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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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200. Goodfellas – Summer of Scorsese (#17)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Jay Coyle and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Jenn Gannon, with Andy Melhuish, Jack Hodges and others, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, continuing our Summer of Scorsese season, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

Martin Scorsese is one of the defining directors in American cinema, with a host of massively successful (and cult) hits that have shaped and defined cinema across generations: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Colour of Money, The Aviator, The Departed, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street. The Summer of Scorsese season offers a trip through his filmography via the IMDb‘s 250.

As far back as he could remember, Henry Hill always wanted to be a gangster. However, the life that Henry leads doesn’t turn out exactly as the young hoodlum might have expected, as he finds himself navigating a web of betrayal and violence involving his closest friends.

At time of recording, it was ranked 17th on the Internet Movie Database‘s list of the best movies of all-time.

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“It Had Nothing to Do With Me”: The Moral Sloth of Henry Hill in “Goodfellas”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Raging Bull. This week, we’re looking at Goodfellas. 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 1990 gangster classic.

There is a long-running debate concerning the films of Martin Scorsese, one that arose most recently around The Wolf of Wall Street.

To his critics, Scorsese is seen as a director who glorifies and venerates a certain form of toxic masculinity. There’s a certain logic to this argument. After all, whatever Scorsese’s intentions may be, there is no denying that his films attract a certain unironic fandom that gets swept up in these stories of tough men who do terrible things. This is reflected in everything from the ubiquity of Goodfellas as a “dorm room poster” to celebrations of its depiction of masculinity to the fact that real-life gangsters reportedly love it.

This criticism largely derives from the fact that Scorsese effectively surrenders control of the film’s narrative to his central characters. His movies are often literally narrated by their central characters: Henry and Karen Hill in Goodfellas, Ace Rothstein and Nicky Santoro in Casino and Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. These characters are given ample room to espouse their worldview and their philosophy, to craft the story that they want to tell.

Scorsese undoubtedly pushes back against his characters in interesting ways – often ironically juxtaposing their conceited monologues with brutal imagery to underscore the dissonance between their narrative of events with the reality of the situation. However, Scorsese largely avoids overtly moralising. He avoids the easy route of having external characters comment too obliquely or too loudly on the moral decadence at play. Indeed, the most interesting thing about Karen Hill is her own complicity in Henry’s immorality rather than any condemnation of it.

To be fair, there’s a lot to recommend this approach. American cinema has come a long way since the days of the Hays Code and the Breen Office, and there is a lot to be said for the importance of treating an audience as mature enough to grapple with complicated ideas or giving them room to reach conclusions on their own terms. Psycho is a classic piece of American cinema, but it suffers greatly from a closing scene where a new character shows up to lecture the cast (and implicitly the audience) on the film that they just watched.

Indeed, this is ultimately the beauty of Scorsese’s approach to these characters. Scorsese gives them all the room that they need, and they still manage to incriminate themselves. Their robust attempts to glorify and mythologise themselves inevitably backfire. Like a good detective or lawyer, Scorsese shrewdly just allows characters like Henry Hill to talk and talk and talk, knowing that they have been given enough rope with which they might hang themselves.

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Non-Review Review: Casino

You didn’t see the scam? You didn’t see what was goin’ on?

Well, there’s no way to determine that, Sam.

Yes, there is. An infallible way! They won!

Sam explains how Las Vegas works to Ward

If you ask a bunch of people to name their favourite Scorsese film, you’ll get a bunch of different answers. Some will go for his iconic gangster tale, Goodfellas. Others will go for the superb drama of Raging Bull. Some might even opt for the unforgettable Taxi Driver. I, on the other hand, am probably the only guy in the room who is going to opt for Casino. Conventional wisdom would argue that Casino is merely a bloated and over-loaded attempt to re-tread ground Scorsese already covered in Goodfellas, but I can’t bring myself to agree with that. While Goodfellas feels like a personal tale of greed and corruption, and the implosion that inevitably followed, there’s something grander to Casino. Offering the social history of Las Vegas, the rise and fall of the mob’s empire, it feels like large-scale tragedy. There’s just such an impressively epic scale to Scorsese’s film that I can’t help but admire it.

No dice...

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Non-Review Review: Raging Bull

I might disagree with the critical consensus that Raging Bull stands as Martin Scorsese’s crowning accomplishment, or even that it’s probably the best film of the eighties, but there’s no denying that it’s a shockingly powerful piece of cinema. The fact that Scorsese was originally reluctant to direct what had become a passion project for Robert DeNiro just makes the movie’s status as a masterpiece of modern cinema all the more ironic, as the film seems to play like a pitch perfect symphony, each of its many separate elements feeding perfectly into one another to create a whole that is far greater than its incredibly brilliant constituent elements.

The portrait of the boxer as a young man...

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Non-Review Review: Hugo

I’m of two minds about Hugo. My inner cinephile loves it, soaking in Scorsese’s pure and unadulterated enthusiasm for cinema, finding a way to engage his audience with an adventure that literally branches through the history of cinema. On the other hand, it seems more than a bit disjointed, as if Scorsese knew the start point and the end point, but had a bit of difficulty synching it all up and getting it flowing organically. While I think Scorsese’s unbridled enthusiasm and passion edge out any concerns about the rather uneven feel of the finished project, I do wonder how the movie will play to younger audiences, or families who don’t have a long love affair with cinema.

Like clockwork...

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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.