Friday, March 13, 2009

Whose boy are you?

The Felix Chronicles, #10

In which we see that everybody belongs to someoneor something

“All right,” I ask the class as the lights come up and I raise the shades on the wan sunshine of a wintry Monday morning, “so what is Gangs of New York about?”

At the end three days of class screenings, I’m hoping I won’t simply be given a recital of the storyline. A bowdlerized version of the bowdlerized 1928 history of nineteenth century New York street culture, Gangs rests on a creaky patricidal plot in which a young gangster named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeks to avenge the death of his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) at the hands of the vicious William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher, (Daniel Day-Lewis), only to fall to stumble into a role as virtual son. Marked by stylized violence that is brutal yet sentimentalized, the movie was widely criticized by historians and reviewers alike. Still, I teach it for a number of reasons, among the most important of which is Day-Lewis’s performance as the brutally charismatic Cutting, Bowery B’hoy extraordinaire. Both consumed and sustained by his hatreds—among them the Irish immigrants who swarm into the Five Points neighborhood he runs with an iron fist and celebrates in a patois of profane poetry (inspired by the angry white hip-hop artist Eminem, to whom Day-Lewis listened as he prepared for the role)—Cutting is a man out of time. The pressure is coming from a variety of directions: from those immigrants, whose numbers will soon render his particular brand of nativism obsolete; and from a new breed of politicians, represented by William (soon to be Boss) Tweed, who sees possibilities for power in the ballot box, even if it has to be bought; and from the gathering force of the federal government—temporarily enmeshed in the Civil War—which will break the power of the clannish local lords, whether on the plantation or in the ghetto. A lot to chew on here.

“It’s about this really intense relationship between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam,” Becky says. She proceeds to a long description of their intense psychological relationship. I sense mounting impatience, and jump into a gap.

“Yes, Becky I think you’re right. But now let’s look a little more broadly. When you step back from the characters and the plot, what is the movie really about?”

“It’s about ethnic tensions between the Irish and the native-born Americans,” Jason says.

Ethnic tensions, I write with a fresh piece of chalk on the blackboard. Actually, only half a board. The other half has been stripped, pending the installation of a high-tech Smart Board.

“It’s also about class conflict,” Tom says. I write that down.

“And racism,” Susan says.

“Yes, that too,” I say, scribbling it down with my back to her.

“The thing that really sticks out for me,” Samantha says, “is the corruption.”

I write that down and turn around. “At the risk of asking a dumb question, what do you mean by ‘corruption?’”

“Oh you know, some of the things we saw. Boss Tweed saying things like, ‘the appearance of law and order must be respected.’ Or some of those Irish voting two or three times.”

“Yeah, that was great,” I hear someone say.

“But that was so an Irish guy could be elected mayor,” Joey says.

“Sheriff,” I correct him.

“Yeah, sheriff. I mean, that was only fair.”

“Right,” Nate chimes in. “They deserved to have some power.”

“The thing that really scared me about the movie was the violence,” Becky says. I mean, the straight-out terror of those mobs. Breaking the windows of the houses of the people uptown—”

“—Yeah, did you notice that it was the firemen who actually started the riots?” Nate asks excitedly.

“— I couldn’t even walk the street without fear of being attacked.”

“Well, maybe not during the riots,” I agree. “But under normal circumstances you could.”

“No I couldn’t! “

“Sure you could. Bill the Butcher would take care of that. Remember how the policeman hung his watch in Paradise Square? He said it would be safe there because it was his beat. But we all understood it was the Butcher. He’d take good care of you, Becky.”

Some chuckles, even sniggers, at this.

But Becky isn’t buying it. “No! I wouldn’t be safe!”

“Yes you would,” Alec replies. “Don’t you see?”

“No! Because he’s just like, like—“

“—a monster,” Ellen says flatly.

“Right. Becky affirms, "a monster. I would never have any freedom!”

A light bulb goes off in my head. I know where to go with this. But not yet.

“Ellen, you call the Butcher a monster," I say. "But is he, really?”

“Of course,” Becky interjects. “Look how many people he killed!”

“Well, how many people did he kill? I ask. We see him kill Priest Vallon at the beginning. But who else? Amsterdam’s friend Vallon gets impaled on that fence, but Cutting doesn’t do that, or do it directly, anyway.”

“Remember all the people in that gang fight where Vallon dies,” Alec points out.

“True, I say.” (I had forgotten about that.) “Still, he doesn’t go around killing people at random. The Butcher maintains a kind of order, and order he wins as a result of that gang fight. The only other person we see him actually kill is Monk, the newly elected sheriff. The Butcher slices Monk’s back with a cleaver . . . .

“That was sooo gross,” Kim says audibly to Susan.

“. . . and then crushes his skull with the same club Monk used in his own gangster days. But that’s not a random act of violence. As a newly elected Democratic official, Monk represented a threat to the Butcher’s order.”

“He was a gangster! Becky insists. You make him sound like he’s running a business or something.”

“That’s precisely what he is doing, I say.”

“He’s just a cold-blooded killer.”

“Well, yes, I agree with you there: He certainly was cold-blooded. But he was also something of a murder artist, with an acute sense of propriety and ritual. Remember how he gave the dead Vallon back his knife for burial? ‘Here, take this, my friend,’ he said, almost lovingly. ‘You’ll need it on the other side.’ And how about what he said as he put the final notch in Monk’s club just before he finished him off? ‘See this?’ he said to the dying Monk. ‘This one here is the minority vote.’ And when Amsterdam killed the policeman the Butcher sent to kill him, the Butcher remarked with admiration of the skill in which Amsterdam arranged his body to suggest a crucifixion. Bill Cutting was a murder artist, a connoisseur of killing."

“Mr. Cullen!” Becky is feigning mock indignation. Or maybe non-mock indignation.

I push on. “He also has a way of cutting—pun intended—to the heart of an issue, I continue, pivoting to where all this is leading. What does the Butcher say when he himself is the target of an assassination attempt at that minstrel show? When Amsterdam, who plans to kill him, instinctively intervenes to save him? Anybody remember what the Butcher says after he retaliates against his would-be killer?”

Nobody does.

“He asks: ‘Whose man are you?’”

“Oh yeah,” Nate remembers. “But the guy doesn’t answer. He’s already dead.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I aver. “But that’s not what’s important here. I want to call your attention to that question: ‘Whose man are you?’ That’s the only relevant thing for the Butcher at that point. Because in the Butcher’s world, everybody is somebody’s man.

“And that means you, too, Becky. It would never even occur to you to assert your freedom, because you would never have had any. You’d be somebody’s man. You’d have to be to survive.”

“First she’d be her father’s daughter,” Susan says. “And then she’d be somebody’s husband. I mean wife.” Laughter.

“Not me,” Becky says, shaking her head. “I’d be my own . . . woman.”

Ed grimaces and shakes his own head, suggesting disagreement and irritation.

I look down, as if collecting my thoughts, and count to three. Then I look up at Tom, and in a quiet voice, I ask him: “Whose boy are you, Tom?”

“What did he say?” Susan asks Samantha.

“Whose boy are you?” I repeat.

Tom squints and smiles, a wonderful expression that suggests both that he understands in a general way where all this is going, but uncertainty as to what the specific answer to my question is. “I suppose I would have to say my parents, he says after a moment. I’m David and Hannah’s boy.”

“And what gang do they belong to?”

“The Democratic Party,” Jason answers for Tom. “They’re like serious political people.”

“And you, Jason. Whose boy are you?”

“I’m Aaron and Roberta's boy, I guess.”

“Are you a free man, Jason?”

“Well, I’m not a man, and I guess I’m not free either.”

“Does that bother you? That you’re not free?”

“Not really,” he says. “Don’t really think about it much.”

“Well I do,” Becky says, with a surprising degree of bitterness in her voice. I’m definitely not free. I can see that she’s drawn a heart in ink on the back of her hand, but I can’t decipher the letters on it. “My dad is like Hitler.”

“So you’re not free now, but you will be someday?”


“How about the rest of you? Are you living in states of unfreedom? In tyranny?”

I get no answer. But Susan has a question. “What about you, Mr. Cullen? Whose man are you?”

“Well, right now, I belong to the Ethical Culture Fieldston School—it pays the salary that my family and I live on. Of course, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School is not a person; it’s an institution. In a way, this brings us back to what I think this movie is all about. For Bill the Butcher, everything was personal. He lived in a tribal world, and the United States was a tribal society, a collection of gangs—as Nate pointed out, even the fire departments were gangs. Among other things, what the Civil War did was make things impersonal. It created mighty institutions like a national economy, and a massive system for the distribution of goods and services to the Union army. And that army was itself extraordinarily powerful, steamrolling all opposition, whether it was the Confederate States of America or the gangs of New York. We rightly think of that army as a liberating force that destroyed slavery. Surely it did that. But it’s worth pointing out that from the standpoint of those who rioted at the prospect of being sucked into it, it army was a destroyer of liberty, and a destroyer of a way of life. I can’t say I regret the outcome. I’m a descendant of those Irish immigrants, who helped build the mighty political machine called Tammany Hall that we’ll be looking at again in a few weeks. But the Bill the Butchers of the world, with all their fiercely loving hatreds, can help us understand why the Civil War was such a hard-won struggle.

"See you tomorrow, folks. We’ll start reviewing for our upcoming exam."

There’s the usual familiar shuffle as they head out the door; a mere hour after a long weekend, I already feel like I never left. “Whose boy are you!” I hear Joey bellow down the hall as I look toward the e-mails waiting on my laptop. You’re my boy now, I think to myself as I open the first one. Or you’re my boy for now, anyway.