Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Sopranos Style and Substance

Several years ago, I was one of two speakers featured in a symposium about The Sopranos held at Montclair State University, which is not too far from where Tony Soprano lives (allegedly). The symposium was co-sponsored by their Department of Justice Studies (amusingly enough), and by their Coccia Institute for the Italian Experience--not being Italian myself, I can only say that I understand the agita that the series has caused many Italian-Americans (I felt the same way about Rob Morrow's whiny Dr. Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure, for example, and Grant Shaud's Miles Silverberg on Murphy Brown), but I still consider the program to be an artistic achievement.

The other speaker had written about The Sopranos and more generally about the gangster genre in relation to Italian-American stereotypes. I was invited on the strength of the book chapter that I contributed to This Thing Of Ours: Investigating The Sopranos (a terrific anthology edited by David Lavery). My chapter, "No(rth Jersey) Sense of Place: The Cultural Geography (and Media Ecology) of The Sopranos" obviously hit close to home for the folks at Montclair State--I have also given a talk on the subject at a conference of the New Jersey Communication Association, and at a panel that my friend and colleague, Paul Levinson, set up for us at Fordham University a couple of years ago, which also included a member of The Sopranos production team. Anyway, I posted a copy of that book chapter on the second entry on this blog, The Sopranos (I still didn't have down the finer points about formatting posts at that point, but all the text is there). Since then, I've posted a couple of new entries, Return of The Sopranos: A Border Dispute, and Scenic Routes on The Sopranos.

So, this is my third follow-up commentary on David Chase's HBO series, and I am taken back to that Montclair State symposium because a comment that a professor of Italian made there comes to mind (I just received a copy of a new anthology about memory published in Rome, for which I helped to edit the section on Media with Elena Lamberti of the University of Bologna, and contributed an original essay on "Time, Memory and Media Ecology" which they translated, since I don't actually know any more Italian that I can read off of a menu at one of the excellent establishments in the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx (near Fordham University), the Little Italy that is not the tourist trap of downtown Manhattan and has the best Italian food in New York City bar none, so maybe this also has something to do with me remembering the symposium all of a sudden--but I digress).

This professor was from Italy, and had that air of European elitism that often doesn't mix well with American populism, and basically he expressed his overall disdain for The Sopranos, wondering why anyone really cared about the series in the first place, saying that it has no artistic merit, in contrast, say, to a Fellini film. This is a classic put down, labeling the subject in question as low culture in contrast to high culture. And it may be the case that David Chase is not Federico Fellini, but then again Fellini was not always Fellini, and certainly did not start out as the revered filmmaker that he came to be. And Fellini films, I am certain, were said to have no artistic merit in contrast to Dante or da Vinci (I know it should be Leonardo, but I like the alliteration).

But I find questions of comparative artistic merit a bit childish, which is not to rule out aesthetic judgment altogether. But a fundamental rule of media ecology as applied to aesthetics is that each medium has its own bias, and therefore its own aesthetics. It makes no sense to say that film is a superior artistic medium than television, or that books are superior aesthetically to film. The epic poetry of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, being essentially oral compositions, should not be placed in the same literary category as written epics such as Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses, as similar in content and theme as they may seem to be. This is a point made by Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Carpenter, and Susanne K. Langer for that matter.

The Sopranos, therefore, stands as a singular artistic achievement in the medium of television. David Chase has said that he approaches each episode of the program as if it were a film in its own right, and it is true that the individual episodes hold up in terms of overall quality, and internal integrity. If you have never seen the series before, and watched an episode at random, you would probably recognize the artistic merit, even if you didn't quite follow everything that was going on (which is not to say that everyone will fall in love with the show, coming into it cold and in medias res, but anyone who has an appreciation for and understanding of the aesthetics of television will recognize what Chase has accomplished, even if he or she does not appreciate the topic or themes).

Each episode is not created equally, however. For example, Sunday before last gave us "Chasing It" (Episode 81), which was good but not great. This past Sunday's "Walk Like a Man" (Episode 82) was outstanding. Stories are interwoven about Tony Soprano and his son, who is severely depressed after his girlfriend broke up with him in response to his marriage proposal, and Christopher, once Tony's right hand man, now keeping his distance in order to stay drug and drink free, in conflict with another of Tony's lieutenant's, Paulie. The story lines are distinct, but parallel themes emerge about dealing with depression, about therapy (AA and psychoanalysis), drugs (both in the sense of getting drunk or high, and as medication), parenting and the question of whether genes are destiny (inheriting a propensity for alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and ultimately, violence), the need to be accepted by one's friends and peers and the power that the peer group has over who we are and how we act, and in the end, the shocking turn to violence as the means to resolve problems, manage emotions, and as a high in and of itself.

If this were the first episode of the series that you had ever seen, I believe that you could appreciate all that I have laid out. But in television, unlike film, the art form is not the single narrative, but the series as a whole. There is a growth and learning effect from watching episode after episode, even if there is no narrative progression over the years, as was the case for classic situation comedies. For even the best series, the first few episodes are rarely stellar, and it takes a while for them to hit their stride (certainly, the pilot of The Sopranos, while compelling, does not hint at what's to come, and it's not until the fifth episode, "College," that the program hits the high mark). Even an intentionally stereotypical and unsympathetic character like Archie Bunker becomes more fleshed out, more complex, more human over time. The effect is cumulative. In literary theory terms, it's intertextual to an extreme. What makes "Walk Like a Man" work are all the earlier episodes that showed friction between Paulie and Christopher, the episodes that took us through Christopher's addictions, withdrawals, and relapses, the episodes about his fiancée Adriana and her unhappy demise, and the long and difficult relationship between Christopher and Tony, all of which is unconsciously symbolized as dream-work in the movie Christopher produces in the second episode of the season, "Stage Five" (Episode 79).

The Sopranos is in one sense cinematic, in another episodic. The two qualities are quite different, almost opposites of one another, but David Chase has managed to find a balance between the two, and it is that combination that helps to explain his artistic achievement. The show is a serial, in the sense that the episodes have an order, and that plot lines unfold over the course of the season. But it is not a serial in the classic sense, there are no cliffhangers asking us to tune in next time, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, and a story line left hanging in one episode may not be taken up again until a few episodes later. The series could also be considered a soap opera, there's a dinner theater parody that plays in the area called The Soapranos, but soaps also rely on the cliffhangers that are absent in The Sopranos (no who shot JR? in this series), and soaps have a multitude of unrelated plot threads meandering over the weeks, while David Chase maintains a thematic unity and a sense of narrative closure from episode to episode.

I come back to balance as the fundamental aesthetic that distinguishes The Sopranos, not in the absolute sense of fearsome symmetry, but in the sense that the characters, the families (relational and criminal), and the episodes function as an ecology, and as I argued in "No(rth Jersey) Sense of Place," an ecology for the electronic/digital age--in formal terms, The Sopranos has some thing in common with a blog, and shows us the possibilities that bloggers might someday achieve with this new medium. But, of course, a blog can never have the artistic merit of, say, The Sopranos.

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