What makes a film great? Is it perfection? Historical influence? Innovation? Vision? I would argue that any of these features can feed into greatness, but that greatness itself is decidedly intangible and ultimately inexplicable. You can't explain away a great movieit eludes any straightforward analysis, slipping from our hands every time we try to put a finger on it. Indeed, greatness itself is elusive, and it has more to do with gut feelings than academic appraisals. You feel a movie's greatness as it plays for the first time, its images flickering across the screen before you, its sights and sounds burying themselves within your mind. When I saw Gangs of New York on its opening day, I felt I was witnessing something monumental, something extraordinarysomething great. Few friends or critics agreed. Though the film received a good deal of praise, it received just as much disfavor: people were disappointed by a project that had been so hyped and so anticipated. It didn't wind up being what moviegoers expected it to be. Its apparently shoddy construction, misplaced romance, and rampant violence seemed to have more to do with the action blockbuster than the artistic masterpiece, more the domain of Michael Bay than Martin Scorsese. However, as I said in my last post, I believed then just as strongly as I believe now that Gangs of New York is a definitive moment in movie history, the greatest American film in at least a decade, and a landmark in its own right. Over the course of the next few days, I will attempt to explain why I feel this waythough, of course, trying to explain greatness is a recipe for disaster. Gangs of New York is, moreover, a particularly difficult example, since it's probably one of the most flawed great films ever made. I can't ignore these flaws, nor can I easily account for them. Let's just say I'll try to include them in my discussion. After all, the flaws are, strangely, part and parcel of Gangs of New York's greatness, in that they exist due to the film's enormous ambitionthe kind of ambition we haven't seen in ages in American cinema, and may not see again for years to come. The movie tries to redefine historical fiction on the screen, as well as to revise American history itself. That's already a handful. It's a Birth of a Nation for our era, minus the racism of Griffith's picture. Like Citizen Kane , it ingeniously and exhilaratingly combines the melodramatic and pulp with the naturalistic and artistic into a single aesthetic form. Its recreation of nineteenth-century street-life is the most evocative and persuasive ever recorded on film since Children of Paradise. And unlike these old classics, Gangs is a movie of the new millenium, a decidedly modern piece of filmmaking. Given all it strives to accomplish, Scorsese's film fails in many areas: it is by no stretch of the imagination a perfect work. But greatness is not perfection, and the sheer boldness and clarity of vision that shape Gangs make it a movie worthy of far more study than it has been granted. For my next post, in keeping with the closing lines of my review of Monster a few days ago, I'll consider the character of Bill the Butcher and Daniel Day-Lewis's performancein my opinion one of the greatest ever to grace the screen. If I seem awfully full of superlatives right now, I'll try to account for the hyperbole, and why I feel the way I do, in the posts to come. Bear with me. . .