Childish things

Gangs of New York: not building America so much as playing private vicious games.

Dolan Cummings

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After a scene particularly loaded with meaning, one character in the Gangs of New York observes that this is a drama worthy of Shakespeare.

Indeed, Leonardo Di Caprio’s character Amsterdam might have been better named Copenhagen – there are heavy traces of Hamlet in his procrastination in the matter of avenging his father’s murder. But Amsterdam’s self-loathing is intensified by his acceptance of his father’s killer Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis) as a new father figure, and this new relationship is itself complicated by Amsterdam’s quasi-Oedipal struggle for Cameron Diaz. Whatever its faults, Gangs of New York is not boring.

But the major theme that emerges from the film is the struggle to get a grip on reality. While Gangs of New York is based on real history, it also has a certain unreal quality. Superficially, some of the more outlandish costumes are reminiscent of The Warriors (1979), a terrific film in which 1970s New York street gangs are decked out in appealing but improbable uniforms. Gangs of New York is less stylised than The Warriors, but there is something unavoidably fantastical about gangs.

This is particularly true of the violence. Set against the historic, glorious tragedy of the Civil War, street battles fought with knives and chains seem insanely trivial. It isn’t the anarchy but the order, the sense that the combatants are playing a vicious game. Before the film’s final battle, the gangs meet to discuss the rules. ‘Knives, bats, bricks… Pistols?’ Bill asks. ‘No pistols’, Amsterdam insists. ‘Good lad’, says the man who has killed people over the course of the movie with knives, a meat cleaver and a railing spike.

For all his charisma and undeniable menace, Bill Cutting has something in common with those unemployed 20-year-olds who stand outside the school gates all day waiting for their younger pals. Unable to carve a place for himself in the real world, the butcher has created an imaginary world peopled by juvenile delinquents and other assorted losers, who must live by his rules. Certainly, his raw material is the grim reality of slum life. In part, the film documents the efforts of Irish immigrants to establish themselves on the streets, but their struggle has little resonance in the world beyond the ‘Five Points’.

The film’s theme song, ‘The Hands that Built America’ (unfortunately by U2) echoes the poster’s dubious assertion that ‘America Was Born in the Streets’. Whatever the actual contribution of the Five Points to American history, it is impossible to see the gangs represented in the film building or giving birth to anything of lasting value. We can’t all make a living by picking each other’s pockets.

In a sense, Martin Scorsese is returning to his famous preoccupation with the parasitic fantasy world of the Mafia, with its phoney codes of honour and childish contempt for society. But just as the Mafia has sometimes won political influence, the world of the gangs spills over into the real world when Amsterdam’s hoodlums join the Tammany Hall machine, effectively selling Irish votes to the Democrats. This seems a more realistic way to get a grip on American society than scrapping in the sewers with self-styled Natives. But then American politics has always had an unreal quality of its own.

There is a fine tradition of myth-making in American culture, and Gangs of New York is as much an examination of that tradition as it is a contribution to it. And if Amsterdam is Hamlet-lite, Bill the Butcher is the stuff of legend. He might even inspire a new generation of New Yorkers to wear top hats.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. This article is reproduced from Culture Wars

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