On The Sopranos

| 11 Nov 2014 | 09:55

    Dr. Melfi is played by Lorraine Bracco, which is an interesting bit of casting. In GoodFellas, the film Martin Scorsese based on Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy, Bracco played Karen, the naive girlfriend-then-wife of the hero/antihero played by Ray Liotta. If there's one thing The Sopranos is aware of it's Mafia movies, particularly the Coppola and Scorsese oeuvre. Karen was a woman not unlike the character Edie Falco plays in The Sopranos, Tony's wife Carmela. Both are essentially infantile women?women who care about nothing but comfort and luxury?who are willing to make their peace with the violence and brutality they know their husbands' lives entail in exchange for the considerable measure of luxury and comfort it affords them. Consequently, when Tony found himself falling in love with Dr. Melfi midway through the first season, it was sort of charming. The scene in which he tried to explain why he wanted his mistress to dress less like a mistress and more like Dr. Melfi was the first time we'd seen Tony manifest any remotely endearing qualities. It was as though not Tony alone, but the figure of the gangland antihero himself, was growing up.

    Dr. Melfi has offices in the Montclair Medical Suites, not far from the North Jersey suburb where Tony lives, but we don't know that at first, any more than we know that his ordinary approach to the office-block is unconventional: through the doughnut shop beside the newspaper stand where he regularly buys a paper, out the back way and across an alley to a little-used service entrance. We only find this out in the episode in which Tony panics after almost running into his friend Silvio?the hit man played by Steven Van Zandt?on his way to see Dr. Melfi. (It turns out that Silvio was visiting a dentist on the same hall.) "I thought we were making progress on your narcissism," Dr. Melfi remarks wistfully. It's the sort of observation that drives the mental health professionals in my family crazy.

    Growing up around psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, I'm used to hearing them complain about how shrinks are portrayed in movies and on television. It's everybody's story. I don't care who you are: hit man or head doctor. We're all misrepresented, stereotyped by the media and by each other. What's interesting in the case of The Sopranos is where the analytic consensus breaks down. I did a little investigative reporting the week after New Year's, asking questions, describing scenes, refreshing memories, putting this or that practitioner's remarks before this or that colleague. To a man, the analysts I spoke with described Melfi as a mediocre if representative clinician. Using adjectives that ranged from "unsophisticated" to "unprofessional," they portrayed her as tactless and provocative. What nobody agreed on was whether Melfi is supposed to be perceived that way.

    Is Bracco supposed to be a good shrink or an indifferent one? Nobody seems to know. It's an interesting question because of the show's stance vis-a-vis the mob. The Sopranos is about the Mafia in decline, after its heyday. But psychoanalysis is also arguably past its prime. Are the creators of The Sopranos aware of this? If so, if Jennifer Melfi is supposed to be typical of the current state of psychiatry rather than a credit to it, it would mean that The Sopranos was about not one but two dynasties in decline, two empires under siege?the Mafia by government witnesses and RICO, and Freudian psychoanalysis by the advent of Prozac and the gradual waning of clinical supervision.

    In a way, it's not surprising that The Sopranos should be hard to read on the issue of therapy. Regarding the Mafia it is pretty clear?and at the same time not. It's unambivalently ambivalent, unambiguously ambiguous. The Sopranos presents Mafiosi as people in whom we are expected to take an interest, without buying into the gangster mystique that is so much a part of the American consciousness and popular culture. I think it's one of several reasons why I was slow in warming to the series: I couldn't understand why we were supposed to care about these people, bullies and vulgarians, vacuous materialists every one with nary an abstract value or noble sentiment among them.

    Other aspects of the series bothered me as well. A good deal in it seemed phony. The first thing we learn about Tony is the strange attachment he'd formed to a family of ducks who made their home in the swimming pool in his backyard, and whose departure apparently brought on his depression. ("They were a family," Dr. Melfi points out in the sort of intrusive interpretation she is given to.) I thought the duck thing was bogus as all get-out. Also, it seemed self-indulgent. A couple of episodes listening to Melfi and Tony natter on about ducks and I was thinking, "Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?"

    I also had issues with the self-referential quality of the writing, which seemed gratuitous at first, a mere groping after hipness and postmodernity. The members of Tony's immediate circle, his wiseguys and his nephew Christopher, are always invoking gangster movies. They quote The Godfather, allude to Scarface. One of them has a car-horn that plays the first few notes of "The Godfather Theme." Carmela sits around watching Mafia movies with the parish priest, and young Christopher is thinking of selling his story to Hollywood. He knows someone who knows Tarantino's development person, and later we find him writing a screenplay and worrying about the "arc" of his life. An early episode even included an appearance by Martin Scorsese.

    Finally, I felt that David Chase, the series' creator, was playing fast and loose with the gangster-movie genre, commenting on it without really understanding its essence. That essence was eloquently defined by a critic named Robert Warshow, in a 1948 essay called "The Gangster As Tragic Hero." Warshow makes three points about the gangster. The first is his connection with the urban landscape:

    The gangster is the man of the city, with the city's language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring... For everyone else, there is at least the theoretical possibility of another world?in that happier American culture which the gangster denies, the city does not really exist; it is only a more crowded and more brightly lit country?but for the gangster there is only the city; he must inhabit it in order to personify it; not the real city, but that dangerous and sad city of the imagination which is so much more important, which is the modern world.

    According to Warshow, the gangster provides our only visceral experience of the pity and terror of Aristotelian tragedy: he is "what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become."

    Warshow's second point is that the gangster film follows a Marxist trajectory: the gangster is the embodiment of enterprise who rises in order that we may see him fall?an interesting idea, if a little tendentious. ("The gangster's whole life is an effort to assert himself as an individual, to draw himself out of the crowd, and he always dies because he is an individual... At bottom the gangster is doomed because he is under an obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful. In the deeper layers of the modern consciousness, all means are unlawful, every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression...") Warshow's third point is that the gangster is primarily "a creature of the imagination...even to himself." He cites Edward G. Robinson's dying words in Little Caesar referring to himself in the third person.

    It's not a bad account of the genre?up to 1948. But then came Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese. The first two made the mobster glamorous. The second two made him post-narrative. By focusing on the peripheral figure?the mechanic rather than the capo di tutti capi?and by allowing him to tell his own story in his own voice, Pileggi and Scorsese introduced the unreliable narrator into the formula. Scorsese's big innovation was to see what it would mean for us to watch glamorous people?stars?do truly horrible things while we were listening to the same events admiringly narrated by one of the participants. GoodFellas showed us sadism and brutality through Liotta's eyes, suppressing the crucial fact that Pileggi's book began with: it isn't until the last few minutes of the movie that we discover Liotta is telling all this to the FBI.

    If The Sopranos manages to avoid glamorizing violence, that's partly because of the fact that we're watching actors, not stars, do horrible things. You can't cast actors like Brando and De Niro and not have them appear to us larger than life. The key to our perception of the characters in the television series is the fact that although the writing isn't particularly sympathetic to them, the performances are. Of course, if you inject enough realism and sophistication into a form or genre, it ceases to be interesting, ceases to be itself. At first it seemed that was what was happening with The Sopranos. The serious juxtaposition of the gangster worldview with that of psychoanalysis seemed mistaken. After all, it was the mutual exclusivity of the two ethics that made the confrontation between them so funny in Analyze This. The psychiatrist tells us to adapt to a world in which we can't have everything we want. The gangster says, "Give me what I want or I'll kill you."

    But the serious connection between present-day wiseguy-ism and present-day psychotherapy lies in the idea of consciousness. If the gangster was always, as Warshow argued, an artistic construct, a sort of self-made metaphor, Tony Soprano's problem is something closer to meta-self-consciousness. Tony and his friends are not only conscious of living in a post-Scorsese world, they know what that means. It means it's over. "I was thinking it's good to be in something from the ground floor," Tony tells Melfi, referring to the day he first collapsed. "I came too late for that, I know. But lately I'm getting the feeling I came in at the end. The best is over." To which Melfi replies: "I think a lot of Americans feel that way."

    The Sopranos is about what it means to be a part of something whose chief characteristic is that over-ness, about living in a world in which the fat lady has for all practical purposes sung. It's about the fact that in some sense we're all living in a post-Scorsese world. In whatever way this manifests itself, we all feel our lives have become impossibly self-conscious. Bracco to Gandolfini: "That's the mystery, isn't it? The mystery of God or whatever you want to call it?and why we're given the questionable gift of knowing that we're going to die?" Our problem, though, isn't being aware we're going to die, though; it's being aware of being aware. In cinematic terms that manifests itself in the self-referential art form, the thing that cannot just be itself because it's been so well observed and commented on. It's the post-Freudian curse.

    Is The Sopranos about two embattled value systems having a "sit-down," confronting each other across the negotiating table? I honestly can't tell. Certainly Tony thinks well of Dr. Melfi. "You were a good doctor to me," he tells her with affection but no affect in the last episode, thinking he is going on the lam. She's done her best; still, it's interesting that at this moment the patient should manage to achieve precisely the neutral-yet-caring tone that the doctor has so consistently failed to produce. It's interesting, too, that the most insightful interpretations have come from characters other than Dr. Melfi?Tony's wife, for instance, who calls the priest on having a need to create sexual tension that won't be resolved.

    Another bit of spiritual wisdom comes from Paulie Walnuts, the sweet-faced thug played by Tony Sirico. Paulie doesn't know what Christopher is talking about when he starts using the language of story-structure. "Every character is supposed to have an arc. Where's my arc?" Christopher laments. "Did you ever get the feeling that nothing was ever going to happen to you?" he asks Paulie despondently. "Yeah," says Paulie, "and nothing did." It's essentially the lesson that old-fashioned Freudian analysis used to teach. You went in wondering why fate had handed someone so special a life so filled with disappointment; you learned to adjust your expectations.

    Contemplating the start of the new Sopranos season, I find I'm less concerned either with what is going to happen in Tony's life or his therapy than I am with what is going to happen in his relationship with art. The series virtually began with Tony uneasily confronting a work of art?a sculpture in Dr. Melfi's waiting room. He looked bemused. Later, we watched him take irrational umbrage at another piece of the decor of her office, an inoffensive painting. There is, in fact, a good deal about art in the series that has nothing to do with Mafia movies?good and bad art, mostly bad music. There's the dreadful choir that Tony's daughter is a soloist in. There's the no-talent band that Christopher's girlfriend Adriana wants to champion and "discover," and the hopeless script that Christopher is writing.

    And then there's the good "art": the W.C. Fields movies that Tony is always quoting, the hit single that Tony's friend Hesh "cowrote" with a talented young black musician in the days when he was still in the music business, before he became a shylock. And there's the music that gets played at the beginning and end of each show. Music is in the very name of the title characters, in the phrase "soap opera" itself. (The Mafia: America's Longest-Running Soap Opera is the name of a book written by one of the talking heads in a television program that Tony and his pals are watching in an early episode.)

    Meanwhile, art and the gangster confront each other in every reference to Scorsese, as well as in such knowing jokes as the casting of Van Zandt as a thug (his other employer, Bruce Springsteen, is another "Boss" with ties to New Jersey). Finally, art and the gangster confront each other in the dream-like, more-than-verbal puns that help draw the series together thematically, puns like "hit"?"a beautiful hit," one character says in a late episode, referring to the murder of a long-ago Mafia bigwig. It's the same episode in which Adriana is trying to break into the music business and in which the gangsta rapper with whom she wants to develop a mutually exploitative relationship confronts Hesh about the misappropriated royalties from that long-ago single. Is a hit something that you write or something you do? What kind of a "killing" does it entail?

    "Art isn't like betting or cards," Christopher warns Adriana, meaning that it cannot be "fixed" or controlled. But of course it can. I'm waiting to see if The Sopranos knows this or if it will end up reifying art in the way the gangster picture used to reify violence, intentionally or not. It's a real cliffhanger. Art is one of the few things as irresistibly seductive as violence.