Gangs of New York

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

GANGS OF NEW YORK

5/10

USA 2002 : Martin Scorsese : 165mins (approx)

Though it looks set to finally land Scorsese his absurdly overdue first Academy Award, Gangs of New York turns out to be a bit of a dog. Three decades in the planning, three years in the making, Marty’s pet project emerges as an overlong, overcooked period drama that desperately wants to be taken seriously as an epic. But no matter how much cash studios lavish on props, scenery and costumes, it’s all money down the drain if the script isn’t up to scratch.

The basic set-up is standard Road To Perdition style American dad-worshipping gloop – in a prologue set in 1840s Manhattan, a massive gangland barney ends with native New Yorker Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) slaying Irish immigrant ‘Priest’ Vallon (Liam Neeson) while Vallon’s young son looks on in horror. 16 years later, the son – now calling himself Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) sets out to avenge his father’s death. When Bill the Butcher takes the kid under his wing, however, Amsterdam’s resolve starts to waver.

But not for long – just as the film seems to be heading into unpredictable, psychologically intriguing waters, halfway through it suddenly changes tack and reverts to dull revenge-for-pappy territory. Nothing afterwards makes much sense, and the action-packed climax is surprisingly messily handled. If Gangs is at all watchable, that’s mainly thanks to supporting turns from Brendan Gleeson and Jim Broadbent and, best of all, Day-Lewis. His Bill The Butcher is half knife-wielding psycho, half P.T.Barnum showman, easily outshining the insipid romantic pairing of DiCaprio and Cameon Diaz. It’s just a pity such eminently Oscar-worthy work is wasted on such humdrum material.

His Bill The Butcher is half knife-wielding psycho, half P.T.Barnum showman*, easily outshining the insipid romantic pairing of DiCaprio and Cameon Diaz. It’s just a pity such eminently Oscar-worthy work is wasted on such humdrum material.

20th December, 2002
(seen same day, MPC Wardour Street, London – for initial reaction click here)

*according to Roger Ebert, Day-Lewis based his accent on a wax-cylinder recording of a poem being read by none other than Walt Whitman. I obtained further info on this astonishing relic at a website called

The Chronicle (http://chronicle.com/data/internet.dir/itdata/1998/03/t98030301.htm):

Dr. Ed Folsom (a professor of English at the University of Iowa) had long heard rumors that a recording of Whitman’s voice existed, even though the poet died in 1892, just as the era of sound recordings was dawning. But the Whitman scholar didn’t find the recording until 1992, when a professor of English at Midland College mentioned it in an article he submitted to Dr. Folsom’s journal, the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. The professor, Larry Griffin, had found the recording on a cassette tape in Midland’s library. He had been playing it for his students for years.

The cassette tape includes a 1951 NBC radio program, called “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” that was narrated by the journalist Leon Pearson. On the tape, Mr. Pearson says that NBC reproduced the recording of what is believed to be Whitman from a damaged wax cylinder that was found in the collection of a former New York elevator operator named Roscoe Haley. Scholars have determined that the cylinder was recorded in 1889 or 1890 — a little more than a decade after Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention of the phonograph. The cylinder has since been lost, but a recording of NBC’s recording of the cylinder is now in Dr. Folsom’s possession.

No one can be sure that the recording is of Whitman’s voice, Dr. Folsom says, but few scholars have tried to refute it. The four verses that were rescued from the recording are from “America,” a six-line poem that Whitman first published in the New York Herald in 1888. “No one knows if the final two lines of the poem were ever recorded by Whitman,” Dr. Folsom says. “It certainly sounds as if he is concluding with the fourth line, but it’s possible he went on with lines five and six.” If so, the cylinder was apparently too damaged for the last two lines to be retrieved.


America

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

The last two lines, not in this recording, are:

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

hear it for yourself (if you can play mp3 files) by going to : http://www.iath.virginia.edu/whitman/audio/audiomain.html

You can also read a Jigsaw Lounge feature on this here.

by Neil Young