JUNE 18, 2007
Really, the most that can be said of a great film is not that it islike a great book. Film is its own literature; and whereas Iunderstand the comparisons of The Sopranos to the masterpieces ofthe realist novel, and I myself have not been immune to thehyperbolic impulse in praising this magnificent enterprise, itstrikes me that the achievement of The Sopranos is not so much thatit puts you in mind of Balzac or Dickens, but that here ontelevision, for most of a decade, were tales that could stand in thecompany of Fassbinder, and Kieslowski, and Mike Leigh, and Chabrol.The subtle ramifications of plot and character; the absence ofvulgarity (I mean vulgarity in the bad sense) from this painstakinginvestigation of the most vulgar people on earth; the closebraiding of comedy and tragedy, so that neither optimism norpessimism is ever the last word; the unrelenting maturity ofattention that it demands of its viewers: the thing is so good itis almost not American. The Sopranos stands as a lastingchastisement of its medium, in that it accomplishes what Americantelevision most abhors: an improvement, by means of art, of theAmerican sense of reality. In America, there is no higher service.
Consider only the language. Or more precisely, compare David Chase'sdialogue to Aaron Sorkin's dialogue. In Sorkin's shiny nonsense,people speak in repartee, and always find the words they need, andnothing insignificant, nothing tedious, is ever uttered. They talkas nattily as they look. Even their afflictions are oddlyhigh-spirited, as coolness conquers all. There is not an unmordantor unmoralized second in anybody's day. Sorkin's phony people gofrom portentousness to hipness and back. They are the figments of adisastrously glamorous imagination, the polished puppets of ashallow man's notion of profundity. In The Sopranos, by contrast,there is no eloquence, even when there is beauty. Silences abound.These people speak the way people actually speak: they lie, and lieagain; they hide; they repair gladly to banalities, and to borrowedwords; they struggle for adequacy in communication; they saynothing at all. Their verbal resources are cruelly lacking for theirspiritual needs. They cannot say what they mean, or they do notknow what they mean. Their obscenities are their tribute to thepower of their feelings: the diction of their desperation. Whenthey reach for sophistication, they mangle it. Their metaphors areawkward and homely, as in Tony's climactic soliloquy in histherapist's office about getting off, and staying off, the bus. Yetall this inarticulateness is peculiarly lyrical, and deeply moving.It is also a relief from the talkativeness that passes for thoughtin fancier places. Words should be fought for.
The hobbled and true language of Chase's people is an essentialelement of his devastating portrait of the dictatorship of ordinarylife, of the alternately quickening and deadening influences of thecommonplace. (So, too, is his exegetical use of popular music,whose salving effect has never been made clearer. I speak as onewho is also inwardly fortified by "Denise" and "Oh Girl," andlifted up by "The Dolphins." And I can almost not forgive the showfor leaving me so absurdly affected by "Con Te Partiro.") TheSopranos is a searching study of the problem of small horizons. Theproblem is that they are beautiful and they are crushing. Who doesnot come from a place that mistakes itself for the universe? Allmetaphysics is local. If it is possible to have a vision of theVirgin Mary, then it possible to have a vision of the Virgin Maryat the Bada Bing. The Sopranos locates the human lot in northJersey, but the human lot is available everywhere or it isavailable nowhere. And the gangland Gemeinschaft provides the samesatisfactions as any Gemeinschaft. (And the same hilarity. Meadow:"The state can crush the individual." Tony: "New Jersey?") Yet itprovides also the same airlessness: the authenticity of these madecommunitarians does not exactly leave an impression of radiance. Thebitter joke of the show is that these people are repulsive not onlyfor their baseness but also for their provincialism. There is noArchimedean point outside the new Avellino. These are peasants withlatte machines. Their insularity, their superstition, theirimmutability, their self-love: these, too, are human failures, likeevil.
Chase and his writers are rightly fascinated by this carnival offinitudes, and the old name for this fascination is humanism. TheSopranos allows for judgments, but not for simple ones. The onlyinnocent in the show that I remember (who can forget her?) isTracee, the young, unsiliconed, and doomed stripper; and the onlypure villain, beside whom even that cocksucker Leotardo lookscomplicated, is Livia Soprano, the demon-mother who sets the sagain motion but is its least explored figure. Otherwise there are noheroes and no villains: there are good people who sometimes do badthings and bad people who sometimes do good things. Everybodyloves, everybody hates; everybody has something to lose; everybodyhas reasons, everybody has wounds. Chase brilliantly captures themystery of human motivation, the way in which human action ismultiply determined, even antithetically determined, by strengthsand by weaknesses, which cannot ever be disentangled. (GloriaTrillo, the bipolarity babe, is martyred to this complexity.) Inthis way he forces you into long spells of sympathy for morons andmurderers. His view is dark, but it is not black. Carmela is rightto aspire to more and better love, even if Madame Bovary is alovely thing to have in a den. Don't stop believing. It is truethat every trust that Chase depicts is drawn into the Sopranocorruption-- cops, therapists, priests, doctors, lawyers,officials, teachers, writers, and above all wives--but corruption,too, interests him as a human expression. Chase never relieves hispeople of their responsibility for all this physical and emotionalviolence: even as he inquires into the experience of depression, helaughs at the alibis of psychology. And in the end he wisely insistsupon the invincible on-goingness, the eternal suchness, of the lifethat was chosen. The door of the diner opens and closes, opens andcloses, admitting joy or danger. Now that the show is over, sadnessaccrues. I console myself with the knowledge that I will never seeJanice Soprano again. d
By Leon Wieseltier