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“The Blood Stays on the Blade”: The Birth of a Nation in Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Kundun. This week, we’re looking at Gangs of New York. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s complicated and messy 2002 passion project.

Martin Scorsese had wanted to make Gangs of New York for over thirty years.

The director had reportedly stumbled across a copy of Herbert Asbury’s book while house-sitting for a friend over New Year in 1970. Gangs of New York became one of the projects that Scorsese desperately wanted to make, alongside The Last Temptation of Christ, which had been given to him by Barbara Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha. Of course, Scorsese would not get to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York during the seventies. Instead, the implosion of New York, New York would set his plans back years.

Scorsese had reportedly been hoping to make either The Last Temptation of Christ or Gangs of New York following the release of New York, New York, when Robert DeNiro convinced him to direct Raging Bull instead. Scorsese would spend the eighties adapting to the collapse of the New Hollywood movement, and would just about manage to get The Last Temptation of Christ produced. He never gave up on Gangs of New York, and the film went through various iterations over the years. It might have starred Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd or Mel Gibson and Willem Dafoe.

When the possibility of making Gangs of New York emerged in the late nineties, it might have seemed like a culmination. As the project lurched closer and closer to actually materialising, it must have seemed like it would be one of Scorsese’s last major motion pictures. After all, Scorsese was almost sixty. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were the only two other “movie brats” who were still making high-profile and big-budget films. There was perhaps a sense that Scorsese might just about have this film left in him, before retiring to less mainstream and more esoteric works.

While Scorsese had entered the nineties on a high note with Goodfellas, the films that followed were not as universally welcomed. Roger Ebert complained about “a certain impersonality” in Cape Fear, the film following Goodfellas. The Age of Innocence arrived with a shrug. Casino was treated as highly derivative of Goodfellas, with Peter Travers sighing that “the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.” Kundun sparked a diplomatic incident with China, and was quietly buried by Disney. Bringing Out the Dead felt like a curiosity more than a classic.

Of course, history has been kind to all (or at least most) of those films. Scorsese’s nineties output is recognised in hindsight as a vibrant and important part of his career. Nevertheless, as Gangs of New York slowly and awkwardly forced itself into being, it might have looked like the last swing of the bat from one of the great American directors. A film that had been simmering in the director’s imagination for decades, it might serve as a definitive and concluding statement about the city and the nation that he loved.

More than twenty years after the shutters came down on the New Hollywood movement, Scorsese would finally get to make an epic that was comparable to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Of course, those sorts of projects feel like capstones – Heaven’s Gate famously brought United Artists tumbling down, while Coppola would never direct anything with as much freedom or cultural impact after Apocalypse Now. As such, Scorsese’s long-delayed shot at making his epic passion project seemed like closure.

Looking back at Gangs of New York, this seems absurd. Almost two decades after Gangs of New York, Scorsese is still making films. Scorsese is enjoying larger budgets on films like The Irishman and The Killers of the Flower Moon than he did earlier in his career. If anything, Gangs of New York is a watershed. It is not Scorsese’s epic finale, but is instead the first in a series of epics that includes films like The Aviator or The Wolf of Wall Street. It introduced Scorsese to a young actor who “reignited” his enthusiasm for film making.

Indeed, time has been very kind to Gangs of New York. The film seemed to arrive at a crucial moment, both for Scorsese as director and for the United States as a nation. Gangs of New York offers a snapshot of American history that resonates strongly. It is not so much a historical picture as a dive into the depths of a shared unconscious and an excavation of the scars left on the American psyche. The catchy Oscar-nominated theme song might have boasted that the film was about “the hands that built America”, but the film was decidedly less optimistic in its perspective.

Gangs of New York is a story about the blood that stains those hands, and how history tends to repeat for those who refuse to learn from it.

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12 Movie Moments of 2012: Running (Shame)

As well as counting down the top twelve films, I’m also going to count down my top twelve movie related “moments” of 2012. The term “moment” is elastic, so expect some crazy nonsense here. And, as usual, I accept that my taste is completely absurd, so I fully expect you to disagree. With that in mind, this is #8

It is quite common to see New York presented in an unpleasant light. After all, Martin Scorsese’s films capture the metropolis at its very best and its very worst, and there are countless gangster films devoted to exploring the dark underbelly of a city that is easily one of the most recognisable in the world. I have never been to New York, and yet I feel like – through years of film-watching – I have come to know the city almost as if I have lived there.

As such, I was surprised when Shame managed to offer me a somewhat novel take on New York itself. The city is as much a character in the film as any of Steve McQueen’s supporting cast. (Indeed, Carey Mulligan even gets to perform an extended version of “New York, New York” in tribute to her co-star.) McQueen manages to craft a distinctly unpleasant and uncomfortable exploration of the city without resorting to any of the trite clichés that one associates with the horrors of urban living.

Indeed, one long single-take shot of Brandon running within the confines of the city offered a more powerful sense of urban anomie and isolation than I have ever seen before, presenting a cold blue city completely indifferent and unaware of the millions of people living within the city limits.

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Start Spreadin’ the News…

It appears that Martin Scorsese’s on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again, on-again biopic of Frank Sinatra is back on again. I’ve been following the project during it’s languished history in, if not development hell, at least development limbo.

To be honest, I was most excited about the Robert deNiro iteration of the project. That supporting cast sounded fantastic. Now it’s been confirmed, how do I feel? Well, good, to be honest.
It’s odd that the end of a director’s career would show more breadth than the early years, but the last decade has seen an astonishing broadening of Scrocese’s pallete. We’ve had a Hollywood biopic (The Aviator), a historical epic (Gangs of New York), spiritual drama (Silence), a conventional thriller (Shutter Island) and even an old-style mob yarn (The Departed). Sure he’s experimented before – the seemingly anomolous Age of Innocence now makes sense as a precursor to Gangs of New York, The Doors still stands out as an odd choice in his career – but that string of wildly-variable-in-genre films seems unprecedented. Even the most conventional choice in that lineup (The Departed) seems oddly out of sync with his early mob exploits (Goodfellas, Casino). So, why is this relevant?

After so much variety, I look forward to a bit of vintage Scorsese. A biography of a Los Vegas lounge singer with ties to the mob seems to be relatively familiar ground. This doesn’t mean I’m writing off any of his impressive slate of Oscar-buzz-generating releases already on the horizon – the release of any Scorsese film is cause to celebrate – but this film has been discussed and talked about for so long that it’s hard not to especially anticipate it. Sure, his last “dream project” was Gangs of New York that met with a somewhat muted critical reception, but I felt the director’s love with the material in every frame.

The casting rumours have begun again with many media outlets suggesting Johnny Depp or Leonardo diCarpio. I’m happy with either – I trust Scorcese on this. Both are incredibly competent actors who would do the material proud. I think diCaprio has done his best work with Scorsese – though he did deserve an Oscar nod for Revolutionary Road – and I think that Depp and Scorsese would make a fantastic team. Hell, I’d even trust the director with John Travolta.

It is Scorsese’s dream project after all. I’m just tagging along for the ride.