They say that retrospection gives way to perspective which gives way to the most effective view of things. I’m not sure that always applies to the cinematic world, though. If retrospection doesn’t precipitate nostalgic remembrances, it gives way to unnecessarily harsh points of view on certain films and Gangs of a New York is a fine example of that. Perhaps, it’s because a retrospective view at its ten Oscar nominations and zero wins suggests a less than impressive awards’ tally but by now you’d think that we’d stop using Oscar wins as a barometer for quality. All of Scorsese’s films this side of GoodFellas are befallen with the misfortune of being compared, unattractively, to his early work and next to The Age of Innocence, Gangs of a New York is the one accused most often of gratuitous style over substance. (Incidentally, both star Daniel Day Lewis, whose birthday is today.) I’m neither here nor there on whether that commendation holds up, but now is as good a time as any for a retrospective look at the 2001 “epic”.
I don’t know what is about Scorsese, he’s almost always regarded for his meticulous attention to detail but even in the consistency of his films – thematically – I’m always impressed with the scope of his imagination. In more ways than one Gangs of a New York is an ideal predecessor to The Aviator. It’s not just the presence of DiCaprio, Scorsese’s interest in history is potent as is the expansive epic style which he puts to more careful use in The Aviator. Scorsese’s films are always notable for their technical prowess and Gangs of New York makes extensive use of that – Michael Ballhaus photography in particular belongs to that specific school of lush which is so often mistaken for gratuitousness. Of course, that’s probably why it’s often cited as one of the leading examples of style over substance.
I won’t deny that I have massive nepotism when it comes to Martin Scorsese, and I’d be the first to admit that Gangs of New York has a story which has its issues with structures but I can’t criticise it for its actual story which I’m impressed with. Zaillian is a bit of a hit and miss with his screenplay credits, but Gangs of New York for me falls in the realm of the hit. The film is defined by its grittiness and it’s easy to give that credit to Scorsese because it’s a coarseness that a number of his films are marked with. But, Zaillian deserves a significant amount of credit for what exists as an impetus for the entire film. The important word there is impetus, though, because like so many of his films Scorsese’s scope overshadows the written word.
I mentioned Daniel Day Lewis in my opening paragraph, and his Bill the Butcher defines the entire film. I hate that memory of the supporting cast is eviscerated because they do turn in good work. But, it is Lewis’ film and he turns in what’s arguably the greatest performance of 2002 – which is significant considering the great work turned in by actors that year. This isn’t my favourite performance of his, but on his birthday today I can’t help but turn to Gangs of New York to remember him by. Lewis is an masterpiece, Gangs of New York is bit too flawed to be one. But, where they can shake hands is in their scopes. Love it or hate it, it’s difficult to deny the majesty of Scorsese’s intentions here, same goes for Daniel Day Lewis. The film, like it's main actor demands your attention at first glance and then it surprises with you with some distressing moments of poignancy.
What did you think of Scorsese's Gangs of New York? How would you celebrate DDL?