Newsnight Review discussed Martin Scorcese's epic film Gangs of New York.
(Edited highlights of the panel's review)
It's a vast, epic grand scale. The way its most like opera is that a lot of it doesn't make sense. I expected this to be a glorious failure. I didn't expect it to be to the extent that it is. One of the most basic things doesn't work, ie the narrative curve. It isn't a glorious art in the way it should be in story-telling of this epic nature. It reminded me of a stone skimming over water. The long flat trajectories, a sudden rise, then a flat trajectory, and suddenly it plops into the water and you don't see it again.
Originally, it was meant to be three hours, and Miramax said it had to be brought down.
Absolutely. I am sure we will be getting the director's cut. Now with DVD it's so easy to produce the director's cut, and we will see Scorsese's original version. I would be interesting to see if the four-hour version hangs together. The Cameron Diaz character doesn't really have a role. They might have given her a nice wig instead of Julia Roberts' cast-offs, and some decent lines. Even in the director's cut, certain things won't make sense. Day-Lewis has lost one eye. You lose your sense of perspective. This guy is stabbing pigs with pin-point precision and is throwing them where he wants them to land, two inches from where they are supposed to. You can't do that with one eye.
I think Daniel Day-Lewis in this is a tour de force. The first five minutes, I thought he was overacting furiously, but you go with it.
It's a fabulous performance. You think it's terrific. It's operatic and over the top. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much to do with the rest of the film. In terms of historical background, it's a great world recreated, and I am fascinated by the interplay between the gangs. It's the first example of mass immigration leading to those sorts of problems. But nobody comes out of it well, and he slightly fudged the history. So we have the romantic Irish soundtrack, but unfortunately they are stringing up Negros at the end. It's not just the native Americans are stringing them up - it's the entire population, and that's fudged so that you get the two gangs going at each other. Historically, also the Butcher died long before the draft riot. As always with these things, I want to know what's real, so I can enjoy it. The fictional story is jolly boring. Like the Titanic. You have Leonardo DiCaprio again - he is terribly underpowered. You don't really care.
Titanic was only made because Leonardo DiCaprio agreed to do it. As a result of that, lots of things which should have happened don't happen because of the Leonardo DiCaprio fan base.
There are grand moments, when the camera pulls back to show this huge kind of edifice. You have to applaud Scorsese for doing that, when everybody else is doing it with digital imagery. A mile-long set, he did it for real.
It's really important not to get hung up on the authenticity of this movie. Did it for real, no CGI. That doesn't make it good. The point is all of the things in this film don't really add up. So he has this marvellous set, and you have Irish troubadours wandering through the film. There are so many things which don't work. Scorsese's best films are actually comedies of manners, tightly controlled societies, and the ridiculous boundaries imposed within those societies. Hence the world of 1970s gangsters, hence even the age of innocence which he did. He has tried that with this film, but there is a tension in this film and the real tension comes off screen. The real reason why it doesn't add up is because Harvey Weinstein, boss of Miramax, is breathing down his neck. He wants to make Titanic, so we have Leonardo in the movie. He can't hold the scene at all. He looks like something between a pudding and a pug dog, because he is all soft. There is no reaction.
But there is something else here which is wonderful, which is actually the city. Ekow was talking about Scorsese's work. A lot of it is about the connections between New York and the criminality and about other cities, like Vegas and criminality. New York - it's a bitter love letter to a New York that was crazy and nasty.
In order to do a big canvas, you have to have the small moments, intimacy, dialogue and directness between characters. This lacks conviction, because it can't do the small moments even while trying to paint the big picture.