Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday Movies Post

Martin Scorsese's movies aren't thought of as particularly political, I don't think. The big exception is this week's movie, Gangs of New York. Gangs is about neighborhoods, like many Scorsese movies, and it's about people and their lives, like many Scorsese movies, but unlike the others this one has a lot to say about politics.

I'll start by sending you to Seth Masket's excellent post from last year about "Gangs" and party politics. Seth is interested in the shifting coalitions that each side creates, and uses their efforts to bring people in as a great illustration of Schattschneider's ideas about parties and organization.

Next, the movie itself...I know that there are a lot of different views of it, but I think it's an absolutely great movie, in the solid second tier of great Scorsese movies. Maybe higher. It's probably best known for Daniel Day-Lewis's wonderful performance at Bill the Butcher. But I think Leo is terrific, and it just keeps going: highlights are John C. Reilly, and Jim Broadbent, and Brendan Gleeson (by the way: just how good are the grown-ups in the Potter movies?). I think Cameron Diaz is in over her head, but she manages to hold her own through most of it. It's gorgeous to look at, and Scorsese uses all his skills without his mid-career weakness of calling too much attention to them (well, some call it a weakness -- I love Color of Money, which is just a festival of self-indulgence) (Speaking of which, back to business...).

I'm posting about it, of course, not because it's a great movie but because it has a lot to say about democracy. While I'm always interested in political parties, and Seth is absolutely right that this is a great movie for thinking about parties, there are two other things about Gangs of New York helps me to think about. The first is that its idea of politics entirely lacks Mr. Smithism. Politics, in this movie, is serious business indeed -- and there's no way that Leo's Amersterdam is going to save the day by giving a dramatic speech. Nor is it the case that Bill is corrupt while Amsterdam is pure; Leo's character, I think, is one we can eventually feel okay about rooting for, but only eventually, when his blood feud broadens into something a little less personal and vindictive. At least, perhaps that's the case. And even then, he's certainly no Mr. Smith; he's no Progressive out for some abstract common good, but a partisan fighting for his group with whatever means he can find. Accepting democracy as a politics in which interests are legitimate is rare in the movies, and I think that's what Scorsese gives us here.

But he also makes us confront the intersection of democracy and violence. We like to think of these are opposites, or at least not related, but there's a long history of democracy (or republicanism) being intertwined with violence, from Pericles to the Romans to Machiavelli to Woodrow Wilson. Gangs, I think, more than anything else, helps us to think about whether democracy and violence are hopelessly connected, and if not exactly where and how democracy goes wrong when it falls into violence.

As usual, I don't want to talk about what the movie winds up saying about these topics; I think there are multiple ways to understand what the movie has to say, and ultimately what matters is not what this particular story says, but about our efforts to think about questions that it raises. What I will say is that I think there's a whole lot going on here. Top recommendation for Gangs of New York.

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