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The American film director Martin Scorsese grew up watching Italian films, and his 1973 Mean Streets was inspired by Fellini's I Vitelloni. As a Fellini buff, I'm now renting DVD's of all of Scorsese's films, and recently saw his 2002 production, Gangs of New York. The gangs referenced included no Italians. They had not yet started their great migration to the USA during the period in which the action takes place, from the 1840's to the American Civil War, when New York was under the thumb of the political boss Tweed. This was the same period during which Charles Dickens wrote his novels on the same theme as Gangs: the desperation of the urban poor, the folks Marx was calling the proletariat.
It was odd to see the first gang fight take place in a snow-covered public square surrounded by wooden houses, the kind of early Americana which now draws tourists to such places as Martha's Vineyard and Disneyland's Main Street. Scorsese had reconstructed Five Points, a notorious slum in lower Manhattan, which was visited by Dickens himself in 1842. Dickens wrote of what he saw: "Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays."
I didn't bother to see Gangs when it hit the theaters at the end of 2002 because it lacked the Italian-American goodfella pizza pizzazz of other Scorsese films like Raging Bull and Goodfellas itself, or the Godfather series and the Tony Soprano epic from other filmmakers. Who wants to see a bunch of white Protestant Anglo-Saxons get it on with Irish potato famine refugees? When I finally saw Gangs, I did. The plot of Gangs is very similar to Scorsese's more recent success, The Departed, which made more money faster: A young, tough Irish-American, played by the same actor, no less (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds himself beholden to his worst enemy as the enemy's beloved and most trusted lieutenant. What makes Gangs an interesting film, however, is the pivotal role of the people, the place, and the time depicted. I was born in New York, and the film helped me understand better that city and its influences on my character.
In 1848 the European world experienced a cataclysm called the Revolutions of that year, when the express train of Enlightenment liberalism ran into the solid rock wall of established oligarchy, triggered by mass migrations combined with economic disasters like the Irish famine and a huge financial panic. The USA was not spared, and experienced the same cataclysm a dozen years later in the form of the Civil War and the 1863 Draft Riots, both of which are addressed in Gangs. Scorsese shows Irish refugee men conscripted into the Union Army, boarding the boat which takes them to battle almost as soon as they get off the boat from Ireland. Perhaps one of the most incredible of the superbly crafted action sequences of the film is the one of the US Navy shelling New York to bring an end to the riots. But Gangs is not mere history: it is relevant right up to the day I write this. Gangs still kill each other in American cities, political hacks like Boss Tweed still play both sides against the center, and masses of American-born citizens still fear foreign religious meddling (in Gangs it was the Pope, but what about now?) and a flood of immigrants, who, it is feared, will never, ever, assimilate.
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