Once upon a time I was a huge Scorsese fan. But now I sometimes think he’s a movie director instead of a writer simply because it’s hard to get words on a page to actually drip blood. The impression is not completely without basis. His macabre early short, The Big Shave (1967), features a man, in close-up, shaving himself into an unwatchably bloody mess — and that’s all, folks. His breakout feature Meanstreets (1973) ends with the young DeNiro spurting blood from his neck — shot at close range by Scorsese himself (with pistol, not camera) in a brief murderous cameo. Taxi Driver (1976) was described by New York Times critic Frank Rich as containing a hurricane of blood, and that was after Scorsese toned down the bloodiness so the film could avoid an X rating. In Raging Bull (1980) the blood is practically fetishized, with endless slo-mo shots of it pumping and squirting from boxers’ opened eyebrows and crushed noses, as well as one slo-mo sequence of DeNiro’s body being laved with a bloody sponge between rounds. In Goodfellas (1990) the venerable bloodline is continued: in one scene Ray Liotta brutally pistolwhips his girlfriend’s neighbor in his driveway, then hands the bloody gun to his girlfriend, whose nostrils immediately flare with love.
In Casino (1995) what lacks in actual bloodflow is generously compensated for in other hideous violence: an uncooperative man’s head is put in a vise and slowly and graphically cracked. People in my theater gagged. And for that bounce in your step as you leave the theater, Scorsese ended the movie with a sadistically drawn-out scene in which two luckless gents are hit out of the park that was their sorry life with baseball bats. If you wanted to know what torture death by aluminum bat was like, Casino will give you an excellent idea, if you can keep your eyes open. Actually the grim soundtrack alone would do the trick. I think the real thing might be less gruesome.
Until Casino I was still a big Scorsese fan, but the fathomless darkness and violence in it whacked my ardor. Casino even had a backwards negative effect on most of his previous movies, at least those I consider his important artistic statements, which is to say not The Color of Money or The Age of Innocence (most of which he made to gain legitimacy with Hollywood moneymen so he could get funding for his less bankable projects.) That’s because Casino finally convinced me of a lurking and repellent notion: Scorsese’s gangster movies don’t merely explore the violent brutality and criminality of his environs; they actually glorify it. Gangs of New York provides the bloody QED.
Of course the movie is ambitiously violent, but for Scorsese, the blood’s the thing, and his entire ouevre is a mere leaky dike, bloodwise, compared with the burst dam that is Gangs of New York. Imagine Sam Peckinpah with a $100M budget and you’re halfway there. The film purports to tell the story of the rivalry between New York’s Five Points District gangs of the mid-19th century, the Irish Catholic immigrants and the Protestant Nativists of English descent.
The principal Nativist is William Cutting, called Bill the Butcher, played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis; his gruesome butchery of human beings forms the center of the movie. If unquenchable bloodthirst can come in cartoon form, he’s it: the goddess Kali incarnated as Snidely Whiplash. Lewis seems to stiltwalk through the picture like some nightmarish, knife-wielding Daddy Longlegs, and he is superbly entertaining, but unfortunately for us the movie is even longer than his legs. Think Berlin Alexanderplatz set in a slaughterhouse.
Cutting’s nemesis is Amsterdam Vallon, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting an ill-fitting brogue, a wee goatee, and an eighth-grade mustache. Vallon, an Irish immigrant, seeks revenge for Cutting’s murder of his father, sixteen years before. Cameron Diaz plays a saucy pickpocket who hangs out with Cutting, but falls in love with Vallon. In casting DiCaprio as her romantic interest it seems Scorsese was hoping to lend his unwieldy epic some Titanic-style box office cache. Of course you can’t help but think that had Scorsese actually directed Titanic he’d have cast Joe Pesci in the lead and called it Friggin’ Huge.
But Gangs comes astonishingly close to being just that kind of cinematic freak. That’s because Scorsese was powerfully conflicted in making this film, torn between making a mainstream historical Hollywood epic that could be big box-office and making another personal artistic statement, one that could further bolster his reputation as a nobody-owns-me capo di tutti capos auteur — and even better, one that could garrote history to definitively glorify his beloved violence and gangsterism. Guess which side won? Bada-bing!
I should have known where it was all going when I saw a tv commercial for the film that said America was born in the streets. I had a disturbing image of that bald-pated upstart Ben Franklin strutting about Independence Hall to the tune of Street Fighting Man. What could this statement mean? Was it Scorsese’s cri du coeur at last? Did he actually mean it?
He did. The Five Points district of Gangs is almost precisely the same real estate as the beloved mean streets of Scorcese’s Little Italy, a century earlier. He equates the gangsterish immigrant violence of the mafiosi of his youth with the gangsterish immigrant violence of the Five Points outlaws and then fingerwaggingly informs us that out of this rank stewpot of racism, criminality, corruption, and carnage America was born. Pardon me for not singing Yankee Doodle, Dandy.
By disgracefully attempting to ennoble the worst of the Five Points violence and organized crime, Scorsese means to ennoble the worst of his own Mott Street’s — saying that these things are inevitable and ultimately good, at last explicitly outing himself as a self-serving moral relativist. In the bargain he gives us a longwinded pseudohistory lesson, not only unconscionably and cynically portraying all authority as corrupt — which he’s done before — but portraying Union soldiers as the jackbooted oppressors of Irish immigrants during the Draft Riots. Scorsese disgracefully winks at the principal goal of these rioting mobs: to lynch and incinerate blacks, in which they were wildly successful. This is a shameful, grotesque chapter in our national past; by thus twisting it to his own ends, Scorsese spits in History’s eye, then coldcocks Lady Liberty and laughs.
In the past critics often attributed the bloodletting of Scorsese’s films to some religiously-themed impulse — it was all about catharsis and cleansing somehow. They would invariably cite the crucifixes scattered throughout his films and rehearse the weary factoid that Scorsese had once wanted to become a priest. The slim truth of this has diminished with each film, until now it’s 99 44/100ths % hogwash. We are left with multitudinous seas incarnadine, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Any doubts that Scorsese has forsaken seriously exploring religious themes can be iced by watching three painfully glib scenes in this movie: one where Vallon — apropos of nothing — tosses a Bible into the East River (Scorsese does a close-up of the gurgling book in case we missed the profound gesture); another where he tells a well-meaning minister to go to hell; and another where Scorsese first shows Vallon asking God for victory in killing Cutty, then shows Cutty asking God for victory in killing Vallon, and then shows a wealthy upperclass family asking God’s blessing on their groaningly laden dinner table. It’s paint-by-numbers pointmaking: See! God is a fake, part of the corrupt establishment that tries to tell the criminal class that it’s better than them, which it’s not.
In the rivers of blood in his movies—in Gangs it literally runs in the streets—and in all the swaggering and bigshot posturing, one can’t shake the idea that Scorsese is still trying to impress the knuckle-dragging toughs of his youth, trying to show them he’s not the bookish, diminutive asthmatic they remember. It’s as if Scorsese has forever been the robin in winter, perched on the grimy ledge of the Ravenite Social Club, chirping longingly at the bugged conversations within. He dines at Rao’s — the closest thing to a mob hangout that Zagat’s can offer — and on Charlie Rose wears the ridiculous fanged collars of the mafiosi of 1955. He grooves on it all and happily lends it all legitimacy, and in turn it all lends him a kind of artistic gravitas.
So in a perverse way, all the blood in his movies is a religious offering after all, but to those devil gods…Moloch et al. — who demand blood-tribute as appeasement, lest they hurt you. And so this movie is just another offering to them, the gods of the extortionary mafiosi, in whose image they are made.
This piece first appeared in Books & Culture, which you may visit online at booksandculture.com.