Friday, August 26, 2016

You Probably Don't Even Hear It When It Happens: The Sopranos & The Death of the Gangster Hero

“The way the thing builds with the music and everything. To me, it gets me and makes me want to cry,” creator David Chase said recently of the controversial scene which concluded HBO's The Sopranos after six seasons in 2007. That moment, which begins in a New Jersey diner with the pop horror of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”playing on the jukebox and ends with an abrupt cut to black, has been debated for years and continues to be. People still argue about whether mob boss Tony Soprano was whacked just before he could sink his teeth into some onion rings, or whether the quick shift to dark simply left his fate to our imagination. Whatever audiences chose to believe, David Chase's decision wasn't an arbitrary one. Which is partly why his emotional reaction to its conclusion is not as simple as waving goodbye to a successful franchise. “It’s not because, ‘Oh, there goes the show. There goes part of my life.’ It has nothing to do with that. It’s what’s on the screen.” What's on the screen is an assured understanding that viewers had been inside mob boss Tony Soprano's head for the full duration, just as audiences had once been in the heads of Edward G. Robinson's Little Caesar, Cagney's Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, Muni and Pacino's Scarface and Brando's Godfather. But there's a significant difference this time around. Much had changed in both the gangster genre and our relationship to it.

The famous gangsters of the past – like Robinson's, Cagney's, Muni's, and even Bogart's – emerged during Prohibition when audiences looked vicariously to the gangster for a taste of freedom. To moviegoers, the gangster was his own man while the rest of us lived under laws that attempted to define our morality. If the mobster needed money, he robbed a bank. If he needed a drink (while the rest of us were prohibited), he opened a speakeasy. If he wanted to attend that speakeasy in style, he'd use the money from the bank robbery to buy spiffy duds and became the cock of the walk. Often the gangster was the immigrant outsider who came to America to find freedom, and then when denied access to America's institutions, embraced the frontier image of the gunslinger to create his own country to live in. "In ways that we don't easily or willingly define, the gangster speaks for us, expressing that part of the American psyche which rejects the qualities and demands of modern life, which rejects 'Americanism' itself," wrote critic Robert Warshow in The Nation in 1948, just as that popular first wave of the gangster genre was coming to an end. And with the conclusion of a brutal World War, people also began craving some semblance of calm. Yet Warshow was right about why we were so drawn to the transgressions of criminal anti-heroes.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and The Godfather in 1972, however, changed the rebellious course of the gangster hero. In Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn was making a period piece about real American gangsters who lived during Prohibition and cut a path across the country robbing banks. While possessing an awareness of our early fascination with the gangster films of that period, Penn confronted us in his picture with the source of that fascination. In one bold stroke, and one that quoted from a famous scene in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, he had Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) in a panic shoot a bank manager full in the face. Not only did we get to see the banker's face explode in blood (which effectively killed off the Hays Code's power of censorship over Hollywood movies), we also faced our complicity in the violence that the gangster meted out. From that unnerving scene in front of the bank to the film's convulsive conclusion, where Bonnie and Clyde in slow motion die in a hail of bullets, we were stained with their blood and the violence of their acts. When the gangsters of the Thirties went down in a hail of bullets by the end, it was an ending designed as a civics lesson to not go thou and do likewise. But Penn, by reframing the meaning of that final gunfire, stripped the gangster film of any false piety.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

The Godfather went even a step further during the Nixon era. The country was craving law and order as the chaotic violence of the Sixties (which Bonnie and Clyde also mirrored) created a backlash in the Seventies towards security. With that in mind, director Francis Coppola and novelist Mario Puzo fashioned a tale where the story became the opposite of Warshow's early view of the gangster. In The Godfather, not only did the mob now embrace "Americanism," they became a shadow version of it. In a decade where political corruption undermined those same American institutions that earlier excluded immigrants – Watergate happened just a couple of years after The Godfather was released –  the mobsters in this Forties and Fifties period picture set goals through their illegitimate businesses to become senators and Presidents. Furthermore, the lone gangster was now gone and replaced by those who conformed to the company line – the Family. Those who didn't were eliminated because "it wasn't good for business." The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II brought a Shakespearean arc to the genre. They both laid to rest the heroism of the urban gunslinger to unveil instead a tragic modern portrait of the assimilated American gangster in a zealous quest for political power, Although there were many gangster films after the first two Godfather films (including a third Godfather which was ill-conceived), no one had taken the genesis of its appeal much farther until David Chase conceived The Sopranos.

The Godfather (1972)

For one thing, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) isn't a sleek hood like the criminal icons of the past. Portly and with a sagging belly that suggests the gluttony of passivity, Tony Soprano is a New Jersey mob boss living in a rich suburb with the spoils of the criminal enterprise he inherited from his father. But rather than being a pistol of dominance, Tony is neurotic and suffering from black-out spells that require him to see a shrink (Lorraine Bracco). He's also under the dominant heel of his mother (Nancy Marchand) and drawing the ire of his jealous uncle (Dominic Chianese) who covets the power Tony possesses. But, despite his uncle's envy, Tony sees himself at the tail end of gangster glory. He lives in a time where being a gangster is about survival in an age of recession, drugs and underworld rats. His crew can quote all the famous scenes from all the key gangster pictures, but they can never live up to the characters they idolize. What Chase does that is so clever is that he provides Tony Soprano with a self-loathing that is equal to his awareness of how powerful he is. Rather than being a reckless figure simply hungry for power, Tony is smart and calculating – yet ultimately a psychopath who can strike viciously when required. In some ways, Tony suggests what Brando's Terry Malloy might have been like if he hadn't squealed on the mob and followed his brother's advice and stayed in Johnny Friendly's crew. Tony Soprano is as torn between his instincts and his calculations as Michael Corleone was in The Godfather, and it shrewdly gets the audience on his side hoping for a moment of redemption. But no matter how often Gandolfini's Godfather reels in our hopes, he dashes them cruelly with an act of violence so hideous, we feel guilty for having given him the benefit of the doubt.

The question of violence is never trivialized on The Sopranos. Of course, we get deaths that are familiar to the genre – garroting and shooting – but there are also gruesome murders we are forced to imagine like the killing of Christopher's girlfriend who ratted to the FBI. David Chase also takes us inside the psychological world of the gangster who now lives in the age of depression, anxiety and psychotherapy. So the homoerotic aspects in the male bonding of gangsters now gets examined (as are mobsters who are in the closet), the contrasting between the goomars and the Madonna wives also gets tied to a fear of matriarchy that is both fascinating and comical, and the Catholic concept of sin is just as prevalent as it was in both The Godfather and Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. You could say that The Sopranos is unthinkable without Scorsese's later Goodfellas, but that's only superficially true. While Goodfellas was directed with brio and confidence, it lacked a main character who could anchor the story. Goodfellas was terrific on the periphery, but the rat Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) was more an observer than a protagonist. With Tony Soprano, David Chase has provided a stronger dramatic figure than Goodfellas did. Like Scorsese, though, Chase also shares an intoxication for popular culture and with the show's music he takes his cue from Mean Streets, where it served to be an operatic jukebox, rather than from Goodfellas where the music (at times) was about as random as the radio playing in a nearby car.

The Sopranos

The Sopranos always played to our intelligence and our stored knowledge of the gangster genre, but it also altered our expectations of what it might deliver. And that's where the series ending comes in. Tony had been dodging death all along to the extent that many viewers thought it was inevitable. But in the concluding episode, David Chase came up with a finale that was every bit as controversial as Arthur Penn's in Bonnie and Clyde. After settling all Family business, Tony gathers with his real family for dinner. As he arrives at the diner's front door, he spots himself sitting in his seat just as Keir Dullea once saw himself lying in bed awaiting death at the conclusion of Stanley Kubrick's 2001.While watching for the family's arrival, and listening to Journey on the jukebox, he spots different people entering the joint. All of them come to suggest different characters we met before earlier in the series, and some of whom were hired to kill Tony Soprano. One enters the bathroom (as Michael Corleone did to fetch his gun to kill his father's enemies in The Godfather), but we don't get to see him exit. During the conversation with his wife and kids, however, he looks up towards the bathroom exit in a flash and the screen goes to black. When I first saw this, I was shocked and confused. Later that evening, though, I decided to write it off as a modernist ending and forgot about it. But when I watched the whole series again on Blu-ray, binge watching in a few weeks as opposed to a number of years, I realized that David Chase had done something as daring as Orson Welles had in his famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

Orson Welles directing War of the Worlds (1938).

In War of the Worlds, we are hearing a simulated radio show that is being interrupted by news bulletins about strange occurrences in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Before long, we are in Grover's Mill and listening to a live broadcast of the landing of a spaceship from Mars where the creatures suddenly strike and kill everyone in the vicinity including the reporter. But rather than hear these horrible deaths over the radio, it goes to silence for a number of seconds. That's exactly how Tony's brother-in-law, Bobby, talks about death while out on a boat to Tony in the final season: You probably don't even hear it when it happens. Welles was aware in War of the Worlds that silence on the radio was deafening. It created a huge disconnect with listeners who then began to fear that the invasion was not a radio drama, but the real deal. Death was now a fact and not fiction. Something similar happens in another part of New Jersey during the conclusion of The Sopranos. Radio audiences had quickly panicked and reacted angrily to Welles's radio silence just as television viewers would storm on – and continue to – over The Sopranos going to black. Writer Matthew Weiner, who has since gone on to create Mad Men, told Vanity Fair in 2012 that he loved the conclusion. "For me, I just loved that there was such an interactive quality to it," he recalled. "But the way the public behaved, it was like somebody took the bottle away from a baby. Outrage and shock." While that shock and outrage fueled the debate, Michael Imperioli (who played Tony's hoodlum nephew, Christopher Moltisanti) totally accepted Tony's death. "I think he’s dead, is what I think," he said in the same issue of Vanity Fair. "David was trying to put us in the place of the last things you see before you die. You remember some little details and something catches your eye and that’s it. You don’t know the aftermath because you’re gone." The actor who played Tony Soprano is now really gone, but even he weighed in on the debate before he went to spirit. "When I first saw the ending, I said, 'What the fuck?' I mean, after all I went through, all this death, and then it’s over like that? But after I had a day to sleep, I just sat there and said, 'That’s perfect.'

And it is perfect. Where the ending for Tony Sopranos's antecedents in the gangster genre was often violent and cathartic, Chase demonstrated with a shrewd genius that times had now changed. He deprived us of the shock and satisfaction of watching him get it because it wouldn't have been true to why we had been watching for six seasons. There could be no release from the implications of our empathy with this mob boss. (In the penultimate episode, Tony's shrink gets her release. She closes the door on him and shuts him out of her life thereby reversing what Michael Corleone's henchmen did to his wife, Kay, at the end of The Godfather. But as one friend of mine was quick to remind me, she gets to turn away from Tony, but David Chase knew that viewers couldn't and wouldn't. We'd continue to watch.) Like Welles in War of the Worlds, Chase understands the medium and our compulsive interest in serial drama. We have voluntarily been inside Tony's head for six seasons, and in the end, we face the darkness with him. The lights go out for everybody.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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