Looking backward in the January chill, I feel my eyes shoot past the films of 2002 toward a movie made some thirty years ago: a picture by Martin Scorsese about violent, driven people in downtown Manhattan and how they were always on top of each other. How intimately Scorsese knew that movie’s characters, as if in his childhood he’d cadged snacks from their parents’ kitchens! When these people brawled, they banged into furniture that could be traced back to a known source, which was probably a showroom on Bowery. When they talked, they put to work a store of knowledge as precise as the filmmaker’s–deciding, for example, how much to pay a cop to go away, or choosing the best means of cheating kids who came around to buy firecrackers.
I miss the Scorsese of Mean Streets–miss him even though my last, best hope for 2002 was Gangs of New York, his film about violent, driven people who live in downtown Manhattan and are always on top of each other. When that picture finally opened, about a year later than expected, I marveled at much of what I saw. (So will anyone who loves movies.) Yet I also felt, as I have since Scorsese went mythic with The Last Temptation of Christ, that his films have ballooned, gaining grandeur on the outside at the expense of the stuffing within. Although Gangs of New York is thrilling from the start, I sighed to see where the action begins: inside a timeless, cavernous maze of flaring torches and pounding drums, fiery smithies and totems on a stick.
With all that chthonic hoo-ha, you’d hardly know that the year is 1846, and the place the Five Points in New York City. A battle is about to be joined on the snow-dusted commons, where pigs root beside buildings that are mere overgrown shacks. Here assemble volunteer armies composed of “native” Americans and “foreign-born” Irish, the former led by Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), the latter by Priest (Liam Neeson), who carry somewhat cruder armaments than were used at Agincourt–knives and cleavers, mostly, cudgels and swords. Following Priest and his young son toward the bloodletting, the camera hurries through vaulted caves, past an altar where communion is being celebrated and ancient oaths renewed, up through the latticework cages of a vast tenement that is reminiscent of nothing so much as the domed city in Fellini’s Satyricon.
This, according to Scorsese, is the buried reality on which we have built today’s New York. Beneath our feet lie the remnants of a primitive world, ritualistic, bloody and tribal.
I’m sure this much is true: In the violence of people’s emotions and the vividness of their sensations, the Five Points of 1846 must have been closer to the Europe of the Middle Ages than it is to us. Scorsese knows this, and so he plunges into a city that seems strangely medieval in everything but its accent. “Ears and noses shall be da trophies uh duh day,” Butcher cries out to his troops, after he has killed Priest in single combat, and so decided “who holds sway over duh Five Points.” As for Priest’s young son, he is to be handed over to the authorities, the only people around who are sufficiently post-Enlightenment as to operate a workhouse. There the child will mature into Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), a glowering young man who will return someday with the aim of wreaking vengeance.
Now, no cinematic rule book requires Scorsese to have cadged snacks from Amsterdam’s parents. (What would Priest have served, anyway? A singed joint?) Characters can be treated iconically or behaviorally, rather than fleshed out with mundane detail, if the filmmaker is mostly interested in the play of historical forces. That was Rossellini’s concern, for example, in The Rise of Louis XIV, and it’s part of what Scorsese has in mind in Gangs of New York. If you were to run this film at forty times the standard speed, you’d see the medievalists crest like a wave, then crash in blind futility on the rocks of the modern world.