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.
When Gangs of New York is run normally, though, you’ve got an awful lot of time to wish for Amsterdam to grow a personality. “Who are you? Who are you?” demands his love interest (Cameron Diaz) during a tender moment shared in a catacomb; and the audience might well ask the question a third time. (Or a fourth: The skirt role is so thinly conceived in Gangs of New York, even for a Scorsese movie, that it could be filled by volunteers from the audience.) It’s fine for subsidiary figures to serve as historical markers–witness Jim Broadbent, who is ideally cast as Boss Tweed. But it’s not so good when two of the three principals are just holding up their costumes, while Butcher points up the fault by bursting out of his. Scorsese loves this man’s heroic misbehavior. He encourages Day-Lewis to express it in a grand-scale, anything-goes performance, which encompasses every acting style from mustache-twirling to a De Niro imitation. Studious in his brutality, vain about his clothes, avid to learn big words and try them out, magnanimous, moralistic, less cunning than he imagines himself to be but exactly as scary, Butcher is the masterpiece that Day-Lewis created while Scorsese was straining to realize his own.
But to return to that sense of timelessness: Gangs of New York may break into pieces, some more brilliant or compelling than others, but Scorsese clearly thought up a whole movie. He meant to make something for the ages. Spike Lee, on the other hand, seems to think in skits, which he strings together into a movie. Once in a great while, the skits add up to a whole, as in Do the Right Thing. On other occasions, Lee’s characters know themselves to be performing skits (like the phone-sex workers in Girl 6 or the blackface comedians in Bamboozled), so there’s a harmony to the movie, if not a unity. And then there are Spike Lee’s this-and-that movies, into which he tosses whatever he’s thinking about.
These are not timeless masterpieces. They’re movies of the moment, which risk being neglected tomorrow for the sake of telling you something today. One of the better is Lee’s new film, 25th Hour.
Based on a novel by David Benioff, 25th Hour tracks the life of a soulful, intelligent, upstanding drug dealer named Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) on the day before he’s to report to prison. OK, so the movie’s a fantasy. The improbability of its premise matters less than the plausibility of the characters, Monty included, all of whom seem intimately familiar to Lee, none of whom (by the way) are African-American.
Over the course of the day, Monty visits his reformed-boozer father (Brian Cox), completes some business with his former associates in the Russian mob, endures a nightlong party with his two best friends (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper) and asks himself repeatedly whether his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson) was the snitch who betrayed him. There’s also a second question hanging over Monty. Come morning, will he really turn himself in? Or will he go into hiding–or put a bullet through his head?
I ought to praise the performances in 25th Hour, and by now I am obliged at least to mention the infuriated monologue that Edward Norton speaks into a mirror, in a scene that’s already become celebrated. I ought to praise the music, the cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and much else. What interests me the most, though, is the lack of any need to incorporate the September 11 attacks into the movie.
Lee simply took it into his head to film the Towers of Light memorial at the World Trade Center site, to shoot an entire dialogue scene against the background of Ground Zero, to record in passing a tribute to the slain firefighters of Rescue 5. These images contribute nothing to the story, and in the best way possible. They don’t raise Monty’s situation to the world-historical level; they don’t teach him that his problems are really very small; and they sure as hell don’t turn into metaphors. These are facts, as arbitrary as they’re painful, which Monty lives with just because they’re present, and which Lee put into the movie for the same reason.
Too few movies in 2002–in any year, for that matter–have borne the stamp of their time. Maybe filmmakers, or the people who give them money, are afraid that such marks read like an expiration date. Spike Lee knows better. He made 25th Hour for the moment–and so the best parts of it will stay fresh forever.
And now, for the moment, my list of the best and worst of 2002.
The ten best films released during the year, as I rank them today, were Russian Ark, Talk to Her, Y Tu Mamá También, Punch-Drunk Love, What Time Is It There?, I’m Going Home, The Pianist, Eloge de l’amour, Storytelling and A Grin Without a Cat. Honorable mentions–fifteen in all–go to Domestic Violence, Spider-Man, Adaptation, Time Out, Read My Lips, Monsoon Wedding, Minority Report, About Schmidt, Gangs of New York, Bowling for Columbine, 25th Hour, 8 Mile, The Bourne Identity, How to Draw a Bunny and Roger Dodger.
As for the ten worst: I have wrestled with myself over whether to top the list with Far From Heaven. I’ve decided I won’t. There are some good things to be found in that picture; and though it frequently irritated me, it never caused me pain.
The ten movies that did inflict suffering were Death to Smoochy, Chicago, The Hours, Rollerball, Hart’s War, Queen of the Damned, The Piano Teacher, Signs, Insomnia and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
Here’s to a better 2003.