Along with the biopic the epic is without a doubt the most exhausting form that fiction can take, asking its author to rush through time and space, telling only what needs to be told lest we get distracted by the smaller things, and arranging events in a line so that we are given a picture of progress. As the work runs its course, picking up and discarding what it needs to, its audience finds locations, periods, and people that they bind themselves to empathetically, before all is lost to the cruelty of narrative time-keeping. We want to stay a while, or go back, but we can’t. True, controlling the flow of time is impossible in most works, but there is something horrifyingly ineluctable, depressing even, about the charge of time within the epic. Its linearity is more noticeably punishing than that of a non-epic work, because it is always concerned with the passage of time- how people and places change or stay the same. Time in the epic is always in the process of being lost to the next phase; the next image. The epic is built on images of the past that never was, but which we nevertheless desperately cling to in the present. Nostalgia is holding onto visions of the past as the present rots into the future. The epic is the nostalgic genre- its time is preserved but it is never gained.
Gangs of New York is exactly the kind of film that I feel that I cannot bear for the way that it wears me down and exhausts me. It is two and a half hours long but it feels like fifty. Whenever we catch its pace, it runs away again, to the next thing that it needs to be. Because the epic is spectacular, and because it is nostalgic, it is also the Christmas format. Because it is difficult to differentiate in ontological clarity the epic from the adventure or the Western, Gangs of New York is also these things. The streets are built and packed with people and with details, and crowds form around events like the film will soon become a musical. Scorsese is in love with the history of cinema which makes him the perfect director of historical simulacra. He works within the nightmare of the stranger’s photo album or dying vision, to build monuments to these things. He understands, like we do, history through collective memory. Gangs of New York is a theme park built on transgenerational hallucinations- we recognise that our parents and our parents’ parents dreamt it too. We recognise the beat of the thing, we feel its images in our bones, we hum along to it because we along with Scorsese were born into the myths and visions that it evokes. We’ve heard the same songs, seen the same paintings, read the same stories, and done the same work imagining it all to life. In the hit TV show The Knick, Soderbergh tries to keep history alive through memory (which requires a living rememberer), opting for grey tones and shaky-cam to contemporise the past. Gangs of New York on the other hand confidently traverses both memory and mythology. It screams with baroque theatrics and classical training, but it also loses its way in a passion, embarrassing itself, and sometimes it waits patiently, quietly even.
The things in the film which most disorient and captivate the viewer are the things most resoundingly dramatic, and most mythical. Dramatic, small-scale even, is Bill the Butcher reading aloud from the newspaper and for a single word, pausing. We recognise that he is not reading as fluidly as he speaks. This is a powerful individual, intelligent and conniving, but for a second there, he is not fully literate. Or literate, but with literacy as a second language, where his native tongue is words linked with sounds and ideas- in this language his words come freely and he becomes a conductor of ideas and opinions through charged images and rhetoric. He’s educated himself but there’s a glitch- when words are printed on paper they blur and move around the page and make him seasick. This is a beautifully human moment in Daniel Day-Lewis’ predominantly ham performance, but it also means something in terms of the film’s broader treatment of signs and symbols.
The film’s central conflict is between Protestant nativists and Catholic immigrants, staged early in a battle between Liam Neeson’s Vallon and DDL’s Bill the Butcher. Significant attention is drawn later to a mirroring of the two- Bill mentions that Vallon once spared him because he had faith, and scenes later he spares Amsterdam for the same reason. Bill has internalised his faith and is only semi-literate in external signifiers, while Vallon wields literal symbols of devotion. The mise en scene has an emphasis on signs, which signify nothing but a playful semiotics of faith, persuasion, morality, history, and iconoclasm. Its purpose is up for someone better at this kind of thing. Where surface myth and iconography (as opposed to myth and metaphor being unlocked through drama) is concerned we have Liam Neeson heading to battle with a huge stone cross as one of his weapons, abundant Boschian caves which make literal Hells Kitchen, and tangled knotted willows not growing because they’re dead, but just existing all tangled knotted inside by the bar, like an occult shrine or the skeleton tentacles of some old malicious beast. Mike Thorn is very much onto something when he calls this medieval.
Leonardo tries to act louder than DDL which is expected because from the moment he became Scorsese’s muse he became an actor manically devoted to acting well. Few actors other than Leonardo come as close to Nicolas Cage for always visibly acting, but messily and without the smallest bit of compromise diving head forward into performing as someone else. They are always themselves so they never disappear into the role, and watching them kick and scream their way into the frame is so unnervingly sincere that we believe them even as we keep in mind that what we are seeing is just their latest blow-up. A familiarly uncomfortable tantrum with a different costume and accent is always going to seem unfamiliar by virtue of its power to surprise and unnerve us. Their only mode is train-wreck. Leonardo has recently struck a kind of comfort in cartoons such as Candie in Django Unchained and make-pretend auteurist fare like The Revenant, but Gangs of New York finds him at the very genesis of trying to act his way to some higher meaning. Whatever the viewer’s feelings about this kind of performance, it works within the film because we have Leonardo trying to impress Scorsese, playing Amsterdam trying to impress Bill the Butcher. All of his anxieties and shortcomings are manifested in the character and the character’s performance, and so too do those brief moments which convince us that he might be something worth believing in.
Gangs of New York is intoxicating not because it alleviates anxieties over the epic as time-accelerated and time-preserved, but because it openly exploits these fears both gleefully (in terms of cinematic reference points) and mournfully (in terms of history). Scorsese originally came up with the idea for the film through the realisation that he was not the first to walk on the ground beneath his feet. That sounds like the simplest thing, and it is, but listening out for lost voices can be difficult, and hearing them all can be terrifying. The film wants to be about progress, but everybody in the film wants to matter so they won’t be forgotten. They recognise that this might be asking too much. As if the time and events covered by the film are not enough up until this point, Scorsese shuts the theme park down in front of us, tosses the photographs into the trash, and shows us via animated time-lapse how little anybody gives a shit. The hallucination ends for the time being, until we decide that we can stomach going through all fifty hours of its two and a half hour run-time again in the future.