The Spectacle of Fearsome Acts
Eric Hynes on Gangs of New York

We never knew how many New Yorkers died that week before the city was finally delivered. My father told me we was all born of blood and tribulation. And so then too was our great city. But for those of us that lived and died in them furious days, it was like everything we knew was mightily swept away. And no matter what they did to build this city up again, for the rest of time it would be like no one even knew we was ever here.

I’m a native New Yorker. I was born and raised on Staten Island, as my parents were before me, and went to public school from K through 12, as my parents did before me. It became more apparent the older I got, and especially as I moved into intermediate school and then high school, which pooled from progressively wider swaths of neighborhoods on the northern end of the island, that this wasn’t necessarily the norm—or that this was less of the norm than it was for my parents. A fair number of my classmates were either born in Brooklyn or their parents were, and a fair number were either Jewish or Italian (whereas I was an Irish-German-Scandinavian Lutheran, a.k.a. ethnically undistinguished to the point of identifying far more strongly with the familial lineages in Yankees and Dodgers fandom).

The story, which I’d heard from as far back as I can remember, went that since the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in the early 1960s not only had the population of the island multiplied but its ethnic and cultural makeup also changed drastically (inspiring the less charitable among us to dub the bridge “the guinea gangplank”). Even among generally agreeable types (like my family), those who told the story told it with a sense of loss. Suddenly there was traffic. Suddenly there were charmless subdivisions. Suddenly there was no space. Suddenly something crucial, some indescribable Staten Island-ness was gone. Or so went the story. I didn’t witness much of the change, other than see a few empty lots on our block, where my brother and I hit baseballs and played hide and seek as kids, get developed into multi-family houses. But it definitely mattered to people if they were “from here,” just as it doubtless mattered to people if they weren’t. Thinking back, through the filter of my own adult experiences, it must have to do with the phenomenon, among natives, of not having gone anywhere yet feeling displaced. It’s a feeling that can only have been compounded by the fact (or perception, depending on your prejudice) that many new arrivals came and clustered in self-contained communities. But considering the challenges of relocation and assimilation, one can hardly expect it to have been otherwise.

Now I live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has changed significantly since I moved here nearly nine years ago. Before that I lived in Boerum Hill, which changed during the years I lived there, and before that the West Village and East Village, both of which changed during the years I called them home. Of course, upon moving to each of these neighborhoods, I quickly learned of how much they’d changed in the years prior, and of how, in certain circumstances, my moving to them contributed to change currently afoot (much as my eventual moving away contributed to, and was certainly an economic harbinger of, further change).

I’ve also learned that along with the prevailing rapidity of change in New York comes a swiftness of sincere belonging to it, and that regeneration and reincarnation of belonging can become a form of continuity. You know you’ve become a New Yorker once you’ve come to bemoan how much New York has changed. Take heart, ye who have gentrified or have been gentrified, ye who have fled or been left to blight, ye who have invaded or been invaded, ye who are either gastronomically or aesthetically sad about the closing of the White Castle on Metropolitan and Humboldt: it has always, always, always, always been thus.

The term “New Yorker” isn’t used in native New Yorker Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York until the film’s very last stretch of voiceover, which I’ve transcribed above. The term drops in passing, but it still rings out because it’s the first time that all of the characters, from all of the ethnic, religious, racial, and economic factions we’ve followed over the course of the nearly three hour film, are grouped together under a single identifier. And it comes at the moment when the city they’ve imperiled, corrupted, and debased themselves to live in has been utterly transformed. It’s as if the city needed to truly fuck them over in order for it finally to be theirs—and for it equally to be theirs.

It reminds me of the days I first (and henceforth always have) thought of myself as a New Yorker above all else, the smoke and ash-coated days I seethed the words “my city, my city” between clenched teeth, subject and predicate implied. It reminds me of those days because it’s supposed to.

That voiceover passage, with its talk of a city “born of blood and tribulation” through “furious days,” is certainly earned considering what has just transpired on screen—Civil War draft riots that turned Manhattan into an island of anarchic, murderous mayhem. It was also the landing spot of a narrative conceived many years before, from as early as 1970, when Scorsese first became acquainted with Herbert Asbury’s 1927 nonfiction tome about the city’s nineteenth-century underworld. Yet the passage also addressed the moment at which the film was released, a moment that has become more distinct thanks to the years that have since passed, and seems even more distinct in light of this passage. The film opened fifteen months and nine furious days after September 11, 2001, when there was still a gaping wound in the ground, when regardless of whatever could be done “to build this city up again,” it was “mightily” and irrevocably changed. Cities are always undergoing shifts and evolutions, migrations and reinventions, but those months after 9/11, like the ones that followed the draft riots of July 1863, were seismic.

That Scorsese’s long-sought project finally went into production at the turn of the century, and arrived in theaters during the winter of 2002-2003, had nothing at all to do with what the city would undergo during those years. Yet the resonance the film had in light of what happened has plenty to do with the depth of the director’s understanding of the city, which he’s exhibited in everything from Who’s That Knocking at My Door through The Wolf of Wall Street. What makes the city the city seeps up through the sidewalk no matter the era. Mere blocks from where Johnny Boy looked for caps to pop in Mean Streetsand from where the young Scorsese worshipped in old St. Patrick’s—Bill “The Butcher” Cutting struts over the sulfuric, fetid sunken landfill of Paradise Square with menace on the mind. Always and ever, untamed men try to tame the untamable city.

A fevered fictionalization of real-life butcher, boxer, and Bowery Boy gang leader William Poole (who, it should be noted, actually died eight years before the main events of the film, and in a bloody manner befitting another Scorsese film entirely), William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a native. His roots in the country stretch back until before the Revolutionary War, and his father died by British hands in the War of 1812. It’s this birthright that motivates him to antagonize the immigrants, mostly Irish, arriving by the thousands into New York harbor, and fight to the death to “hold sway over the Five Points”—an oddly angled, cobbled-together intersection of lower Manhattan that now borders the northern end of the Civic Center district and the southern end of Chinatown at Columbus Park. That Five Points is a putrid patch of earth hardly worth possessing is effectively immaterial to Cutting, but not to Scorsese. Regardless of what explicitly motivates conflict in the film—religious difference, tribalism, anti-immigration—its battles, at least until the draft riots, are battles that take place within the working class. He may be a diabolical, immoral bully, but Cutting’s economic gripes at least hint at legitimacy: what natives used to do for a quarter, he says, Negroes began to do for a dime, and then the Irish did for a nickel. He is a native of Anglo-Dutch Protestant extraction, but he’s native foremost to Five Points, where his scramble to survive means he has far more in common with his Irish enemies than he does with entitled uptowners like Mr. Schermerhorn (David Hemmings, of Blow-up fame).

It’s Mr. Schermerhorn—whose namesake would go on to grace, among other things, one of the creepiest subway stations in the circuit—who says, by way of comforting a fellow magnate, “You can always hire one half of the poor to kill the other half.” Hired or not—and considering the meddling and scheming of Rep. William Tweed (Jim Broadbent), it can be hard to distinguish between the two—that’s pretty much what Cutter’s natives attempt to do to the Irish from the film’s blistering opening scene forward. That they survived, that they assimilated, that they became a political force worthy of Tweed’s attention and concessions, had less to do with any innate resilience than sheer numbers. The immigrants just kept coming.

Scorsese incorporates all of this into his grand narrative thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio’s voiceover as Amsterdam, emanating from some undetermined point after the events of the film. But unlike Casino and Goodfellas, two Scorsese projects similar in fact-dump reportorial scope and sociopolitical, era-encapsulating ambition, Gangs of New York eschews a realistic (albeit stylized) visual and narrative approach for a theatrically heightened, outright operatic one. As you’d expect from such a disciplined and deliberate director, it’s far from an arbitrary course of action. This is history filtered through mythology—the mythology of a place and time, and mythology amplified over time. And like the director’s other belabored labor of love, The Last Temptation of Christ, it’s mythology filtered through, and reoriented by, cinema.

Along with screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan (three generations of scribes to reflect three decades of drafts), Scorsese riffs on a classic revenge narrative, pitting a young protagonist with the age, temperament, and psychological profile of Hamlet, against the cold-hearted, charismatic man who murdered and displaced his father. So iconic and streamlined is the paternal struggle that there’s nary a mention of a mother for Amsterdam. And lest you question the story’s allegorical ambitions, his father (Liam Neeson) goes by the name “Priest,” which begs a host of equally evocative questions, all unanswered. Is the collar merely costume, or is Amsterdam the product of a sinful union; or was Amsterdam adopted, and thus twice orphaned; and/or is he immaculately/tragically conceived, a new New Amsterdam gifted from god to an ambivalent, who-gives-a-shit city? In any event, the kid is a true New York bastard, raised on reinvention and adaptation, and motivated by a chip on his shoulder the size of Manhattan Isle.

That chip, and the power that it bestows, is what unites him with Cutting. The tension between Amsterdam’s vengeful hatred for the Butcher and his evident admiration and need for his approval serves as the central conflict of the film, and it’s freighted almost entirely on DiCaprio’s face. As has often been the case with his work over the years, DiCaprio’s performance looks better in retrospect. As the straight man to Day-Lewis’s maniacal showman, he has to create Amsterdam from a limited spectrum of silent seething, impatient grunting, and shifty-eyed scheming. But watch him bashfully accept credit from Bill for suggesting an end-run, off-shore solution to a boxing ban, or watch him press a congratulatory cut of beef against his cheek after scrapping with Cutting’s “ex-Irish” henchman (Gary Lewis)—he’s a man constantly on the verge of having unforeseen emotions, of losing a self he’s struggled to create from nothing. He’s an actor, playing an actor, who knows his motivation but doesn’t know his lines. While another might play it as mystery or even vacancy, DiCaprio stews in insecurity. And in a scene where Amsterdam instinctively saves Bill from an assassin’s bullet, simultaneously thwarting and preserving his own murderous plot—in a theater, no less—the actor transcends the broad-stroked swing of the drama with minutely complex character work, answering Bill’s silent gratitude with an offbeat doff of the cap that conjures hatred, self-hatred, love, misery, and more, earning Brendan Gleeson’s Monk’s subsequent invocation. “That was bloody Shakespearean,” he says.

Which brings us to Day-Lewis’s scenery-slurping turn, which sucks in a century of mustache-twirling, grin-and-slash-it cinematic villains and blends it with the inexhaustibly regenerating legacy of New York megalomaniacs and blackguards, from his peacocked street strut to his self-entitled, syllable-warping squawk. Except rather than an amalgam of these elements, his Cutting is an assertion of an origin, the bad seed at the root of our monstrosity. As he would later do with his Oscar-winning turn as Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis settles on an accent of pure conjecture—it’s not like there are extant audio recordings of the real Butcher, or of anyone from the Five Points from the era, from which to go on. So it’s a working backwards, a guessing at how the great grandfather of one of the Dead End Kids might talk, at how an anti-patrician working man surrounded by the alien voices of immigrants might sound, at how a man who’s learned to run a room with fear and gallows humor might bellow. In terms of assets, it goes beyond Day-Lewis having a strong vocal instrument: with each role he rather creates an entirely new horn. At first sound you might think, “what the hell is that?” Soon enough you can’t listen to anything else.

Something similar is afoot with Dante Ferretti’s production design, which, though there were some photographs and illustrations from the era from which to work, is necessarily an approximation and fantasy. With the footprint of the Five Points long since obliterated, it’s (re)created, massively and floridly, at the famous Cinecittà in Italy—the last gasp of large-scale outdoor set design in an industry gone digital. The artificiality of Ferretti’s set is absolutely critical to the film’s big hustle, functioning as a slum-sized theatrical space in which all of our narratives can roam—the Oedipal battle between Amsterdam and Bill, the bloody birthing of today’s New York, the perennial jousting between chaos and freedom, sincerity and bullshit, aspiration and fear.

Day-Lewis’s maximalism is couched perfectly and purposefully in Scorsese’s, evident in everything from the set design (the ludicrously vast interior spaces of the Old Brewery and Satan’s Circus; Monk’s barbershop atop a twisted Grecian rock), to a bag-emptying approach to camera movement, shot selection, editing, and framing. In the film’s opening sequence alone, in which the Irish backers of Priest face off against Cutting’s natives in Paradise Square sixteen years prior to the principal action, Scorsese rattles between dozens of tones, modes and genres, doling out tracking shots and smash cuts and fast-motion and smeary slo-mo and badass blade-to-the-back gore and schmaltz, melding meticulous period detail with the late twentieth-century industrial pastiche of Peter Gabriel’s “Signal to Noise,” which gurgles into the soundtrack when the blades come out. If you’re looking for a more aesthetically contained, more emotionally restrained, more formally consistent kind of movie, you might as well get back on the boat and go back to wherever you came from.

The sequence truly climaxes not when Priest dies by the Butcher’s blade, but when he passes judgment on Monk’s rummaging through Priest’s pockets for posthumous payment. “It’s fair,” he says. “A tad indelicate, but fair.” It’s a gallows greeting and warning shot, the nineteenth-century equivalent of the “Fugheddaboudit” and “Oy Vey!” billboards erected at Brooklyn’s arrival points by Borough President Marty Markowitz. Either this feels like a welcome home, or it really, really doesn’t.

For all its excesses, its tableaus piled upon tableaus, its elaborate set pieces that open up into even more elaborate set pieces (the knife-throwing gambit with Cameron Diaz’s Jenny Everdeane spilling into the Amsterdam’s failed vengeance-cum-bloody-defacement), the film is just as eager to empty the stage and switch to a spotlight. That’s literally what happens for the film’s centerpiece scene, in which a seated, effectively motionless Cutting monologue consolidates the full expanse of the project’s themes and ideas. All of these plates that have been spinning furiously are stacked neatly before us—right before they’re flung against the wall.

In the early morning after he’d thwarted Bill’s killer, and hours after finally consummating his love for Everdeane, Amsterdam wakes to find Bill seated on a rocking chair, a tattered American flag draped over his shoulders for warmth. Morning light splashes against the left side of his face, profanely anointing his greasy head and faintly aflaming his glass, eagle-emblem-carved eye. It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting vandalized by Salvador Dali. Cutting speaks with the cadence of a father—lovingly and instructionally.

You know how I stayed alive this long, all these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike. Raise it high up so all in the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.

That these words were written before the events of September 11, and first heard publicly during the fearsome and still gathering aftermath, hints not at some grim, fortune-telling prescience, but at the legacy of umbrage, intolerance, and retaliation that courses through our history, and largely defined the billy-club machismo mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani (before he transformed into a more empathetic version of himself on the national stage). Cutting’s design for living is built on “fear” and “spectacle,” or shock and awe, if you will, and echoes through the more delicately phrased rhetoric of American heroes like William Tecumseh Sherman, Teddy Roosevelt, and Douglas MacArthur, and in the actions of celluloid antiheroes like James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett, Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, and Tom Hardy’s Bane, among many others. These are the fathers who’ve come to claim us, charismatic bullies who love and frighten us at our most vulnerable hours, tick-tocking back and forth in the hazy morning light.

“Oh, you got a murderous rage in you, I like it,” Cutting says when Amsterdam talks back to him. “All this life, boiling up inside you, it’s good.” It’s rage that Bill respects and fosters in Amsterdam, even if it’s destined to lead to his own demise. And despite Amsterdam’s righteous mission—to symbolically avenge Priest’s murder and practically clear a path for Irish assimilation—it’s these lessons learned from Cutting that lead to its fulfillment. To prove they mean business, Amsterdam and his revived Dead Rabbits gang murder one of Cutting’s corrupt policemen (John C. Reilly) and hang him from the public square, then rebuff Cutting’s crew with an overwhelming, fully armed show of force at a nighttime church vigil. “I think it shows dash,” Cutting admits after the first incident. “It’s a touching spectacle,” he says before turning his men away from the second. Bill really does love a good show.

Cutting’s never happier than when Amsterdam halts Monk’s funeral procession, with the entire community watching, to challenge him to an old-fashioned gangland showdown. “Challenge accepted,” Cutting says, twinkling and basking in Amsterdam’s ceremonious rage, delighting in the affirmation of a culture that he’s fought so hard to perpetuate—one that valorizes violence, enjoys a good spectacle, and exults in the alchemic union of the two. (It’s no coincidence that his lair is called Satan’s Circus, or that the illegal boxing matches he’d earlier staged were presided over by the godfather of American exploitation, P. T. Barnum).

From here on out, the film becomes overwhelmed by itself. Suddenly there’s too much to incorporate, too much to reckon with. Scorsese cuts quickly (scored to the insistent tapping of a Morse code mayday) between the draft riots, gruesome lynchings, class uprisings, and the long-promised Dead Rabbits vs. Bowery Boys blade and club battle, which is preempted and rendered literally obsolete by military gunfire and mortar blasts—the narrative equivalent of having the rug pulled out from all of us. The story, the city, and the movie are all under siege. Scorsese drives his opera into a solid wall of history, scattering it all into rubble and metaphor.

From this soil the modern city grows, illustrated via time-lapse dissolves of the New York skyline. Unseen are the waves of immigrants to follow the Irish, the Italians and Germans and Eastern Europeans and Puerto Ricans and Dominicans and Russians and Mexicans, one generation to the next transforming from alien to native, from itinerant to entrenched, and from vital to forgotten.

Despite the December 2002 release, Scorsese’s dissolve montage culminates with a vision of New York in which the Twin Towers remain standing. Even this, or perhaps especially this, is a New York of memory, and of mythology. In the late evening sun, those towers would cast shadows across the blocks that once comprised the Five Points, not that anyone would have thought to notice. But some unifying ether was floating around down there among the commuters, the merchants, the white-collars and cops, and still is floating around down there despite the changing shadows. There’s some sense memory of loss, rage, fear, fight, reverence, resilience and resentment, some spasm that comes over us unconsciously, informing us that everything and nothing has changed.