs of New York, so you’d expect much to be made of these interactions, since the story isn’t subtle about being allegorically about the birthing pains of one of the world’s great metropolises. And the film’s ending, representing the creation of New York in tandem with its post 9/11 reconstruction (conceptually) makes the work’s point, about the struggle involved in the origin of any great city.

With such a messy, sprawling endeavour, it remains arguable whether the film is ultimately successful or not. I certainly enjoyed it, but then again I’ve been known to like a lot of crap films. The sheer quantity of decent actors in the film (Lewis, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, David Hemmings, Henry Thomas et al) means that there’s generally something interesting to watch. With Bill the Butcher swaggering around the place, there’s also a sense of menace that hangs over the proceedings in most sections, seeing as he represents the kind of charming psychopath that Scorsese loves putting in his film. His many pronouncements vary from the quoteworthy to the flat out hilarious. His rendition of how Ireland was created has me in absolute stitches.

Perhaps in time people will come to like the film, though I find it unlikely. To me it doesn’t significantly represent a peak or a downturn in the fortunes of the director, since he’s always been renowned for making difficult films that aren’t necessarily conventional in themes or format. And though the ultimate story here is conventional, and in fact unengaging, the rest of the production has enough verisimilitude to justify the massive expense of money and time that it represents. As well as the time it took for me to watch it.

So it’s certainly possible that the film does suck, but at the very least I don’t think it sucks anywhere near as much as people hoped. How indeed the wolves come out when people sense these grand follies are in the offing. Licking their lips, they are. Nothing pleases us more than watching the mighty trip over their own hubris.

7 times this film could have been better half an hour shorter and free of Cameron Diaz out of 10

"The appearance of law must be upheld, especially when it's being broken." - Boss Tweed, Gangs of New York.