Historiography

One of the reasons I think I'm a lousy film critic is that I often need to see a film three or four times before I know what I actually think of it. It's not that I don't react, it's that I don't know which reactions to trust. When Gangs of New York was released last year, I had been inundated with contradictory hype--it was Scorsese's masterpiece/folly; Leonardo DiCaprio destroys the picture/redeems himself; it was three/five/12 hours long and still had a concise/sprawling/ inscrutable story. Et alii. By the time it actually came out, I was so excited to lay eyes on the thing--so ready to take a side--that there was no way to know what I was truly seeing. My response was rapturously visceral, and thanks largely to the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher, I saw it three times in the theater. I could see that the movie was flawed, but I could also see that it contained multitudes, and among those multitudes was an unprecedentedly grand historical epic--Scorsese's own Birth of a Nation--with a fully subversive trajectory. I wrote a glowing review, and when readers took exception (as people always do when you dare to approve of a movie that features Cameron Diaz), I couldn't help but back down, offering the line that has become both an all-purpose excuse and the best evidence for my friends who think I'm a snob: "Just because I loved it doesn't mean it's good."

Now that Gangs has come out on DVD, in the deluxe two-disc treatment one would expect, it becomes easier to reckon Scorsese's multitudes. And though the picture's flaws (such as the needless existence of Diaz's character) are more glaring on the small screen, the scope of its virtues is also more readily understood. Gangs of New York is not a history, but a historiography--elements of history combined with analysis and speculation to achieve the sense and character of a time, not just the facts. This is why the film's obvious truncation (I'd guess that Gangs could legitimately have been 90 minutes longer than the 167 presented here; perhaps we'll see that on another DVD) is a badge of merit. The confusing pace and rhythm of the street scenes feel accurate, rather than accidental. The general sense that behind every doorway of Dante Ferretti's incredible set lies a whole other movie, one that Scorsese wants us to glimpse, is exhilarating. I also think DiCaprio is totally credible as a 25-year-old Irish thug. I also think Day-Lewis should be sainted for his work in this film.

As for the bonus features, they're pretty run-of-the-mill: mini-features about production, design, and historical background; Scorsese and Ferretti's awkward set walk-through; video for the crappy U2 theme song, etc. But then you get Scorsese's commentary, the nerd gold standard, offering its own historiography of the film's gestation. After taking it all in (a good seven hours of entertainment), you may not like it anymore, but at least you'll know it's good.

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