Tuesday, November 13, 2007

“Let me tell ya something. Nowadays everybody’s gotta go to shrinks and counsellors, and go on Sally Jessie Raphael and talk about their problems. Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type? That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings, he just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was that once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings, they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then its dysfunction this and dysfunction that and dysfunction va fangoo!”

Christmas seems to have come early this year, thanks to the generosity of Mr Matthew Sweney I am now in possession of the entire Sopranos set on DVD. Plenty of praise has been heaped on this already almost legendary drama, and rightly so. It’s been a very long time since I watched the first series, and so now, going back to it, it’s almost like losing my virginity all over again. Frankly I’m in awe.

The intro in itself is a masterpiece, the music menacing and funky, a perfect complement to the mixture of grime and glitz. The drive along the New Jersey turnpike reveals gritty, industrial landscapes, the blue collar world which provides the wiseguys with their bread and butter, a world they themselves inhabit for a great deal of the time, and where those they exploit remain. It’s only in the very last section of the drive that the car, with Tony Soprano’s hairy, cigar-clenching fist on the wheel, speeds into the suburbs, ending at his mansion, where he jerks to a halt and slams the car door ominously, “I’ve had a shit day” written all over his face, the music stopping abruptly as if cut short by some act of casual violence.

The muck-and-brass theme is not a new one, in fact it features to a greater or lesser extent in any gangster-related TV or cinema. In the wrong hands it could be, and indeed has frequently been tacky, or preachy – either mythologizing mobsters as soldiers who’ve worked their way up from the gutter, or lecturing to us like pompous schoolteachers that when you scratch the surface they’re all just pathetic, cowardly bullies, and the reality of gangster life is far from attractive. The same applies to other issues it addresses, those of class and race, mental health and spiritual decay in American society etc. But the Sopranos is far more subtle, and presumably also more honest, about the way all this is presented. Even the confrontation of psychology with the classic Italian matriarchal family is treated sensitively, as well as with a fair dose of humour. The Sopranos doesn’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, even if a lot of the people in it probably would. So for example, Tony Soprano is shown playing golf with the Mafioso elite against a backdrop of smoke-belching chimneys and motorways. His main income is literally from garbage, but he’s loaded and sharply dressed. No comment, no hectoring, both worlds coexist and are dependent on one another. It may not be Goodfellas, but it acknowledges that there is also glamour as well as sleaze – the money, the power, the suits, the cars, the women…

The character of Tony Soprano is similarly presented without any frills or moralising, but with fantastic attention to detail. He is shown in all his warts-and-all glory, and like life it’s far from black and white. This restraint and frankness is crucial, James Gandolfini masterfully inarticulate in his role, as remarkable for what he doesn’t or can’t say as for what he does. So he’s a smart, wisecracking, affable don who is respected, feared and also loved by many of those who surround him. Someone who seems to offer the possibility of protection, who’s even fun to be around, for a while at least. He’s also childish, simpleminded, fumbling, out of his depth, particularly when confronted by his psychiatrist, as well as by the other dominant female figures in his life. He’s driven to despair by the lack of values he sees around him, and is also a self-centred, lying thug who might turn around and kill you at any moment. In his own words he’s a sad clown. The fact that he lacks the intelligence or self-awareness to understand his own contradictions makes him all the more compelling. It’s probably impossible to have good drama with a complete absence of sympathetic characters – here it’s clearly no problem, since there are a number of them, including of course big Tony himself. Again, the fact that he does end up getting us more or less on his side doesn’t seem to be irresponsible or dishonest, playing down his negative attributes. It’s a fact of life that for whatever reason we sometimes end up liking people we don’t entirely approve of.

I won’t go into further detail on the quality of the writing and the acting, anyone who’s seen it knows it’s brilliant. Does it make me want to be in the mafia? Weeeell ya know, it does kinda make me wanna start talking like a wiseguy, capische? But it also makes me shit myself way too much to actually attempt it. Goodfellas with a conscience? Godlike.


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