Thursday, June 2, 2011

Love/Hate: Gangs of New York

There are several movies with which I have love/hate relationships. None of them actually involve love or hate but, rather, aspects I like or admire and aspects I find dull or uninspired or just plain wrong. One of the great Love/Hate relationships I have in the cinema is with the film Gangs of New York. There is almost as much I like about that film as I don't like so it comes about as close to an even split as I'm going to get. I will attempt to explain why but most of it is based on gut feelings, something that doesn't translate well into written analysis so listing may, instead, be the order of the day. I may say harsh things about a movie many love but hope that, in the end, Bill "The Butcher" Cutting himself would declare of this piece, "It's fair. A touch indelicate, but fair."


*Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting. As always, Day-Lewis doesn't pull back and that makes for one hell of a watchable performance. In my view, people continue to misunderstand acting that many describe as "hammy" or "over the top." I have commented on this many times but will say it again: A bad actor attempting to ham it up or go "over the top" is painful to watch and, often, wooden. A great actor doing it is a joy to behold (Charles Laughton, Gary Oldman, Bette Davis). I love when he says the "indelicate" line quoted above. Also, after piercing Amsterdam Vallon's (Leonardo DiCaprio) side, announcing, "That's a wound."

*The look of the film. The sets and art direction are terrific to take in and director Martin Scorsese creates an other worldly feel with it, providing a real sense of space and depth within the sets that transport the viewer back in time.

*Jim Broadbent because, well, you know, he's Jim Broadbent!

*The time it takes to develop its story. It doesn't rush itself and doesn't necessarily go where one would expect.

*The history provided in the film, though largely fictionalized, is nonetheless fascinating and did actually inspire me to research it further.


*Cameron Diaz. I just can't stand her in this movie. I find her line deliveries flat and unbelievable and no matter what they do to her costume and makeup, she doesn't look period. She's found a niche in comedy and I think she's skilled at it but in drama, especially this particular period drama, she doesn't work.

*Leonardo DiCaprio. I've grown to like DiCaprio in many things, including all of his other efforts with Scorsese but here he feels forced. From Day-Lewis and Broadbent I get period characters I believe, from DiCaprio I get unconvincing period affectations.

*The opening and closing music. God, how I hate it! This is probably the biggest "Hate" factor of them all. When the opening fight begins and, despite the rest of the film using period Celtic American musical motifs, goes into electric guitar riffs while the action slows to jagged frame by frame slow motion, I don't feel taken out of the movie so much as desperately wanting to leave the movie, and I don't even mind non-period music in period pieces.

Then, at the end, as Amsterdam ponders the future memory of who they were and what they did, cheesy synthesizer-sounding strings strike up (complete with electric guitar riffs, again) as if Scorsese said to the music director, "Now, listen, I'm serious, I really want you to totally screw up this ending," and then the music director pulled out his "100 Greatest Cheesy Movie Themes of the 80s" album and said, "I've got just the thing!"

*The CGI/Matte work/Special Effects. When the camera pulls back at the beginning to show where they are (pssst, it's New York) it looks like the worst matte painting in history as viewed through a broken down screen door. Honestly, I'm not sure if it's matte, CGI or a combination of both, I just know it looks bad. At the end, when Musical Cheese-Fest 2002 is going on, the New York skyline changes or, rather, the really bad CGI/Matte drawing of the New York skyline changes. Hey Marty, way to do everything in your power to destroy the closing shot.

*Finally, and here comes the big one, Martin Scorsese's direction. It's pretty dreadful. He makes some good choices (I mean, how could he not, he's Martin Scorsese so it's not a total loss) but he makes many more bad ones. Mainly, he doesn't stick with any one stylistic approach. There's the jagged frame by frame slow-mo of the fight scene. There's the varying musical approaches. There's the hectic, chaotic climax, narrated by a reporter reading off the telegraph machine so the viewer gets a play by play of the action. Dear Lord, that's got to be one of the most ill-advised approaches to a climax I've ever seen. Scorsese clearly wanted the ending to simulate a newsreel play by play but, alas, the story takes place during the Civil War so he goes with the reporter reading off the telegraph instead. The ending felt so disconnected from the rest of the film, so emotionally distant, that by the time we see the long line of dead bodies waiting to be claimed one feels relief only that, with the end credits nearing, the constant shift in styles will be mercifully over.

When Gangs of New York ends, and the big, overdesigned title card (seriously, the title card is overdesigned! How? Why?) I walk away with a sense of longing. A longing for a better, more consistent film. And, really, that's not a knock so much as an acknowledgement that I like a lot in the movie and wish I liked the movie itself more. And I'll watch it again. I'll watch Bill teach Amsterdam how and where to cut someone for maximum effect (another favorite scene) while I drift off as the Cameron Diaz scenes play out. I'll love it and I'll hate it and dream of what might have been but the movie's shortcomings won't keep me away. After all, with Gangs of New York I know where I stand. It's hit and miss and that's not deadly. That's a wound.


Peter Nellhaus said...

I've read that there was a longer version that was actually better, but for Scorsese, the theatrical release is the only version we'll ever see.

Diaz was essentially cast as a form of box office insurance. Would Vinessa Shaw have been better?

Did you know this was not the first film version of Herbert Asbury's book? The first film version had a screenplay cowritten by a young guy named Samuel Fuller.

Jamie Yates said...

This is the one Scorsese film that I was never able to finish. I should really give it another chance, but my first (and so far, only) viewing lasted roughly twenty minutes. I cannot say that I hated what I saw, but it simply didn't capture my attention.

However, you do make some excellent points here, and it's always refreshing to read an online article that delves into "hate" with constructive criticism, rather than needless ire.

Fred said...

I also have more a hate on this than love, but a great deal of that is in wasted efforts and "what might have been." I think Marty was shooting for something like an 1860s cross between Mean Streets and Goodfellas (IMHO, two of the greatest New York films ever), and ended up with a film that was very unfocused. Like the two aforementioned classics, the story (or what passes for one; I found the script very desultory and hard to follow) focuses on the corruption/education of a young naif (Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Leo DiCaprio) by his environment and evil mentors. But that's where the similarity ends. Other than the LOVE you pointed out (and with which I agree), there is just not enough there to justify the film. I agree that the CGI/matte work was the worst I'd seen since a Gamera film back in 1971. And considering the historical relevance (draft and race riots during the Civil War, the Five Points slum which would become the site of Manhattan's iconic courthouses, the changing ethnic demographics of the Big Apple), it is shame that you need to read Asbury's book to really understand what Scorsese is trying to convey. This shouldn't be the case, especially in a film from a skilled hand like Scorsese.

You didn't mention two of my favorite aspects, which I found underused: a nod to two of my favorite genre actors David Hemmings and Barbara Bouchet. I am grateful to Scorsese for casting these two who had graced some of my favorite films of the Sixties and Seventies, but it's a shame he gave them basically throw away roles, blink-and-you'll-miss-them glorified cameos. I remember meeting Barbara Bouchet at a convention in Jersey in 2001 (she still looks gorgeous) and her telling me how excited she was that she would be in Gangs of New York. I just hope she didn't feel like Adrien Brody when he showed up at the premiere of The Thin Red Line thinking he had the lead only to find out that Terrence Malick had cut him out of the film!

Greg said...

Peter, Scorsese has said that "this is the version" so, you're right, I wouldn't expect to see another version. And you're probably right about Diaz but by 2002 I think Scorsese was his own box office. Plus, he had Leonardo DiCaprio. So, I'm not really sure why Diaz was there.

I read about the Fuller screenplay but he never got the movie made. I'd be curious to have a look at it sometime.

Greg said...

Jamie, I actually started and stopped twice before finally getting around to watching the whole thing. I just couldn't get into it but found that once it gets going there's enough momentum to hold my interest. But also a lot to work against that and make me want to stop.

Greg said...

it is shame that you need to read Asbury's book to really understand what Scorsese is trying to convey. This shouldn't be the case, especially in a film from a skilled hand like Scorsese.

Yes, but you do. The story of Vallon's revenge is clear enough but oddly, isn't the real focus. The focus becomes the five points and how its run and Tamminy Hall and the riots and, then, suddenly, goes back to the revenge at the end by blending it into the riot action. It's all kind of formless and willy-nilly. It's why I have favorite scenes and moments but they don't really add up to a favorite movie by a long shot.

Jason Bellamy said...

This is eerie. I wanted to write a roughly similar piece on this exact film a few weeks back and was never able to carve out the time. Watching it for the first time since it's theatrical release, I was stunned at how equally engaging and sloppy it is.

We're not entertained/put-off by the same things, of course. I kind of like the oh-so-obvious matte drawings/green-screens as a kind of throw-back pleasure. (Although, I thought their appearance here undercut the argument of Shutter Island defenders who suggested that the obvious greenscreen in that film was a deliberate clue by Scorsese about the narrative's credibility. Um, guess not.)

I find myself put off by the things that, as you imply, I just expect Scorsese would be the last director to screw up. The initial battle, for example, has establishing shots that seem to suggest both gangs are, say, 75 yards apart, but then they all take one step toward one another and a bird's-eye-view puts them about 25 yards apart. Huh?!?

Of course, as you suggested, the film's biggest fault is really the sloppiness of its narrative, particularly late in the film.

Anyway, enjoyed the read.

Greg said...

Jason, the fight scene at the beginning has many problems. First of all, the guitar riff/slow mo comes about halfway through the fight. Watching the fight scene again just a minute ago for this response I realize now why it doesn't work. Because for the first half of the fight it's normal speed and periodish sounding music so when the music tone and editing tone abruptly shift you think, "Why'd you do that? It was fine!" This movie has many violations of the old maxim, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

I came upon the inspiration to write it in the same way you did. I watched it again a month or so ago and thought almost the exact same thing, "Wow, this thing is sloppy!" I mean, considering how long Scorsese developed it (early seventies, on) you'd think it would've have been perfect. Alas, what it resembles is all the ideas someone had for a movie over thirty years in development thrown together. I've come to expect much tighter work from Scorsese than this.

bill r. said...

I like this movie a lot!

Greg said...

I am happy for you. Very.

Fred said...

Greg, I think your point about the sloppiness of the film and how long Scorsese took to make gets right to the heart of the matter: why did Scorsese spend so much time on this, which seemed like a labor of love (I think he the only film of his that almost took as long to develop was The Last Temptation of Christ) only to slap it all together? It is stunning when you think of how well constructed some of his films are. I think of the cocaine burnout climax of Goodfellas as a perfect example of editing, cinematoraphy and music all coming together to drive home a point and a feeling (I remember seeing this for the first time and actually counting how many music cues Scorsese put together in that one scene -- I believe it was 8, with Muddy Water's "Mannish Boy," George Harrison's "What is My Life" and Harry Nilsson's "Jump into the Fire" featured most prominently). I look at Gangs of New York and am remined of the old age "the saddest words in the English languarge are what might have been." How could such a great filmmaker and craftsman as Scorsese screw this one up so badly?

Greg said...

I agree that goodfellas scene is superbly done. In fact, for me, goodfellas is his finest achievement as a director followed closely by Taxi Driver.

I think an artist working on something for so long has a lot of things he doesn't want to get rid of once a piece is nearing completion. I assume, and this is only a personal assumption of course, that Scorsese originally conceived the "play by play" climax early on and after filming it was either too close to it to see that it doesn't work or simply refused to accept defeat. Then just repeat that scenario for most of the rest of the movie and the picture becomes clearer, or more muddled, depending on your point of view.

Christopher said...

The Caves Of New York..yes thats how I dreamed this picture the night after seeing it it and dining on a plate of psilocybin laced Duck...A 1939 Warners production with Pat O'Brien,Cagney and Bogart dressed in Flinstone cave man attire battling it out on the snow with mace,spiked clubs and yankee tomahawks.

Greg said...

Christopher, your comments may perplex at times but I wouldn't have them any other way.

Young Cagney would've been great in the Vallon role. I can see him really drooling for revenge. I can't really think of anyone who seems right for the Bill Cutting role though (except maybe Cagney again), a testament to how good Daniel Day-Lewis is.

Christopher said...

I could picture them getting someone like George Bancroft or better yet,Walter Huston for Bill The Butcher..It is a classic psycho yankee doodler Role to die for tho,and Daniel day-Lewis is superb.
I always thought the Ducky Boys in Kaufman's 1979 cult fave,The Wanderers,were the many many descendants of those early irish gangs..

Greg said...

Walter Huston! He would be great in the Bill Cutting role. Good call.

Josh said...

I agree with most of this, but can't we just blame all the faults of the movie on the Weinsteins?

And for me, Daniel Day-Lewis's performance makes up for a lot.

"Harvey, don't make that sound again!"

Greg said...

Daniel Day-Lewis is always a pleasure to watch. This is another fine performance that improves the movie surrounding it.

Patrick said...

I agree with out about Daniel Day-Lewis in this film, just great. My least favorite comment about an actor's performance is to say he was "chewing the scenery", which seems to be said about nearly any performance where the actor isn't simply comatose.

Stacia said...

It's rare when I read a critique that exactly matches my own opinions of a film, but yours certainly does. The music! That end matte painting! I was so angry at that, with the fading skyline going through the decades and featuring the WTC -- it was a kind of manipulation I never thought Scorsese would engage in.

Daniel Day Lewis was glorious though. Liam Neeson did a lot with a pretty thinly written role, too.

Zoë Walker said...

Really enjoyed reading this. you made some points.
I personally think this movie is great, it works for me, music and almost everything else.
I do agree with you about Cameron Diaz, I guess that she was just a box office attribute, that is all I reckon I would have changed.
thanks for the read!

Greg said...

My least favorite comment about an actor's performance is to say he was "chewing the scenery", which seems to be said about nearly any performance where the actor isn't simply comatose.

Agreed! Chewing the scenery is a beautiful thing to behold with someone like Daniel Day-Lewis.

Greg said...

Liam Neeson did a lot with a pretty thinly written role, too.

Stacia, Liam Neeson is another actor I have never thought bad. He always impresses even in a role as small and barely written as this one. In fact, with just his couple of statements to Bill Cutting before the brawl, I found him to be much more memorable than Cameron and Leo combined.

Greg said...

I personally think this movie is great, it works for me, music and almost everything else.

Zoë, like I said, I love it and hate it. We've all concentrated here on the things we dislike about it except for Day-Lewis' performance but there's plenty to like too. I watched the opening scene again the other day and the art direction for the interiors (throughout the movie) is incredible. There's a lot of amazing detail in the sets and costumes here.

Another thing I did like was how the story didn't go where you necessarily thought it would. It was all being set up to show us Amsterdam changing his mind about Bill but he doesn't! I thought that's where it might go and was happy to see the story veer off into the two becoming open enemies.

Kendra said...

I feel the exact same way about this film, except for me, the bad outweighs the good so I don't even consider it a love/hate relationship. I don't know how Cameron Diaz ever got cast in this film and Leo seems miscast, as well.

Greg said...

Diaz and Dicaprio are the real sinkers of the movie. At least when either one of them is acting in a scene with Day-Lewis, he's there so it's half good. Unfortunately, they do a lot of scenes with just Diaz and Dicaprio and that's not so good.