In the scope of a 4,000-word essay, I will examine the differences between Martin Scorsese’s historical and contemporary representations of New York City. I will investigate this by deconstructing the relationship the characters in his films have with the city. Through conducting this study I will demonstrate the ways in which the characters who occupy the historical visions of New York are searching for a way to exist in the city and that in the contemporary visions the characters have become detached from the city and are searching to reconnect. I will conduct this study using a movement from the past to the present, using Gangs of New York and The Age of Innocence in reference to the historical visions, and using Taxi driver and After Hours in reference to the contemporary visions. I will also be drawing upon Mean Streets as a linking text between the two visions of New York that Scorsese creates.
I begin my investigation in the Five Points area of New York City. The year is 1863 and the film is Gangs Of New York (2002 M. Scorsese). The City depicted in this film is one of turmoil and social unrest. Walter Benjamin opened a theoretical discussion on the city as the site of ruin in his work the Arcade Project, which he wrote between 1927 and 1940. In this work he discusses the notion of an allegorical gaze which would think through the idea of ruin as the opposite to how we conceive the wonder of the modern city. This concept of ruin allows us to see the city's past not just as a sequence of events, but as an allegorical reading on death and tragedy. This is how Scorsese presents New York in Gangs. Through the gaze of ruin we see New York’s blood-soaked past. The streets and buildings are run down and overcrowded. Scorsese packs the frame full of people throughout the film, having background actors flow through the action. This brings the city to life with a constant sense of motion, as well as creating claustrophobia in the image of the city. Crime and violence threaten the peace, audiences at the theatre pelt the actors with rotten fruit when dissatisfied with the play's ideology. The city has a fatalistic mentality which threatens its very existence.
The characters in Gangs are in a battle, driven by their need to control the city. Amsterdam (Leonardo Di Caprio) returns to New York 20 years after witnessing his father killed in battle. Upon arrival, he discovers the man responsible for his father's death now runs the city. Bill ‘the butcher’ Cutting, played with menace and intensity by Daniel Day Lewis, is the leader of ‘The Natives’, a gang made up of people born in the United States and recently arrived Catholic immigrants. When Amsterdam arrives back in New York, he is taken under the wing of Bill, who is unaware of the pair’s traumatic affiliation. The pair’s relationship is fuelled with the tension of their past and driven by Amsterdam's search for a father figure. This is entwined with Bill's affection towards Amsterdam, seeing him as ‘the son he never had’. Ultimately, though, it is Amsterdam's search for revenge over his father’s murder that brings him back to the city and into Bill’s world. Amsterdam has to destroy the person who controls the city if he is to fulfil his need for vengeance and his narrative trajectory. He does this by stepping into his father’s shoes. First, by re-establishing the gang which his father fronted, ‘The Dead Rabbits’, and then taking them to war against ‘The Natives’. This is how Amsterdam is bound to the city: he has to fight it to be able to exist within it. The New York of Gangs works as an enemy to Amsterdam, and Bill works to personify this notion. Destroying Bill frees the city. Seeing the city, or aspects of the city, personified by a character within the film is another way of