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Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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With Gangs of New York (2002) Scorsese returns to his geographic roots in Lower Manhattan, but at more than a century's distance from his own personal experience. His gangs are not Sicilians facing the dilemma of assimilation or annihilation, but the Irish who are trying to fight their way into mainstream America. The apparent adversary in this case is not the police and federal agents but the culture of Nativist Americans, the descendants of veterans of the Wars of Independence fought by their ancestors in 1776 and 1812, who believe that this land is theirs by birthright.20 More recent arrivals from Ireland provide cheap labor for the blossoming economy, but they also threaten Nativist hegemony. Both groups feel they must fight for survival. The Nativists believe that their ancestors earned the right to control local politics, jobs, and crime, and no ragtag band of newcomers can take it from them. The stakes are even higher for the Irish. If they are to gain a toehold in their new homeland, they will have to adopt the violent ways of their oppressors, and by so doing shed their own tribal and rural way of life. Much like the second-generation Mafia in the Scorsese's gangster trilogy set a century later, the Irish must adjust to new urban and democratic realities in a multiethnic, cosmopolitan city.

This story of Irish immigration, then, is the summation and restatement of the characteristic Scorsese theme: cities, and by extension the nation, must be conceived as evolving organisms. The evolution necessarily involves violent conflict. When a neighborhood faces change, the conflict takes place on two levels at once. First, the groups as a whole compete against one another, and second, individuals within the group struggle to define themselves in opposition to the collectivity. In Gangs of New York, Scorsese has returned to his familiar Manhattan setting, but the historical distance has provided a wider perspective for his consistent theme. Richard Corliss perceptively observed in his review in Time, "Gangs is the prototype of all of Scorsese's films; it just happens to come after them."21

William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), with his glass eye embossed with the American eagle, his grotesque accent, and his brutal ways, stands as a salutary reminder that not all WASPs came over on the Mayflower and settled into a life of the genteel aristocracy on Beacon Hill in Boston or on the plantations of Virginia. Many were indentured servants and laborers who remained at the bottom of the urban ladder for generations because the Anglo American, Protestant aristocracy that owned the land and controlled the capital found it politically and economically expedient to keep them there. If the Irish could provide the same services at an even cheaper rate, then expediency trumped tribal loyalties, and the poor Nativist Americans would be sacrificed on the barons' altar of profit. In America, urban conflict wears an ethnic mask, but the underlying issue is invariably economic. Scorsese's Mafia may be self-consciously Sicilian, but greed for their cut of the action is the cement that holds the brotherhood together.

The Butcher leads the thugs who have fought their way into control of the notorious Five Points area of Lower Manhattan. Supremacy brings with it not only jobs and respect, but also the income from robbery, extortion, and prostitution, much like the situation of the Mafia of a later generation. The gangs run their business with little interference from the authorities, such as they are in mid-nineteenth-century New York, because they can deliver the votes to Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and his Tammany Hall machine. The newcomers threaten this arrangement. The Irish have the language and the numbers, and they are gradually getting the vote, a reality that Tweed and his associates understand quite well. The Butcher's Americans find themselves challenged as never before, and they feel they have no alternative but to fight back to preserve their ascendancy.

His counterpart, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), leads a confederation of Irish gangs, whose numbers have grown into a potent force in the streets but who have not yet dislodged the Nativists from their position of political power. The opening sequence shows preparations for a bloody battle between these competing groups that sets the theme of ethnic conflict for the entire film, a theme found in most of Scorsese's earlier films.

The first scenes are set in a cavernous atrium, apparently at least partially underground and soaring five or six stories high, with rickety porches teetering over an indoor courtyard, a visual image of the social unrest boiling beneath the surface of the City. The Irish seethe in this smoky inferno, but they are prepared to burst out of the underground into the light of day. As though in solemn ritual, Priest and his men vest for battle with all manner of protective armor, and a bearded priest administers the Eucharist to each of the warriors as they assemble to join battle for their cause. Catholicism helps define the newcomers, who form ranks behind the Celtic cross. Priest leads his warrior acolytes in a prayer for protection and victory to St. Michael the Archangel, the most warlike of the angels, who, according to Revelation 12:7—9, defeats Satan and his army of fallen angels and casts them into hell on the last day of the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. Priest recites a prayer long used in the Catholic Church: "Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray: and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls."22 Despite its anachronism, the prayer, composed in the later nineteenth century to assist the Church in its confrontation with cosmic forces of evil, has no less importance for those about to join battle on the streets of lower Manhattan. The legions of Butcher Bill threaten their very existence. In fact, the prayer is well placed but ultimately unsuccessful because the Butcher and his minions triumph, and Priest is killed in combat with his adversary.

Oddly, while the Butcher advertises his contempt of the Irish as a group, he holds Priest in great respect as a worthy opponent. They meet in hand-to-hand combat, and the Butcher is victorious, but killing Priest does not resolve a personal vendetta; the Butcher sees it merely as a necessary step needed to preserve the natural order of the world of Five Points. It is his duty to kill a man he respects. As Priest surrenders his soul, his young son Amsterdam (Cian McCormick) looks on, and realizing that he is now alone, he runs for his life.

The story lurches forward seventeen years to 1863, when Amsterdam, now a young man (Leonardo DiCaprio), is released from Hell Gate School, a combination of reformatory and orphanage. "Hell Gate" is actually the name given to the treacherous tidewaters where the East River meets Long Island Sound between northern Manhattan and the Bronx on one side and Queens on the other. For the purposes of the film, the name fortuitously recalls the cosmic struggle between angelic forces. True to his Catholic tradition, but clearly without any accompanying faith, morals, or religiosity, he tosses into the river the Bible he received from the Protestant superintendent as a kind of graduation present. Amsterdam has two competing goals in mind, survival and revenge, and he soon discovers that these objectives may be incompatible. He will join the Butcher and become one of his key lieutenants, and with him he achieves respect and a certain level of prosperity. He may be tempted to switch sides, but revenge can only be delayed; it cannot be denied. To keep his position secure, he must at least appear to turn away from his Irish roots even while he endures degrading slurs from the Nativists in the Butcher's gang.

The relationship between the Butcher and Amsterdam falls apart over a woman, a conflict that symbolically signifies the right to form a family, settle in, and take possession of the future. Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) supports herself as a pickpocket and skilled burglar who at times disguises herself as a maid, enters the mansions of the wealthy, and plunders their valuables. She makes little of her own ethnic roots and seems content to attach herself to any man who can offer her protection or money. Ever representing the future, she plans to leave for California when the ongoing gang wars jeopardize her possibilities with Amsterdam in Five Points. She realizes, perhaps more clearly than Amsterdam does himself, that after an informer uncovers his identity as the son of Priest Vallon, the wheel will begin turning toward an inevitable, deadly confrontation.

Scorsese places the conflict between rival gangs in a larger context of the established institutions of civil society. In fact, the real conflict puts both gangs on the same side in their violent confrontation with progress. They represent the old way of life that will have no place in the City that is gradually evolving around them. The struggle is only beginning to take shape, and Scorsese, who shows little respect for civil authorities in his gangster trilogy, shows the forces of "civilization" as little better than the gangs. The police, of course, take bribes to allow the Butcher and his hoodlums to continue their lucrative trade in stolen merchandise, gambling, and prostitution. Rival fire departments fight for the rights to loot a burning building, and to keep peace, they simply torch an adjacent property to provide enough for both companies to steal. On a higher level, Boss Tweed, initially a close ally of the Butcher, can count votes, and he will provide favors for the newly enfranchised Irish as long as they can keep his party in office. With Tweed's cynical switch in allegiance, the Butcher and his tribe risk becoming just another minority, just like the Irish, struggling for power in a multiethnic city, a prospect that only raises tensions.

Although the fortunes of the Irish rise through Tweed's corrupt po litical power, they, no less than the Nativists, begin to lose their identity through assimilation.23 The real conflict, as Scorsese comments in the coda of the film, is not between the Butcher and Amsterdam, or even between the Irish and Nativists, but rather between all the strivers, newcomers and Nativists alike, against the assimilated, prosperous, and impersonal American nation that is inevitably rising in the future. Irish men are enlisted into the Union army right on the docks as they disembark from their immigrant ships. They have no allegiance to their new country and no understanding of the conflict. Still, joining the army means food, clothes, lodging, a job, and a fast track to citizenship. (Two new recruits wonder about the location of Tennessee, their supposed destination.) In a stunning crane shot, as the Irish regiment boards a military transport, the camera tilts down to reveal rows of the coffins of those fallen in battle after being removed from the same ship. The image suggests the equation between assimilation and death for the Irish. Scorsese repeats the theme in the final sequence when the Nativists and Irish join in battle against each other and against the establishment that has enacted the draft, with its pernicious clause exempting those who could pay a $300 fee, a preposterous sum for poor Irish and Nativists alike. As the two groups meet in sectarian violence and the City burns in chaos, the impersonal naval guns in the harbor and the equally impersonal military units fresh from Gettysburg both open up on the mobs. In the end, according to Scorsese, it is power of the distant abstraction of America that crushes the quarreling factions, indiscriminately killing Irish and Nativists alike to establish order.

But the conclusion is scarcely a neo-Marxist condemnation of corporate America and the institutions that support it. As was the case in the earlier films, Scorsese remains strikingly ambivalent about progress. In a time-lapse coda to the main action of the film, the Butcher and Amsterdam lie buried side by side in a cemetery in Brooklyn, overlooking the East River. Slowly the Brooklyn Bridge appears over the river, and gradually the skyline of Lower Manhattan rises to its present stature in the distance. The old way of life—tribal, violent, and profoundly human—must pass away to make way for the cold, impersonal metropolis that has assumed its place among the premier cities of the modern world.

This is the conclusion that Scorsese has been exploring throughout his career. The final scene in Gangs of New York is the clearest statement yet of the tension between Scorsese's nostalgia for the old ways and his realistic, if reluctant, acceptance of modernity. Mean Streets ends in bloodshed, again in Brooklyn, as a grudging acknowledgment that the ways of the street, with its casual internecine warfare, have become anachronisms in contemporary New York. If Charlie survives his wounds, he may well become the manager of a restaurant rather than a gangster. Henry Hill in GoodFellas learns that his way of life, a boyhood fantasy become reality, has yielded to the realities of law enforcement imposed by the larger society. His days as a gangster have passed, and he is condemned to live the rest of his days as a "schnook" in a tract house far from Manhattan under an assumed name in the FBI's witness-protection program. Casino also ends far from New York. The old-time mob, already displaced from New York to the Middle West, again finds its strong-arm tactics, represented by Nicky, out of place in contemporary Nevada. Through the efforts of the courts and local politicians, as corrupt as they are, the Mafia finds itself replaced by international business conglomerates. The new Las Vegas, according to Scorsese, has become more American, but in the process quite dull. Nativists, Irish, Italians, or Jews, it makes no difference—all have had their day before becoming steamrollered into modern America. They made the nation what it is, but in the process, they lost their own identity.

By way of comparison, this ambivalence about modernity echoes the standard message of the Westerns, especially those by John Ford, and thus the idea is commonplace in American popular culture. The Westerns, like Gangs of New York, shamelessly mix myth and history in their presentation of the foundations of America. The myth idealizes the past, while history recognizes that it is past. In his study of the evolution of the Western genre, film historian Scott Simmon notes, "There is a final paradox in the ways that the Western represents the past. On the one hand the west is the region where the past is most treasured. On the other, it is the place where men are allowed to have no past."24 As the camera looks across the East River in the final scene, it presents the paradox in an Eastern, but nonetheless frontier, setting. Like Western heroes, the Butcher and Amsterdam have become treasured as myths for making the City possible. Yet in actuality, they were both ruthless, violent criminals who killed for self-interest and the interests of their respective tribes.

Time passes, of course. The Western hero uses his guns to subdue outlaws, Mexicans, greedy ranchers, or hostile Indians to establish American civilization on the frontier. Once the task is done and the towns are safe, the gun-toting hero finds himself replaced by shopkeepers, lawyers, and schoolteachers. The man of violence clearly has no place in the new order and must ride off into the sunset, further west to new frontiers. In his films, Scorsese, like John Ford in his Westerns, tries to express the ambiguity of the American experience, looking back with nostalgia to a romanticized past that was for them far more interesting than the present, yet realizing that the colorful figures of the past had to vanish before a new nation could be born. This is in fact the same ambivalent nostalgia that colors his portrayal of the Mafia.

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