Wednesday, April 15, 2015
It Goes On and On and On and On
In an extraordinary extended essay for the Directors Guild of America, David Chase is now dissecting, shot by shot, the masterful final scene he created for The Sopranos. After eight years, the ending of The Sopranos is still controversial and wildly disputed and while Chase explains the mechanics of creating the tremendous suspense that led up to the final cut-to-black, the one question he doesn't answer is the one question everyone wants to know: did Tony die? Actually, Chase does answer it, alluding quite a bit to the possibility of Tony being killed, but still acknowledging that in the end it didn't matter. Regardless, the amount of skill and detail that went into that final scene is almost breathtaking. To hear Chase walk you through it, it becomes clear just what a master tactician he was as a director.
In June of 2013, I wrote a lengthy piece pegged off of the ending of The Sopranos. I had been pondering it and the recent death of James Gandolfini, maybe to an unsettling degree given that both felt like they were saying something to me during a very dark period within my own head. Today I'm bringing that column back, possibly with the knowledge that even though I'm in a better place now the questions I raised within it are always there in the background, lurking. The knowledge of my relationship with the inevitability of death never goes away. As Chase says in the DGA piece, "The big moment is always out there waiting."
"The Grand Finale" (Originally Published, 6.26.13)
Act 1: "Try To Remember the Times That Were Good"
Lately I've found myself obsessed with the ending of The Sopranos.
Surely you remember it: Tony and two-thirds of his family, sitting in Holsten's diner, casually munching on onion rings while the tabletop jukebox played Journey's anthemic Don't Stop Believin', a song which suddenly seemed to take on an odd menace given the setting. Tony had just made an uneasy peace with the New York mob, but both he and we understood that threats to him still lurked in every shadow simply by virtue of the life he'd chosen, what had already killed off almost everyone around him, turning him, maybe through sheer good luck, into the Jersey crew's last man standing. So there he sat, grabbing a bite with the people he truly loved, the blood family he'd tried to protect but whom he had inadvertently poisoned via the same cycle of ruthless violence that created him. Only one person was missing at the table: his daughter, the one whose voice he had come back to at the beginning of the year after being shot by his uncle and put into a coma. She was trying to parallel park outside and once she finished she'd come in and sit next to her father and the Sopranos would be together again as it had always been. We watch her finally pull into the space after three tries, watch her stride across the street to the front door of Holsten's. Tony hears the bell ring on the front door and looks up. Then an abrupt cut-to-black. Nothing.
At the time, the way The Sopranos ended felt like a cheap parlor trick, the final triumph of creator David Chase's more cynical tendencies and a big "fuck you" to the audience. At the time, the sudden cut-to-black felt like Chase telling us that life would go on for Tony; we simply wouldn't be around to see it. Of course, the reality of that ending was that nothing could be further from the truth because the reality was that Tony was killed at the end of The Sopranos, he simply wasn't around to see it and therefore neither were we. If you doubt this interpretation of what's gone on to be perhaps the most controversial finale in TV series history, go back and watch it again -- and this time, look closer. As Chase would say in a later interview, all you need to know about what really happened at the end of that iconic scene is there in the minutes, hour, and weeks that came before it. In the end, he practically spells it out on the walls.
Watch the man in the gray Members Only jacket get up from his seat at the bar and walk into the bathroom behind and to the right of Tony just before Meadow presumably walks in. Remember that the title of the final season opener was "Members Only," and in it Tony was shot by Junior and Eugene Pontecorvo carries out a hit in a restaurant wearing the same jacket. Think back on the conversation Tony has with the recently murdered Bobby Bacala on the lake, when Bobby muses on being whacked that "you probably don't even hear it when it happens" and how Silvio didn't hear the initial shots that killed Gerry Torciano right in front of him. Notice the split-second that Jay and the Americans' This Magic Moment is shown on the jukebox at Tony's table, the same song that played after Bobby made his first kill. The woman who walks in who bears an uncanny resemblance to Janice. The two black men who look strangely like the guys who once tried unsuccessfully to kill Tony. The scout leader who looks and dresses like Phil Leotardo and who makes his finger into a gun. Remember Paulie's comment about the orange cat -- the one that seems to stare intently at a picture of Christopher -- being a bad omen. Now look over Tony's right shoulder at the giant painting of the orange tiger on Holsten's wall and remember Adriana's affinity for orange tiger print. Also on the wall, the inescapable image of the Inn at the Oaks, which represented the final acceptance of death -- what Tony Blundetto called "home" -- in Tony's dream-state after he was shot. As Chase said, it's all there. Everyone is in place at Holsten's for Tony's final reckoning, his life truly flashing before his eyes just before the end comes.
Then there's the pattern. Tony hears the bell, looks up, the shot reverses and we see what he sees, his family coming one-by-one through the door. First Carmela. Then A.J. Then Tony hears the bell, looks up, and sees -- nothing -- because there's nothing to see. Tony is dead, shot in the head in front of his family by the man in the Members Only jacket. Rather than show us Tony being killed Chase does something far more diabolical and powerful: he makes us experience it. This choice represents perhaps the truest stroke of genius in a show that was full of them from beginning to end. It makes you understand that almost nothing you saw up to that point was by accident. Every single little detail mattered and it was all leading you to the same place -- to the death of Tony Soprano. That's what this extended tragedy was always about: his rise, attempt and failure at moral redemption, and ultimate fall.
In the very first episode of the show, Tony panicked over the ducks leaving his pool and understood that it represented his fear of losing his family. In the end, he lost them by being killed right in front of their faces.
Tony never heard it coming. And neither did we.
Act 2: "You're Going Home"
It's been so long since I've written.
Yes, technically I write almost every weekday, upwards of 4,800 words a week, for The Daily Banter, but for me it's not the same as writing. I bang out polemics which I sometimes feel very strongly about but which can, I admit, occasionally be little more than the fulfillment of a job requirement. This doesn't in any way mean that I don't care and don't take pride in the work I do for Banter, only that I miss the comfort of expressing the parts of my personality that don't want anything at all to do with politics or media or generally being a smart-ass, and those parts are many. I always wrote because I needed to, not for anyone else but for myself; I don't do that anymore. I don't do it for reasons purely practical and for reasons I try to convince myself are purely practical: because I simply don't have the time or don't have the will. There are so many days that I just do not give a shit about the Republicans in Congress, or Barack Obama, or the latest scandal, or who's outraged over whose crude joke, or what insufferable thing Glenn Greenwald said this week. There are so many days when I spit fiery opinions into the ether that I barely believe and hate myself for pretending to hold to ferociously. You can typically spot these instances by way of a counterintuitive and yet incredibly obvious tell: they're the ones I defend with the most egregious amount of venom. I fight back the hardest and in the most personal manner when I believe my own bullshit the least. This is the unnatural order of things. And I'm beginning to think that it's literally killing me.
Ironically, all the poison I regularly unleash is nothing compared to the poison I keep inside. It churns constantly, feeling at all times like it's threatening to eat a hole through my sometimes fragile psyche. When things were at their worst in my life a few years ago, it was my ability to express what I was going through -- the release of putting it down and pushing it far away from me -- that saved me from going completely crazy. But I don't do that anymore. No, at face value things are nowhere near as relentlessly punishing as they were from mid-2009 through the next couple of years, when a combination of pain and paralysis caused by the collapse of my marriage and being removed from my child left me floating adrift and alone: no real home to speak of and no real sense of who I was as a person, what beliefs I still had to cling to, or where to turn to make the almost constant anguish stop. But something is still wrong -- naggingly, achingly wrong -- and I'm finally having to truly come to terms with the fact that it isn't something being generated from without but from within. I have a beautiful and caring girlfriend, whom I love (dearly). I live in sunny Los Angeles (again). I don't do drugs or drink too much (they don't work in the end). I have major financial considerations that I at all times feel like I'm being crushed by and they cause me to work almost inhuman hours just to keep my head above water (but it's not as if it's the first time in my life that I've been in this position). Like everyone else, I deal with good and bad and try to navigate the world as best I can. And yet I don't sleep most nights. I often wake up crying. I rarely want to get out of bed. I sometimes dread leaving my home. Even when I'm laughing, I can feel desperate and broken inside. And always present at the front of my mind is that the older I get, the more hopeless my future is going to seem.
Here's something I've been longing to say for quite a while because I always felt like it was important: My divorce taught me something that I desperately needed to learn. It taught me something I was supposed to learn twelve long years ago, when I was in rehab for a devastating heroin addiction. Put simply, it taught me the truth of the Serenity Prayer. Anyone who's read my book, Dead Star Twilight, knows that that seemingly trite nostrum is a common refrain for those who hold tightly to the wisdom of "The Program." While I always understood the idea of it, I never actually accepted it -- until I finally put my arms in the water and began to paddle after almost three years at sea in the wake of my break-up from my wife. It was then, at long last, that I "got it." You have to accept that there are some things you simply can't change or control, another person's actions being one of them. I couldn't do anything about what had happened to me. I was completely at the mercy of what someone else wanted for both her life and mine, with our daughter caught in the middle, and I had only two very clear choices when it came to how I dealt with it: in the immortal words of Andy Dufresne, I had to get busy living or get busy dying. So I made a choice to come back out west, to the Pacific, which, again according to Philosopher Dufresne, has no memory -- hopefully no memory of what happened to me the last time I was in L.A. My drive across the entire country was the metaphoric made literal, a sudden bolt of physical momentum that finally led me forward for the first time in a long time -- appreciating each new day rather than uselessly looking back on anything that had happened in the past, any of the immutable events of history that had led me to each precious new second in time. It was good. It was the lesson I needed.
But it's a difficult outlook to maintain when you realize that each time your child visits from her expensive three-story home in Dallas, you have to convert your bedroom into hers and play a personally heartbreaking game of pretend, hoping she doesn't notice or care about the difference. When you're struggling with the kinds of money issues that seem to have ceased being a problem for other people years ago. When you can't understand why anything can make you cry. When you truly come to believe, finally, at the age of 43, that there's a very good chance you're not going to live to see old age, nor would you much want to.
Yesterday, I was wandering a local Rite-Aid, looking for a bottle of water and a bottle of Tylenol. As I moved through the aisles, I noticed that the music playing on the overhead speaker system was Tears for Fears' Everybody Wants To Rule the World, a seminal song from my high school years. I try not to look back on those days too much because nostalgia gets you nowhere; again, the past is past and there's no changing it. But I do miss the optimism of that era, the knowledge that no matter what went wrong, there would always be time to fix it. Tears for Fears then segued into Bon Jovi's Who Says You Can't Go Home. A New Jersey band. Singing about going home.
Act 3: "Every Guy Who Ran That Crew..."
There aren't enough superlatives to fully and properly express the impact that James Gandolfini had on television as an art form and, as has been almost universally acknowledged, on those he came into contact with throughout his career. He died last week at the far-too-young age of 51 of a massive heart attack -- cut to black, likely didn't even hear it coming -- but by creating the most complex, indelible and influential character in dramatic television history, he ensured that his legacy will live on for a very long time indeed. Like his alter-ego Tony Soprano, he was taken from us so quickly that we barely had time to process it, each, some have argued, a victim of his own bad choices. In Tony's case it was a life of crime; in James's case, a potential lack of attention to the deterioration of his heart. Either way, the end result is the same: death, an abrupt nothingness. I'm left wondering, though, whether Gandolfini ever looked back on his work on The Sopranos and felt somewhat haunted by it, if he pondered whether he'd ever do something that good, create something that undeniably flawless, again. An artist, of course, isn't merely to be judged by his or her current output but is in reality the sum of it over a large swath of time; provided they've got real talent, people tend to judge artists by what they've done throughout their lives, not simply what they're doing at any one moment. But creative types themselves don't always see it that way; they can go completely fucking crazy, unleashing their own private hell, simply by doing nothing more than constantly asking if their best days as a painter, actor, musician, writer, and so on are behind them.
I don't claim by any means to be a great writer, but I admit that I now go back and look at the material I wrote for years on this site and in Dead Star Twilight and it's as if I'm reading the work of someone else. I remember the act of writing but I can't for the life of me explain how I came up with the words that I did. What I read from years ago feels fearless and passionate, far too fearless and passionate to come from the person I know now to be me, the person I live with every day and night. That person is timid, frightened almost all the time, aware maybe of the best way to proceed but once again too trapped under the weight of mid-life stasis to actually proceed that way. That person has proven time and time again that it all comes back to this: feeling despondent, feeling overwhelmed, absolutely sure that his best days are behind him. Only now it's worse because I'm finally willing to -- have no choice but to, really -- admit that a lot of the past wasn't all that great. So if the past was bad and it's the best it's going to get and there's no other way to live but for today, what the hell do you do? How do you continue to move forward?
In the last season of The Sopranos, David Chase put Tony Soprano on the final path toward his inescapable end. Tony was shot and awoke from a near-death experience to find that he'd been given a second chance to redeem himself and possibly live out his years in peace with his family. But it took almost no time at all for him to return to the life he'd come to know all too well and enjoy far too much. He cheated on Carmela, killed Christopher, arrogantly and ignominiously gave up on his treatment and was consequently dumped by Dr. Melfi, and with all of this, the wheels were set in motion for Tony's doom. Again, as Chase said, it was all there. Anyone could see it. In fact, if you go back and watch all of Season Six of the show from start to finish with the knowledge that Tony is killed at the very end of the final episode, it's impossible not to see just how obviously, meticulously, and brilliantly that outcome was set up.
Everything in his life led to what finally happened to him.
It'd be nice to believe that he could have changed it, could have averted his ultimate reckoning. But who can really say for sure? Maybe he hadn't, in fact, chosen it. Maybe it was something he couldn't change and something he therefore had to simply accept. Maybe his death, like his life, was inevitable. It was the only ending that made sense.