Monday, June 18, 2007

Tony Soprano's Blackout

Friends of ours: Soprano Crime Family

What rough beast is David Chase riding?

He seems to have understood the mood of his nation better than anyone since Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola forecast the fate of the American empire in The Godfather. And he has world leaders mouthing his dialogue, day and night. Here is Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, in The New York Times yesterday: “There are two mentalities in this region,” he said. “Conspiracy and mistrust.”

Baghdada-bing.

The rest of the world was muttering about Tony Soprano’s final blackout, but Mr. Maliki proved once more that David Chase has been battling for something worth fighting for. What do I mean, battled?

Try David Chase himself, as interviewed cathartically and perceptively by the hardest-working man in Sopranos land, Alan Sepinwall, the TV critic for Tony Soprano’s end-of-the-driveway hometown paper, The Star-Ledger: “No one was trying to be audacious, honest to God,” Mr. Chase said. “We did what we thought we had to do.”

He had completed his story, but he was giving us a gift in the last scene: He was telling us more. What happened in the four last minutes was plenty of information, and not of the conspiracy-theory type: We got to see the world as Tony does, suffused with anxiety and some amusement and apprehension. It took David Chase eight years to get Tony in and out of therapy, and he was improved about as much as a patient can be improved, maybe 2 to 5 percent.

“It felt like ginger ale in my skull,” he told Dr. Melfi in the first episode. The Sopranos ended up as it began—not with a bang, but an anxiety attack.

Only this time it was ours. This time we blacked out.

“I was shocked by the ending,” said Peter Bogdanovich, the movie director and film historian who played Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, Tony’s therapist’s therapist. Mr. Bogdanovich said he had shot another scene that didn’t make the final episode, in which he was comforting an exhausted, bereaved Dr. Melfi.

“It ends at that moment because that’s his life,” said Mr. Bogdanovich. “He’s anxious about getting blown away, the F.B.I. is going to indict him, Syl is going to die, everything is insecure and tense. It kept going, and the insert shots kept making you feel it was the last thing he was going to do. Endings, endings, endings. The little things in life are the last thing you are going to do. In fact, that’s his life.

“He didn’t give you what you expected—instead of a Hollywood ending,” Mr. Bogdanovich said, and so the viewer was left with “any number of imaginings, so you ask, ‘What the fuck happened?’”

“David has been consistent by doing everything with a vengeance he was not allowed to do on network television, so he gave you a very ambiguous ending,” he continued. “Which is not what the American audience is used to.”

The entire business history of American television has been a conspiracy toward two ends:

a) the resolved ending, generally happy;

b) destroying ambiguity.

Life and art weren’t supposed to jibe when it came to commercial entertainment. It’s not that David Chase was the first guy to come up with ambiguity and moral relativism on TV, but he may have done it with the most vengeance of any television writer since Rod Serling.

You may have noticed that the guys in the safe house where Tony was hiding were watching an episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s a 1963 episode called “The Bard,” and it was written by Rod Serling, the patron saint of television auteurs. In it, a failed playwright summons William Shakespeare from the dead to write his TV pilot for him. Shakespeare, needless to say, sells it, then is compromised and crushed. On Mr. Chase’s soundtrack, you could hear the agent lecture the writer: “The television industry today … is preoccupied with talent, looking for quality … the television writer is a major commodity.” Television writer … commodity. It is the voice of the network slaughterer.

Now the tabloid writers are mad at him. They wanted the show to splatter. As John Candy and Joe Flaherty used to say on SCTV, they wanted it to blow up real good. Mr. Chase inspired the ire of yahoo nation by bagging and dumping what he wanted to avoid: The dark bedtime-story end of The Sopranos was in great demand, and he provided it—splattt!—under the wheels of the Phil Leotardo’s Ford Expedition.

But he also provided the first really grown-up summation in the history of American television: The subjective shot of Tony experiencing the American influx of diners at Holsten’s restaurant was news, as was his inglorious humanity. The final shot of Tony before the black, if freeze-framed, is a human image more photojournalistic than dramatic. If you have that particular device, take a look at Tony, the woolly mammoth in freeze-frame before the ice age, another human in anxious abatement in the Age of Ambiguity.

“It is the most subversive television series ever because it makes you like the monster,” said Mr. Bogdanovich, who was still mulling the last scene. “You don’t know what you’re waiting for. It’s the perfect use of suspense. You are trapped, not wanting anything to happen, but wanting something to happen. It’s very vicious. You’re left with any number of imaginings. What the fuck happened? Which shows you’re bloodthirsty also.”

We saw the two things that were preoccupying Tony: the one unambivalent relationship of his life, the adoring Meadow, his only true believer—she decided to become a lawyer when she saw her daddy taken away in cuffs!—and the assassins around him.

The Chase Gang gave us all the information we needed in the hour: indictments, threats, business, A.J., Carmela, Janice, it was all wrapped up. I was always certain that someone was going to clue Carmela in on the murder of Ade, but it didn’t happen. When Carmela entered Holsten’s, she entered in long shot, and her friendly, reassuring smile to Tony was casual and loving, but quick. A.J. entered with what looked like a potential assassin, his effective twin. But it was Meadow who received the Hitchcockian treatment of threat: Would she be able to park? Was she about to be locked in by assassins? Would she make it across Broad Street, on which she seemed to be in as much jeopardy as was Janet Leigh in Psycho?

“Anybody who wants to watch it,” Mr. Chase told Mr. Sepinwall in The Star-Ledger, “it’s all there.”

The Sopranos could have made it in the Clinton years, but it could only have become the deeply troubling comedy it was in the Bush era. Not because of the White House so much, but because of the viewer’s complicity in the dirty brew of power that flowed from this White House. Not because of the war, but because of the public sense of responsibility for this war.

“Oh,” says Carmela when she’s trying to talk A.J. out of joining the army, “you want to get your legs blown off?”

“Always with the dramatics,” he says. But not really.

Earlier, at Bobby Bacala’s funeral, A.J., who truly did seem to relax and inhabit his own body once more after his yellow S.U.V. exploded, had a peroration for the commercial landscape the show inhabited: “America,” he said, “is still where people come to make it. It’s a beautiful idea. And then what do they get? Bling and come-ons for shit they don’t need and can’t afford?” Paulie mocked him and descended into a Norm Crosby routine.

But David Chase fought for and won a strange moment of pure insight into the American process. It was romantic, bleary, filthy, piercing. It was as much a comedy of American sobering up after 9/11 as Dallas was a comedy of America getting drunk on the Reagan years. But Mr. Chase fought a battle and won: He created a last shot on television that was one of the best close-ups in movie history, the snapshot of Tony taking in American ambiguity: the Boy Scouts, the killers, the gangstas and the one person toward whom he had little ambiguity. Like the final image of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, he captured all the intimate uncertainty of his age, in a room that could have been heaven or hell, but with good onion rings.

It was, so far, the best last episode in TV history—better than The Mary Tyler Moore Show or All in the Family or Seinfeld, despite all the screaming about it from plotmongers who wouldn’t have been happy with anything short of the conflagration from the end of Scarface or Tony whacking Dr. Elliot Kupferberg before he entered witness protection. Paradox, moral relativism, internality. All the stuff that network television has battled and ejected in the past 60 years—except in a very few instances—is the essence that David Chase brought to his 86 hours. David Chase’s enduring triumph in American television is that he embraced ambiguity and looked for poetry in the Bush administration.

Paulie Walnuts thought he had seen the Virgin Mary, and Tony mocked him; but in fact, Tony had seen the other side of mortality as well, and almost was cajoled by Cousin Tony—a spectral Steve Buscemi—into entering that big, well-lit house in his coma dream, after Junior shot him. But he didn’t, he re-entered the living and went on. That was, he knew somewhere, his task, and it’s why the cozy, dark ordinariness of Holsten’s restaurant in Bloomfield, N.J., was a terrifying but immensely moving way station.

Orson Welles once said that “Every story essentially has an unhappy ending. If you want a happy ending it all depends on where you stop telling it.” David Chase’s triumph was that he had the balls to stop telling it right h

Thanks to Peter W. Kaplan

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