Friday, June 29, 2007
Autism and Seizures
But now, my wife has returned with my son in tow, Sarah's awake again, so I think I will have to continue this later. . .
Okay, so I'm back at home now, after having a late dinner at the Arena Diner in Hackensack with my son. My wife is staying overnight at the hospital with my daughter.
So, what happened is that early this morning, my wife looked in on our daughter, and called me in frantically. There was an irregular circlular blood stain, still somewhat wet, about six inches or so in diameter, under her face as she lay on her side. We tried to rouse my daughter, but she was like a sleepwalker, seemingly awake but unresponsive. She made almost no acknowledgment when we were speaking to her, like she could barely hear us, and could not understand what we were saying. This sort of response is not unusual for children with autism, but out of character for our daughter, who at least knows to pay attention when we talk to her. She seemed to drift off, like she wanted to go back to sleep, and her eyes partly rolled up into her head.
The blood had come from her mouth, and she didn't respond when I told her to open her mouth, so I opened her mouth myself. It was pretty shocking to see what appeared to be her teeth looking mangled, like she had been punched or fallen on her face, but that turned out to be an overreaction. It was just one tooth, one of the two front teeth on the bottom, that was turned forward, sticking out almost at a 90 degree angle, and that was the source of most of the bleeding we were later told, although her bottom lip was also swollen and bloody. The injury apparently occurred as a consequence of the seizure (and thank God that was the worst of it!).
So, my wife sprang into action and got her ready, I threw some clothes on and drove them to Hackensack Hospital, where there's a pediatric emergency room. In the meantime, our daughter had snapped back to consciousness, and fortunately there were no recurrences of the seizures. In fact, because she was pretty much back to normal, she was not a happy camper in the emergency room, what with them taking her blood, hooking her up to monitors, putting in an IV tube, etc. And she was especially perturbed when they took her to the emergency dental suite--we were with her, of course--where they cemented the tooth back into place until she can see a pediatric dentist--it took them several attempts because she was so uncooperative, and screaming like a banshee. The tooth may not survive, the hospital dentist wasn't sure.
Afterwards, it was decided that she would be admitted for observation, I left because my invalid mother was out of food and was counting on me to go good shopping for her (we are the generation that's squeezed at both ends, how many times have I heard that!), ran home to check on my son, and back to the hospital, where a nurse was gluing electrodes to my daughter's head for a Video EEG, which she was not happy about either, trying to rip them out, screaming, sobbing, etc. She'll be wearing them for an extended period of time while they look for abnormalities that would help them identify the nature of her problem. We don't know how long that will be, a day, two, or more?
After her new hairdo was cemented in place, my wife left for a bit, and I stayed with my daughter and continued to play the short segments of Barney on YouTube. A rabbi came by and we chatted for a little while, but there really wasn't much to be said. One day at a time, do the best that you can, there is no other choice. I did fell better, because I had intended to go to Shabbat services at Adas Emuno tonight, and wasn't able to.
So, we watched more Barney YouTube videos, and during one I dozed off for a minute, and in that time my daughter ripped off a bunch of the electrodes, so the nurse had to come in and redo them. After that, my daughter started to get drowsy, and fell asleep, and that's where this entry began.
Something like 20-30 percent of people with autism also suffer from seizure disorders. As if it wasn't hard enough dealing with autism! It does demonstrate, in a very dramatic fashion, that autism is a neurological disorder. That's well known and solidly established now, but a few decades ago psychiatrists were treating autistics through psychoanalysis, and blaming the disorder on refrigerator mothers! What a travesty, and tragedy that was!
Autistic children who also have seizures often have them for the first time around the time of the onset of puberty. Over the past year, a number of children that we know in the autism community here in Northern New Jersey, and who are around the same age as Sarah, have suddenly had seizures. So, it happens at the point when parents have pretty much accepted their situation and worked things out as best they can for their children, then, BOOM!, something new.
For us, though, seizures are a very old story. Our daughter had 3 seizures in one day when she was 18 months old. She was put on medication immediately afterwards, and the seizures never came back, and after a few years she went off the medication. When she first had those seizures, she had not been diagnosed as autistic, so that was our first major indication that there was something wrong with her. The doctors who treated her for her seizures never said a word about the possibility of autism, part of the great conspiracy of silence that parents in the autism community often experience prior to diagnosis.
For the record, I wrote about these early experiences in Part Two of Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study.
The Roman poet Lucan said, "I have a wife, I have sons: all of them hostages given to fate." And no ransom is ever enough.
I know people my age, and older, who have no children, and somehow they seem quite youthful--as Indiana Jones said, "it's not the years, it's the mileage." Right now, I don't even want to look at the odometer.
Thursday, June 28, 2007
The Spectacle Speaks Again
"The Tragedy That Remains" documents the global media frenzy surrounding the death of Princess Diana. It has something for everyone: a fairy-tale princess, heaps of celebrities, overindulgent media, brain-sucking ghouls (oops, that's the same thing).
The video speaks to our society's deeply ingrained cult of celebrity. Beyond portraying the excesses of the scripted celebrity death extravaganza, it explores the responsibility we spectators bear for enabling such media events. As the recent "10 Years Later" Diana retrospectives indicate, mega-spectacles like "Death of a Princess" never truly disappear, but are rerun at opportune moments across various media to wring more profits from the production. Ten years later, in response to those who find the Diana material "dated," we stand by the main premise of the video: that the Spectacle itself is the tragedy that remains.
The video is part of the live music video media critique "Thus Spoke The Spectacle." For information, more videos, or to book a screening or performance, go to
Music and lyrics by Eric Goodman
live performance by Eric Goodman and Mike Stevens
We sellers and buyers of souls make ghosts of the living, and the death of princesses not only inevitable, but necessary.
The Spectacle is the tragedy that remains long after it commands us to shift our gaze away from dead princesses onto newer obsessions.
While momentary tragedies flit through our lives, the cult of celebrity and the Spectacle it feeds voraciously hover above our battered reality, ever awaiting its opportunity to transform life into non-life.
The Spectacle is immune to contradiction. When a princess dies, the spectacle of her death bemoans the spectacle of her life, and the absurdity of it all serves only as fodder for another story. . . (more)
And now, this:
And, kudos to you, Eric, for another compelling bit of media ecological music video.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
Pirates of the Revolution
And here I am transformed into a pirate, courtesy of the official Disney site. Arrrhhh, mateys, shiver me timbers, yo ho ho and a bottle of RUM!!!!
Anyway, these are movies based on the popular ride first established at Disneyland, later supplemented by a variation at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, and you can also play and battle in a virtual reality version at DisneyQuest in Walt Disney World's Downtown Disney, I've done all three multiple times and they're all worth your while. But I have not, so far, gone on the other versions of the ride in Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland (which has an entire Pirateland!).
Anyway, the ride is a classic, as is the theme song, which goes like this:
YO HO (A PIRATE'S LIFE FOR ME)
Lyrics by Xavier Atencio and music by George Bruns
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We pillage, we plunder, we rifle, and loot,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
We kidnap and ravage and don't give a hoot,
Drink up me 'earties, yo ho.
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We extort, we pilfer, we filch, and sack,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
Maraud and embezzle, and even high-jack,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We kindle and char, inflame and ignite,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
We burn up the city, we're really a fright,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
We're rascals, scoundrels, villans, and knaves,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
We're devils and black sheep, really bad eggs,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me.
We're beggars and blighters, ne'er-do-well cads,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
Aye, but we're loved by our mommies and dads,
Drink up, me 'earties, yo ho.
It's a fun song, a song that makes pirates seem childlike, or rather that's about children pretending to be pirates. Which is what kids did, sometimes, when I was growing up, and still do some extent. Back then, pirate costumes were a popular alternative on Halloween, but then again so was dressing up like hobos--ho boy, you couldn't get away with that today, now that hobos are known as the homeless.
The romanticized image of the pirate is odd, when you think about it, as pirates were basically criminals, the Sopranos of the sea, I guess you could say. But maybe it's not so odd to be celebrating an ocean-going mafia when we also celebrate the western outlaw (such as Billy the Kid), the Prohibition-era gangster (such as Al Capone), and of course the modern mobster.
But, how about if we called them aquatic terrorists? No more yo ho then, eh hobo? If you've ever gone on the ride, then you'll know what I mean when I say that the attraction makes light of a scenario where pirates are, in fact, terrorizing a town. In fact, they had to make some changes to take the edge off of scenes where the pirates are chasing women, which if you really think about it reflects the reality of sexual assault, although a scene where women are being auctioned off remains in tact, made humorous by the fact that it's a chubby lady who's being offered, one who presumably is pleased at the prospect of finding a man. (I'm just reporting what I've observed, mind you.)
But look, I'm not here to argue for political correctness. The generalized image of the pirate, which is occasionally parodied in the popular cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants, for example, has been reduced to a children's character. And the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is a part of our popular culture, charming and amusing, yo ho! Moreover, in the film adaptations, the imagery has been brought up to date so that there are strong assertive women, some of whom are pirates themselves, even pirate captains in this third movie, even the pirate king, er, queen.
I should add that it is hardly news, but worth mentioning nonetheless, that it came as an unexpected but altogether pleasant surprise that Disney was able to make an adaptation of a ride (a film adaptation of a ride!) into an entertaining and successful feature film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. They then were able to surpass the original with a very funny sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men's Chest.
A third film was obviously pushing their luck, and as I've mentioned in other posts (Spider-Man 3 and the Limitations of Adaptations, Shrek It Up, Baby), it's pretty much a rule that the third film in a series is the weakest of the bunch in quality, and popularity. And what I had read of the initial reviews of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End seemed to be consistent with that rule. I recall the criticism that the film is too long, too much action that accomplishes little in the first hour or so, etc. Of course, I also knew that, with lowered expectations, I'd probably enjoy the film just fine, albeit with the understanding that it would not match the quality of the first two.
Well, rules are made to be broken, and my son's verdict is that this is the best of the 3 Pirates movies. I'm not that certain myself, but I will say that it is at least as good as the other two. The second, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men's Chest, was funnier, and the first was the biggest surprise, because who knew what to expect? But this one was equally entertaining in its own way, and had the best action and adventure (in a fun sort of way, not in the sense of a movie like Die Hard) of the three, yo ho! It was long, it's true, but it wasn't a problem as the pacing of the movie was just fine, so it was long in a Lord of the Rings sense of long but I didn't mind.
What makes all three Pirates movies so entertaining is the absolutely brilliant performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. I am confident that this character will be recognized as one of the all-time greats of film comedy. He is the movie, and that's no yo hokum. Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa is fine as his rival, an older and more straightforward kind of pirate. Orlando Bloom as Will Turner moves the plot along, but adds little to the film. And Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann is interchangeable with any number of attractive young actresses. Jack Davenport is fine as the elitist British bad guy.
And I could go on, but the point is that it's Depp's movie, and there even are a few scenes where there are multiple copies of Jack Sparrow, albeit all in his head as he converses with himself (call it Depp psychology). Hey, the more Depp the better, yo ho! And seeing as Depp used Keith Richards as his model for creating the character of Captain Jack, it was great to see the Rolling Stones guitarist (whom I met a few times when I was a graduate student working for a store called Video Shack in Manhattan circa 1980-1982) as Sparrow's father, however briefly (and it was way cool when he played guitar, and broke a string!).
I should add that the cinematography and effects make the film easy on the eyes, and there's lots of light-hearted action, capped off by having Captain Barbossa conduct an impromptu wedding ceremony for Will and Elizabeth in the midst of a massive sword fight on board which they all take part in--cute choreography there, as they fight off attackers and take their vows at the same time. And there are interesting scenes of the world's end, which leads to a otherworldly limbo known as Davy Jones' locker. For those familiar with the rides, there are a couple of magic moments, one when the Black Pearl goes over the massive waterfall at world's end, and we go to black and hear sounds from the ride, and one where the little dog with the key that you see towards the end of the ride appears in the film.
There was a plot element about Will's desire to save his father, and their ultimate reconciliation, which should have been moving but came across as fairly bland, as well as an interesting storyline concerning the love, and betrayal, between Davy Jones and the goddess Calypso, that also did not excite. But the film became a bit poignant at the end with the parallel love between Will and Elizabeth. The connection between Elizabeth and Calypso, referred to in the middle of the film, and implied in its ending, was never fully spelled out, however, and it seems to me that something significant was left out, or more likely, cut out of the film, some bit of verbal explanation, if not a more substantive scene. It's as if they got to the end, and the movie was already so long that they had to edit out something, so they decided to leave the final bit of exposition on the cutting room floor. I wouldn't be surprised, though, to see something reinserted in a director's cut or expanded edition on DVD.Ultimately, though, what make this pirate story palatable for a popular audience is that it becomes a reenactment of the American Revolution, a theme that we long for, as can be seen in movies like Star Wars, Red Dawn, Independence Day, even Die Hard, and on TV shows like Jericho (as I discussed in a previous post). In this case, the bad guys have British accents because they really are the British, and the Redcoats represent an overwhelming force that is threatening to wipe out all of the pirates and anyone who is at all sympathetic to them (the movie begins with multitudes of civilians being hanged, including women and children, for being in some way associated with the pirates). The Brits are once more the evil empire.
It is a bit of a stretch, of course, to turn pirates into rebel freedom fighters, but that's what this movie accomplishes, as a multicultural, international fellowship of pirates reluctantly unites to defend, you guessed it, FREEDOM!!!! That they are thieves, and cutthroats, is all cast aside, or overboard, as they are shown to have a higher code that they answer to--they respond to the rule of pirate law, while the British military have suspended all of their citizen's legal rights. The problem for the pirates is to find a way to overcome their excessive individualism (which manifests itself as selfishness, greed, and cowardice), and come together as a community. Into this mix comes the character of Jack Sparrow, who is a classic self-centered rogue in the mode of Humphrey Bogart's Rick from Casablanca, and Harrison Ford's Han Solo from Star Wars, claiming to only look out for number one, but in the end putting ego aside for the greater good.
And, yo ho!, the British are defeated, the pirates preserve their freedom, and freedom for all, and a new world's end order is established. Just in time for the 4th of July, mateys.
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Sopranos Swan Songs
And if you want to listen to the winning song, which is not Smash Mouth, but Celine Dion's "You and I," just click here. Now, I know that musical taste is not a prerequisite for political leadership, but I have to wonder if this song was selected by Hilary herself, or by a bunch of marketing types. I'd much rather hear "And You and I," by Yes, to be frank, but that's neither here nor there. I do think that Bill's choice of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" back in 1992 was genuine, and maybe this is just Hilary's kind of music, but it strikes me as the kind of song that you would hear on American Idol. And I mean that as a pejorative, in case that's not obvious.
But this isn't about the tunes. And yes, the use of YouTube shows that someone in the Clinton campaign has learned the lesson of tapping into new media, viral marketing and social networking and all that. And they tapped into the zeitgeist of a significant portion of America in quickly responding to and producing a take-off of that final episode, all timed to the announcement of the selection of the official campaign song, turning a complete non-event--how many people know that there is such a thing as an official campaign song, let alone care what it is?--into a story complete with ready-made footage that got picked up by the television and cable news programs and stayed alive for what surely was a longer than expected news cycle.
I wonder if anyone from HBO or The Sopranos staff, or David Chase himself, provided the Clinton campaign with an advance copy of the series finale to facilitate the creation of this parody?
There's also something gutsy about the Clinton family, having been accused of some shady practices of their own, to play the part of the fictional mafia family. Maybe they're thumbing their noses at their political enemies, but maybe it's also foolhardy of the Clintons to forge an association, however humorous, between themselves and The Sopranos?
The ending of the series finale evoked a sense of justified paranoia and ever-present potential for violence, and I have to wonder about the presence of such elements here, such as the threatening stare by actor Vince Curatola, who played Johnny Sack on The Sopranos, not to mention Bill's revealing preference for Smash Mouth--yes, I know it's an attempt to be current, but it's still a decision to give voice to a violent image. Does this reflect a worldview where you are always defending against that vast rightwing conspiracy? Where you have had to live with accusations (however unfounded they may be) that extend so far as to suggest that Clinton White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster was a victim of murder not suicide? Where you actually have gone through the ordeal of impeachment?
Of course, the images are mostly bright and sunny, and that counts for much when you're talking about television. And most of the people who watched The Sopranos and would therefore understand the YouTube video would tend to be sympathetic to, if not identifying with Tony and his family. And Hillary certainly wrapped up the New Jersey vote with this one (which I think was pretty much sewed up with Governor Corzine's endorsement, but the lingering effects of his April 12th automobile accident, itself a side effect of the Don Imus fiasco, may seriously hamper his ability to campaign on Clinton's behalf, affecting how she deploys campaign resources, potentially affecting the outcome of the primary). Although I wonder how all of the Italian-Americans who were offended by the ethnic stereotypes perpetuated by The Sopranos feel about the Clinton ad?
But I'm sure that the effort to get this one out is a reaction to the Clinton campaign being blindsided by a YouTube video earlier this year, one that gained massive popularity on the internet and consequently got picked up by the news media, which means you probably saw it already, but oh, what the hey, here it is:
This was a remix or mosh up (as they say nowadays) of the famous 1984 Apple commercial, "Think Different," that introduced the Macintosh, which originally aired during the 1984 Superbowl. It had a devastating effect on the image of Hillary as the Democratic Party frontrunner and establishment candidate, and served as a boost for Obama. Based on what we've seen so far now, I would expect to see political ads drawing on the brilliant Mac and PC guy commercials from Apple at some point during the campaign, and maybe some take-offs on the Geico caveman ads as well.
But enough about politics, and more about The Sopranos. And I admit that I'm not very active in the YouTube social networking scene, but when I did a search for "Sopranos ending" to find the Clinton video, over 300 different videos were listed. Some were recorded from TV, some were amateur productions, some were just videobloggers explaining their view of the finale, and some were mosh ups. In the latter category, here's one that caught my eye:
Here's another with a great deal of finality:
But don't panic, it could happen to anybody. And, now this:
So, this is just a sampling, and I could go on with this ad nauseum, but then again, you can just go to YouTube and see for yourself.
In the meantime, with The Sopranos over and done with, and Hillary's winning song coming from a Canadian (not that there's anything wrong with it), I guess I might as well end this post with an image that my old Beta Theta Pi fraternity brother, Jordan Strub, e-mailed to me along with the suggestion that I "blog this one, eh?"
Honk if you see me on the Turnpike!
Monday, June 25, 2007
Bloomberg for President, And Why Not?
Ready for Bloomberg?Okay, now that Broder has established Bloomberg's cover story, he tosses a bit of investigative journalism our way:
By David S. Broder
Sunday, June 24, 2007; Page B07
Six months ago, when I began hearing rumors of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's possible interest in an independent presidential campaign in 2008, I went to see the mayor at his City Hall office.
He told me what he has said repeatedly ever since -- that his intention was to finish his second term in 2009 as "the best mayor this city has ever had" and then devote himself to philanthropy and good works. He then steered the conversation to city issues and explained what he was trying to do on housing, transportation and social services -- an impressive agenda.
I barely knew him, and I took him at his word about the presidency.
When I talked the next day to Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, the man who had steered the billionaire communications-company mogul to victory in city campaigns, I got a rather different story.And now, Broder brings us up to date with his own analysis:
Sheekey drew a picture of a country ready and willing to consider electing a president without a party label. He cited the success of independent candidates for governor in Maine and Minnesota, and most of all, he talked about what Arnold Schwarzenegger was doing in California -- governing as a "post-partisan" leader of that mega-state and winning praise for doing so.
Sheekey cited to me the statistics of voter registrations in California, where "decline-to-state" independents are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. It was evident that he was closely monitoring political developments far from New York and that his tongue was hanging out in eagerness to test his political prowess in a national race.
It now looks more and more as if he will have a chance. In what appears to have been a carefully orchestrated series of events, Bloomberg dominated the political news last week. First, he turned up on the cover of Time magazine along with Schwarzenegger. A flattering article suggested that the two men embodied the pragmatic, problem-solving approach that Washington conspicuously lacks in these final dispiriting months of the Bush presidency.And let's be clear here, this isn't breaking news, although it is a recent story, and Broder's analysis sits well with me.
Then Bloomberg joined Schwarzenegger for appearances in California at which they lashed the failure of the two parties in Washington to meet the nation's needs. Bloomberg said, "We continue to struggle from big problem to big problem with Band-Aids . . . and nobody is really ready to stand up and make the tough decisions." Schwarzenegger, who is ineligible to run for president because he is not a natural-born citizen, told reporters that Bloomberg would make those tough calls if he were in the White House.
And then Bloomberg announced that he has changed his own registration from Republican to independent.
Bloomberg still insists that he has no plans to run for president, unless everyone else in America declines. But in almost every respect, the political environment for such a candidacy has improved in recent months. True, a surfeit of New Yorkers already crowd the contest. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior senator from New York, leads the Democratic field, and Rudolph Giuliani, Bloomberg's predecessor as mayor, sits atop the Republican polls. Bloomberg, a Democrat for most of his life, has been friendly with the Clintons in New York, and Giuliani gave Bloomberg a vital endorsement when he switched to the GOP in 2001 to run for mayor.
Early polls show that Bloomberg would start out well behind Clinton and Giuliani in a three-way race. Nonetheless, there is plenty of room for Bloomberg in the picture. Polls consistently show that large numbers of Americans -- close to a majority -- are unwilling to consider Clinton for president, and Giuliani is painful medicine for many Republicans to swallow.
More than that, there is a palpable hunger among the public for someone who will attack the problems facing the country -- the war in Iraq, immigration, energy, health care -- and not worry about the politics.
Can Bloomberg satisfy that hunger? He has joked that "they're never going to vote for a 5-foot-6-inch Jewish guy from New York," who supports abortion rights, gay rights and gun control. But if he runs, he is not just a nuisance or a distraction. Unlike Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, the last three significant independents to run, none of whom had spent a day in elective office, Bloomberg has solid governing experience and a commendable record of innovation and accomplishment in New York.
He has the personal wealth to finance a campaign and people on his staff eager to run one. If he decides to go, he would add to the mix -- not distort or diminish it.
Growing up in New York City, I was for many years a knee-jerk Democrat, voting for anyone that my party put up for office. Which is not to say that I was entirely unsympathetic to the good old liberal Republicans of New York, such as Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor who went on to be appointed to the Vice-Presidency by Gerald Ford, who had succeeded to the Presidency following Richard Nixon's resignation after being appointed to the Vice-Presidency following Spiro Agnew's resignation, and Jacob Javits, the longtime United States Senator, not to mention John V. Lindsay, the New York City Mayor who eventually left the Republican party, winning his last election on the Liberal Party line, and later switching to the Democratic party. The Liberal Party in New York was formed expressly to provide a vehicle for voters who could not stomach the thought of voting for a Republican to vote for a Republican without actually voting for a Republican (technically, at least).
So, while the liberal wing of the Republican Party has generally been considered to have met its demise during the Reagan years, George H. W. Bush's conversion to conservatism being the coup de grâce, this is not without its exaggerations, as we appear to be witnessing the return of the repressed with the ascendancy of Rudy Giuliani as the leading Republican presidential contender, with the high popularity of the factory reconditioned governoratoreador, Arnold Schwarzenegger on the west coast, and of course with Bloomberg himself, who crossed over from the Democratic Party so that he could ride Giuliani's 9/11 coattails into Gracie Mansion (where he chooses not to reside).
While New York City was mostly Democratic, the Long Island and Westchester suburbs leaned more to the Republican side, and the rest of New York State also tended to favor the Republicans, with some exceptions such as Tompkins County, home of the city of Ithaca and Cornell University, a Democratic island in a Republican sea.
As for what was going on in New Jersey, well, that was a bit of a mystery, and I won't go into the geography, except to note that it is certainly a blue state these days. But the political tradition in much of the state, in contrast to the heavy partisanship of New York, is largely one of independent politics. Of course, there are still functioning political parties, and people register with them to vote in the primaries, but party loyalty is relatively weak in contrast to New York, there are few if any barriers to voting across party lines, and people are more concerned with the individual candidates than their affiliations.
Now, I'm not saying that this is a better approach. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued quite convincingly that party politics was eminently rational, and that independent voting goes hand-in-hand with the irrationality of image politics, which means voting on appearance and personality, rather than on issues and ideologies. But having been a resident of New Jersey for over a decade and a half, I've been bitten by the independent bug myself. Not that I have gone so far as to vote for a Republican yet, but now I really have to think about it before I make up my mind.
By the way, it's a reflection of the prevailing political leanings in academia that, after telling colleagues that I was no longer going to automatically vote for Democrats, and that in the wake of 9/11 I felt myself to be more conservative than before, that some have assumed that I'm now a Republican!
Anyway, political parties once served as media, that is, organizations that provided channels of communication, between citizens and government. Their power was rooted in local politics, which formed the base upon which state and federal politics were built. But the electronic media, especially television, short-circuited political parties, providing an alternate medium for candidates to communicate directly to voters, and officials to citizens. The internet now has facilitated communication back from voters and citizens to the politicians and government, making parties all but irrelevant.
So, political parties have lost a significant portion of their functionality, but remain in place as vestiges, appendices prone to infection. Over and over and over again, the race is between the Democrat and the Republican who claim to be polar opposites but offer little in the way of real alternatives. And Americans by and large won't vote for third party candidates unless they are totally fed up, or convinced that there's a chance that their vote won't be thrown away.
So, can Bloomberg convince voters that a vote for him would be meaningful? That would be tough, but what some pundits are saying is that an independent Bloomberg/Schwarzenegger ticket that carried New York and California could gain enough electoral votes to keep the other two candidates from gaining a majority in the electoral college, opening the door to making a deal for a coalition government.
Now that would be interesting! Having an independent presence in a new government would serve as a check and balance on politics and usual, putting increased emphasis on ideas and innovation. More so, if enough people believe in the viability of such a limited scenario, it might boost the polls enough to transform the independent candidacy into a viable contender to take it all.
President Bloomberg? . . . It could happen . . .
Of course, the down side would be that the third party candidacy would just throw the election to a conservative Republican candidate. And you can bet that's what the Democrats will be screaming, should this come to pass.
But I think we know that our political system doesn't seem to be providing us with the best possible candidates for high office, by any means. Two-party politics is the next worst thing to one-party politics, and if it has to be two-party politics, a century and a half without a major shakeup is enough. We need some kind of political realignment to throw off this stagnation, and better yet, a genuine, viable three or more party system--the more the merrier.
I think we need to shake things up a bit. I say this with the caveat that shaking things up often has bad results. The resignation of Agnew, the near-impeachment and resignation of Nixon, the appointed presidency of Ford and Rockefeller, the impeachment of Clinton, and the debacle of election year 2000, all left us more shaken than the system, it is true.
But Bloomberg for President on an Independent ticker is hardly a radical move. Quite the opposite, it might make for greater political stability in the long run. Or at least, for a more interesting election year. Why not?
Sunday, June 24, 2007
The Marvin Kitman Show, Featuring Bill O'Reilly
For those of you not familiar with Marvin, you can learn more about him from his website, but for your convenience, I'll provide some background. There's a bio on The Huffington Post, where Marvin is now doing his thing in blog form
Marvin Kitman was the media critic at Newsday. His column, "The Marvin Kitman Show," began on Dec. 7, 1969, a day that still lives infamy, according to network executives. On April 1, 2005, he stepped down from his position of power. As he explained, "Newsday gave me a tryout, and after 35 years we decided it wasn't working out." He is the author of nine books. They include George Washington's Expense Account, written by Gen. George Washington and Marvin Kitman (Pfc. Ret.). As the only living co-author of Washington's, he also wrote The Making of the Prefident 1789. His newest book is about that other great American icon: The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O'Reilly, published by St. Martin's Press in January. Available on Amazon.com and at all fine book stores.And here's some additional information taken from his website:
Mr. Kitman is also the author of I Am A VCR (Random House, 1988), the story of his first 20 years as a TV critic and the impact TV has had on one of the greatest minds in Western civilization.
He is the author of Kitman's Law: "On the TV screen pure drivel tends to drive off ordinary drivel."
His five other books include:
For six years (1981-7) he was the commentator about TV on a local news show, "The Ten O' Clock News" on WNYW (formerly WNEW) in New York. His commentaries were also heard on the RKO Radio Network, now defunct.
The Number One Best Seller (1966), Dial Press
You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover (1970), Weybright &Talley
The RCAF (Red Chinese Air Force) Diet, Exercise & Sex Manual,
written under the pseudonym William Randolph Hirsch
(with Richard Lingeman and Victor Navasky) (1968), Stein &Day
The Marvin Kitman TV Show: An Encyclopedia Televisiana (1973), Outerbridge & Diensfrey
The Coward's Almanac (1975), Doubleday
He is a founding father of Monocle, a member of the Leonia Public Library, AFTRA, PEN and a member of F.D.I.C.He is a resident of New Jersey. Some day he hopes to win the state's highest honor: having a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike named after him.
So anyway, it was a great pleasure to have Marvin join us, along with his delightful wife Carol, who is a professional photographer. And Marvin did not disappoint, as he gave a very funny, but also insightful talk that focused on his experience writing his most recent book, about Bill O'Reilly of The O'Reilly Factor, the highest rated show on the highest rated cable news network, Fox News.
But he started off by talking about his background, including showing us a giant blow-up of a photograph that was taken of him from his bar mitzvah, and another showing a Lubavitcher making him lay tefillin through his car window. He also noted that, while he had been living in Leonia since 1961, he was still considered a newcomer, as his mother was not a Daughter of the American Revolution, she was a Daughter of the Russian Revolution. He reminisced about living near writer Robert Ludlum, who would wake Marvin up at 4:30 every morning with the scratching noises made by his pen writing on a yellow legal pad. He also mentioned former Leonia resident Alan Alda. Actually, the Wikipedia entry on Leonia has an impressive listing of Notable Leonians, including none other than Marvin Kitman, natch.
On the subject of television journalists, Marvin said that most of them were pretty vacant, and that they were the real cause of the depletion of the ozone layer, that is, all the hairspray they used--that reminded me of how Neil Postman used to refer to newscasters as talking hairdos. He was also not impressed with most political operatives turned journalists, such as Tim Russert and Chris Matthews. Basically, he said that anyone who exhibited brains and integrity as a journalist would be forced out, or move on rather than compromise his or her principles.
Bill O'Reilly, according to Kitman, was someone who moved on repeatedly rather than give in to the pressures of the television business, and that was the reason Marvin wanted to do a book about him. And it is for the most part a positive profile of O'Reilly as a television journalist, although in an effort to be fair and balanced Kitman did discuss the sexual harassment suit filed against O'Reilly in 2004, which was settled out of court. This apparently earned him O'Reilly's ire, as "The Factor" suddenly reneged on his promises to help Marvin promote his book, and more than that, blackballed the book so that not only was there no mention of the publication on O'Reilly's own program, or any program on Fox News, but he also pressured all of the other conservative media outlets to keep quiet about Kitman. Marvin said that when he spoke to Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News Network, about O'Reilly's reaction, Ailes said that O'Reilly has two sets of rules, one for himself, and one for everyone else.
In the end, it was the liberal media outlets, such as Air America , that embraced Marvin's book, not to mention the fact that he got a very favorable book review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review (and he brought a blow-up of the book review, too). The blurbs on the back of the book are by Mike Wallace of CBS, Victor Navasky (publisher emeritus of The Nation), and Keith Olbermann of MSNBC who, Marvin revealed, O'Reilly is especially antagonistic towards, even though he never mentions him on the air (as opposed to others he has on-air feuds with).During the question and answer session, the talk shifted to Kitman's opinion of various television journalists, which was generally low. The few exceptions included Olbermann, Ted Koppel, and especially Bill Moyers. Additionally, he spoke well of Jon Stewart, and while he also appreciates Stephen Colbert, he didn't think Colbert was in the same league as Stewart, Colbert basically doing parody to Stewart's satire, and he predicted that the Colbert Report would not survive long after O'Reilly went off the air. Which, I might add, Marvin believes will occur sometime soon, as Kitman said that he thinks that O'Reilly has deteriorated mentally over the last few years and will sometime soon have a Don Imus-like moment. And that, of course, would be the end of him, as he has not exactly made a lot of friends in the industry, or elsewhere.
So, let me recommend Marvin Kitman's magnum opus (by which I mean a pretty decent read),
The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O'Reilly, as insightful and entertaining a bit of writing about media personalities and television journalism as you'll find.
Oh, and I asked him what he thought of The Sopranos finale. He didn't care for Sopranos interruptus, and thought that David Chase had no idea how to end the series, having extended it for the last three seasons for the sole reason that he was being paid a lot of money to do so. You can read all about it on his blog. As I have discussed early in the history of this blog (see Blogism and Blogist), those of us who are serious about these here blogs, as alternatives to traditional journalism, consider what we're doing to be blogism and ourselves to be blogists. And Marvin Kitman is an outstanding, uncompromising, no spin-zoning blogist. Gai gezunterhait, Mr Kitman.
Friday, June 22, 2007
Oh, What, More Mexico?!
This second Ellen took for a distance, but that's Thom dancing on top of the site:
And now this. Seems Bob Blechman was able to capture some of the streaming video from the convention, and upload it to a YouTube-like site that doesn't impose the same limitations on length or file-size. On this first one, Bob seems to have gotten some of the opening ceremony, not me (sadly) or the Governor, but following the first round of welcomes (including Thom's), there was a video being shown which he comes in on the middle of, and some additional welcomes, etc. from the morning of Wednesday, June 6:
MEA 8th Convention June 6 #1 from Robert K. Blechman on Vimeo
And second, he captured some of the plenary sessions on the evening of Friday, June 8th, coming in after the start of Eric McLuhan's Keynote Address, continuing through the Awards Ceremony, and into my President's Address (happily):
MEA 8th Convention Friday Night from Robert K. Blechman on Vimeo
So, thank you Bob, and blog on, dude!
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Shrek It Up, Baby
If you've never seen it, they have a little video about Shrek 3 when you first enter the official site, and what's interesting is that they only emphasize one aspect of the movie, the incorporation of several fairytale princesses, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Rapunzel, in addition to Fiona the ogre-princess, played by Cameron Diaz, and her mother, Queen Lillian of Far Far Away, who's voiced by Julie Andrews. As for the princesses, their alter egos are:
Amy Poehler as Snow WhiteAn impressive tetrad of comediennes! And they really stole the show.
Cheri Oteri as Sleeping Beauty
Maya Rudolph as Rapunzel
Amy Sedaris as Cinderella
Unfortunately, much like Spider-Man 3, the subject of a previous post, the filmmakers tried to cram too much stuff into one movie and the result is a bit of a mess. So, they also had a second plot line involving a teenage Arthur Pendragon, pre-Camelot as one of the unpopular kids in a high school setting called Worcestershire Academy. So, there are some high school jokes, but not enough to make it worthwhile (and unrealized potential for some Harry Potter parody as well) and the whole Arthurian mythos is pretty much passed over, except for some scenes with an eccentric Merlin played by Eric Idle, but sadly it was no Monty Python and the Holy Grail (even with John Cleese reprising his role as King Harold, the frog, who croaks early in the story).
There's potential for Shrek to play A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and the results could be very funny, but the focus was on young Arthur. Neither was there any play on The Once and Future King, despite the presence of Merlin, and the use of magical transformations in other contexts. There was no art to this plot thread, and the movie would have been better for some artless cutting.
Worst of all, they indulged in some sentimentality concerning Shrek's impending fatherhood, and his relationship with Arthur as a reluctant father-figure. It's a bad sign when characters that thrive on the absurd start taking themselves seriously, and that's what happened to Shrek this third time out. Somewhat, that is, because, again, the movie was not all bad, not by any means, and in fact was still quite entertaining (as long as you're not looking for it to match the first two in quality).
The Shrek movies are at their best when they are providing contemporary, show-business-savvy spins on fairy tale themes. They are especially effective at sending up Disney animations and theme parks (and as a fan of Disney animations and theme parks, I will say that Shrek's parody, puns, and playing around are never offensive, mean-spirited or spiteful, just good fun). And they've found the perfect target in the Disney Princesses™, a group that brings together Disney's big three, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella (but no Rapunzel so far), along with their more recent superstar, Belle (from Beauty and the Beast, star of stage, screen, and song), and usually Ariel (aka the Little Mermaid) as well, and sometimes one or more of Pocahontas (the real, historical native American princess, as fictionalized by Disney), Jasmine (Aladdin's Arabian princess), and even Mulan (from China, the only Disney princess who was never a princess). Here's a classic image of them (please don't send your lawyers after me, O great and powerful Disney):
What makes the Disney Princesses™ an especially apt target is that, as a collective entity, they are not a byproduct of the motion picture arts and sciences, but rather the result of a very clever marketing strategy. That is to say, there was no film, no narrative, that ever brought together these disparate products of folklore and oral tradition, literature, and historical writing. Instead, it was astute observation of the dress and behavior of young girls at Disney theme parks that led to the realization that the Disney Princesses™, as a collective entity, already existed in the minds of their fans, and that they could be transformed into a marketable commodity.
Now, I know some people find this sort of thing deplorable, both for its emphasis on consumerism and its promulgation of traditional gender roles (although the later princesses, e.g., Belle, Pocahontas, and Mulan, are much more progressive), and there is a point to that sort of critique. But there is also something very sweet and wholesome about it all, and there are a hell of a lot of worse things in the world than little girls indulging in princess fantasies (and little boys daydreaming of heroics).
By the way, on the Disney Princesses™ website, you can take a quiz to find out which Disney princess you are. I did, and I learned that:
You are most like Cinderella!
You are a true party girl. You like dressing up in glamorous outfits and holding parties. You are also very kind and caring.
And you know what? Sometimes I do feel just like Cinderella (right Barb?), or maybe that should be Cinderfella (a 1960 Jerry Lewis movie directed by Frank Tashlin, who excelled at making comic-like comedies).
Anyway, my intent is not to condemn the Disney Princesses™, just to note that they make for fine grist for the Shrekian mill, so to speak. And Shrek 3 goes to the heart of their idiosyncrasies, making Cinderella a neat freak who cleans when she's stressed, and turning Sleeping Beauty into a narcoleptic. Snow White is characterized as a control freak in the video on the official site, and during the baby shower for Fiona, the event that brings them all together, she gives Fiona a dwarf ("I have six more at home"), and repeatedly exerts control over animals. Rapunzel is all about the hair, of course, and being fickle goes along with that. Queen Lillian is matronly, and matriarchal, and can knock down walls with a head butt that speaks of her queenly power. And there's also Doris the Ugly Stepsister, hilariously looking like a cross dresser with five o'clock shadow, with a voice belonging to Regis Philbin. Oh, and there's also Dragon, the gigantic but girlish flying dragon that Donkey (played by Eddie Murphy) married (the parts of Donkey and Antonio Banderas's Puss in Boots are also terribly diluted by the Arthurian distraction). But why not include Belle, at least, and Ariel, and make it a princess party, and have Shrek be comically uncomfortable in that feminine environment?
The best part of the film is when the princesses are locked up when the fairy tale villains invade and take over, and Fiona convinces them not to wait around to be rescued, but to take action for themselves. Considering that Cameron Diaz played one of Charlie's Angels in the remade for the big screen movie and its sequel, there was another parody opportunity that was missed. But the funniest scene in the whole movie is when Snow White takes on two evil haunted trees. She begins by singing in the semi-operatic fashion of the original Disney feature, and as she does so, the animals of the forest gather around her in that pretty and peaceable way that we associate with the Disney film. Then all of a sudden the sound shifts to the familiar wail of Roger Plant and the sounds of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," and with that heavy metal soundtrack the animals suddenly charge in formation, attacking and defeating the evil trees. A brilliant and hilarious sequence.
Shrek movies rely on really effective use of good popular music, and Shrek 3 has some other high points, as the princesses attack to the tune of "Barracuda" (but not the Heart version unfortunately, but a cover by Fergie, whoever that is--showing my age, I know). The much-missed Harry Chapin is heard singing "Cat's in the Cradle," and there's one from The Ramones, "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?" And the film ends with Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas doing the Sly and the Family Stone standard, "Thank You (Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Again)," not too badly but who can match Sly? But apart from the Zep moment, the high point was at the funeral of King Harold, where we heard Paul McCartney and Wings doing "Live and Let Die" for a little bit. Groovy tunes, but I wish there had been more of them (there were some others not worth mentioning included in the film's soundtrack).
If you haven't seen them yet, I do recommend Shrek and Shrek 2, and the short video Shrek 4-D is a lot of fun, but better yet is the Shrek 4-D attraction that the film is taken from, at the Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood. Shrek the Third comes in fourth after these three, but with Mike Myers doing his Scottish brogue, Shrek is still good for a laugh, and now as the father of an ogre brood, has every reason to extend the franchise further into Far Far Away.
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Like, wow! That's something! I guess. I mean, yeah, I know it's arbitrary, and has no more real significance than the numbers 98 or 99, but as a symbol it does evoke something. There's a sense of completion, I suppose, at least when you think about percentage, per cent meaning per hundred, so that 100% means das is alles, you've got it all, a clean sweep, dead solid perfect.
Using our common form of numerical notation (we call them Arabic numerals but they originated in India, where the zero was invented after they adopted the alphabet which they received from the Semites) the number 100 is the first 3 digit number, so it represents a quantum leap of sorts. It's like watching the odometer move up to the next level.
Thinking back on early childhood, when we're first learning about numbers, one hundred is the first really big number we learn about. That makes it the smallest of the big numbers, doesn't it?
The Latin word for 100 is centum, from which we get words such as centennial, centenary, centimeter, and of course the monetary denomination of one cent (one one hundredth of a dollar), and the Roman numeral C is derived from centum.
The Hebrew word for 100 is מֵאָה (May-ah) and the Hebrew letter ק (koph) is also used as the Hebrew numeral for 100. But neither the number nor the numeral have any special significance in Jewish numerology nor in the Kabbalah, to my knowledge. Instead, multiples of 6, and 60 provide a more organic resonance, in contrast to the sheer rationalism of 100.
So, maybe one hundred is a symbol without much of a referent. Maybe it's just an excuse to stop and say, 100 posts, wow, I think I've accomplished something with this blogging thing, I'm not sure what, but something I think, an accumulation. Maybe this makes me less of a novice and more of a seasoned blogist. Maybe it's too self-reflexive, though, for the topic of my 100th post to be that this post is my 100th post, maybe it's not really blogworthy, just a blogging publicity stunt, a pseudoevent or pseudopost.
Maybe it's time to stop obsessing about the number 100, move on to 101 (a silly millimeter longer?).
But, hey, come on, like, 100, all right!
Sunday, June 17, 2007
Sopranos Extinction Event
Return of The Sopranos: A Border Dispute
Scenic Routes on The Sopranos
Sopranos Style and Substance
The Passion of Christopher
Sopranos Second Coming
So this makes my seventh sign on the road to the series apocalypse. I had originally hoped to post an entry following the penultimate episode, but it was right before I was leaving for the Media Ecology Association convention in Mexico City and I was too busy, too exhausted, and in all honesty, after seeing that episode, "The Blue Comet," I found that it was too powerful for me to toss off a quick commentary, that I really needed time to think about it. The one thought that came to mind in the immediate aftermath was that the title of the episode, while ostensibly referring to the model train that Bobby was in the process of purchasing when he was whacked, made me think of the comet that supposedly caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, the old school gangsters being the doomed species in the series, hence the title of this entry. And there is a sense in which David Chase, having set up his toy soldiers over the course of the series, was now entitled to knock them all down at the end of the day, which he seemed in the process of doing in this next to last episode.
But it was off to Mexico, knowing that the TiVO would record the series finale. When I got back last Monday night, my wife Barbara asked if I had heard about the last episode, I said no, and she didn't spoil it for me. I read an e-mail from a friend Robyn Merkel, asking what I thought the ending of the episode meant, and knew there was some ambiguity. That night I watched it, and, well, wow! I really had to think about it.
I've since read some of the discussions on Sopranos fan groups on MySpace, along with David Chase's comments in the Newark Star-Ledger, and some other media commentary, nothing definitive. My own response to the series end was first and foremost admiration for Chase as an artist, but along with that a sense of nausea and depression. Maybe exhaustion and let down following the excitement of the MEA convention contributed to my visceral response, but I suspect that my reaction would have been more or less the same under any circumstances.
Of course, like everyone else, my initial reaction was to think something went wrong with the cable box, or the TiVO recording. It was a jarring experience, and once the credits appeared, after what seemed like an eternity but objectively was a very short period of time, came the realization that this was the way that Chase decided to end the series, not with a bang, not with a whimper, not with a slow fade to back, but with an abrupt cut off that gave no sense of resolution or completion. It's as if the camera suddenly ran out of tape, or someone accidentally pulled the plug. That kind of sudden end has been used a number of times in popular music recording, and Chase is certainly influenced by the records, tapes, and CDs that have been so central to the baby boomer lifestyle. But the eye is quite different from the ear, and the effect of sudden cessation is much more drastic on video than via audio alone.
So many of the fans seem to be angry at Chase for going all artsy on his audience, and denying them the satisfaction of a real ending to the story. They sense a certain hostility to the fans, and maybe they're right. As a narrative becomes increasingly more popular, the creator loses control, and it becomes more and more the property of the fans. Chase no doubt felt this way to an extent, that many of the fans who unconditionally idolized Tony Soprano just didn't get what he was trying to express as an artist. Of course, he was also pressured by Italian-American groups who found the entire series offensive, and pressured by social conservatives to make Tony and his crew less sympathetic than they appeared to be in the early episodes. He may also have been affected by criticisms coming from fans and reviewers that the later episodes had lost their edge and that the series had gone downhill in recent years. So, maybe he was thumbing his nose at everyone. Maybe.
Or, maybe this was his way of saying, hey people, it's just a show, it's just a videotape recording, we can pull the plug anytime we want to. Maybe he was trying to shock the audience back to reality, break the frame of the program, make viewers pay attention to the medium of television, that's what happened when we all thought that the cable went out you know. So, in this sense, the comparisons to Orson Welles are apt. As Paul Heyer put it about Welles, he had media sense, meaning a media ecological sensibility (see The Medium and the Magician: Orson Welles, the Radio Years, 1934-1952), and David Chase does as well (as evidenced by his gratuitous mention of Marshall McLuhan in one of the earlier seasons).
And some fans after seeing this ending that is not an ending interpreted it to mean that the series is over, but life goes on for these characters, Tony, Carmela, AJ, and Meadow. That's the ending that they wanted, having formed a relationship with the characters, feeling affection for them, maybe even coming to identify with them, and Tony especially. And for his part, Chase has certainly kept his options open by not closing off this interpretation of the ending. You never know, inspiration might strike, or necessity (financially speaking) may intervene, someone may make him an offer he can't refuse, and the next thing you know, we'll have a Sopranos major motion picture.
So, Chase has not closed off the possibility, but neither has he encouraged it by this ending. There are a million and one ways that he might have brought the series to a conclusion with all of the major characters essentially unchanged and set up for further development within a feature film. Nothing about this ending points in that direction, all that we're left with is a trapdoor should Chase change his mind someday.
So, it's possible to argue that Chase is an artistic genius, and it's possible to argue that he's just engaged in audience abuse, but a further possibility is that he genuinely did not know how to end the series. After all, the whole point of most television series is to establish a scenario that would allow for the generation of one episode after another, indefinitely. We can see in The Sopranos the basic situation of mobsters dealing with contemporary middle class life, balancing the family at home and the family at the workplace, and the use of psychotherapy as a means to get at the underlying issues involved. This provided wonderful grist for the mill, in the hands of the talented crew of writers, directors, and actors that Chase had assembled. But it does not necessarily follow that Chase had an ending in mind when he began the series (I am told he did not), nor does it follow that Chase was able to come up with a satisfying finale when he finally sat down and thought it over.
The easiest thing to do would be to say goodbye with the kind of life goes on ending that would make the fans happy. After all, I would venture to say that anyone who watched the program and did not like Tony Soprano on some level, who felt hate, disgust, or even antipathy towards the character, would probably not be a regular viewer of the show. Chase's challenge all along has been the need to remind viewers that Tony really is a monster, a sociopath. James Gandolfini is too appealing, too cute, too ordinary in many ways, too set upon by family and family, too aware of his own shortcomings, and too reasonable to make the audience turn against him. And he is typically surrounded by others who are more brutal, more angry, more vindictive, more selfish and greedy, more stupid and shortsighted, than he is, so however horrendous his actions, he comes across looking relatively good in contrast to many of the other characters. And most of the rest have their own moral failings, and their own kinds of mafia, and therefore if not worse than Tony certainly do not seem morally superior in kind to him.
Tony Soprano is a survivor in the comic mode, which is not to say that he is a humorous character, although the series certainly has its funny moments, but rather that it follows the classic sense of comedy, a story with a happy ending, that goes together with an episodic format. Tony does not try to overpower his environment, he's not a control freak, he does not follow the tragic mode of being so full of himself, so powerful an ego that he brings about his own doom. Instead, he is a trickster who accommodates himself to a hostile environment, and just gets by. This was brought home perfectly in the final episode of last season, season 5, "All Due Respect," which ends with Tony and Brooklyn mob boss Johnny Sack together as the FBI descends and arrests Sack, while Tony sneaks away, calling his lawyer and learning that the warrant was only for Johnny and not for him. Tony walks home, surviving for another day. This would have worked quite well as a series finale. That is, if Chase were willing to go gentle into that good night.
But the temptation must have been there to end with a bang, give us a dramatic ending with Tony going down fighting, saying "say hello to my little friend" (the little friend in this case would be the AR-10 automatic machine gun that Bobby gave him for his birthday in the episode that started the final countdown, "Soprano Home Movies") or "top of the world, ma" (Livia Soprano being the kind of ma who would demand such a sacrifice) or some such--for David Chase to knock all the toy soldiers down and come in for dinner. But that's the trajectory of the tragic hero in a linear narrative, and Chase did not set Tony up for that kind of ending. Neither has the series emphasized action or melodrama, the violence being infrequent and not in any way romanticized. Killing Tony outright might be satisfying from a moral standpoint, but the series was all about moral ambiguity. Chase also may have been reluctant to definitively eliminate a character that he had invested so much effort and emotion into, not to mention the concern about killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. On the other hand, after all these years, he must have been tempted to make a clean break of it, achieve compete separation so that he could move on.
But the bottom line is that the heroes of episodic narratives are notoriously hard to kill. After a long series of ongoing adventures, it goes against the grain for them to suddenly die, no death seems fitting enough, and if they are sent to the grave, it is impossible to eliminate the possibility of writing them back into existence, their death being only "apparent." Perhaps the archetypal example of this was Arthur Conan Doyle's attempt to kill off Sherlock Holmes, only to have him return from the dead in a new series of adventures, interestingly paralleled by Doyle's own obsession with life after death, spiritualism, and mediums communicating with the departed (much like Tony's tough guy, Paulie). The death of Tony Soprano would likewise haunt David Chase, and I think he understood no end would ever be satisfying, so he gave us no ending.
During this final season, Chase had in fact made reference to the possible ways that things might end. Tony might be arrested, indicted, tried, convicted, go to jail. But all that would be anticlimactic, and out of sync with the series. Having Tony "flip," testify against his fellow mobsters and go into witness protection would be too out of character as well as unsatisfying and inartistic. No Goodfellas for The Sopranos, anyway, as that kind of resolution needs to be set-up early in the story, I would think. Other characters have died from accidents (notably automotive) and illness (especially cancer), but that would also go against the grain for the main character of The Sopranos. And the big shoot out, whether with the authorities or with other criminals would not fit in with the soap opera style of the show.
This leaves the possibility of Tony simply getting whacked, executed, perhaps not even knowing what was happening. "You probably don't even hear it when it happens," Bobby says to Tony on the lake in the first episode of this final arc, "Soprano Home Movies," a scene that's replayed at the end of "The Blue Comet," at the point where it all seems to be closing in on Tony. This was the ending that viewers were anticipating, dreading in large part, as Tony would without a doubt have it coming, there would be no denying the justice of it. Such as ending could be followed by a funeral (although that might be too maudlin or melodramatic), and ending with a new boss and/or heir apparent, maybe even Tony's son AJ finally embracing the family business. Except that this sort of scenario is too much like the Godfather and its sequels, and while Francis Ford Coppola embraces the tragic and takes it all very seriously, the Sopranos mob jokes around imitating scenes from Coppola's movies, and is much more informal and casual about "this thing of ours."
So, that leaves us with Tony getting whacked, end of story, which is of course another way to interpret Chase's ending. The crisis is over, Tony's guard is down, he's having dinner out with his family, the camera shows us a variety of different people also present in the restaurant, including one potentially threatening lone man wearing a Members Only jacket, who gets up and goes to the restroom. The camera spends enough time on him to suggest that he is in some way significant, but typically for Chase throughout this series, we are given no hint of what his significance may be, if any, by way of close-up, zoom, or other kind of shot. So, we are left not knowing what if anything this guy meant, but one interpretation is that he came out of the restroom with a gun (an allusion to the The Godfather I suppose), whacked Tony from behind, so the fade to black signified his death, which he never heard, never saw coming, never experienced except as the shift from being to nothingness. Taken aesthetically as a presentational symbol, the abrupt cut to black certainly felt like Tony's death to me, as a viewer, and I was filled with existential dread, nausea, depression--could it be a coincidence that while the series finale was broadcast, Chase was hiding out with his own family in Jean Paul Sartre's homeland? And after all, how else to really symbolize death on television, except, from the first person point of view, it's like the cable going out.
I've made reference to the movie Fail-Safe (1964) in a couple of previous posts (Jericho Fit, God and the Machines), in particular about the ending which shows several different scenes of ordinary life in Manhattan, each ending in a freeze frame and then the screen going to black. The depiction is of ground zero as The Bomb is dropped, of course, and as I've mentioned, seeing this on TV as a kid left me terrified for years. And this is the scene that I find closest to David Chase's ending of The Sopranos, which is why, as well, I see it as representing an extinction event. Given the ambiguity, and the numerous references to the possibility of terrorism in the series of late, Chase actually did not eliminate the possibility that it was not just Tony who got whacked at the end, it was the entire NY/NJ area. It would be as if 24 and Jericho invaded The Sopranos. But as you might gather, I don't see this as a serious possibility, and the threat of terrorism was never taken seriously in the series, except in the vaguest of terms, and in the sense of insecurity that Carmella in particular felt following 9/11.
Anyway, there is no question that the ending conveyed a sense of finality, and symbolized death, however you interpret the narrative. It could be the death of Tony Soprano, or the death of the viewer (as one fan on MySpace suggested), or the death of David Chase for that matter. But it is that flip into nothingness that I found ultimately disturbing. The series in its entirety really revolved around the fear of death, and the denial of death, so this seemed an altogether appropriate ending, one that let viewers pick their own ending after a fashion, but also one that did give us the death of Tony Soprano for all intents and purposes, and I suspect that Tony's demise was indeed David Chase's intent and purpose--an extinction event.
But wait, there's more. I really didn't fully grasp the significance of all this until I watched these last two episodes again. And again, reading the fan boards, it seems that beyond the two basic interpretations of the final scene, there's much that's confusing about the final two episodes. For a series built on an enhanced sense of realism, there are numerous logical gaps in the finale.
But first, let's go to the interview Chase granted to the Newark Star-Ledger, published June 12 (two days after the finale aired):
'Sopranos' creator's last word: End speaks for itselfBased on that comment, it does sound like Chase has a particular interpretation in mind, and that would suggest Tony getting whacked, because the alternative would not be so cryptic. But again, Chase leaves things open, as the article goes on to indicate:
Posted by Alan Sepinwall, TV Columnist June 12, 2007 11:18AM
What do you do when your TV world ends? You go to dinner, then keep quiet.
"Sopranos" creator David Chase took his wife out for dinner Sunday night in France, where he fled to avoid "all the Monday morning quarterbacking" about the show's finale. After this exclusive interview (agreed to before the season began), he intends to let the work -- especially the controversial final scene -- speak for itself.
"I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there," he says of the final scene.
"No one was trying to be audacious, honest to God," he adds. "We did what we thought we had to do. No one was trying to blow people's minds or thinking, 'Wow, this'll (tick) them off.'
"People get the impression that you're trying to (mess) with them, and it's not true. You're trying to entertain them."
In that final scene, mob boss Tony Soprano waited at a Bloomfield ice cream parlor for his family to arrive, one by one. What was a seemingly benign family outing was shot and cut as the preamble to a tragedy, with Tony suspiciously eyeing one patron after another, the camera dwelling a little too long on Meadow's parallel parking and a walk by a man in a Members Only jacket to the men's room. Just as the tension ratcheted up to unbearable levels, the series cut to black in mid-scene (and mid-song), with no resolution.
"Anybody who wants to watch it, it's all there," says Chase, 61, who based the series in general (and Tony's relationship with mother Livia specifically) on his North Caldwell childhood.
Some fans have assumed the ambiguous ending was Chase setting up the oft-rumored "Sopranos" movie.
"I don't think about (a movie) much," he says. "I never say never. An idea could pop into my head where I would go, 'Wow, that would make a great movie,' but I doubt it.
"I'm not being coy," he adds. "If something appeared that really made a good 'Sopranos' movie and you could invest in it and everybody else wanted to do it, I would do it. But I think we've kind of said it and done it."
Another problem: Over the last season, Chase killed so many key characters. He's toyed with the idea of "going back to a day in 2006 that you didn't see, but then (Tony's children) would be older than they were then and you would know that Tony doesn't get killed. It's got problems."
(Earlier in the interview, Chase noted that often his favorite part of the show was the characters telling stories about the good ol' days of Tony's parents. Just a guess, but if Chase ever does a movie spinoff, it'll be set in Newark in the '60s.)
Since Chase is declining to offer his interpretation of the final scene, let me present two more of my own, which came to me with a good night's sleep and a lot of helpful reader e-mails:
* Theory No. 1 (and the one I prefer): Chase is using the final scene to place the viewer into Tony's mind-set. This is how he sees the world: Every open door, every person walking past him could be coming to kill him or arrest him or otherwise harm him or his family. This is his life, even though the paranoia's rarely justified. We end without knowing what Tony's looking at because he never knows what's coming next.
* Theory No. 2: In the scene on the boat in "Soprano Home Movies," repeated again last week, Bobby Bacala suggested that when you get killed, you don't see it coming. Certainly, our man in the Members Only jacket could have gone to the men's room to prepare for killing Tony (shades of the first "Godfather"), and the picture and sound cut out because Tony's life just did. (Or because we viewers got whacked from our life with the show.)
Meanwhile, remember that 21-month hiatus between Seasons Five and Six? That was Chase thinking up the ending. HBO's then-chairman Chris Albrecht came to him after Season Five and suggested thinking up a conclusion to the series; Chase agreed, on the condition he get "a long break" to decide an ending.
Originally, that ending was supposed to occur last year, but midway through production, the number of episodes was increased, and Chase stretched out certain plot elements while saving the major climaxes for this final batch of nine.
"If this had been one season, the Vito storyline would not have been so important," he says.
Much of this final season featured Tony bullying, killing or otherwise alienating the members of his inner circle. After all those years of viewing him as "the sympathetic mob boss," were we, like his therapist Dr. Melfi, supposed to finally wake up and smell the sociopath?
"From my perspective, there's nothing different about Tony in this season than there ever was," Chase says. "To me, that's Tony."
Chase has had an ambivalent relationship with his fans, particularly the bloodthirsty whacking crowd who seemed to tune in only for the chance to see someone's head get blown off (or run over by an SUV). So was he reluctant to fill last week's penultimate episode, "The Blue Comet," with so many vivid death scenes?
"I'm the number one fan of gangster movies," he says. "Martin Scorsese has no greater devotee than me. Like everyone else, I get off partly on the betrayals, the retributions, the swift justice. But what you come to realize when you do a series is, you could be killing straw men all day long. Those murders only have any meaning when you've invested story in them. Otherwise, you might as well watch 'Cleaver.'"
One detail about the final scene he'll discuss, however tentatively: the selection of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" as the song on the jukebox.
"It didn't take much time at all to pick it, but there was a lot of conversation after the fact. I did something I'd never done before: In the location van, with the crew, I was saying, 'What do you think?' When I said, 'Don't Stop Believin',' people went, 'What? Oh my God!'
"I said, 'I know, I know, just give a listen,' and little by little, people started coming around."
Whether viewers will have a similar time-delayed reaction to the finale as a whole, Chase doesn't know. ("I hear some people were very angry and others were not, which is what I expected.") He's relaxing in France, then he'll try to make movies.
"It's been the greatest career experience of my life," he says. "There's nothing more in TV that I could say or would want to say."
Here's Chase on some other points about the finale and the season:
* After all the speculation Agent Harris might turn Tony, instead we saw Harris had turned, passing along info on Phil's whereabouts and cheering, "We're going to win this thing!" when learning of Phil's demise.
"This is based on an actual case of an FBI agent who got a little bit too partisan and excited during the Colombo wars of the '70s," Chase says of the story of Lindley DeVecchio, who supplied Harris' line.
* Speaking of Harris, Chase had no problem with never revealing what -- if anything -- terror suspects Muhammed and Ahmed were up to.
"This, to me, feels very real," he says. "For the majority of these suspects, it's very hard for anybody to know what these people are doing. I don't even think Harris might know where they are. That was sort of the point of it: Who knows if they are terrorists or if they're innocent pistachio salesmen? That's the fear that we are living with now."
Also, the story -- repeated by me, unfortunately -- that Fox, when "The Sopranos" was in development there, wanted Chase to have Tony help the FBI catch terrorists isn't true.
"What I said was, if I had done it at Fox, Tony would have been a gangster by day and helping the FBI by night, but we weren't there long enough for anyone to make that suggestion."
* I spent the last couple of weeks wrapping my brain around a theory supplied by reader Sam Lorber (and his daughter, Emily) that the nine episodes of this season were each supposed to represent one of the nine circles of Hell from Dante's "The Divine Comedy."
Told of the theory, Chase laughed and said, "No."
* Since Butchie was introduced as a guy who was pushing Phil to take out Tony, why did he turn on Phil and negotiate peace with Tony?
"I think Butch was an intelligent guy; he began to see that there was no need for it, that Phil's feelings were all caught up in what was esentially a convoluted personal grudge."
* Not from Chase, but I feel the need to debunk the e-mail that's making the rounds about all the Holsten's patrons being characters from earlier in the series. The actor playing Members Only guy had never been on the show; Tony killed at least one, if not both, of his carjackers; and there are about 17 other things wrong with this popular but incorrect theory.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by writing him at 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, N.J. 07102-1200.
Sepinwall's populist sympathies for Tony and company stand in contrast with the more elitist, artsy view of Charles McGrath in the New York Times (how appropriate to invoke a NY/NJ contrast in this context), dated June 17:
Endings Without Endings
By CHARLES McGRATH
Published: June 17, 2007
HUH? The black screen at the end of the series-concluding episode of “The Sopranos” last Sunday caused thousands of viewers to leap from the couch and smack the cable box, suspecting a loose connection. So many sent e-mail messages to HBO that the company’s Web site was temporarily jammed, and debate over the meaning and worthiness of this particular ending has continued on the blogs and next to the water cooler.
Depending on whom you listen to, the blackout at the very end of “The Sopranos” was either sublimely appropriate, the perfect summation of the show’s complexity and ambiguity, or else the biggest gimmick since Bob Newhart, at the end of his second TV series, woke up in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette, the wife on his first series, and announced that it had all been a dream. In an interview with The Star-Ledger of Newark, David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” said that he hadn’t intended the ending to trick viewers or mess with their minds, but he nevertheless disembarked for France before the final episode was shown.
Why do we care so much about how television series — or novels or movies, for that matter — finish up?
In “The Sense of an Ending,” a classic text of literary theory, the critic Frank Kermode says we crave endings for the same reason that some religious sects look forward to the Apocalypse — because it’s the ending that gives shape and meaning to the otherwise random events that precede it.
Hollywood has typically taken this yearning for closure to mean that all resolutions must be happy and no thread can be left loose — unless, of course, there’s a chance for a sequel. But from episode to episode, and season to season, “The Sopranos” defied this convention, as it has so many others, dangling loose ends in a way that put additional pressure on the finale. There were literalists who tuned in Sunday still hoping to learn what had become of that Russian gunman stumbling around in the snow.
Not that all great works obey the rules about ending, however. Haydn loved to toy with expectation. Some of his quartets have false climaxes, the way a lot of Stephen King movies do, and then start up again, while his “Farewell” Symphony famously concludes not with a grand resolution but with a long dying fall.
Equally famously, “Finnegans Wake” ends midsentence, and so does “The Tale of Genji,” the 11th-century Japanese novel, though scholars are still debating whether that’s intentional or the result of an unfinished manuscript. Deliberate or not, the ending works, in part because “Genji” is among the most “Soprano”-like of texts — an extended family saga, about the son of an imperial father, in which the plot often meanders and people suddenly drop out and then reappear years later, just as they do in life.
To the idea of irresolution — the idea of life as a plot that goes on and on and then stops, still in medias res — the “Sopranos” ending added ambiguity, another time-honored convention. It’s the principle behind the ending of Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette,” to take one of many examples, which she rewrote at the urging of her father so that it’s left for the reader to decide whether or not the heroine’s true love, M. Paul, dies in a shipwreck.
To judge from the blogs, viewers are about equally divided as to whether that blackout represents the end of consciousness and the darkness of the grave — meaning that Tony does indeed get whacked in the end — or is simply a dramatic fade-out on a diminished but ongoing family situation, with Carmela as morally compromised as ever, Meadow as clueless, and A. J. no closer to growing up than when the series began. In this reading there is closure of at least one sort, though: Tony is at last finished with analysis.
If you were fashionably inclined, you could also give the ending a meta-reading. What is that dark screen but an image of the darkness that was there before you turned your TV on in the first place?
In this interpretation we are reminded, the way we are reminded, say, by all the textual gimmicks in “Tristram Shandy,” that what we have been attending to is a construct — a show, in this case. Not only that, but we also realize that Tony never lived in West Caldwell, N.J., at all, but inside our sets, where he resides still, granted a gift that is about the last that we would ever have expected for him: immortality.
And this article also included the following image which ya gotta love:
But neither McGrath nor Sepinwall have the whole story, in my opinion. After all, the answer lies neither in New York nor New Jersey, but in the resonant interval between the two. So let me first return to the theme of the North Jersey sense of place. After all, the final conflict of the series is between Tony and Phil Leotardo, the Brooklyn-based head of one of New York City's Five Families.
This particular conflict has been brewing since the previous season, although from the very beginning of the series an uneasy and unequal relationship between NY and NJ has been part of the background scenario. Phil announces his decision to take out the North Jersey "management," specifically Tony, Silvio, and Bobby, at the beginning of the "Blue Comet," and he justifies this move by saying that Tony has no respect for "this thing of ours," does not honor the traditions, a complaint that Tony has made about others, ironically enough. But Phil also says that the Sopranos are not a real family like New York's five families, just a glorified crew, and in that we can hear the echoes of the more generalized disrespect and disdain that New Yorkers often express towards their neighbors west of the Hudson River.
Perhaps this is why FBI Agent Harris suddenly seems to be especially sympathetic to Tony, although he has warned him in the past of possibly being the target of the NYC mob, and has otherwise shown some grudging respect for a worthy opponent, and following 9/11 and his reassignment to anti-terrorism duty, has looked to Tony for help in identifying potential Arab terrorists. In "The Blue Comet," Harris seems momentarily conflicted, but then runs after Tony to warn him of the contract taken out on him. At this point, a loyalty that is both personal and geographical overcomes one that is professional, as Harris divulges confidential information obtained from his "friend" in the Brooklyn office.
At the beginning of "Made in America," Tony meets secretly at Teterboro Airport (a small airport for private jets not far outside of NYC and not far from Lodi, home of the Bada Bing!) with Harris to try to get information about Phil Leotardo's location from him. Interrupting to take a cell phone call from, presumably, his wife, we get the impression that Harris is having some problems at home. Later, we see him in bed, naked, and an attractive young FBI agent emerges from the bathroom, getting dressed. Before she comes out, Harris calls Tony on his cell, whispering, going behind her back to give him the information about where Phil is hiding. The implication is that the female agent is his friend in the Brooklyn office, and Harris is having an affair, making him not all that different from Tony. She asks him what he was doing, and he doesn't let on that he's passed any information on to their adversaries. She then tucks a gun into her skirt, an interesting use of a phallic symbol that contrasts with Harris appearing vulnerable as he is naked in bed. But the sense of an overriding loyalty to New Jersey in the face of the threat to New York is complemented by the implied male-bonding that leads Harris to betray his lover in favor of Tony. Still later, when Harris is in his office and told that Phil has been killed, he cheers and says, "we're going to win this thing," indicating that this was a contest between the New Jersey team and its New York counterpart.
The truth of the matter, though, is that it is the New York Giants even if they play their games in the New Jersey Meadowlands, that NYC is the center of gravity around which North Jersey orbits, that the skyscrapered urban core overshadows and eclipses the outskirts of town, that The City sees the suburbs as bedroom communities, and we all know what happens to people in the bedroom. Tony is at an immediate disadvantage in his war against Phil, and his effort to launch a preemptive strike fails miserably when the hitmen imported from Italy kill an innocent Ukranian man and his daughter in a case of mistaken identity. That gangsters are often stupid and inept is a long running theme in The Sopranos, but it is also a case of the North Jersey mob being especially impotent when operating on foreign soil, namely Brooklyn (and it turns out that Phil has gone into hiding and no one knows where he is, anyway). By way of contrast, Phil's assassins are a bit more effective in going to New Jersey and murdering Bobby, and putting Silvio into a coma that he is not expected to come out of. They fall short, however, in not being able to get to Tony, but by the end of "The Blue Comet," it only seems like a matter of time.
But then we get a reversal of fortune in "Made in America," when Harris informs Tony that Phil is hiding in Oyster Bay, Long Island. This is especially significant. Had the head of this New York family remained on his own turf, he would have been all but invincible. Instead, he fled (prudent, but cowardly) and left his power base, running away from his enemies in New York's western suburbs by running to New York's eastern suburbs on Long Island. This served to equalize their status as suburbanites (Long Island enjoying a slight edge as still being part of New York State, but hardly significant in this context). Oyster Bay is also associated with Long Island icon Billy Joel, whose song, "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" ends with:
From a town known as Oyster Bay Long IslandSo, qui es muy macho? Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen? In this instance, Bruce beats Billy, as Tony's men locate Phil and take him out, and in the ensuing chaos, Phil's lifeless head is accidentally crushed under the wheels of an SUV, the ultimate insult for this culture of theirs that places such a premium on open casket funerals (back in season 2, when Tony had to whack his close friend, "Big Pussy," because he had become an informant, the turncoat accepts his doom but begging says, "just not in the face").
Rode a boy with a six pack in his hand
and his daring life of crime
made him a legend in his time
east and west of the Rio Grande
With New Jersey triumphant, and having already made peace with the other leaders of the New York mob, everything is back to normal, better than normal, and the final episode ends with a trip to a traditional New Jersey eatery, Holsten's Brookdale Confectionery, a Bloomfield ice cream shop/diner that boasts the best onion rings in the state. On a blog about food, Off the Broiler, there's an entry on NJ Dining: Holsten’s that includes numerous photographs and the following review:
There was a time back in the not so distant past where the typical activity for dating teenagers on a Friday or Saturday night was to head down to the local Ice Cream Parlor or Malt Shop, sit down at the counter, share an Ice Cream Soda or a malted with a hamburger and fries, and then go out and see a B picture at the drive-in. As my grandparents and my parents used to tell me, there once were many such malt and ice cream soda shops, but few of these American originals survive today.So, New Jersey and nostalgia, perfect together. And all in all, a very happy ending, at least until it all stops short.
One such place that seems to have resisted the destruction of these quaint landmarks of the 1950’s is Holsten’s, in Bloomfield. Opened in 1939, going there is literally like being sent back in a time machine to observe the social habits of pre-WWII and 1950’s American youth. The menu of ice cream treats and food items it serves are totally retro. This is not by design like one of the newer established 50’s chains like Johnny Rockets or Cheeburger Cheeburger, but because it has ALWAYS been that way — it is the Real Deal in every respect. The prices are also remarkably cheap, and while there only are about a dozen or so varieties of ice cream, all of them are made in-house and are very fresh.
But was it really a happy ending? Here's another way of looking at it.
The next to last episode was all about the decline and fall of Tony Soprano. While the unexpected sympathy of Agent Harris was helpful, everything else was falling apart. Perhaps most drastic of all was the rejection of Tony by his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi. It is possible to interpret this as Melfi finally wising up to the wise guy's ways, but I think not. First, she is outed by her analyst, Dr. Kupferberg, at a dinner party attended by her colleagues. Kupferberg justifies this betrayal of confidence by saying that they're all professionals, and like him, the others express a lurid, prurient interest in her famous subject, which makes Melfi uncomfortably self-conscious. Especially as a well-educated, upwardly mobile Italian-American, she is suddenly insecure about being associated with this low class (socially, albeit nouveau riche) Italian stereotype. And she feels the peer pressure from her profession as her fellow therapists cite the published research that therapy helps make con men become better criminals. But it is not an act of conscience that moves her to cut Tony loose, it is an emotional decision, and she expresses anger in her last session with him, truly sounding in many ways like a lover scorned. Before Phil had the chance, Tony has been whacked by the psychiatric mafia, and in the end Melfi's loyalties are to her own mob. She too is characterized by moral ambiguity, all too human in this respect. If she is not quite the Judas figure of the story, she has certainly betrayed her Hippocratic oath as well as her patient.
So, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. Tony loses his therapist, and Bobby and Silvio are taken out. On the home front, Tony and Carmella are disappointed that their daughter Meadow has quit medical school and now wants to be a lawyer (presumably for legal aid for the poor), and not all that thrilled about her dating Patrick Parisi, the son of one of Tony's lower level henchmen. And their son, AJ, home after being institutionalized after his suicide attempt, is a total mess. When Tony informs them that Bobby's dead and they have to leave their home and hide, AJ breaks down crying--what could be more humiliating and infuriating for Tony than to be confronted with the fact that his son, Anthony Jr., is not only useless in a crisis, but a complete wimp. In anger, he drags AJ out of bed, wrecking his stereo system in the process.
So, everything is closing in on Tony. He retreats to his safe house with Paulie, the last of the original crew still standing, and a couple of other guys, and he heads upstairs to the bedroom and lies down on the bare mattress, clutching the AR-10 Bobby had given him for his birthday in the first episode of this last arc, "Soprano Home Movies," and the episode ends with us looking at the closed door to the room from Tony's point of view. A rectangle of light, coming through the window, illuminates the area surrounding the door knob, suggesting that this is it, Tony is painted into a corner room, this is his last stand, he's just waiting for the enemy to inevitably come through that door, and he'll go down fighting but he most certainly will go down.
This is how the episode ends, but is it how the world ends? Well, the final episode begins with a clock radio going off, and Tony waking up in the same room. But where it ended with ominous, shadowy lighting, it is now daytime and things look relatively bright and cheery. Tony went to bed in the last episode in dark clothing, now he's wearing light gray (sweats?). And the bed has a sheet on it!
So, time has elapsed, this is not the next morning, but another, later day, maybe? We can't be sure, but what's the alternative? Only, consider that the entire episode has an odd sense of time. We move from scene to scene with no clear sense of how much time has elapsed. For example, in the next scene it's night again, and there are snow flurries, and Tony is meeting with Agent Harris at Teterboro airport. Is it the same day, or a different day? It's true that often at the end of a series, there's a tendency to try to pack way too much stuff into the final episodes, making them very condensed. But this doesn't seem to be the case here, and it would be inconsistent with David Chase's careful approach to the entire series to suddenly panic and start squeezing scenes in at the expense of the aesthetics.
No, this has more of a hallucinogenic feel to it, but very very subtly so. Other episodes have incorporated dream imagery, but typically included some surreal elements that make it obvious that it's a dream. And then there was Tony's other life as an ordinary guy that he experienced while in a coma. But this is different. This seems very real, except for the temporal discontinuity. Tony then visits Carmella, AJ, and Meadow at the estate house where they're hiding, and again it is impossible to determine whether this is the first time he's gone there, and therefore possibly the next day after the end of "The Blue Comet," or whether more time has elapsed and he's visited their hideaway before.
From there, we move to Bobby's funeral, and at the reception that follows, all the young adults are sitting together, Meadow invites Paulie to join them, and Patrick Parisi says, "We were discussing Dreamgirls. See it?" AJ becomes agitated, and interrupts with, "You people are fucked! You're living in a dream! You still sit here talking about the fucking Oscars? What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born." A hint, perhaps, a message from the unconscious that this is a dream, that a rough beast approaches, waiting to come through that door that the camera focused on at the end of the last episode?
There's a scene back in the safe house where the TV is on, and a Twilight Zone episode about Shakespeare as TV writer, "The Bard," is playing. Is this episode of The Sopranos taking place in its own twilight zone, then?
What follows then is an amazing reversal of fortune, a series of events that, while not completely fantastic, seem to represent the kind of wish fulfillment associated with happy endings.
Tony visits his sister Janice, and they have a heart-to-heart, exhibiting a closeness that we have never witnessed before.
Agent Harris informs Tony of Phil's whereabouts.
AJ suddenly seems to gain some masculinity as he is about to make love to his girlfriend (lose his virginity?), although they are interrupted when his SUV catches fire and they are forced to flee (but fire symbolizing passion nonetheless).
Tony meets with the other leaders of the New York mob (minus Phil) and they agree to cease hostilities, to compensate Tony's sister Janice for the loss of her husband Bobby (monetarily), and that Tony should do what he has to do regarding Phil (that is, whack him).
The Soprano family returns home. At their mob hangout, Satriale's Pork Store, a cat that they brought with them from the safe house spends all his time staring at a picture of Christopher hanging on the wall. This unnerves the superstitious Paulie, but Tony protects the cat from him. The cat's fixation comes up a couple more times during the episode. The sight of the cat staring at the photo is funny, as is Paulie's reaction, but underlying this, could there be an unconscious message, one rooted in Tony's guilt for having assisted Christopher is his demise following their automobile accident in the "Kennedy and Heidi" episode?
Having the Parisis over for dinner, Tony and Carmella are told by Patrick that the high-powered law firm that he works for is interested in hiring Meadow as soon as she is done with law school, and that she will be getting an enormous six figure salary. Tony and Carm are glowing.
Pop goes the weasel (Phil is whacked). Both the death and the disfigurement would certainly represent great wish fulfillment for Tony.
Tony sees AJ jogging, which he finds very encouraging (muy macho, and Tony hums the theme from Rocky in approval), and later he and Carmella offer AJ a job as development executive on a screenplay Tony was given by Danny Baldwin (following the release of Christopher's film Cleaver), to be produced by Little Carmine's company, and they also dangle the possibility that he could manage a night club later on, all to keep him out of the army (which he was talking about joining to go fight terrorists). AJ accepts and from this point on seems to get his act together miraculously. But interestingly, the two roles that Tony and Carm offer AJ are not really related, except that in getting into movies, AJ would be doing exactly what Christopher did (and recall all the times that Tony said that Christopher was like a son to him), and in managing a night club, he'd be following in the footsteps of Christopher's old finance, Adriana (who they had to whack because she had "flipped" after being arrested for cocaine possession). So, this all has an air of too much coincidence, and a kind of wish fulfillment in response to a sense of guilt over the murder of both Christopher and Adrianna.
One small sour note is that a minor mobster, Carlo, has "flipped," and Tony will probably be indicted, but his lawyer Mink tells him confidently, "trials are there to be won." What would life be without challenges to overcome, how else to prove one's masculinity?
Faced with Paulie's strong reluctance to take over Carlo's crew, he's able to bend Paulie to his will by way of persuasion. Another wish fulfillment, dealing with a difficult member of his crew.
Tony visits his Uncle Junior, who he has not seen since Junior shot him, realizes that Junior's dementia is not an act, and makes his peace with him.
All four family members are to meet at Holsten's separately. Tony arrives first, and the song that's playing in the background is "All That You Dream" by Little Feat. Again, another indication that this has been a dream sequence. This scene is the most hallucinogenic, although not at all surreal, in that it moves back and forth from Tony to various individuals and groups in the restaurant, as noted above. There's a bell that rings each time someone enters through the door, so we're back to a door, a different one from the door to Tony's room in the safe house that was the last image in the next to last episode, but a door nonetheless. Tony, puts "Don't Stop Believin'" in the jukebox, Carmella comes in, then AJ, and there's some small talk about AJ's job, and AJ recalls Tony's words, "Try to remember the times that were good." What is left unsaid is that this quote is associated with death, as Tony said it after Livia passed away.
A curious element that Chase adds to this mix is Meadow arriving late and having trouble with parallel parking. Of course, suburban New Jerseyans often don't develop very keen parallel parking skills (unless they commute), but most viewers found this puzzling, a seemingly meaningless series of shots. But, there's something dreamlike in that sequence, you know, when you're dreaming that you are trying to do something and you try over and over again and just can't complete a simple action?
So, all these signs point to the last episode being a dream that Tony is having in that room in the safe house on that first night, with the last scene being the bell ringing which is associated both with the door opening in the restaurant (but maybe also the door to his room in the safe house?), and with the alarm by which the clock tells you that your time is up. Then, Tony looks up, and we go to black. Is this the point where he woke up out of the dream? Or maybe he didn't wake up at all, was in the middle of the dream when he was whacked.
Chase said that, "anybody who wants to watch it, it's all there," but I make no claim here about having solved the puzzle. He gave the loyal fans of the series something approaching a Hollywood-style happy ending, and that would have been just fine for much of the audience. But he tossed in a zinger, left open the possibility that Tony got his just desserts just when everything was going his way, for all those who favor law and order in their entertainment. And maybe, just maybe, this last episode was all a dream, as those hints I've mentioned seem to indicate, and he never woke up after the end of "The Blue Comet" in the first place. But maybe the dream has been going on for much longer, maybe he's still in a coma from when Junior shot him, as some fans on the MySpace discussion groups seem to think.
Or maybe, maybe, it was all a dream? Early on in the history of film theory, the idea surfaced that watching a movie is like having a dream. Maybe this film of ours, this television series of ours, was all just a dream that we shared with David Chase and his crew. And by going to black, all he meant to say was, the dream is over now, the alarm is about to go off, it's time to wake up. Or time to go to sleep.