new york city -- welcome to robojunket. Come to New York! See Gangs Of New York in a gigantic AMC theatre on 42nd Street! Listen to movie stars talk and say nothing! During the round tables, Leonardo DiCaprio is talking in a form of highly organized publicity-speak.
"It used to be about the character," he says, "but now I realize the huge impact of the director, so I'm really trying to work with the best directors I can possibly get. I committed the second I heard that Marty wanted to work with me."
Don't you love the casualness of that "Marty"?
John C. Reilly, who sounds exactly like he does in his films, a not terribly bright guy in over his head, refers to director Scorsese as "Mr. Scorsese," which is also sweet, like Mary Richards's inability to refer to Mr. Grant as Lou.
"He told me I could call him Marty, but when I tried I couldn't," admits Reilly.
Daniel Day-Lewis, long noted by interviewers for the stretches of eloquent silence that precede his answers, has now risen to heights of gobbledegook not heard since Laurence Olivier's honourary Oscar acceptance speech, and this after having the assembled reporters sign a "one-time use" agreement on the interview.
Here's Day-Lewis on building his character's New York accent.
"This was part of the discovery," he begins. "It was all... those details, if that's what they are, are discovered as part of the overall work of discovery. And what you hope to do finally comes from yourself, and the danger is that it becomes an accessory. The job is to create in myself the illusion that the voice reveals itself and defines itself over time, even though you are working on it technically."
But no matter what else the team is saying -- or trying to say -- all agree that Martin Scorsese is the greatest living American director. With the gradual thinning out of his contemporaries, the generation of directors born around 1940, that title is now his.
This is partly because of his track record, from Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to Goodfellas and The Age Of Innocence, but partly because the only other reasonable contender is Steven Spielberg, and nobody wants to call the guy who directed The Lost World: Jurassic Park the greatest living American director. Spielberg's flamboyant commercial track record makes us hold every one of his failures against him. But Scorsese's apparently more artistic bent means he never gets called much on hack work like Cape Fear and The Color Of Money.
Gangs Of New York is Scorsese's biggest picture and also shows what you can get away with when you're referred to as the greatest living American director.
He went to Cinecitta Studios in Rome to recreate the worst parts of 1860s New York. He's writing on the big page of history here. Most of this history is bunk, since Scorsese's working from descriptions in Herbert Asbury's tabloid classic, The Gangs Of New York. Aside from the actual existence of various ethnocentric street gangs and the 1863 conscription riots, most of what happens in the film is schlock fiction: kid sees his father killed and 15 years later comes back for revenge.
An awful lot of Scorsese's films fall into the category of schlock transcended, in gangster melodramas or romantic women's pictures like Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, though occasionally they're just plain schlock, as in Cape Fear.
When talking to stars and moviemakers, critics often experience a kind of cognitive dissonance between what they've seen on the screen and what they hear in the interviews.
In the case of Gangs Of New York, Scorsese says, "This movie is about the first great wave of immigration, and how that tested the idea of America."
This is basically pious claptrap about the politics of the story and its documentation of the immigrant experience (as if that claim couldn't also be made for urban crime movies from Public Enemy and Scarface to Carlito's Way and, well, the other Scarface).
What we see is a violent melodrama with great performances set amidst insanely complicated art direction. (Dante Ferretti has turned the slums of Five Points, a long-gone downtown Manhattan neighbourhood, into a baroque extravaganza of squalour.)
We leave the theatre pondering the physical size of the sets and how Day-Lewis happened upon his approximation of a 19th-century New York accent. We're also gobsmacked by Scorsese's unique combination of demotic violence and religious fervour.
Yet Scorsese has that ability to make us believe this is absolutely the greatest movie ever made so long as the images continue to materialize onscreen. Despite the rationalizations of those who made it, Gangs Of New York is something less than its aspirations.
But it is a hell of a show.
GANGS OF NEW YORK directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan from the book by Herbert Asbury, produced by Harvey Weinstein, with Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Jim Broadbent. 168 minutes. A Miramax production. An Alliance Atlantis release. Opens Wednesday (December 25). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 78. Rating: NNNN