Steve Satterwhite, the photographer, and I recently saw Gangs of New York at 11:30 in the morning at the CocoWalk 16 in Coconut Grove. Gangs, director Martin Scorsese's great American telenovella, had been getting the full media treatment for a week prior, Orwellian slavering for Christmas product from Miramax, and the opening day (Dec. 20) ads already featured encomiums from Tweedle-dee at Rolling Stone: "Best Picture of the Year!"; Tweedle-doo of Time: "One of the Best Pictures of the Year!"; and Tweedle-dum at Hot Ticket: "The Best Picture of the Year!" All to no avail. There were only five other people in the audience when we arrived, all old and dazed-looking, working hard to fill out their retirements. You could actually hear Steve's popcorn nuggets hitting the floor whenever they missed his mouth during lulls in the over-miked soundtrack's bellowing.
Despite comparisons with the Godfather series, or Apocalypse Now, or even Birth of a Nation, GONY isn't an epic at all. It isn't even a movie. It's an artifact, a visual record of the decline of a small but vital talent, a sad slide that began as early as 1977's New York, New York, reportedly fueled by cocaine and a gradual loss of inspiration. Scorsese was a genuine son of the working class, raised on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy (unlike Robert De Niro, whose parents were arty and lived in Greenwich Village). His nervy early films -- Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Mean Streets -- were labors of neurotic love, real feeling for the streets of New York City, complicated by real desperation to escape them for good.
He's done the latter, only to find that when he ventured very far from the downtown ethnic material that got him above Houston Street in the first place -- King of Comedy, Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence -- he nearly always stiffed. And then, to re-establish his "bankable" status with Left Coast money men, he'd have to scramble for other art dago projects -- Raging Bull after New York, New York; Goodfellas after Temptation; Casino after Innocence. Having mopped up all the extant Italian material worth doing except The Sopranos, he turned to Irish ethnicity in GONY. (Though the metahype on this film had Scorsese planning it as early as 1970, I can submit that during the three months I spent profiling him while he was shooting Taxi Driver in 1975, he never mentioned it, going on instead about Temptation.)
GONY's sweep, according to the intellectual guns the NY Times and New Yorker hired to make something of it, paints the crucible from which Irish political power was forged. By extension, the "lesson" of the film is alleged to suggest how successive immigrant waves -- Jews, Italians, plus blacks (who'd come here earlier and against their will), were hammered by economic exploitation into that strange 21st-century phenomenon -- Bush-era Americans. People 9/10ths convinced that democracy and capitalism are one.
An overload for Scorsese's frail shoulders. GONY is merely a series of false starts and inappropriate references: a "fight" scene between "nativist" (Anglo-Saxon) New Yorkers, led by Daniel Day-Lewis as the bigoted but strangely fatherly William Cutting (a kind of 19th-century Frank Costello for Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall), and Irish potato-famine refugees, inexplicably ends in bravura, Paint Your Wagon-style choreography (?); scenes of debauchery in Cutting's cavernous HQ show scores of topless chicks, copied frame-per-frame from Abel Ferrara's cult classic, The King of New York; battle-line weaponry, deployment, and esprit de corps are pure Braveheart; Day-Lewis's American tough characterization owes everything to De Niro's mob bosses in Goodfellas and Brian De Palma's The Untouchables; and Leo DiCaprio's vaunted "strong" performance is just more beached Titanic youthful determination. (But not even Scorsese's clueless pastiches can stifle Cameron Diaz's smoldering comedy -- she's a young woman in full squirm.)
Because of the broad shallowness of the characterizations and lack of directorial vision for the movie, critics have been drafted to explicate a "story," but despite the soldiering of Scorsese apologists such as Richard Corliss, GONY remains incoherent. Day-Lewis kills Liam Neeson, DiCaprio's dad, early, for racist reasons and to set up a clichéd revenge triangle that never develops, but then takes Leo in as a surrogate son, suspecting full well who he is(?). (He also keeps a portrait of Neeson on his mantle as "a noble enemy" -- meaning, one supposes, that he's such a reactionary he even hates to change his rivals.) Diaz was starving in a doorway until Day-Lewis adopted her and taught her to be a pickpocket, never even bedding her until she asked him! But then, when DiCaprio finally succeeds in sacking her too (Scorsese lets half the script roll by before permitting it), the kid wakes up one night to find Day-Lewis mooning over them. Big Daddy isn't mad or anything, just melancholy. But signaling what? A bi riff? A homo whiff? Paternal separation anxiety? Scorsese doesn't know. At this point he's one of those dopes who like to titillate without accountability, figuring that "that's entertainment" in 2003.
And in fact GONY has more to do with Disney World and the childish sensibility that has dominated Hollywood since Star Wars, the first visual pinball game, than it does with epics or history or class-struggle analysis, or even simple character development. Scorsese used to be called "Marty Pills" on Elizabeth Street, because instead of hanging on the corner and fighting with the guys in Little Italy like he should have back in the '60s, he'd go hide in some Midtown movie theater all day, sucking on his asthma atomizer.
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He's still hiding, indulging in wishful thinking (a black kid running with DiCaprio and cracking white heads in the New York draft riots of 1863? In Concerned People Opposed to War's dreams, maybe).
A real movie about the shifting of U.S. tectonic political plates might dramatize the Korean/black mutual hatred in Harlem and Brooklyn today, or the trouble Haitian kids are having in Miami with black and Hispanic gangs, and then draw parallels with German/Jewish, black/white, or Irish/Italian wars of the past. On the way back up I-95, Satterwhite didn't think so, though: "It's just a movie, man. Aren't you glad this guy's still working? That's a $120 million gig! What're you so pissed off about?" "Ruined promise?" I tried, but when I saw the first two weekends' grosses, $30.1 million nationwide as of Dec. 30 (Forrest Gump more than tripled that in its early days), I cheered up fast.
Could it be that ticket consumers are going to reject the media's 1984 brainwash cues this time? Is there enough of a surfeit of BS on the big screen, finally? I say boo to corporate ethnicity product, all duked out in historical drag. Boo to Harvey Weinstein and Miramax and the whole inside-the-Hollywood-Freeway-lowered-expectations-in-moviemaking mindset. Gangs of New York is just a pricey shambles.