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Monday, January 06, 2003

Gangs of New York
I’m usually gung-ho to write about movies right after I see them, but more than a week has passed since I saw Gangs of New York, and I’m still not sure what to say about it. I wish I could claim that my issues are the sort of principled objections Sarah Kerr makes in Slate today: the lack of any women whatsoever, other than a few thieves and prostitutes superhuman enough to have their boobs hanging out even in the middle of winter, and the Woody Allen-like treatment of race (well, not exactly that bad—Scorsese does admit that black people exist[ed] in Manhattan, he just doesn’t really engage with them), which in this case consists of hours of glorification of tribalism, fighting, and scars, followed by a madcap three minutes into which all the exposition of the movie’s racial elements—as Kerr says, “the headline tragedy of the draft riots and the founding blueprint for urban racism”—are squeezed.

But no, that wasn’t why I didn’t like it. I just couldn’t get into it. One reason was all the knife-work and the blood and gore of the hand-to-hand combat that takes up much of the action. I spent a good bit of time putting my hands between my face and the screen, and by creating that physical barrier, I somehow stopped myself from inhabiting the movie. There’s something about knives—as opposed to guns or grenades or other cogs in the machinery of war—that puts me on edge. (In another life I was either a three-fingered butcher or the victim of a blade-wielder like Bill “The Butcher” Cutting.)

And it wasn’t just me. I saw it at the Neptune, where the seats are creaky, and at times in the movie’s more than two and a half hours you couldn’t hear the soundtrack for the squeaking of chairs, as folks fidgeted around restlessly. I’ve never seen so many people get up and go to the bathroom—or go out and make phone calls. At least they came back, but it was a dutiful kind of return, not an “omigod I can’t bear to be away for a second more than I need to.” As though folks had a sense it was a major film, but they didn’t quite see it themselves.

Or perhaps I’m projecting.

Overall, the acting was very good, the sets were great (a real screen stage instead of a digital creation), but a lot of the story was dumb. It was an epic that had been shrunk down into a tiny capsule, but there was nothing to soak it in to allow it to balloon up to an impressive size. Instead, we were supposed to look at the raw ingredients and see a sumptuous banquet spread out before us. Leo was OK, but the romance with Cameron Diaz was way overplayed, because, I guess Scorsese felt that father-son or father-figure-son love wasn’t enough to carry the movie. He probably wasn't wrong, but it just wasn't convincing; the romance came off like a 19th-century version of Pretty Woman.