Sunday, April 30, 2006

THE WONDER IS, HE HATH ENDURED SO LONG: HE BUT USURP’D HIS LIFE. I am in some sympathy with James Wolcott, who has tired of "The Sopranos":
…Sunday the Sopranos temporarily abandoned Vito to his antiquing and fobbed off an episode partially involving Christopher and associate flying to LA to pitch a film idea to Ben Kingsley poolside at what looked like the Bev Hills Four Seasons… Having The Sopranos slop over into Entourage and Ricky Gervais's Extras starfuckiness made a show already afflicted with acute self-consciousness go even more meta on us.. When Hollywood stars played themselves on I Love Lucy, they weren't catering to cynicism about celebrity and autographing it with their own smirk; they presented genial versions of themselves. I prefer those antics to the hip jadedness that's become de rigueur today and winks at the audience as it winks back. All that winking has degenerated into a spastic tic.
I understand Wolcott’s unease with the current Soprano malaise, but (perhaps because I am not a Vanity Fair type of scribe, to say the least) I have a different interpretation of events.

From the beginning "The Sopranos" has had two major streams. On the one hand, there is the grotesque crudity – the source of many cheap laughs, which is what I think bothers Wolcott about the Kingsley/Bacall storyline, and which also gains most of the water-cooler talking points and tabloid ooh-aahs. Hacked-off heads, surprise deaths, etc.

In opposition to this baseness, there is something larger and more dramatic -- operatic conflicts, behaviors, and emotions. The crude stuff is also outsized, in a grand guignol sort of way, but the latter is the meat of the dramatic interest, because even in this debased age we are still more interested in characters than in splatters, if only slightly so.

True, these characters will go far beyond what most of us would ever dream of doing in the course of business. We expect that from Mafiosa, and if Tony’s crew just killed for fun and profit, it would be a very different show. But often it’s not about business, but about septic souls crying out for vengeance, recognition, or what passes in their peculiar lives for closure.

The Cifaretto/Pie-o-my story line is a great example of this: because Tony lives in a world where sudden violence is common, it’s no big deal when he kills Cifaretto for, essentially, making Tony face who he really is. The filmmakers go out of their way (even availing a dreamlike insert) to equate the stripper girlfriend Ralph murders with Meadow Soprano; and Pie-O-My is, in the show’s terms, a larger version of the baby ducks that kicked this whole thing off. One might say that Ralph Cifaretto dies for Tony’s sins. The quoditian violence is fun, but vengeance against self-knowledge is "The Sopranos"’ aglio e olio.

This is still the case in Season Finito. But, as Wolcott observed, things have gone a bit more sour. As the gears of the show wind down, and we lose dramatic velocity, we are being led – purposefully, I think – toward the natural result, not of the cartoonish violence –- that can and will go on forever, as it has – but of the pathetic disposition of the human cases to which our attention had been previously directed.

Take, for example, Paulie Walnuts’ recent crisis over the identity of his mother -- which leads, as it always does with these people, to a senseless act of violence. In this case the act is linked (by use of bridging shots of foliage) to Tony’s momentary feeling of well-being after he gets home from the hospital.

That is, I think, a very instructive segment. We’ve been watching Tony in therapy for years now. It has been amusing to watch him reduce his alleged therapeutic insights to things his narrow mind can understand – the Art of War, the "circle jerk of life." But I think the show’s creator, David Chase, has from the beginning been after bigger game than the comic juxtaposition of gangster ethics with movie stars, writers, academics, rappers, doctors, politicians, etc.

That particular fish-out-of-water gag was old when Billy Wilder used it in Ball of Fire -- but back then, Wilder’s time being what it was, the gangsters were the butt of the jokes. A lot has happened since then, and in "The Sopranos," the gangsters have usually had the edge. Nowadays there’s always a reason to think the straights have it coming. But eventually any viewer will come to think, at some point, that the hoods have gone too far. The Hollywood freebie schtick in the Kingsley episode chafes Wolcott, maybe because he is familiar with that scene and feels that Betty Bacall getting socked in the jaw isn’t funny.

It is and it isn’t. Chase has gone out of his way to link the Mob to just about every aspect of modern society, in an obvious social critque. ("Niggers!" the family man cries when his vehicle is jacked, followed by Tony admiring a Polaroid of his latest hot car.) But I don’t think that means Chase is shrugging to us that the Mob run things and whattaya gonna do –- because big-S Society is not really what the show is about.

Chase dropped a fat clue in the episode involving Charles S. Dutton as a traffic cop reduced by Tony’s pique. Tony tried to buy his psychic way out of the consequences of that cruelty; Dutton refused. That was the same episode (I believe) in which Tony wound up belt-whipping Peter Riegert’s corrupt politician, who had been Tony’s cats-paw in the affair.

By his own lights Tony is justified, and because we’ve been living with him so long, we sort of take his point of view (the politician was fucking Tony's old girlfriend, after all). That’s the power of character identification.

But even as we sympathize, we have to know that Tony's point of view is insane. How long can we keep in sympathy with him? When, as he once predicted for himself, Tony’s "dead or in the can," what will we feel?

Do you remember the episode in which Dr. Melfi sends Carmela to a shrink, who turns out to be an Old Testament Jew who swiftly advises her to take the children and get away from Tony, and refuses to treat her further? I thought of that moment during the current season opener, in which Carmela is childishly delighted with a new car Tony has bought her. It is astonishing to see such a strong character so reduced in the home stretch of a story.

Consider also last week’s agon of Artie Bucco – sort of a fool, but a fool out of Lear, whose privileged position as a noncombatant feeder of the troops and childhood friend to Tony allows him surprising latitude for truth. When Artie mourns in front of Tony the folly of his father’s simple idealism, and then cooks his maliciously-killed rabbit – "Some people don’t like rabbit!" – from a recipe out of his father’s old notebook, clearly we are not being led toward just another fun permutation of the life of a funny mobster-hanger-on. Even the joke of Nuovo Vesuvio turning into a coupon joint is not cheering. Against the impression the show’s previous success has given us, we are led toward an emotion that must (if we are still human) have been present under our laughter and even our sympathy all this time.

That emotion is disgust. The Sopranos and all their works are disgusting. You know it, I know it. Chase probably knew it all along, but now he is hustling whatever chickens have not yet come to roost into the death-coop at last. So now is the perfect time for Tony Jr. to implode, for Vito’s absurd gay-mobster story line, for Christopher to wear out what was left of his welcome -- and, I suspect, a lot more unsettlingly tawdry business to come, which will only seem out of key because the key has suddenly been changed.

This is the blight these mooks were born for. It is not a tragic fall, but an appropriately pathetic collapse. I am put in mind of the end of the ill-received Don Giovanni in Amadeus, when the demon clumsily tears down that upstage drape. It is not pretty and the house may not react favorably, but it is exactly right.

1 comment:

  1. martinsnyder11:00 AM

    I like commenting on seven year old threads. Your prediction did not pan out. The lesser mooks got their comeuppance, but the fate of Tony's family was left to our own moral desires. How unsatisfying to be left in such a position....