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On ‘The Sopranos’ Ending…

My connection to ‘The Sopranos’ has primarily been as a bonding experience with my father. I’ve enjoyed watching him enjoy the show a great deal more than I enjoy the show itself. ‘The Sopranos’ seems to be one of the few things he seems really interested in; it gets his gears turning and often leads to actual conversation. I withhold my snarky comments because all of my qualms with the show are personal taste.

I dislike the smarty-pants intertextual references and the super-obvious, mildly clever ironies. For example, in an episode a few weeks ago, we saw A.J and friends sitting on a porch listening to rap music only to then, a few minutes later get into an altercation with a black kid, wherein they beat him up and call him a “nigger”. Very clever. This same episode featured Tony driving around listening to ‘The Departed’ soundtrack and even having the characters fucking comment on how good the soundtrack is. I find it all a bit too much. I’m not into “clever” dialogue and bad-ass music cues and cool, shock violence (Phil Leotardo run over by an S.U.V) but watching it with my father is very fun.

I see why he enjoys the show even if it has me internally rolling my eyes. Occasionally, the show does something genuinely moving and amazing and that, coupled with connecting with my father, makes it “worth” watching. This week, in the final episode, I sat there amazed and moved by the same final scene that pissed-off so many others.

When something ends ambiguously that is how it is supposed to end. That is to say, there is no definitive ending that you are supposed to go back and “figure-out”. This is the biggest misconception about ambiguity, that it is a throw down by the creator, that it is a puzzle you are supposed to interpret and solve. No, the point of an ambiguous ending is ending it, cutting it off before anything definitive has happened, leaving the possibility of anything happening. When people read into the ending as Tony is shot, it is no more valid than suggesting that he’s about to be abducted by aliens or that the onion rings were poisoned.

Tony is probably going to die, be indicted, or keep on living the same half sad-ass life he’s been living since the show premiered. What more do you need to know? We live in an intellectually-corrupt film world where puzzle pictures like ‘Memento’ or ‘Old Boy’ are considered “genius” and unearned, cynical endings are embraced. If the episode ended with Tony getting a bullet in the head or Tony being pulled-off by the feds it wouldn’t be any less ambiguous because then you’d want to see how he reacts or his family reacts or what happens and none of that could be summed up in a single episode or even, a single season.

At the same time, I’m sympathetic to those frustrated by the ending. Not for the reasons that it isn’t satisfying because if you have a working brain, it’s pretty perfect, but because the exact presentation of that ending could be better. I am not frustrated by nothing happening, I’m frustrated by David Chase’s inability to not be “clever”. It is apparently impossible for Chase to resist sticking in a few weird things to drum-up multiple interpretations.

The first one for me, which does not seem to be addressed by anything I’ve read, is when Tony first enters the diner. He walks in, scopes the place out and then we cut in for a medium close-up of Tony’s face. Strangely, the next cut is a basic film-school “no-no” as it cuts to a wide-shot of Tony sitting-down. The wide-shot seems to be from the angle shown in the previous shot where Tony scoped-out the diner. It is subtle but anyone aware of editing can’t help but read the succession of shots as Tony entering the diner and watching himself. What does this mean? I don’t know but given Chase’s reputation, it may lead some viewers into thinking it’s a strange dream sequence or out-of-body experience.

I think the tension built through the scene is wonderfully done and playfully suspenseful rather than obnoxiously so. We are truly in Tony’s brain during the scene, as each person entering the diner is anticipated because it’s someone about to ice him or it’s one of his family members. Even after watching the end a dozen times, I still find myself feeling weird when the Members Only jacket guy slightly turns towards Tony. I find myself going insane as Meadow tries to parallel park and keeps fucking it up. Where the scene fails and I think, why I sympathize with those disappointed by the ending, is that it cuts-off too early. I know this is the point but it would be equally effective and significantly less obnoxious if we were allowed to see Meadow come in and sit down and then given a close-up of Tony wherein his look is nearly ambiguous and then… roll credits.

The ending too, might even work if it simply played-out as it does but without the insanely pretentious moments-of-black-without-sound that precede the final credits. This too, feels like an affront; the fuck you or “joke” that so many have since accused Chase of doing. Cutting directly to the credits without music would again, serve the same purpose. It is not the ambiguous ending as a concept, nor is it any single aspect of the ending, it is the series of mild missteps that occur in the otherwise powerful ending that make it frustrating. However, even these criticisms are minor in comparison to the overwhelming strength of the final few minutes of ‘The Sopranos’.

I have not felt so emotional, so affected by a climax since Michael Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’. A series of well-orchestrated actions and shots illustrating how great and how fucked everything is, all set to Mogwai’s ‘Auto Rock’. My description, an illustration of how great and how fucked everything is, sums up the end of ‘The Sopranos’ as well. Only it’s all set to Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ a song, that if drop your irony mask, can totally destroy you. It’s why David Chase is not a total idiot like Quentin Tarantino: he has moments of daring brilliance that move beyond clever-ness and into well-rendered emotional drama. Tony is holding on, you are holding on, I am holding on, all we can really do in this life is hold onto some belief about something, anything. The show has always wavered between ironic distance and true empathy with Tony and others and in this final scene, Chase makes the right choice, falling entirely on the side of empathy.

If the final scene must be “interpreted” on any level, I would move in the direction of saying the purpose of the scene is to put you fully in Tony’s brain; to fully empathize with him. For some reason, I’m involved in a pretty pointless debate about R. Kelly and pedophilia and really, my only point is, it is important to never forget the humanity of even the worst people. We need to relate to scumbags. That is what this final scene does and what ‘The Sopranos’ when it is successful, has been doing since Season One. Shit is complicated. Just because Tony’s a criminal and a killer does not mean he does not have deep feelings. Just because he fucks a stripper in Vegas (and countless others) does not mean he does not love his wife and family. That is what this final scene is about. We all have regrets and experiences and dreams and plans and they all weigh us down and freak us out and lift us up and keep us going.

Chase knows viewers will take-in every detail and gesture and magnify it because it is the last scene of the last episode. He takes advantage of this by making every gesture loaded with meaning, but not cutesy symbolism or puzzle-solving but pathos. It begins with the Journey song, those somber piano chords and lyrics invoking a “lonely world”, and continues when Carmela enters because we the viewers, know their relationship history. Tony may be comforted by his wife at this moment, glad to see her even, but it runs deeper than that because their marriage problems cannot be ignored.

To illustrate Tony’s paranoia but also to give us some kind of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’-esque sense of human interconnected-ness, we get shots of other diner patrons. Some looks like they might shoot Tony, others are there with family, others are on a date. The shots of the young couple laughing and smiling, which is shown more than once, holds a great deal of weight because it contrasts with Tony and Carmela’s deep, at-best bittersweet and at-worst disastrous relationship. That young, laughing couple, is what Tony and Carmela may have once been or maybe never were but wanted to be, it doesn’t matter- it’s just that the young couple are at a purer state of being; before shit starts to fuck up. Given Tony and Carmela’s age and their location in New Jersey, it’s possible that Journey was “their song” when they were dating. I know it was my mother and father’s “song”.

When A.J enters, right behind potential shooter in a Members Only jacket, we get the same feeling as Tony. Initially, it’s fear of the Members Only guy and then joy, at it not being a shooter (for now) and joy because he’s seeing his son. A.J sits down and Tony playfully hands his son a menu, touches his hand, and jokes about steak. This is what Tony and a lot of dads do to connect with their sons, fuck-around with them; it takes on greater emotional weight because Tony feels like it might be the last time he gets to joke with his son. Why Chase chooses to break this pattern by never giving us Tony’s response to Meadow I do not know. However, we are still put in Tony’s place as we see her attempts at parallel parking. Meadow’s poor parking, is presented as a foible, it’s nearly touching the way she tries to do it and keeps messing-up. She isn’t supposed to be an idiot, we respond to it the way Tony, her father, would, with frustration and impatience, mixed with sincere understanding and acceptance. A similar acceptance is shown when Carmela tells Tony that Meadow will be late because she is changing birth control. We see Tony, a father, a conventional one, reminded of the reality that his daughter fucks dudes. It does not make him angry, he understands!

I can’t help but connect the ending to my father, something of a Tony Soprano-type himself. Tony’s dignified resignation, mixed with an unflinching, hard-ass-ness and facing the facts; be it because he might get shot-up or that his son A.J is sort of a dope or that his daughter takes birth control, all reminds me of my father’s own mix of unflappable dignity and unintentional vulnerability. All this shit is goes on, you can feel it all, weighing down on you or keeping you alive or both and much more and at the same time, “real” life is just Journey and onion rings. While “regular” people chose to dismiss the ending as disappointing and nonsense and the television critics began thinking of witty one-line pans and random, anti-intellectual attacks, my father and I sat back, our minds half-blown because a television show we watched to laugh at and get-off on when someone gets whacked, maybe just sort-of defined exactly how we feel.

Written by Brandon

June 13th, 2007 at 7:51 am

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Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah.
Yeah…another lazy post…sorry, I’ve been kind of busy…
-Armond White’s Review of ‘Knocked-Up’: Speaking of good in-theory, I have a similar ambivalence to ‘The 40 Year Old Virgin’ and what I’ve read and seen of ‘Knocked-Up’. I WANT to like these movies because I like the idea of offensive comedies that also deal with real emotions but I feel like these movies always fall short…they also have a weird predilection towards kind of offensive black jokes (which according to the linked review, happens in ‘Knocked-Up’ as well). I’m aware of Apatow’s career and I used to love ‘Freaks & Geeks’ but now I sort of see it as the kind of show that is a) only good becuase it’s on television (that’s like being the tallest midget) and b) makes its viewers feel smart. Anyways, Armond White’s review highlights a lot of my conflicts with these movies. Also, his unfair, curmudgeonly, asshole writing style is something I’ve no doubt, stolen a lot from…

-‘Excite the Feds: Wes, who commented on the Lil Wayne entry and works harder for his college newspaper than any one else EVER, started a blog. He’s got a good entry on Lil Wayne that acts as a kind of contrast to mine. Check it out.

-The Kanye ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ Mixtape has got me excited as balls. Seriously. I take just about everything back that I said here and here. I’m going to have a review of it for Monday.

-Besides the Kanye mixtape, the only new thing I’ve been listening to is ‘Cendre’, a collaboration between electronic musician Christian Fennesz and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. It’s basically Fennesz playing shards of electronic noise and buzz underneath Sakamoto’s super-clean piano playing. A lot of douchebags are worried about it because it sounds too “new age” and of course, that’s not very cool. The reality is, if you love this glitchy, farty-sounding, pleasant electronic music then you’d be full of shit to not like some (SOME) new age-ish type stuff. Fucking hypocrites. I couldn’t give two shits about Wilco anymore but it’s similar to people complaining that the new one sounds too close to the The Eagles. What’s wrong with that? Does everything have to be cool or avant-garde? Fuck everybody.

It also is hardly new-age music because it isn’t designed to make you relax. It’s really weird, even scary at times. Sakamoto plays some Three-Six Mafia-esque horror movie chords and when you put Fennesz’s bubbling menace of electronics underneath it…there aren’t a lot of good vibes. I think this was the intention of the album: make scary new-age music. Everything about it seems designed to offset one’s ears. Sakamoto’s piano is mixed way too high and Fennesz’s noise too low, so your ears are always bouncing back and forth, trying to hear one or drown-out the other and it really kinda fucks you up.

The only actual complaint about ‘Cendre’ is, it doesn’t make me want to gobble painkillers like sweet tarts and totally bliss-out like the other Fennesz releases. However, it is good for driving or walking, especially around 8:30-8:50 here in Forest Hill, Maryland, when the sun is setting and it gets grey-blue-orange out; what my friend Jesse called ‘Maryland Vice’…

Written by Brandon

June 1st, 2007 at 3:59 pm

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‘Miami Vice’ (Michael Mann, 2006) – Unrated Version.

The first thing to understand or accept about ‘Miami Vice’ is that it is incredibly confusing. My father gave up on it because he said he had no idea what was going on. The reason for ‘Miami Vice’ being so confusing is in part because Michael Mann knows why “plot” is stupid. Real-life, despite what Robert McKee might say, does not and cannot be explained in a conflict and resolution style. When it is presented this way, the world is idealized and simplified and you are left with characters speaking unrealistically with unrealistic motivations adjusted or tweaked to fit a plot. Real-life is a great deal more tangential and chaotic. Indeed, many of us have a routine or even a linear narrative to our everyday actions, but this is constantly interrupted by smaller but no-less significant things. For example, a prostitution sting at the beginning of ‘Miami Vice’ is briefly interrupted by Crockett (Colin Farrell) hitting on a waitress. That’s the kind of realism that Hollywood’s single-minded focus on plot and clarification generally forgets. Mann attempts to represent the chaos of real-life, a chaos that is magnified for two undercover cops by ignoring conventional expectations of motivation and plot. ‘Miami Vice’s plot begins before the movie starts and is only half-completed when the credits roll. For example, if you are watching the unrated version (which I recommend) the first scene is a speed-boat race. The camera pulls out of the water and the viewer encounters the boats mid-race. The race is not explained and I don’t even think we end up seeing who wins, it turns out to be part of a different case that is involves a prostitution sting. None of this is made explicit but it is exactly what makes the movie so good: You are in the movie along with the characters, receiving information or experiencing things along with them. Mann obviously wants you to feel what is going on rather than understand it. To enjoy ‘Miami Vice’ one has to be okay with an experience that is a bit closer to actual living, where you’re not always sure what is going on or only realize what is going on after the fact.

This presentation of life, as chaotic or messy, represents how Mann holds a strong disinterest in idealization or idealized forms of any kind and is a compulsive truth-teller. The scenes of violence are not stylish or hip like a Tarantino movie, they are incredibly quick and messy. Anyone that has seen ‘Heat’ is well aware of Mann’s interest in showing his audience what actual bullets actually do. The same attitude is taken in ‘Miami Vice’; heads explode, bodies are ripped apart. Most movies use gigantic budgets to change our ugly, regular world into an exciting, hyper-realistic movie set, Mann uses all of his energy and budget to render a world as dark and harsh as the one we live in. Colin Farrell is not allowed to be handsome, instead he is made to look like some hard-living Andre Agassi-looking Jimmy Buffett fan and Jamie Foxx is forced into a role that does not allow him to ham it up. Mann makes great attempts to make his actors look more realistic, uglier. Tubbs’ (Jamie Foxx) girlfriend in the movie is attractive but pretty in a way that is attainable. Crockett’s love interest, Isabella (Gong Li), has an incredibly thick accent that makes much of her dialogue hard to understand. Martin Scorsese’s movies are celebrated for their “grittiness” when in reality, he hasn’t made a film with a hint of realism in it since ‘Raging Bull’. If you have some free time, look up the real-life versions of Jimmy Burke or Frank Rosenthal and compare them to how Deniro looks in ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘Casino’. While Mann is certainly not documentary-realistic, it is interesting that he goes to such lengths to make his characters look so regular and even ugly: bad hair, goofy suits, chains, stubble.

This realism is apparent in the movie’s dirty, third-world settings but it is there in the glamorous Miami settings as well. I think the movie’s sections in Miami, set to constantly thumping music, bright colors, and stylish dress have been misinterpreted as celebratory. They are as realistically rendered as the sections of the movie that take place in South America, where we see the dirt and grime of the third-world and implicitly, the ravaging effects of drug-dealing on those that do not benefit from it. In Miami or in the dealers’ expensive homes, we see the rewards of the drug trade. The movie constantly bounces between this Miami glitz and third-world shit. This exercise in extremes is more than simplistic Hollywood filmmaking, it is the reality of the drug trafficking situation. There are those in power and those powerful people exploit and use as heavies, the average citizens of these countries. Mann even goes as far as to present the under-discussed reality of groups like the Aryan Nation in the drug trafficking world. He holds nothing back in his single-minded focus on realism.

Realism however, does not make a movie great and it is the strands of melancholy throughout ‘Miami Vice’ that move it in the direction of a strong and I hope, lasting movie. The world is closing-in and the audience feels it along with Crockett and Tubbs, but it is made particularly affecting through the simultaneous acknowledgment of this sad reality and actions made to combat this reality. Unlike Mann’s earlier movie, ‘Thief’ wherein the response to a world closing-in is fuck-all and blow it up, ‘Miami Vice’ gives you that fuck-all feeling without entirely losing hope. It is post-nihilistic, having accepted that the world is fucked and corrupt and trying to continue living with that reality by not giving up. ‘Miami Vice’ is about connection, about love and friendship, lost, found, and rediscovered as a way of responding to hopelessness. Despite all of the shit, you keep going by caring. The movie ends with some bad guys being shot and some good guys pulling-through, some even bigger bad guys escaping, and some hearts broken. All of the shit, good, bad, and somewhere in the middle, culminates in the final five minutes, perfectly set to Mogwai’s ‘Auto Rock’, leading to an incredibly moving climax wherein all of the aforementioned feelings are contained. The last shot is Crockett walking away from the camera, but unlike Frank in ‘Thief’ who turns his back to everything, Crockett is walking back to reunite with his partner.

‘Miami Vice’ was presented as and indeed, sort-of looks like a conventional action movie but it is instead, an incredibly independent and rarified creation. How did Mann get 135 million dollars to make this? How did they let him release it as it is? Wall-to-wall music, digital-video cinematography, numerous scenes of characters simply staring or looking sad, it’s really incredible. ‘Miami Vice’ is much more “independent” in the sense of being one man’s vision than ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ or many other ultra-safe “indie” movies. ‘Miami Vice’ is a hard-ass action movie with an incredibly sensitive tone. It is an ultra-glamorous style-fest with an incredibly realistic edge. It is a movie with two handsome leads made-up to look incredibly uncool and not handsome. I ask this question complimentary: Who is this movie for?

Written by Brandon

February 24th, 2007 at 7:19 am