Making America Strange Again

Gangs of New York (2002)

Gangs of New York (2002) | Miramax Films
Miramax Films

Starting with the ragged tips of his greatcoat and his snowy boots, the camera pans up Bill the Butcher’s body, and then a cut reveals him in all his glory, flanked by his gang members. Daniel Day-Lewis looks absurd with his exaggeratedly tall hat and broad handlebar moustache, his gangly frame, manspreading to make a point, already crying out to play Lincoln. And yet his confidence, an almost aristocratic nonchalance born of his sense of rightful ownership, persuades you here and throughout to suspend your laughter. As the battle commences between the Nativists and the Dead Rabbits, the latter led by a man dressed as a priest and bearing a Celtic cross, whose gang symbol is a stick festooned with rabbit pelts, the viewer’s incredulity increases: This is New York? This is America

Of course it’s not—not exactly. Gangs of New York has received its share of admiration, but it continues to occupy an equivocal place in the Scorsese canon, and some of this has to do with the artistic license of its approach to history. Much of the rest of it is doubtless due to the over-the-top quality of its vision. Which is curious since the one element of the film that even most of its detractors will defend is Daniel Day-Lewis’ cartoon villain performance as Bill the Butcher. It tempts me to think that it’s Day-Lewis’ intimidating reputation as a British method genius that’s causing this reaction, and not genuine sympathy for or ease with stylized performances. 

I haven’t read Stanislavski, but Day-Lewis’ performance is about as far from the popular conception of method acting—naturalism informed by interiority—as it can get. It looks much more like the Brechtian performance style of an earlier British actor heralded as one of the greatest of his generation, Charles Laughton; and even more like the Brechtian villain performance given by Robert Mitchum in the one film directed by Laughton, The Night of the Hunter. Just because an actor likes to stay in character throughout the shoot doesn’t mean they’re doing method acting—so did Bela Lugosi when filming Dracula

The American films that can best help us to understand Scorsese’s dramaturgy in Gangs of New York are, to my mind, The Night of the Hunter and Josef von Sternberg’s fantastical take on 18th century Russian history, The Scarlet Empress. But Gangs remains very much a Scorsese film, related to other Scorsese films and to the total Scorsese Myth projected by them more than to any other director’s films: a myth of New York City, and a myth of American history. My soft spot for Gangs has to do both with my sympathy for the film’s defamiliarization of American history and with my sense that it’s not possible to understand the Scorsese Myth without this film. And yet it also troubles me. It raises questions about the harm that can be caused by cinematic falsifications of history, particularly when a filmmaker is mythologizing his own country’s history, and particularly when that country has such an effect on the rest of the globe. 

The violent nature of America from the street to the state is hardly a revelation. In fact it’s such a truism that Gangs of New York has to show us an America we’ve never seen before in order to make the information seem new, because understanding it remains urgent, whether the issue is gun control, oppressive policing, or imperialism. Scorsese’s mythologizing and anthropological impulses are at war with each other in Gangs of New York, the latter causing him to revel in the bizarre of a distant era while the former pushes him in the opposite direction, toward abstraction. This is the great puzzle of Gangs of New York: how a filmmaker can be so fascinated by history and at the same time so disinterested in it. But perhaps it’s truer to say that Scorsese is interested in the kind of concrete details only reality can provide, not in history per se. Perhaps for Scorsese in this film irreverence toward history is part and parcel of irreverence toward the idea of America. 

Until my recent thinking about Gangs of New York, it had never once occurred to me to wonder about the historical accuracy of The Scarlet Empress. If I had thought about it, I would have assumed that it was wildly inaccurate. Deciding on Catherine the Great as an ideal role for his Muse, Marlene Dietrich, Sternberg took loose inspiration from visual aspects of Russian Orthodox art to create an exotic fantasy space in which to set his tale of court intrigue and amoral power struggles. All of his American films with Dietrich take place in fantasy spaces, even Dishonored, which is set in the Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where Sternberg spent part of his youth. But setting a film in the distant past, as well as in a foreign country, freed Sternberg to create not just an ornate mise en scène, as in his other Dietrich films, but an entire universe, as if “history” really meant “fairy tale.” 

Unlike more conventional cinematic portraits of royalty, The Scarlet Empress is utterly uninterested in making Catherine the hero of a tale of progress. Sternberg’s vision of history is of unceasing, sadistic oppression by church and state, as shown in the montage sequence at the beginning of the film, in which “Russian history” is told as a bedtime story to the precocious future ruler, the lurid details fleshed out by her imagination. “Russia” here stands in for “history” in general, and “history” in this sense, the only sense that interests Sternberg, never fundamentally changes, although it may, to the relief of the ordinary people being crushed by it, pass through periods of slightly greater enlightenment. The action of the film is Catherine’s learning how to become a political player for the sake of her survival, and in the process losing her soul. 

Scorsese’s insight in Gangs of New York is that it’s not necessary to venture outside of his own country to offer a similar vision of history, since America is already a mythic space. Early cinematic renderings of the country’s history, from The Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind through the entire Western genre, drew on and also greatly contributed to American mythology. The great feat of Gangs of New York is to set itself against these familiar versions of American mythology by making American history alien, and, therefore, opening up the viewer to new perspectives on it. 

Whereas all of the performances in The Scarlet Empress are as exaggerated as the décor, Gangs of New York, like Night of the Hunter, mainly stylizes the villain’s performance. But Gangs of New York runs into a problem that does not occur in Night of the Hunter, which is that Daniel Day-Lewis sucks all of the energy out of the rest of the film. This is because, I would contend, Scorsese doesn’t have the slightest interest in any of the other characters, in the revenge story that is the movie’s ostensible plot, or in the entirely perfunctory love story. The problem may be that Scorsese works best with anti-hero protagonists, whereas here the (historically false) Manichean division of the characters into “good,” progressive immigrants and “evil,” bigoted nativists means that Scorsese just can’t find any momentum in the story of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio, still struggling to leave behind his days as America’s Sweetheart). Here the film’s most troubling historical obfuscation, the anti-Black racism of the Irish immigrants, becomes a dramatic weakness as well. 

Another problem—but, for me, also one of the film’s most pleasurable features—is its hypertrophying of environmental detail. It’s a familiar criticism of Scorsese that even some of his best films—Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf of Wall Street—sacrifice plot to a proliferation of detail. This anthropological tendency of his filmmaking, in which, in lieu of a plot, the viewer is given a tour of a strange and richly realized subculture by an insider, goes into overdrive in Gangs of New York—except that here we have no guide. Amsterdam’s voice-over narration provides us with occasional information, but never as an assured insider. The result is an even higher level of disorientation than is usual in a Scorsese film. The mise en scène, a mishmash of idiosyncratic, riotous period detail (from rat-baiting to rival firefighter gangs) and bold medievalizing anachronisms, is less a setting for the action than an environment through which the characters wander, almost as overwhelmed and bewildered as the viewer. All except Bill the Butcher, of course, who is the god of this world and completely at home in it. If in The Age of Innocence, Scorsese’s anthropological attention to detail is consistent with the realism of the social novel, in Gangs of New York the effect is closer to science fiction, in which the environment and culture cease to be mere context and become overt objects of interest. 

Any dramatic interest that the film has, however, must be generated by Day-Lewis’ performance and the figure of Bill, and whether you consider the film successful, rather than just a fascinating and visually splendid mess, may depend on whether you think either, or both, are sufficient to carry it. (Personally I’m on the fence. Sorry!) Bill, like Mitchum’s Preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter, is the Nightmare Father of Gothic Horror, symbolizing the father’s authority and, therefore, his power to annihilate; at the same time, he’s Scorsese’s nightmare vision of Dark America. Bill wrapping himself up in the Stars and Stripes isn’t subtle, but then neither is Harry Powell dressing up as a preacher, and in both cases, we are to assume not just misappropriation on the part of the villains, but ambivalence about American and Christianity, respectively, on the part of the creators. Gangs of New York is as critical of America in its domestic, as distinct from its imperialist, dealings as any film I can think of. And this depiction extends beyond the interpersonal nastiness of Bill the Butcher, to take in the state’s brutal treatment of the new immigrants, culminating in the New York draft riots. 

But, as he must if he’s going to be worth making a film about, Bill also has his attractive side. Not in the bigoted opinions he constantly spews, but in his evoking of the benign face of the father, whose approval we can’t help but crave. Night of the Hunter shows the equivalence of the two fathers by having the boy-protagonist identity them as he watches Mitchum get arrested, just like his father was; Gangs of New York by having Bill spell out that he and Priest Vallon are the same person, believing in the same macho code, separated only by religion—like Romeo and Juliet as a buddy picture. But credit for making this emotionally believable must go to Day-Lewis, who manages to convey the depth of Bill’s love for Amsterdam (and his father before him), even if that love is saturated with tribal hatred. This is also a theme in Casino, where Joe Pesci’s brotherly bond with Robert De Niro’s Jewish character seems to be all the more passionate for Pesci’s raging bigotry. 

This interest in tribalism is the other link between Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence, with its roughly contemporaneous setting. Between them they cover New York upper- and working-class society of the period, and show that the difference between them is largely cosmetic. The Age of Innocence proved that Scorsese can depict a world in which even the suggestion of physical violence is anathema while still showing, more clearly than ever, the operation of violence within it. Violence in The Age of Innocence is sublimated and civilized, while in Gangs of New York it’s open and anarchic, but in each case it is exerted by a powerful group against the outsider. 

Yet the most broadly accurate aspect of Gangs of New York is its illustration of the limits of the power of private citizens. The (anachronistic) juxtaposition of the gang war rematch with the New York City draft riots has the effect of pitting History, in the sense of an era closer in character to our own, against Myth: the climactic confrontation between Bill and Amsterdam is literally obscured by the smoke from the naval cannon blasts, a perfect cinematic image for the era of state power taking over from a mythic era of lawlessness in which outsized personalities had an effect on the world they lived in. And although this detail is fictive, the depiction of the emergence at this historical moment of central state power in the United States, able to quell justified citizen unrest, is not. Bill the Butcher is a relic of history at the film’s end not, as we might like to believe, because the nativist attitude is going to disappear, but because the kind of power that a working-class “warlord” is able to achieve is nothing compared to the growing power of the American state. The ending of Casino is similar, only in that case, history having advanced into the neoliberal era, what takes the place of Mythic Las Vegas is corporate, not state, power. Ethically we can question Scorsese’s romanticization of the smaller-scale power of gangs, but that’s not really the point. The point is that the world of story is not compatible with the world of state and corporate power. In a story, we have to pretend that individual actions and private passions matter, and that we don’t all just exist at the whim of true power.