Books: The Meaning of Recognition — Great Sopranos of Our Time |
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Great Sopranos of Our Time

My four seasons of The Sopranos come in four neat boxes of DVDs. If I confine myself to a couple of episodes per evening, I can get through the whole disgusting saga in less than a month, and so leave a decent interval before I start again. The challenge, however, as with The West Wing or NYPD Blue, is to keep to the ration. Under the spell of such a rich, multi-plotted, invisibly directed narrative drive, there is a constant temptation to watch a third and fourth episode straight away, stretching the supposedly repellent experience deep into the night. The night, after all, is where the action is taking place, even when set in daylight. In the dark night of the soul it is often three o’clock in the afternoon on the pool terrace of a mobster’s house in New Jersey. The rule of law exists only to be flouted; power to be flaunted; any scruple to be parodied. It’s appalling. I love it.

Love it more, in fact, than the Godfather movies, which are supposedly the superior cinematic achievement, the fons et origo from which the mere television serial draws and dilutes its inspiration. (There is also a likelihood that it got some of its brio from GoodFellas, but Scorsese, in his turn, was almost certainly inspired to his hectic story by the urge to rebel against the stately progress of a common ancestor.) David Chase, the writer-producer who can be thought of as the man who made The Sopranos in the same way that Aaron Sorkin made The West Wing, was not personally involved in the Godfather project. Chase did his apprenticeship as a writer for The Rockford Files and later as a writer-producer for Northern Exposure. His idea of a big movie was Fellini’s Otto e mezzo; of a crime movie, Cul de Sac; superior European stuff. There is no doubt, however, that the Godfather trilogy was on his mind, because it is on the minds of all the male characters in The Sopranos. Only two of its main actors were ever directed by Francis Ford Coppola: Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior) and Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts) both played minor roles in Godfather II. But every Soprano-related male character has a frame of reference drenched with Godfather minutiae. Whether sitting out front at the Pork Store (their idea of the outdoor life) or lurking dimly in the depths of the Bada-Bing combined bar and strip-joint, they conduct long symposia in which Corleone family scenes are alluded to by the line and sometimes recreated almost in full, with sound effects. This is the kind of mediacultural fallout that gives respectable Italian community leaders the hump: Italo-Americans defining themselves as the heirs of gangsterism.

But these characters are gangsters, so why shouldn’t they? What other kind of movie memories would they have on the tips of their thick tongues? The Horse Whisperer? The Bridges of Madison County? And the truth is that every American, of Italian extraction or not, knows the Godfather films by heart; and most of the rest of us do too. The real question here is whether the Godfather trilogy really is the armature of the spin-off, or whether the spin-off is bigger and better than the armature. Surely the latter is the case. We shouldn’t let the size of the picture fool us. In the little picture, a lot more is going on, and it’s a lot more true. Most of its many directors would probably like to make movies, because movies will make their names: one of the several ways in which the celebrity culture distorts culture. They will never work better than under Chase’s guiding hand. Chase hated working in network television, but he hated it for the way it was sanitized. He has rebelled by seizing the opportunity HBO uniquely offers and making another kind of television, a kind that tells fewer comforting lies. If he had rebelled by making movies, his would probably have been better than most, but the pressure would have been on to do what the Godfather movies did: clean up the act.

When I first saw The Sopranos, my immediate candidate for an epic predecessor was I, Claudius, now available as yet another set of DVDs begging to be watched one after the other. If Chase had ever mentioned I, Claudius in an interview, I hadn’t seen it. (Among the extra material in the first box of DVDs is an interview with Sorkin which reveals that he did, indeed, have I, Claudius in mind.) My only evidence for a direct borrowing was the name of Tony’s dreadful and deadly mother, Livia. But I would have been surprised to learn that Chase hadn’t taken I, Claudius on board. If the resemblance was a fluke, it could only be because, should you set out to draw a picture of unfettered violence shaping the destiny of an extended family, you would necessarily end up with something like the Roman empire after Tiberius consolidated the dubious achievement of Augustus in subordinating all law to the leader’s will. Mussolini thought of Fascism as Rome’s glory born again, but he had a debilitating habit of letting potential enemies continue breathing. The emperors were living in a bloodbath and so are this bunch.

In the last episode of the fourth season, the reliably psychopathic Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano, barking and cackling as he did when fighting off the killer dykes in Bound) has his brains beaten out by Tony in person. The even more psycho Christopher is whistled in as a cleaner, and we get a shot of him holding Ralphie’s hand. Unfortunately for the viewer’s peace of mind, the hand is no longer attached to the rest of Ralphie. Tony and Christopher are both shocked to discover that Ralphie has been wearing a wig throughout the series. Neither is shocked by the process of cutting Ralphie up. Dilettante viewers of the show who stumble on scenes like this are sometimes put off, but it takes some pretty selective stumbling. Scenes of actual violence are rare. What is always present is the threat of violence. The wise guys work their Thing by intimidating each other from the top of the hierarchy down, and maintain the cash-flow of their Thing by intimidating everybody else. When the soldiers toe the line and the civilians keep up their payments, life can go on peacefully from episode to episode. But if, God forbid, one of the subordinate wise guys should get ambitious, or some innocent citizen should get the idea that there is a real law beyond the one that the wise guys impose, hell briefly but effectively breaks loose. It hardly ever does, because every member of the crew, whether a made man or not, has proved in his youth that he will go on kicking and hitting until the victim expires. Murder is the nuke. It spends most of its time not needing to be used. The rubato of the show’s physical action depends on this. In that respect, The Sopranos is unsanitized; and it was in that same respect that the Godfather movies were always as clean as a whistle.

Even the most fervent Godfather fan will agree that in the third movie the magic fell apart. It was a rush-job, and it showed: showed most fatally in the script. The lighting looked right, with all the mandatory sepia sfumatura that had been so revolutionary in the first movie. Fudges in the direction were mainly incidental. Coppola must have been working against the clock when Michael, suffering insulin shock during his visit to the Italian monastery, called for orange juice and candy. A factotum bearing a tray of orange juice and candy rushed straight into frame, as if a tray of orange juice and candy were always kept ready in an Italian monastery in case a visiting American regime-chief with diabetes should happen to drop by. Other directorial flat spots were inevitable. The orchestrated multiple killing to holy music had been invented triumphantly in The Godfather. Used again in Godfather II, the depraved epiphany had already been dished out once too often. In Godfather III the same trick is disguised by having the sacred music happening in the Palermo opera house during a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana, but it’s transparently, and undramatically, the same trick. Directors have often repeated what they themselves invented, but the price is high, because it reminds us that the direction is being valued above the action, and perhaps always was.

What a director can’t afford at all is to be unsure of where the script is going. What is Michael doing being sincere about going legitimate? But sentimentality had set in a lot earlier than that. It had been there from the beginning of the saga, which notionally occurs in a flashback in the second movie: but the same fudge rules the first one as well. When Vito Corleone, played by Robert De Niro in the flashback, kills Fanucci the extortionist, Vito doesn’t set up a reign of extortion of his own. You would think that he flourishes solely from the olive oil business. He dispenses justice, not injustice. From the beginning of The Godfather, in which Vito is played by Marlon Brando, Vito is a figure of benign wisdom, busy saving the helpless Italian civilians from the indifference of ordinary American law. It’s a comforting notion, but as phoney as the bumps in Brando’s jaw-line: like them, it is made possible only by the plentiful introduction of cotton wool. The Corleone family, we are assured, makes its money from gambling and prostitution: the accepted human vices. At a critical moment for the plot, Vito even rules out drug-trafficking as ‘a dirty business’, as if the rest of his business was clean. Protection rackets are scarcely mentioned.

In his soon to be published Cosa Nostra, John Dickie points towards a different picture. Though meant as a serious contribution to modern Italian history, it can safely be predicted that Dickie’s book will be a media sensation, not least because it has a dozen potential movies in it. (Two of them, Salvatore Giuliano and Le Mani sulla Città, have already been made, but they will be made again.) The news that matters, however, is about the real nature of the Mafia’s modus operandi in Sicily. As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, the Sicilian grain fields were worked by peasants whose condition was only a step up from slavery. They were left with a cupful of the grain they reaped: the rest was taken by the gaballoti, the overseers who had been put in by the absentee landlords who were living it up in Palermo. It would have been nice if the Mafia had gone into battle on behalf of the peasants. Unfortunately it was common for the gaballoti to be members of the Mafia.

* * *

Extortion and protection were always the core business of the Sicilian Men of Honour. In America, after the internal Mafia war of 1930—31, Cosa Nostra was, in Dickie’s useful term, Italianized. In Italy, families from the different regions had had little idea of nationality: America gave it to them. The Soprano family, who originated in Naples, are part of this larger context. But no matter how large Our Thing got, the petty squeezing of the helpless remained at the heart of it, as a permanent reminder that in those halcyon Sicilian days Robin Hood gave nothing to the poor except grief. Modern Americanized operators such as Lucky Luciano thought big. But there is no reason to think that the Mob has ever dealt in big-time stuff. The crime families got big by adding smalltime deals together, and the small-time deals have always started with protection and loan-sharking. Of the gangster movies, Good-Fellas and Donny Brasco probably give the truest picture: an average deal is a couple of slot machines being broken open in the back room, and a big deal is three machines. A Mob boss gets rich from his lion’s share of the stolen and extorted money passed up to him by the lower ranks. (Trace the rake-off upwards and you get a flowchart of the way the Mob’s finances work: there is a pay-out at each level, but finally the capo banks most of the take for doing nothing except keeping all those below him in line. Tony banks his in the ceiling of his house, or in a locked box out in the yard.) Muscling in on the unions might look like a big deal, but only because every member of the union is feeling the squeeze. There has never been much chance of a Mob boss turning into Warren Buffet, or even into Ivan Boesky. The stuff in Godfather III about taking over Immobiliare was science fiction. You could make a movie about the Mob moving in on Microsoft. Everyone would like to see how Bill Gates reacted to a horse’s head in his bed. But it would be a fantasy. Mobsters are opportunist hoodlums, not business geniuses.

In The Sopranos, this mean reality is much more realistically portrayed. People can be friends of the family and still be soaked. Artie the restaurant owner, who is really trying to play it straight, foolishly borrows money from Tony to cash in on what looks like a sure-fire Armagnac franchise. Artie’s hard-working wife, brighter than he is, is outraged. Tony guesses it’s a scam, but he only warns Artie against getting into debt: he doesn’t refuse the money. The moral here is that Artie, who might have got rich slowly, should never have tried to get rich quick. Once he defaults on the debt, his restaurant belongs to Tony. (The wise guys have a name for this process: they call it ‘buying in’.) Artie’s grieving face is an emblem for the show. Artie is still Tony’s friend, but now it is no longer a case of doing Tony the occasional favour, such as letting him run up a huge tab. Now Artie must do nothing but favours: he will never be out of hock. And this is what Tony can do to a pal. What he can do to a mere acquaintance, let alone to a stranger, happens often enough per episode to remind us that his hulking charm adds an extra meaning to the word ‘irresistible’. Far from helping the little guys, Tony gets the little guys in his power. He does it by terror. But usually the mere suggestion of terror is enough.

How does he feel about that? Bad enough to need an analyst, the reassuringly husky Dr Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco, who in Someone To Watch Over Me was married to an honest cop. Theoretically she is on the side of the law here too, but there are complications. In Analyse This the mobster’s shrink was played by Billy Crystal, with hilarious results. Taking over the same situation and spinning it out into a linking theme, Chase transforms a gag into a strange story of perverted love. Transference duly occurs and Tony lusts after her. She is suitably revolted. Then she gets raped in the basement car park by a pizza joint’s Employee of the Month. The cops are useless. She admits the attraction of Tony’s power when she tells her sympathetic but powerless ex-husband what would happen if she tipped off Tony about the rapist: her patient would ‘squash him like a bug’.

Her feelings for Tony’s macho strength would give a strict feminist the horrors, but they are surely plausible, and therefore disturbing. She herself is disturbed enough to seek analysis in her turn. (From Peter Bogdanovich, as it happens: showing once again, as he did in his film Saint Jack, what a subtle actor he is.) In the grip of the primeval instincts that it is her job to stay detached from, Dr Melfi gets more and more screwed up: a token of the grim fact that any kind of entry into Tony’s orbit can have life-threatening results. As for Tony, his anxiety attacks abate, but he has told her little about the truths that matter most. He has told her what was done to him — violent father, scheming mother — but tells her nothing about what he has done to other people. A leitmotiv of his reluctant testimony to her is the question of where the ducks go in winter. This reminds us of Holden Caulfield, who wondered the same thing about fish. But Tony is no young intellectual in the making. Mixing bright broads with his usual diet of rudderless goomahs, he is spiritually drawn towards higher thoughts, but profundity can be undone in a moment by news that some idealistic agitator on a construction site needs straightening out with a baseball bat. Tony’s clever brain is just another muscle.

The only but abiding complexity of Tony’s character lies in the way he must bring into balance two different considerations. Outside the house, his powers are unlimited. Inside it, he can affect the behaviour of others only to a certain extent, because they know he won’t kill them. Vivid as it is, this is a real conflict, genuinely subtle and complicated, continually surprising. Tony’s wife, Carmela, and his children A.J. and Meadow, are forever cutting down to size the very man who would take a long knife to them if they were not his property. Michael Corleone can shut the door on his wife and children. Tony has to fight them in the kitchen for his unfair share of the lasagna. By comparison, Michael Corleone’s conflict between the evil of his business and his highly developed sense of right and wrong is a mere excuse for Al Pacino to press his fingers to his weary eyes while the close-up gives us an opportunity to speculate about the improbable things that have been happening to his hair.

Tony’s crew are a study in themselves, and would remain so even if Tony were to fall foul of the Rico laws and die in gaol like Al Capone. (James Gandolfini’s agent has no doubt been reminded of this during discussions about his client’s salary.) The supporting characters are developed and deployed through season after season. This is one of the areas in which the advantage of a TV serial over even the biggest movie really shows up. A movie is always short of time. A serial can keep the corners uncut. Paulie Walnuts isn’t just a swept-back hairstyle with a few threatening lines. Paulie has insecurities. His pop-eyed humiliation when a Mob boss from the big city fails to recognize him must rank high among documents of all it means for a proud hoodlum never to make it out of Newark. Big Pussy is given time for us to know him and sort of love him before he meets his fat fate on Tony’s bad-taste boat. They are all given time to be people like us, in between moments when they give terrifying proof that they are not like us at all.

It’s a crowded field to stand out from, but perhaps Christopher takes the palm. He is a homicidal junkie nut who deludes himself that he might be a writer. Those of us who share the same delusion can be thankful that we grew up in a different neighbourhood. Here is a dreadful reminder that Goebbels was a novelist: evil can have an artistic sensibility. Christopher dreams of creation while working destruction. The actor who plays him, Michael Imperioli, is clever enough in real life to have written one of the best episodes of the show. (And Steve Buscemi directed another, as did Bogdanovich: a series this vital attracts talent as well as generating it.) But Christopher as a character on screen is hopelessly impulsive: it takes an armful of heroin even to slow him down. In that case it is a bit of a wonder why Tony chose him to succeed, because the choice makes Tony look stupid, which he isn’t supposed to be. If the show has a needless implausibility, it probably lies there. These American small-screen geniuses are spinning stories bigger than the Iliad, but even Homer nods. Aaron Sorkin didn’t need to give his President a case of MS, and Chase didn’t need to make the stark mad Christopher a candidate for the succession. But Christopher as a future capo is still a lot more believable than Sonny in The Godfather. Even Brando, who seldom saw the script before bits of it appeared taped to the scenery (there is an industry legend that some of it was written in felt-tip on Robert Duvall’s shirt), must have been surprised to find himself saying that a mere pimp ‘could never have outfoxed Santino’. Your mother could have outfoxed Santino: up until that point, the movie had been busy proving almost nothing else.

As for Tony’s mother, it brings us to the women, and one of the show’s most enthralling aspects. The women are terrific: some of them in the strictest sense of the word. In The Godfather even Connie is a cipher, but The Sopranos hasn’t got a single cipher in the line-up. Like Sian Phillips’s Livia in I, Claudius, Nancy Marchand’s Livia in The Sopranos is absolute evil made absolutely believable. Nancy Marchand played the up-market proprietress in Lou Grant and afterwards got stuck with the patrician role when she made movies: she was Harrison Ford’s mother in the Sabrina remake and might have lived out her career doing similar grande dame swan-ons if the part of Tony Soprano’s mother hadn’t landed in her lap. What she did with it will be studied by serious actresses for a long time to come. In the nursing home, Livia retreated into a second childhood while still pushing buttons for the murder of her own son. Was she only pretending to be senile? Her death left a gap, but it was ably filled by Tony’s sister Janice. So off-putting that she reportedly shrank the ratings, Janice is incarnated by Aida Turturro, who shares with her brother John the capacity to freeze your blood with a single facial expression of crazed intensity. Janice’s back-story is composed of one dippy extravagance after another. She did time on an ashram. She is still drawing welfare cheques for a supposed carpal tunnel syndrome she acquired while working the steamed-milk machine in a coffee house. Now she wreaks havoc by fulfilling the kinkier sex fantasies of Tony’s subordinates, but her real sexual relationship is with Tony. She would like to fulfil it by getting him killed. An hour alone with her conversation would be enough to kill anyone. Think of your worst nightmares about females you would prefer to avoid. Think of being trapped in an elevator with Madame Mao. Janice is worse than that. Carmela, on the other hand, is Tony’s perfect wife, until she starts craving a more sensitive male touch. She gets it, or dreams of getting it, from Furio, Tony’s most trusted enforcer. Where the melting Carmela is concerned, Furio really is a man of honour. Out of respect for Tony, he fights off temptation. Carmela, marvellously played by Edie Falco, can’t bear to be without him. Furio burns alive in the fires of thwarted passion. Their star-crossed love is all the more believable in its tenderness because we know that Carmela’s existence depends on a perverse disinclination to figure out where the money comes from, and that if we ourselves owed any of it, Furio is the last man we would want to ring our doorbell.

Like her brother A.J., Tony’s daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) has been growing up right there on screen. Meadow has become a beauty, and brighter all the time. By a plausible reaction to her home circumstances, she wants to be a lawyer, bringing justice to the deprived. She might do for Tony in the end, if he isn’t done for by my favourite woman in the show, Adriana (Drea de Matteo). Adriana is the paradigm of the young knockout forced into a walking coma by the steadily dawning realization that she has nothing going for her but her looks. Being married to Christopher doesn’t help. She is just bright enough to know he is a lunatic, but not quite bright enough to see that her insatiable taste for luxury depends on him. As stoned as he is and with even less to do — she doesn’t even get to kill anyone — Adriana is an easy mark for the Feds. From her they might get the evidence they need to lock Tony away. If we find ourselves wishing that the law won’t nail him, it’s because he is us. Michael Corleone is us too, but only when we dream of omnipotence. Tony Soprano takes us back to the primeval forest; to instincts, not dreams. It’s a different kind of vacation from the everyday drag. If you want to know just how exciting life would be if there were no law, here it is.

TLS, 30 January 2004


In its later seasons, fans of The Sopranos tend to quarrel with the screen more and more often, and it is a nice question whether this means that the show is more involving than ever, or has strayed too far from its first principles. I thought Adriana’s death looked like a hasty write-out, and needlessly so, because her inevitable demise had been set up years before. Or perhaps that was the point: they deliberately made the fatally determined look arbitrary. But shouldn’t Steve Buscemi have given us a few more hints of lethal dementia before he finally blew his lid? And we can understand why Tony should find reasons for not facing the necessity of killing his cousin, but what about his continuing failure to realize that Christopher is unemployable even as a homicidal maniac? In TV comedy they call it jumping the shark: the tendency of a long-running show’s writing team to lose faith in the established narrative precepts, and take refuge in the startling. (The term was first used after the Fonz went water-skiing, but let’s not get lost in detail.) We can put up with it if Tony is in trouble. We can even understand if Tony is desperate. But if he actually starts losing his taste for power, he is too like us, and we might as well join him in watching history-channel programmes about Rommel. Nevertheless, the achievement remains. The crew that invented The Sopranos won through to the big prize: low-life high art, cordon bleu fast food. People argue about the show the same way that people must once have argued when walking home through the mud after seeing Titus Andronicus. Why couldn’t the broad have picked up a knife? She didn’t have any hands, for Christ’s sake.