Monday, June 11, 2007

Unforgivable TV Crime

Jeez, boys, you can't even handle that? Dumb-ass jocks need pitchers, right?

QUESTION. I gather Nikki Finke of Hollywood Deadline Daily speaks for many with her outraged reaction to the final Sopranos episode:

The line to cancel HBO starts here. What a ridiculously disappointing end lacking in creativity to The Sopranos saga. But if you're one of those who found it perversely interesting, then don't bother to read on. Even if David Chase, who wrote and directed the final episode, was demonstrating the existential and endless loop of Tony's life or the moments before the hit that causes his death, it still robbed the audience of visual closure....

Apparently, my extreme reaction was typical of many series' fans: they crashed HBO's website for a time tonight trying to register their outrage. HBO could suffer a wave of cancellations as a result.... Chase clearly didn't give a damn about his fans. Instead, he crapped in their faces. This is why America hates Hollywood.

There's more abuse in her column for anyone who wants to read it. My own qualifications for reviewing the Sopranos are mixed. I am from New Jersey and therefore have some familiarity with the culture depicted in the series. But I've also never been what you'd call a Sopranos fan. I learned about it in the first place from other people who had fallen under its spell, and I always suspected that its popularity derived from the appeal it made to the basest level of male identity -- the instinct we've all felt, and work at suppressing, that the surest way to deal with problems is not to solve them but to obliterate them with an act of hideous violence. For much the same reason, I've never been comfortable that The Godfather is the men's equivalent of Gone with the Wind, THE movie, the repository of scenes and situations that somehow recapitulate all the essential life choices of an entire sex. I've always thought GWTW was sentimental garbage, and similarly, I've always thought The Godfather was romanticized thuggery. It's as sickening to hear investment bankers and corporate marketing managers invoking the strategies of Don Corleone as it is to watch grown women thrilling to the narcissism of Scarlett O'Hara.

Worse, perhaps, I've long been convinced that Martin Scorsese squandered a great part of his undoubted talent on movies about the mob. I never thought Joe Pesci was cute in Goodfellas or Casino. I never thought de Niro was fascinating in his depictions of other lowlifes in the raft of movies he made with Scorsese, including, I admit, the wildly overpraised Raging Bull. Yes, there are men who never rise above the brutish rush of their first schoolyard fistfight or their first erection. But most men are already intimately familiar with such experiences and what can be learned from watching stillborn adolescents other than not to be like them. That's a lesson which doesn't require hours and hours and hours of ugly closeups and mile after mile of obscene rhetoric. If you've ever been physically close to the real thing, it requires only a single instance of witnessing what one vicious savage for whom other people exist only as objects can do with a fist, a knife, a gun or a baseball bat. It ceases at once to be a cool metaphor. It becomes the place in yourself you must never ever go.

Before, or apart from, our national obsession with the mafia and other forms of organized crime, our violent movies tend to be morality plays, an acting out of the conflict within a good (or mostly good) man when he must find the violence in himself to oppose, defeat, or destroy a dangerously violent and evil foe. That's generally a story that's worth an investment in time, principally because it involves the all-important change and development in character that is the reason for being of drama. Only the first Godfather movie involved any character development, and that was in the opposite direction, as a man who might have been good sculpted himself into an icon of evil. Exactly why should this particular cinematic masterpiece appeal so deeply to graduates of the Harvard Business School and Yale Law School? You tell me.

That said, I was eventually inveigled into watching the Sopranos, and with certain caveats I will say that the series was better than the Godfather trilogy and Martin Scorsese's mob masturbations. Much better. Why? Because the Sopranos has always been a male implementation of the lowest possible form of drama, soap opera. That's its whole claim to innovation, creativity, uniqueness. That's why, to the extent they did, women responded to it. The nature of the soap opera form is that it's merely a heightening of drab everyday life. Nothing is ever finally settled. There is no "happily ever after." The long-awaited ultimate climactic moment comes, it exacts its emotional price, and then everyday life returns with its low-grade, boring vengeance. Passing sleights build to obsessions. Flirtations morph into simmering, impending but long strung out catastrophes. Marriages break, children rebel, great romances degenerate into resentments and blackmail opportunities. Families never ever cease to be the dynamo of pointless conflicts and frictions. And in sum it is all so crushingly mundane and banal that the players actually seek out opportunities to explode the status quo with some definitive action that lights up the present like an atom bomb but always fails and lapses again into hopeless, thudding banality. Since the Sopranos was mostly for men, the climactic moments that punctuated the dreary hum of normal life involved guns and beatings and bloodshed, which provided men with the catharsis women get from tears and saccharine emotional outbursts, but otherwise it was pretty much The Guiding Light, Another World, and General Hospital.

That's why, I think, women (apart from Nikki Finke, that is) mostly accepted the final Sopranos episode better than the men. What David Chase did, in effect, was simply take a machete to the film, amputating the next frame of a soap opera that can't possibly have an ending. The apocalyptic snuffing of the entire Soprano clan would have been the grossest artifice. No one has succeeded in erasing the Jersey mob. They may grow richer or poorer as events unfold, but they will go on, because there's still illegal profit to be gained from trash contracts, strip joints, asbestos removal, truck hijackings, etc, etc. Killing Tony Soprano and Carmela won't eradicate the dozens of people like them who do exist, and they will continue to set the worst possble example for their children, who will grow up to be just like them, for yet another generation of semi-psychopathic but ordinary-looking people who might hold a door open for you at the restaurant and then profess their profound grief when their son drugs and rapes your daughter at a trendy club and kills her by "accident" on the ride home.

Like all soap operas, the sorry story goes on. Maybe Tony will get killed one day, but that's not an end, either. Another will rise to take his place, and children just like his children will have children of their own and the saga will stagger on.

That's the saving grace of the Sopranos, for those who have the wit to see it. This not a glamorous life. It is simply an oxymoronic life, simultaneously boring and bloody, too clever by half and absolutely stupid. Those who were expecting something like real "closure" prove themselves every bit as stupid as the Sopranos themselves, as if the consequences of moral retardation can somehow be transformed into a graceful or satisfying denouement. They can't.

Further, if you have ever obtained satisfaction from the measures Tony Soprano has employed to escape the pressure of life's inevitable demands, you're a midget in man's clothing. He's not an example, not a symbol of beleaguered fathers or husbands, not an allegory of business management, and not a touchstone of America male experience. He's a thug. His kind will never go away. We will all meet his moral cousins at every phase and in every aspect of our careers. Our challenge is to see him as he is and never to plot a course based on our notion of what he might do. He's a nightmare. And nightmares don't end in closure. They end with brutal suddenness and blankness. When we wake up.

SPOILER: The people who are experiencing such outrage about the final episode are also idiots. There was no whacking imminent in the scene. Nobody in the restaurant was a threat, particularly the dude who went into the restroom. He's already sat at the bar long enough to be recognized. Going to the restroom was a Godfather reference, to be sure, but that's all it was. There's absolutely no need to hide a piece in the men's room unless you're trying to infiltrate a secure meeting. Which this wasn't. The hip-hop crew would have stationed themselves outside, in the anonymity of the night. The white guy in the corner booth had also made himself a recognizable figure. The mob hits in the Sopranos all involve a sudden storming of the victim, surprise, shoot, leave. Tony's biggest threat in the final scene was heartburn -- or a fatal heart attack occasioned by the tons of pasta Gandolfini consumed in the filming of eight years of the Sopranos. "Closure" of the scene would most likely have involved paying the check.

P.S. Just a footnote demonstrating our point that women have better understood the Sopranos than men.

Would that it weren't so.

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