Monday, May 14, 2007

The Passion of Christopher (Sopranos Spoiler)

If you haven't seen last night's episode of The Sopranos, "Kennedy and Heidi" (May 13, 2007), and haven't heard about it, and don't want to spoil the surprise, then stop reading now, dear reader.

Most viewers, I believe, enjoy The Sopranos for its realism, for its ability to convey a sense that this is what life in the mob must really be like, and for its ability to get us to relate to the bits and pieces of everyday life they show as being true to our own life experience, apart from the criminal activity, of course. We view the program mostly through a mimetic framework, not a mythic one. Even when an occasional episode moves into the world of dreams and archetypes, we view them through the larger psychoanalytic frame set up by the therapy subplots, and again relate to the fantastic, bizarre, or unusual imagery as the work of an overactive unconscious overdosing on repression, rationalization, narcissism, and projection.

But there is a touch of the mythic floating around the fringes of the series, more easily spotted in the early episodes that featured Tony's mother. Livia Soprano embodied the great mother archetype in its negative sense, the monstrous feminine force that devours its mate and its offspring. There was a marvelous energy that she brought to the series, and the death of Nancy Marchand, the actress who portrayed Livia, while not unexpected, removed an entire dimension from the program.

In one sense, you might say that the show is about the banality of the evil and the illegal (which almost everyone takes part in to a greater or lesser extent). Whatever the final fate of Tony Soprano may be, I don't see him going out in a blaze of glory, like Jimmy Cagney in the 1949 film White Heat, shouting in defiance: Made it, Ma! Top of the world! Or like Tony Montana in the 1983 remake of Scarface. The end of his world won't be mythic on that grand scale, he won't go out with a bang, but with a whimper. Which is how Christoper's world came to an end.

You might say it was pathetic, ironic, the final indignity, for Christopher to be critically injured in an automobile accident, and after admitting he was using cocaine, suffocated by Tony. But this was simply the last in a series of painful episodes for the character, who has suffered more abuse, physical and emotional, than any other member of Tony's crew. His was a slow march towards death, as he was repeatedly wounded, ridiculed, and subject to temptations over six seasons. He was a scapegoat, made to carry the sins of his criminal society, ritually sacrificed to achieve a form of purification for them.

Christopher was the "son" of the family, as Tony often admitted, Tony himself being the godfather figure, or god-the-father. So he sends Christopher to the slaughter, and in the aftermath is himself redeemed and rejuvenated. As for the Holy Spirit, that's this thing of ours, the mob itself as the church of crime, with its creed of omerta, more and more often violated, but still acknowledged and respected. Like the Roman Catholic Church, their organization is in decline, but still powerful, still magnetic. As for Mother Mary, we have Carmela, who is Christopher's blood relation and a mother figure in general within the program, not a virgin but ignorant if not innocent of the specific criminal activity that Tony, Christopher, and the rest are involved in.

This is not to imply that Christopher is at the center of the show, he's not, and we still have a few more episodes to go. But Christopher's fate may be a sign of what's coming down the pike for Tony, given that the two are so closely identified with one another. Christopher's passion either presages Tony's, or like a scapegoat he has taken Tony's place on the sacrificial alter. After all, it was Tony who was the archetypal son when the series started, with Livia as the great and terrible Virgin Mother, and Uncle Junior as the surrogate father. If this seems farfetched, consider the song that David Chase chose for the opening credits, and therefore as the theme song of the series, "Woke up This Morning [Chosen One Mix]," a song that mixes violence with messianic imagery. Tony was the Chosen One, and now that Christopher is an unmade man, Tony is the Chosen One again.

Christopher's world ends with a whimper, but also reflects the reality of the No(rth Jersey) Sense of Place. New Jersey's car culture naturally results in an extraordinarily high fatality rate from automobile accidents. Consider the line from Bruce Springsteen's anthem, "Born to Run":

At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines

It's a romantic vision, nonetheless:
I wanna die with you Wendy on the streets tonight
In an everlasting kiss
And a vision of heroic tragedy:
The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive

Christopher, the broken hero, the scapegoat hero.

And there's more Jerseyana to report. In an article in today's North Jersey Record entitled How a Belleville Funeral Home Became a Fixture on the 'Sopranos' staff writer Virginia Rohan reports:

One July day in 2000, James J. Cozzarelli Jr. got an out-of-the-blue call from an assistant location manager for "The Sopranos," who'd happened to drive by Irvine-Cozzarelli Memorial Home on a crucial scouting mission -- to find the right North Jersey spot for matriarch Livia Soprano's wake.

Jason Minter told Cozzarelli how much he liked the classic Georgian-style facade of his Belleville funeral home -- which convinced the funeral director that this was not a prank call -- and asked if he could look inside. He did and he liked the "expensive old world look," Cozzarelli recalls.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

"I became the established Soprano funeral home," says Cozzarelli, whose business' name, as well as his own, is used in the show.

Ever since that second episode of the third season, when Livia suddenly died, after actress Nancy Marchand succumbed to cancer, Cozzarelli's has been the final resting place for the Soprano family -- at least the members in good standing who are not unceremoniously buried at sea, in landfills or other dump sites.

And the colorful Cozzarelli has become a celebrity. Although an elder actor (Ralph Lucarelli) played him for the first few episodes, the real man has since appeared as the show's funeral director.

Here too, as with other locations in New Jersey, a kind of aura is created, and an element of chic established:

People from around the country write to ask for autographed business cards. His place is a regular stop on the popular Sopranos location bus tour, and Cozzarelli often finds folks posing outside under the canopy by the front door.

"We've had people call here wanting to rent the place for baby showers, bridal showers, receptions," Cozzarelli says. "And people are actually calling now and bidding on the place. To buy it."

What do they want to do with it?

"It's run the gamut from these boutique six-star hotels, which are a new trend now, to a private business-person's club, banks, all kinds of stuff. Someone even wanted to do a gambling casino, and I started laughing. I said, 'That's illegal in Belleville.' "

His magic number is $3.2 million. "When you hit that, you can have everything, and I walk away -- all the furniture, the sets, everything," Cozzarelli. says. And then there's the inevitable question he gets during real consultations with the bereaved -- who ask if this is "the funeral home."

"I'll say yes, and they'll say, 'Which room was Mrs. Soprano in?' and I'll say, well, the Georgian reception chapel.' ... 'Would you put my mother in there also?'

The article goes on to describe the locations and situations:

All but one of Cozzarelli's "Sopranos" funerals were held in the Georgian reception chapel. This is where Uncle Junior broke down sobbing, and Frankie Valli huddled with Tony Soprano and Paulie Walnuts talking business. (The viewing room across the hall, done in Roman-Imperial style, was used as the room where Tony and his sisters picked out a coffin for their mother and even once, as a "big mob conference" room.)

Cozzarelli has lost count of how many characters have been laid out there -- for awhile, they were "knocking them off like flies," he says -- but distinctly remembers the wake of Jackie Aprile Jr., played by Jason Cerbone.

"Poor thing. He said, 'Please, Mr. Cozzarelli,' I don't want to get in [the casket]. I said, now, I don't blame you, but you realize by contract that you have to., with great reluctance, and sweat pouring off him, he got into the casket."

In the lobby, he points out the Renaissance-style painting of one woman leaning over another's shoulder with finger extended, as if to say, " 'You better watch out,' " Cozzarelli notes. "Sopranos" directors have taken care to show it in the background, he said.

And the piece concludes with:

The show even prints up prayer cards, Mass cards, and guest books, and Cozzarelli, who worked at Manhattan's famed Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel before opening his own business, gets a credit as technical adviser, and another for being "designer of the funeral home set."

When Cozzarelli bought the brick building on Belleville's Washington Avenue in 1972, it housed what he calls a "forgotten funeral home." He totally restored all the rooms -- including the upstairs, where Cozzarelli lives. One artisan came from Italy and spent almost 10 years working on the woodwork.

"He actually carried the title of a don. The Mafia has bastardized the term but 'don; actually means someone that's achieved perfection in their field," says Cozzarelli, who also put two restoration artists from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on his payroll for many years.

Cozzarelli, who now has his own design business, calls his upstairs home the "secret rooms." Though viewers never got to see them, because "Sopranos" creator David Chase was afraid of damaging the priceless, palatial-style finishes and furnishings (including several optically pure crystal chandeliers that are so sensitive one has to don surgical gloves to touch them), Chase and his cast loved to hang out up there during breaks.

"Except Paulie," Cozzarelli says of actor Tony Sirico. "He never came up. Deathly afraid."

Death is a major theme of The Sopranos, it was Livia's preoccupation, and Tony seems to have inherited it as well. Fear of death, denial of death, we now must come to terms with the death of a favorite character as a prelude to the death of the series itself. Of course, in the Roman Catholic religion embraced by the two Soprano families, death is not the end.

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