Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (2002)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz

 

Gangs of New York was released at a time when I was probably watching Martin Scorsese movies more regularly than at any other time in my life, but for some reason I didn’t see it in the theaters. In fact, I didn’t see Gangs of New York until it was already a couple of years old and I purchased a used copy of it on DVD at the Exchange in Pittsburgh, in 2005. In high school, I gained a strong affinity for Scorsese’s cinema, but I largely only skimmed the surface. I watched Taxi Driver and Goodfellas obsessively, and Raging Bull, Mean Streets, and Casino were on a list of movies that I professed to admire but hadn’t watched closely yet, but the rest of Scorsese’s deep filmography remained an unknown to me. Maybe that’s why I didn’t go to see Gangs of New York in the theater when it was released, since it didn’t share obvious affinities with Scorsese’s crime and mafia related output, or maybe I was just scared off by the film’s daunting run time, or maybe I just didn’t have any friends who were interested in seeing it. Whatever the reason, I never saw Gangs of New York on a big screen, and though it’s become a movie that I like quite a bit, I’m disappointed that I robbed myself of the opportunity to experience its larger-than-life sets and set pieces in a theater environment. Gangs of New York is often thought of as a lesser entry into Scorsese’s filmography, despite it receiving a slew of award nominations and decent critical acclaim upon its release, and I can’t really argue that as a movie it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of Scorsese’s best work. In spite of its flaws, however, Gangs of New York is still a big, engaging, and entertaining movie, and one that seems to have gained in importance and relevance in light of current societal realities in America.

gangs of new york 10

Based on a historical recounting of the history of New York City and the gangs, both street gangs and political gangs, that ran it in the mid-19th century, Gangs of New York is a tale of the savage and brutal mechanics behind the development of one of the greatest cities in the world. The film explores New York’s Five Points neighborhood through the eyes of Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio), a young Irish immigrant who witnessed his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), die at the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis) in a brutal gang fight when he was just a boy. Amsterdam spent his adolescence in a reform home, but when he is a young man he returns to the Five Points, sworn to avenge his father’s death. In order to do so, Amsterdam gains Bill’s trust and becomes his close ally, all the while planning to one day turn on Bill. Through his relationship with Bill, Amsterdam is introduced to the power structures and the powerful men that run New York City, and he learns that Bill may be the most powerful of them all, holding politicians, police, and the people of the Five Points in his tightly clenched fist. Amsterdam gains power and notoriety through his association with Bill and he becomes something of a celebrity figure in the Five Points, seen as an up-and-comer in the power structure of the neighborhood. The two enemies share an uneasy alliance through much of the film, but when Bill discovers Amsterdam’s true identity, they must square off in bloody combat, their personal vendetta backlit by the raging fires of the infamous New York City draft riots of 1863.

This is an obvious oversimplification of the plot of Gangs of New York, but as I mentioned before, the movie is a sprawling epic that contains multiple subplots and diversions, many of which are ancillary to the story of Amsterdam and Bill, but which give the film incredible richness and depth. While I’ve heard some people say that they feel that Gangs of New York doesn’t justify its lengthy runtime, or that the romantic subplot between Amsterdam and Cameron Diaz’s female pickpocket, Jenny, is unwarranted and unnecessary, I can largely forgive the movie its indulgences. Gangs of New York is a historical epic, and, as such, it should be expected to be in-depth, dense, and bombastic, and Scorsese does a masterful job of balancing great action, suspense and intrigue, and human interest, all while telling a compelling tale about the roots of America and Americanism. The Five Points of the film is alive and vibrant, with sets built at Italy’s famed Cinecitta studios standing in for the 19th century streets of New York City. The camera navigates these sets and streets with aplomb, capturing nooks and crevices of society otherwise unnoticed, bringing them to life with Scorsese’s typical visual acumen and virtuosic style.

gangs of new york 11

Small moments and more intimate scenes in the film allow Scorsese to really show off some of his trademark tracking shots and his mastery of setting and lighting, such as the absolutely gorgeous candlelit dance scene in which Jenny and Amsterdam finally submit to their obvious initial attraction to one another. The camera becomes a character in the scene, perfectly partnering with the twirling couples, moving in and out of the crowd on a dolly, and capturing the woozy, off-kilter nature of a rare night of revelry and respite for the tired and oppressed working class citizens of the Five Points. Though it might not be the most integral scene to furthering the film’s primary plotlines, it’s an essential break for the characters and for the audience, and it’s a moment of pure cinematic beauty.

The most obvious and immediate example of Scorsese’s visual genius in Gangs of New York is on display right from the film’s outset. The film opens with a lengthy tracking sequence that introduces most of the film’s principal characters, as well as the world that the film depicts, one that is defined by might and cunning, and sheer force of will. The shot follows Priest Vallon and a very young Amsterdam as they prepare for a bloody battle between the gang of Irish immigrants, the Dead Rabbits, led by Vallon, and a xenophobic, Nativist gang led by Bill the Butcher. Though it isn’t constructed as a single tracking shot, like some of Scorsese’s most famous sequences, the camera moves along with the boy and his father, panning and tracking to pick out the faces of important supporting characters who will fight alongside Vallon. The edits are well placed, and concealed somewhat by useful sound/image matching with the martial drum and fife tune underscoring the scene. Intensity builds as Scorsese introduces whip pans and cut-aways into the montage, picking out the grim faces and fearsome homemade weapons wielded by the Dead Rabbits as they march out of their subterranean base of operations. Fires burn alongside the stone walls and characters engage in strange, ritualistic dances, giving the setting an otherworldly feeling. As Vallon and his army emerge from the caves, the camera tilts up, revealing them to be beneath a bustling common house peopled by the denizens of the Five Points: degenerates, outcasts, and thieves, all living and existing on top of one another in a constant state of chaos and squalor. When the door is burst open and the camera tracks outside of the building, revealing an empty, snowy courtyard, the music drops from the soundtrack entirely and the audience is left on seat’s edge, anticipating the battle to come. The battle is a thing of violent beauty, but it is this initial sequence that truly expresses the efficiency of Scorsese’s visual language. He reveals a distinctive setting, implies character relationships, and the stakes of the cinematic universe into which the audience has been dropped, all through the use of music, montage, and camera movement in just a few short moments. It’s a sequence that can stand up to nearly in in Scorsese’s long and accomplished body of work.

gangs of new york 1

The film’s veracity and impact is also benefited by the incredible cast that was assembled to portray the residents of the Five Points. Obviously the film’s leads are accomplished and noteworthy, but the depth of this ensemble cast is one of Gangs of New York’s biggest strengths. Great actors such as John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent, and Brendan Gleeson all show up in secondary roles. Broadbent’s Boss Tweed is appropriately corrupt and despicable, while Reilly takes a rare turn as an unlikable character. He does bring a level of complexity to the character of Happy Jack, who began the film standing beside Priest Vallon but who becomes a police officer, effectively working to support Bill’s stranglehold over the Five Points, as do many of the former Dead Rabbits, putting their own personal survival before their allegiances to their dead leader. Gleeson is McGloin, and though he begins the film as a mercenary, he proves to be one of the few characters who remains loyal to the ideals of the Dead Rabbits and of dignity for immigrants, but Gleeson plays him as a shady background character, potentially duplicitous, until his true nature is revealed late in the film. Though his performance is incredibly brief, with his character dying in the film’s first scene, Neeson brings a gravitas to his portrayal of Priest Vallon that lends a credence to his son’s and others’ dedication to the preservation of his character’s ideals. These secondary roles all work to create a rich tapestry of characters inhabiting the Five Points, giving the neighborhood of the film life and vigor.

gangs of new york 3

Of course, for all the important work that the film’s supporting cast do, their performances are all, naturally, overshadowed by Day-Lewis’s iconic and memorable portrayal of the cruel, powerful Bill Cutting. By now, Day-Lewis is widely recognized as one of the best actors of his, or any, generation, and though he had been turning in brilliant performances for over a decade by the time he starred in Gangs of New York, I think that it was this performance that largely cemented his status as an icon. I had seen My Left Foot and The Crucible in high school, but it was Day-Lewis’s work in creating the character of Bill the Butcher that truly signaled his greatness to me. Stories abound of the actor’s persistence to maintain character during a shoot, adhering to the mannerisms, accents, and affectations of his roles at all hours of the day, and that dedication shines through in every second of screen time that he has in Gangs of New York. Day-Lewis steals every scene that he’s in, chewing the scenery and spitting verbose prose in an unmistakable and unforgettable proto-New York City accent. He seethes and rages, he cajoles and charms, and all the while he maintains a fearsome physical presence that hints at his character’s capacity for lethal violence. Bill the Butcher is an all-time great villain, and it’s impossible to imagine him being played by anyone else. Day-Lewis breathes life and menace into the character, achieving a total transformation that would prefigure the all-consuming performances that he would turn in later in his career. Though his xenophobic and racist rhetoric and penchant for abuse and violence are abhorrent, Bill the Butcher’s charms make him an irresistible villain, if not a relatable figure. A lesser actor might not have tapped into the complexity of Bill Cutting, playing him as either purely evil or as a grandstanding raconteur, but the devil is in the details, and Day-Lewis creates a nuanced, attractive devil out of a performance dominated by attention to minutiae.

gangs of new york 6

Understandably, DiCaprio and Diaz don’t fare as well in the shadow of the powerhouse performance that Day-Lewis turns in. Though he provides a serviceable performance as Amsterdam, DiCaprio was still attempting to grow into more adult roles after spending much of the 1990s firmly entrenched as America’s teen heartthrob. His chops would improve in later collaborations with Scorsese and as he became more comfortable with his own artistic voice, but DiCaprio in Gangs of New York is still a bit raw, and his acting lacks a sense of naturalism. For whatever reason, I’ve also felt that DiCaprio’s vocal cadence isn’t suitable to lengthy, expository voiceover tracks, and Gangs of New York relies heavily on his narration. This could be a knock against Scorsese, as well, whose trademark voiceover narration I often find well done despite my overall distaste for the technique as a storytelling device, but in Gangs of New York it largely feels unnecessary and overwritten.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Diaz as the film’s love interest and female lead, but I actually think that she does a fine job. She has a natural wryness to her star persona that plays well with Jenny’s penchant for petty crime and her playful courtship of Amsterdam, and Diaz is also more than effective when searching out the emotional depths of the character. Though she doesn’t often shine in the movie, she makes the most of her moments in the film, and isn’t given as much material to work with as either of the male leads in building up her character. Jenny feels more like a glorified supporting character than a third co-lead, through no real fault of Diaz’s. I think that she and DiCaprio acquit themselves fairly admirably, but it would be impossible for either of these young actors to really emerge as a standout in a movie that is so thoroughly dominated by Day-Lewis.

gangs of new york 4

Gangs of New York isn’t a movie that I get to rewatch very often, given my penchant for only really liking to watch movies in a single sitting, and its long runtime frequently being prohibitive of that practice. I think I’ve probably seen it four times, including watching it on the Fourth of July in preparation to write this post, and it has always struck me as a film that speaks to Scorsese’s ongoing later-career interest in depicting how powerful men and their belief systems have formed the idea of Americanness. These themes stretch back to his crime films like Goodfellas and Casino, which both explicitly position themselves as commentaries on the shape of the American dream, but I think that it becomes even more explicit in films like Gangs of New York and The Wolf of Wall Street. I think that it’s fairly clear from his cinematic output that Scorsese has a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature, choosing, as he does, to highlight the seedier and more vicious elements of the human existence. In later films, he begins to expand that line of thinking out to examinations of American society and history, as a whole, and his outlook is no more favorable. In Gangs of New York, the very idea of Americanness is at the heart of the central conflict, with Vallon and the rest of the film’s immigrants attempting to stake their claim to a new identity in their chosen home against the wishes of Nativists like Bill the Butcher. This conflict is all set against the backdrop of the Civil War, a conflict that challenged the very notion of a national character for the young United States of America, and the film sees several characters, most prominently Bill, make impassioned speeches against the Union cause and against the emancipation of African-American slaves. Bill the Butcher as the film’s central character and his catalytic force in the narrative embodies and expresses these most savage and base fears and prejudices and the New York City that he attempts to influence and form in his image is a place that is heavily informed by his xenophobia, racism, and authoritarian nature. I think that Scorsese would posit that these virtues are, in many ways, at the core of the history of the American nation.

gangs of new york 7

It isn’t difficult to see why watching this film on Independence Day felt, for me, ironic, and why it also seems so totally prescient in 2018. Many of the struggles that are depicted in the film seem to be emerging as major narratives in the ongoing discussion of what it means to be an American in the 21st century. First and foremost, the unambiguous xenophobia and racism expressed by Bill and the film’s other Nativist characters has persisted for centuries in America, and has now emerged as a cornerstone in major mainstream political discourse. The face of immigration has certainly changed over the 150 years since the events depicted in Gangs of New York, but the conversation pertaining to closing borders to ensure the “purity” of the American character is exactly the same, and is couched in the same racist and exclusionary rhetoric that is on display in the film. The irony of a group of white, Anglo- settlers calling themselves Native to the Americas is an exclusionary argument still in use today that misses the point that anyone who is non-Indigenous can’t claim to have a birthright to Americanness, but it is the argument that forms the central basis of a form of economic and social White Supremacy that are hard baked into the American character. The roots of this attitude extend much further into history than the period depicted in Gangs of New York, but it is not by accident that Scorsese has selected a period of fraught racial turmoil to examine the formations of the American identity.

gangs of new york 9

The film also depicts the corruption and vice that were central to New York City’s civic governance by featuring Boss Tweed, the Tammany Hall political machine, and their ties to a criminal underworld that helped to prop up their status and ensure their political and social dominance. Throughout human history a desire for power and status has led humans to corruption and to choose strange allies. New York City in the mid-19th century certainly wasn’t the first or last locality to open itself up to this sort of political corruption, but the levels of civic betrayal and political ruthlessness and operational incompetence on display in the film, and which are apparently factually accurate, are astounding. The film depicts volunteer fire departments run by warring civic political factions that get so wrapped up in preventing each other from gaining credit for putting out the fire that they allow a building to burn to the ground. This level of ineptitude and hubris could only bring to mind the current political landscape in America, where corruption and deceit seem to be the order of the day, and service to the electorate is an unfortunate hindrance to the acquisition of capital at their expense. In the Super-PAC and special interest era of American politics, it feels more than ever that politicians and corporate structures are inextricably wedded in a marriage that aims to keep the non-elite from gaining any political power or capital. Though the disenfranchisement and squalor shown in the Five Points is extreme, the economic striation currently on display in America is not far off from that reality. Though Scorsese couldn’t have foreseen the levels of blatant graft and corruption that American politics have descended to barely 15 years after the film’s release, there’s no denying the parallels the film’s gilded era political machinations have to today’s political circus.

gangs of new york 8

Gangs of New York probably doesn’t rate up with the top tier of Scorsese’s filmography, but it does mark an important shift in his focus at the beginning of the 21st century and a return to form after a couple of less-than-great efforts to close out the 20th century. It’s a film that has largely been remembered as a mixed bag defined by an all-time great performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, but I think that it offers much more than that for modern viewers. Cinematically, it offers some of Scorsese’s most painterly compositions, and it’s obviously a deep well of his signature visual style, plus it also features one of the earliest performances from adult Leonardo DiCaprio that pointed towards the future quality of his performances. Socially and culturally, it’s an important film that I think will remain relevant as long as Americanness is so readily defined along lines of race and class. It’s a movie that seeks to answer the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” and it depicts the deadly struggle on many sides to secure the right to uphold the proper definition of Americanness. This is still a debate that rages on today, perhaps even more fiercely than it has in previous eras, and for that reason alone watching Gangs of New York is a must in 2018.

The Battle of Algiers

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

Written by: Franco Solinas

Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Saadi Yassef, Jean Martin

 

I first saw The Battle of Algiers in the spring of 2005 when it was assigned to me for a project during my freshman year of college. I was taking a World Film History course and the major assignment was to do a short research project on a classic international film. Films were chosen at random out of a hat, and I was lucky enough to draw a film that was not only readily available to screen, but was actually experiencing a cultural and critical re-evaluation at the time. Some students drew films that were more obscure, or even lost, having to rely on secondary and tertiary sources to build up their projects, but The Battle of Algiers had actually been released on DVD through the Criterion Collection in 2004, and there was a wealth of criticism about the film, both contemporary and from the film’s initial release in 1966. It was one of the first overtly political films that I had ever seen, and I watched it several times while I was working on the research project. Exposure to The Battle of Algiers at that early time in my study of film, and to the primarily Marxist essays and criticisms I was reading about the film, changed the way I thought about movies and how to approach them analytically.

The film depicts the events of a three year period from 1954 to 1957 during the Algerian War of Independence, focusing particularly on the formation of a guerilla branch of the FLN (National Liberation Front) in the Casbah and the subsequent attempts of the French military to quell the uprising. The film opens at the end of its narrative, with Ali La Pointe (Hadjadj) and several other FLN freedom fighters trapped in a building in the Casbah, surrounded by French paratroopers, and then flashes back to 1954 to show the events that have led to this point. Ali is a petty criminal who is recruited by the FLN, and rises through the ranks, providing the audience a glimpse into how the group is organized and the tactics that the rebels employ in their fight against the French colonialists. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war. Over the course of the film, we see the violence in the Casbah escalate from shootings to bombings. At the same time, we are shown the French army respond to this violence with equally savage methods including torture and summary executions. While the military wins the Battle of Algiers by assassinating or neutralizing the FLN’s leadership, the film’s epilogue flashes forward to 1960, showing that the spirit of revolution is still alive in the Casbah as pro-Algerian demonstrations have broken out again. On July 2, 1962, the Algerian nation was established, and French colonization of the country and its citizens was ended after nearly 150 years.

Battle of Algiers 4

An Italian and Algerian co-production, The Battle of Algiers is part procedural, part action film, and part docu-drama, and it could be considered a very late entry into the cycle of post-war Italian neo-realist films. It is based on the field memoirs of Saadi Yassef, a military commander for the FLN who was captured during the Battle of Algiers, who also plays a fictionalized version of himself in the film, El-hadi Jaffar. Pontecorvo was no doubt influenced by the films of his peers in the school of neo-realist filmmaking, as he consciously chose to give the film the feeling of a documentary, though it is fictionalized. The Battle of Algiers is shot like a newsreel, in black and white, employing handheld camerawork and quick zooms. Its style and relationship to actual, recent, historical events help the film blur the line between fiction and documentary. The film features almost exclusively non-professional actors, furthering its realism. Pontecorvo chose his cast based on their appearances, rather than their acting ability, and he often frames his characters in close-up, capturing expressive faces that resonate emotionally and contrast with the more detached, documentary presentation of the chaos and violence of the Casbah during the war. The film ultimately doesn’t make an explicit endorsement for either side in the conflict, mainly due to pressure from its Italian producers who insisted on a neutral presentation of the conflict, but I think that Pontecorvo’s stylistic choices in the film make it clear that his sympathies are with the Algerians. Though the film depicts the suffering of Algerians and French alike, we are intended to see Ali, Jaffar, and the other FLN freedom fighters as the heroes, and the French Colonel Mathieu (Martin, the film’s only professional actor) as the villain.

BATTLE OF ALGIERS, THE / BATTAGLIA DI ALGERI, LA

Though it is presented simply, as a realist document, The Battle of Algiers certainly doesn’t lack for style. The film’s camerawork is technically impressive, with cinematographer Marcello Gatti creating a claustrophobic, oppressive tone as his camera explores the maze of alleys that make up the Casbah through masterful handheld tracking shots and zooms. As mentioned earlier, these zooms often end in close-ups of people’s faces, drawing the audience’s attention to the palpable suffering of the Algerians. The film’s grainy, black and white is evocative of newsreel footage, but it is also beautiful, allowing for both softly-lit interiors and high-contrast exterior shots of the Casbah that establish a concrete sense of place. The film’s use of sound also helps to establish place and mood. The score, by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone, alternates between pieces built around frantic drumming and woodwinds, underscoring the tense mood of the conflict, and pieces that feature slow, elegiac strings that heighten the emotional impact of some of the film’s more violent scenes. The film also uses diegetic sound to establish the differences between the French colonialists, who are associated with the sounds of gunfire, trucks, and cars, and the Algerians who are associated with the explosions of bombs, native drumming, and with the wailing and chanting of the citizens of the Casbah as they take to the streets to protest their treatment at the hands of their colonizers. The French are aurally associated with elements of modernity while the Algerians are associated with a more primal, tribal sound palate. The effect of this contrast isn’t pejorative, however. When coupled with the numerous shots of the thousands of Algerian extras-all actual residents of the Casbah-gathered in sorrowful prayer, the soundscape imbues the Algerian cause with a sort of religious piety.

Despite its resistance to embracing an overt political position, The Battle of Algiers has become an important film in the history of political discourse. At the time of its release, the film was praised by many critics, and won several awards at major European film festivals, but the film also had detractors and was banned in France until the early 1970s for being too sympathetic to the Algerian point of view. It was released at a time of global decolonization and worldwide struggles by oppressed peoples to assert their right to self-determination, and The Battle of Algiers was seen by many as a primer for revolutionary action. The film was also used as an example of successful counter-insurgency tactics due to its realistic depictions of urban military operations and guerilla warfare tactics. The film was famously screened at the White House in 2003 due to the similarities of the film’s subject matter to the then-new Operation Iraqi Freedom. This similarity to geopolitical realities at the beginning of the 21st century led to a renewed interest in the film, ultimately resulting in a remastering and theatrical re-release of the film in 2004. It was in this context that I first encountered The Battle of Algiers.

Battle of Algiers 3

Coming of age during the George W. Bush administration helped shape my development as a politically progressive, leftist-leaning malcontent. I spent my teens reading Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Saul Alinsky, and developing more and more disdain for the American military-industrial complex, in general, and the seemingly endless military conflict in the Middle East, in particular. The more I learned about the history of America, the more I was able to connect the Iraq war to a long chain of injustices, played out on the global scale, committed in the name of American cultural hegemony and imperialism. Seeing The Battle of Algiers helped to connect that sense of history to a larger, global context, and to the anti-imperialist struggles of oppressed peoples throughout the world. I already had a vague sense of the global history of revolution in the 20th century, but my work researching The Battle of Algiers and its context brought me into contact with writers such as Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ernesto Freire who helped to illuminate the power relationships between the colonizer and the oppressed, and underlined the role of global capitalism in upholding these relationships. For someone of my political persuasions to discover The Battle of Algiers at that time was a revelation. It felt extremely relevant at the time, and helped to crystallize my beliefs.

If The Battle of Algiers felt prescient to me in 2005, it may be even more so after watching it again in 2017. The military conflict that I found so abhorrent then, in its infancy, has continued on for nearly 15 years, a slog that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Over the course of the conflict, debates over the morality of remote drone warfare and “enhanced interrogation techniques” filled the news, reminiscent of the scenes of torture in the film. American attempts at regime-building, proposed under the guise of “spreading democracy,” have continued to further destabilize the Middle East, ensuring indefinite continued military engagement in the region. The tactics of warfare have changed in the 21st century but the underpinning motive of promoting the cultural and political hegemony of the United States remains. Over the last decade, Islamophobia has become rampant in response to high profile instances of religious extremism, but I’m always conscious of the fact that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Terror inducing violence is unacceptable on every level, but I’m reminded by The Battle of Algiers that often acts of terrorism are direct responses by the oppressed to the injustices meted out on them by their oppressors. In many ways, Western hegemonic powers such as France and the United States laid the groundwork for the 21st century terror state through their history of colonial oppression. As Fanon pointed out, often violence is the only language that can be understood by those who would wield power violently over the disenfranchised.

Battle of Algiers 7

The scene that stuck with the most during this rewatch of The Battle of Algiers was the film’s epilogue. After Ali la Pointe, Jaffar, and the rest of the FLN’s leadership has been eliminated, the film shows us that the revolution lived on without them. After a two year period of relative piece in Algiers, the residents of the Casbah once again took to the streets in December, 1960, waving flags and asserting their desire to live free of the tyranny of colonialism. Pontecorvo somehow recreates this scene, filming hundreds of extras as they teem through the streets of the Casbah, chanting, ululating, and waving flags bearing the crescent and star. Again, the handheld camera puts the audience in the midst of a mob scene, moving through the crowd, picking up on determined faces, as a reporter gives context to the images through his voice-over description. Smoke and dust obscure the view as the crowd faces off against police and the military, who are badly outnumbered despite their martial superiority. Police beat the marchers with clubs and the army attempts to drive them away with tanks, but the crowd will not disperse. The demonstrations are shown to have gone on for nearly a month, before finally ending on December 21st, 1960, after having captured the hearts and minds of the French public and prompting many in the political class to consider “seeking a new relationship with Algeria,” as the film puts it.

In the film’s final scene, a French military officer approaches the gathered mob in the Casbah, who are obscured by smoke. “Return to your homes!” he shouts, “What do you want?” The camera slowly zooms past the officer, and from the smoke comes the response from the demonstrators, “Independence! Our pride! We want our freedom!” Slowly the smoke begins to clear, revealing the demonstrators, who are chanting defiantly in the face of authority. Two women who are dancing and waving flags stand out from the crowd immediately, and the camera again picks up on their faces. Though they are pushed back by the police, the women continue to advance, their visages alight with pride and dignity. The film’s final shot is a close up of one of the women twirling and waving her flag, a smile beaming across her face, as the voice over narration reminds the audience that though there were still two years of struggle to come, “on July 2nd, 1962, with its independence, the Algerian nation was born.”

Battle of Algiers 6

I was struck by the passion that that woman displayed. No doubt, she had experienced first-hand the oppressive nature of colonialism just a few years before being shot for The Battle of Algiers. The pride and the determination she showed was earned through her actual struggle to live in a free society. Watching those last scenes, I thought about the real-life scenes of riots and demonstrations that I had seen broadcast from Baltimore, from Ferguson, from countless other cities in America where African-American men were murdered at the hands of the police. I was reminded that the struggle for freedom isn’t limited to the past, nor is it confined to matters of national identity. If, in my country, a person cannot walk down the street without fearing for their life, then we have not moved past the injustices of a colonial system in which the ruling class seeks to exploit and dominate the underclass. The civil rights leaders of the 1960s looked to global anti-colonialist movements with an eye towards solidarity, and I think that it could be instructive for those who would fight for equal rights to make sure that they continue to explore that history. The combined forces of nationalism, capitalism, and ethnocentrism seek to divide and oppress the masses, profiting the wealthy while treading on the poor and the weak. There are historical examples of times when revolutionary action was necessary to overthrow tyrannical governments, right historical injustices, and restore power to the people. The lesson I’ve taken from watching The Battle of Algiers after seeing my country elect a quasi-fascist bigot to the highest office in the land is that revolution is a struggle, but, as I was reminded by the woman from the film’s ending, it should also be a joy.

Alexander

Alexander (2004)

Dir. Oliver Stone

Written by: Oliver Stone, Christopher Kyle, Laeta Kalogridis

Starring: Colin Farrell, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto

 

I have owned the DVD of Oliver Stone’s Alexander director’s cut for over ten years. In that time, I have viewed it exactly once, shortly after purchasing it in the spring of 2006 at the Blockbuster on Forbes Avenue during a sale shortly before the store closed. While rewatching Alexander for this project, I was reminded of the reasons that I had never bothered to go back to it after that initial viewing. The film is simply a mess. It doesn’t work on any level. It is too dull and tedious to work as an action film, too shallow to work as a historical drama, and too conventional to work as the art film that Stone badly wants it to be. While Alexander is certainly beautiful to look at, its interminable length and poor acting make it a misery to sit through.

alexander-3

Alexander is a swords and sandals epic that traces the life of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell) from birth to death, focusing largely on his conquest of much of the known world in his 20s and 30s. Alexander’s life is related to a scribe by an aging Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), and the film proceeds as a fairly typical Oliver Stone biopic. In fact, I was reminded of Stone’s Nixon at times while I was watching Alexander. The subjects of both films are men who are convinced of the greatness of their own destinies, obsessed with obtaining power, and who are ultimately consumed and brought down by their desire for power. Where Nixon succeeds and Alexander fails, however, is in making its subject a relatable and even, at times, sympathetic character. Perhaps by necessity of its setting in Greek antiquity, rather than feeling like the story of a real historical figure, Alexander feels like mythmaking. While there’s nothing wrong with mythologizing a historical figure, that mythmaking both robs Alexander of his relatability as a human character, and is at odds with Farrell’s angsty, dead-serious portrayal of Alexander the Great.

It isn’t just Farrell who turns in a lacking performance, unfortunately. Alexander must feature one of the most squandered assemblages of talent ever in a single film. Hopkins is largely reduced to the role of a voice-over narrator, appearing in only a handful of brief scenes, in which he does little besides dictate his voice-over narration to an on-screen scribe. Angelina Jolie, as Alexander’s mother Olympias, is an Oedipal seductress who is given little to do on screen besides pout and smolder. Her role as a major influencer on Alexander’s life and as a central schemer in the machinations that lead to the death of King Philip (Val Kilmer), Alexander’s father, seem unearned. Similarly, Rosario Dawson and Jared Leto are both underused, as Alexander’s wife and (not so) secret lover, respectively. In fact, the only performance in the film that stood out to me was that of Kilmer as King Philip. Kilmer gained 50 pounds for the role, and he lets his physicality do the heavy lifting for him in the performance. It stands in stark contrast to Farrell’s verbose, manic Alexander and Jolie’s subdued Olympias.

alexander-1

Despite its many flaws, there are some things to like about Alexander. As I mentioned, the film is often breathtakingly beautiful. If the film’s casting budget largely feels wasted, its special effects and filming budget do not. Stone’s recreation of ancient Greece and Babylon is beautiful, and it really works. The sets and costuming are detailed and beautiful to look at, and they go a long way to lending it credence as a history. The large scale battles that are featured in the film, especially Alexander’s first victory, are excellently shot, blending overhead shots of mass troop formation with close-up shots of visceral hand-to-hand combat.  The film’s real world locations are also beautifully filmed, with the final battle in India standing out in particular. The lush greens of the Indian jungle stand out richly in contrast to the film’s existing color palette which is dominated by reds and golds. It’s a shame that Stone can’t reign in some of his more experimental tendencies during that final battle, opting to color shift the film halfway through the scene, because it takes away from a set piece that is working, visually, and serves as a reminder of the self-indulgence that the whole film is suffering from.

Upon its release in late 2004, Alexander was panned critically and bombed spectacularly at the domestic box office, returning just under $35 million against a $155 million dollar budget. International box office receipts would make the film a very modest financial success, and the film would go on to have great success in the home video market, with four separate cuts of the film being released by 2013. I have only seen the 2005 director’s cut of the film, but I can only imagine that the two later cuts (the “Final Cut” and the “Ultimate Cut”) would be even more interminable than the 2005 version, as they are both nearly four hours long. Ultimately, these additional cuts of the film are indicative of the extreme self-indulgence that hamstrings Alexander in general. Stone falls in love with his own story, and too often opts to tell rather than show. As a result, its action set pieces, while enjoyable, are too few and far between, causing the film to feel like a historical reenactment. However, the film is unsuccessful in that regard as well, because even after spending nearly three hours with the subject, I didn’t feel that I came away with any larger understanding of who Alexander the Great really was as a person. The personal details that could have fleshed out Alexander, making him a well-rounded protagonist, and making for a more interesting and successful film in general, are largely glossed over or left to insinuation.

alexander-5

It’s a shame that Alexander doesn’t make for a better film, because the building blocks are there for something more entertaining and engaging. With a little more editorial oversight, Alexander could have been an effective historical action film; with better casting and a more personal (though probably less historically accurate) treatment of its subject, it could have been an interesting biopic of one of ancient history’s most important figures. Without either of those things, the end result is a bloated historical epic that is often content to meander from one life event to the next, failing to provide a more personal context for Alexander. Apparently, the “Final Cut,” released in 2007, attempts to rectify some of these shortcomings and includes a great deal of footage examining Alexander’s sexuality and his relationship with Hephaistion (Leto), as well as his relationship with both of his parents. Unfortunately, I have only seen the director’s cut, and don’t have the patience to sit through Alexander another time to find out if Stone’s attempt to have his cake and eat it too by extending the film’s runtime by nearly an hour is worth it.