Scorsese's Low Score

Let us hearken back to a time when gangs ruled the world. Gangs sizing each other up, puffed with pride, wagging their weaponry, painstakingly stylized in diction and dress. There were the Bowery Boys and the Forty Thieves, the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits, the riders of Rohan and the Uruk-hai, the hobbits, the elves, the ents. And when Bill the Butcher and his crew finally faced the drooling host of Saruman the White at Helm's Deep (you know, in the Sixth Ward, where Isengard meets Broadway) and Frodo Baggins crossed swords with Leonardo DiCaprio, what a reckoning was there!

Or am I confused? If so, I hope I may be pardoned: Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers were released in the same week, and the tremendous mishmash of legends has me intoxicated.

The odd thing is, of the two movies, it's The Two Towers that feels closer to home -- that feels realer, so to speak -- and Gangs that looks like the monster conceit. Enthralled by the trials of a ring-bearing hobbit in Middle Earth, we turn to Scorsese's vision of turmoil in the underclass of 19th-century New York City -- only to find it artificial, overproduced, unbelievable.

This is perplexing because of all directors, Scorsese is the one we might have expected to best handle this material. His Gangs -- chronicling successive waves of Irish immigration, the rise of Tammany Hall and the Draft Riots of 1863 -- is amateur sociology, and amateur sociology is something he has shown himself to be very good at. Casino was a shadow history of Las Vegas' birth, of the chthonic, criminal forces that shaped the desert. And what was Mean Streets but the tale of two rivalrous special-interest groups -- the Church and the Mob -- competing fiercely for the soul of a man? The sensation of threatened or collapsing order is one of Scorsese's moods, and he is capable of exploring it minutely. In Mean Streets, the fits of Charlie's epileptic cousin, Teresa, seemed to presage chaos, pop hysteria, upheaval -- a world of crossed wires that would soon enough give birth to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Bickle's life is a bad dream, and his cab moves through the neon-bright billows of steam as through a contagion. Gangs is set in a different New York, but the battling diehards of the Five Points were no less acted upon, no less subject to societal forces. So why does Scorsese's investigation of them strike such a consistently false note?

The problem here is not that the film is fake; the problem is that it's not fake enough. Let's take a look, by way of explanation, at Scorsese's source text, Herbert Asbury's 1928 book The Gangs of New York. Asbury was a prolific journalist and author, with such titles as Gem of the Prairie and The Devil of Pei-Ling to his credit. And he was no hack: In The Gangs of New York, he was actually something of a master stylist, mixing penny-dreadful sensationalism with a more gentlemanly, almost antiquarian approach. For example: "Another attraction of Sportsmen's Hall, was ... Jack the Rat. For ten cents Jack would bite the head off a mouse, and for a quarter he would decapitate a rat."

The result is a genuinely epic effect, but it is a mode of the epic that has a Brechtian element of dryness to it, a droll historical detachment, as if the bard's chant were being heard through veils of cigarette smoke and the murmur of dinner guests. The listeners are not wringing their hands, in other words -- they are nodding or shaking their heads, and giving the occasional low whistle of near disbelief.

It's the sort of storytelling voice that one hears in the Icelandic sagas, wherein an apparently casual sprawl of second- or third-hand reportage suddenly condenses, like a contraction of the mind's eye, into a single detail or, more acutely, a single line of direct speech. Nothing fazed the authors of the sagas, and their tales feature a free and constant traffic between nature and supernature: A murderous dispute between two farmers over grazing rights, for example, might be interrupted by the arrival of a troll or a lycanthrope.

Asbury knew that his New York story was similarly half-magical. His description of the titanic Mose, legendary leader of the Bowery Boys in the 1840s, is literally fantastic: Within a few hundred words, Mose is swimming the Hudson River in "two mighty strokes" and going about "with a great fifty gallon keg of ale dangling from his belt in lieu of a canteen." We can feel the mythopoeic energy of the populace flowing into this character, swelling and enhancing him with "vasty tales" until he looms futuristically, New Yorkishly huge, the harbinger of a skyline to come.

This, precisely, is the energy missing from Scorsese's film. The gangs were real but they were also mythical; their history, as Jorge Luis Borges noted in his foreword to Asbury's book, "possesses all the confusion and cruelty of barbarian cosmologies." It is as if the vileness and viciousness of existence around the Five Points pitched the area's inhabitants back into some pre-Enlightenment darkness, deep into the slurry of the unconscious.

The opening scenes of Gangs -- the prelude to a street battle between the Dead Rabbits and the Native Americans -- seem to hint at this: As the Rabbits, deep in their cave, gear themselves for war, a thrilling cacophony of drums and a wheedling, inhuman fife set the mood -- and the mood is barbarous. But then battle is joined, and the music switches to some sort of faux Celtic electro-rock, with processed beats and pipes swirling in lachrymose Irishry as the cleavers and slow-motion brickbats fly. A son witnesses the death of his father, and the pump of sentiment is primed: We understand that this is to be a story about love, revenge, redemption and various other numbed-out nouns.

Only Daniel Day-Lewis, playing (the heavily fictionalized) Bill the Butcher, is faithful to the tallness of Asbury's tales; his performance towers over the movie, thrusting beanstalk-like into another dimension. Obviously refreshed by his well-documented stint as a shoemaker's apprentice, Day-Lewis steals the show. Dressed like a Victorian time traveler in striped trousers and a stovepipe hat, he reels about on long, insectile legs, playing the Butcher with a ludicrous, fabulous intensity. The other actors are almost vaporized by his fire. (The buttery faces of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, in particular, slide quickly from memory, and their characters' love story is one of the slightest in recent film history.)

No one, of course, is better than Scorsese at doing fights -- bar fights, pool-hall fights, parking-lot fights. When it comes to the lurching biological rhythm of a good 10-minute brawl, he stands alone. The injured dignity of Joe Pesci, from Raging Bull through Goodfellas to Casino, is his great staging post for violence: Some perceived insult or violation produces a standoff, which leads to a buildup, which ends (generally) in a taking out.

What Scorsese can't do, as Gangs of New York makes clear, is war: The planned, large-scale encounter -- as opposed to the eruptive, highly personal onslaught -- defeats him. When the gangs collide en masse or when the soldiers fire upon the draft rioters, we are not stirred. The Battle of Helm's Deep, on the other hand, in The Two Towers, was the best rendering of siege conditions since Michael Caine defended Rourke's Drift in Zulu. Onscreen, at least, it doesn't get much realer than that.