STILL GAGGING ON GANGS
I woke up in a crabby mood this morning, and dragged myself to Mass snarling and feeling annoyed. Poor Jesus. This is, no doubt, a hangover from having been slimed by Gangs of New York last night. Who says movies don’t affect culture? I am in a definitely iconoclastic frame of mind today, and it’s all because of a movie.
The question is, what in the movie left such a slime residue? It seems to me it is more than watching several people have their skulls smashed in in several different creative ways. It is more than seeing naked women objectified in unbelievably gratuitous scenes in which they are used more as wall-paper than as human persons. (And I know that is probably the filmmaker’s point – to show the character’s callousness — but you end up objectifying people to make your point – which is immoral.) I have a slime hangover for reasons beyond seeing a man’s stomach artery slashed and watching his blood gush out in a horrifying spray…one of the countless guttings of human beings that are the substance of this film. It’s more than seeing an actor trudge through a seven inch flood of human blood in a city street. It’s from more than seeing a jar full of human ears.
I think the main source of lasting darkness from Gangs has to do with the film’s terrible cynicism about human beings in general , and about America in particular. The great Ron Austin (my students call him the Yoda of Act One), noted to me years ago that Scorsese and Coppola were problematic as “Christian” filmmakers, because “they believe in sin, but they do not believe in redemption.” Gangs of New York is a movie in which sin is dominant and pervasive, completely having its way with the rare instances of qualified virtue in a largely graceless cosmos.
The American dream in Gangs is a cruel sham. Patriotism is an excuse to be bigotted and brutal. Every authority in the church and state are vile and self-serving. Every man has his price. Friendship is a marriage of convenience, and the betrayal of friends is reckoned a survival technique. Religious faith has no connection to moral goodness.
There is an old quip that “the hour of crisis is also the hour of heros and saints.” Gangs is a movie in which there is only crisis. There are no heros. There are certainly no saints. This reflects a cynicism so deep that it is actually a lie.