Wednesday, October 20, 2021

In The Sopranos... - The Many Disappointments of David Chase

Is it just me or has there been an article about The Many Saints of Newark every day since The Sopranos ended in 2007? The Sopranos movie prequel was so publicized for so many years, how was this movie ever not going to suck?
We should have figured out what this movie was a decade before it was released: it's a movie that should be a TV show - the kind of movie that used to exist all the time before TV had 300 channels - great in parts, but with too many characters, too much plot to get through, too many acting set-pieces, too many complex motivations, too many attempts to expand in an artform that thrives on contraction.
As far back as David Chase could remember, he wanted to be Martin Scorsese. Chase was two years younger than Marty, but they both were Italians from the New York area who grew up having vivid encounters with the mafia all the time, and both have film degrees from New York University. But Marty was from Little Italy - he grew up amid the action and the flash in Manhattan where there were always three new movies to see every day and very religious parents who didn't understand their kid but supported him all the same in everything. By the time Scorsese made Mean Streets in 1973, he'd hatched fully formed and birthed an entire new era of American cinema, and he never looked back.
At this point, it's almost not a competition. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg are the most important directors in the history of American movies - Hitchcock is obviously not American, neither are Lubitsch and Wilder, Welles and Coppola barely made more than one movie of consequence, and the majority by John Ford and Howard Hawks are generic Hollywood genre pictures. Thus far, Scorsese and Spielberg (and maybe Robert Altman) are the only American directors who have made an entire career's worth of movies, each of which have both the personal style of their director, and also each movie with a personalities entirely its own.
And between Spielberg and Scorsese, there's no question. Scorsese is clearly the better director, the more influential, the more serious in every way. Everything Spielberg directs has one eye on substance, one eye on effect. Spielberg is a great artist, but he's a showman first. Scorsese is just an artist who happens to put on a great show. After Scorsese, movies were no longer Hollywood and could never go back to the days of patrician WASPS exchanging barbs on a black-and-white stage set. After Scorsese, movies were American, teeming with the personalities, vernacular, fashion, music, and aesthetics of the American streets.
But while Scorsese grew up amid all blessings of New York, David Chase (DeCesare) grew up in the Jersey suburbs, where you had to make due with one movie theater in every town, whatever music you can hear on the radio, whatever books you could take out of the library.
If emotional abuse exists then his parents were Abusers with a Capital A. While Marty was being a production assistant for John Cassavetes and Roger Corman, David Chase was still sleeping eighteen hours a day, depression wasting him away in his parents' house. By the time Chase got to Hollywood in his late 20s, every New Yorker knew that Marty Scorsese would be the greatest director of his generation. Scorsese had already made Mean Streets by the time Chase got on a television writing staff. By the time The Sopranos premiered in 1999, Scorsese had also made Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, and Casino.
In so many interviews, David Chase said that what he really wanted to do was direct films, but for twenty-five years, David Chase was just another Hollywood screenwriter whoring himself out to write shows he knew TV executives would strip of anything remotely controversial. Scorsese made films, Spielberg made movies, but Chase didn't even make television, he made TV.
By the time Chase pitched The Sopranos, he was barely even a showrunner, he was just another of those anonymously talented guys who'd be on writing staffs and improve other people's scripts, sometimes without even screen credit. He was a good one whose scripts won a few Emmys, he made some money, and he even got to run the underrated and forgotten show, Northern Exposure, for its last year and change. But every generation of Hollywood has a couple hundred guys like that, all of whom are pitching shows to various networks. Most of the writers' pitches get rejected, most of the pilots fail, most of the shows that get picked up fail in their first year, and most of the shows that succeed get picked apart by executives before they can become art of any quality.
There was no indication of what The Sopranos or David Chase had in them when it was first shopped around. The whole show sounds like a gimmick: a mobster who goes to a psychiatrist, who's a murderer during the day and a suburban dad at night. When Chase first pitched the show, it was more likely to be picked up by FOX, and it would have starred Ray Liotta and Lorraine Brocco (Henry and Karen from Goodfellas).
Imagine that show for a moment. It would have had 24 episodes a season, no cursing, no nudity, no graphic violence, no extremely adult situations. It still might have been OK... It would be the two main characters from Goodfellas basically playing parodies of themselves. The mafia schtick we love from Paulie and Silvio would probably have been most of the show - and it would have gotten tiresome if we'd seen it in larger quantities. We'd probably get action capers that build all season toward a 'big score,' we'd get a death or two at the end of every year that serves as the climax of the show, and it honestly might have been interesting and gritty after the manner of certain network shows like NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues.

But it certainly wouldn't have been The Sopranos.
The Sopranos is the greatest TV drama there has ever been, and perhaps ever will be. 'Greatest' does not necessarily mean 'best.' Mad Men is objectively better, The Wire is more interesting, and Breaking Bad is more exciting. Of the 'big four', The Sopranos is in some ways the worst. David Chase is a generation older than the young guns who run great television shows now, he still has a foot in the world of old network dramas, and never quite lands on solid ground. The Sopranos never quite figured out what it was about, and that is exactly what made it such an epic, because The Sopranos was about everything that America is, was, and will be.
Violence defines American art as as it defines no other country. From the last gunshot of 'The Great Train Robbery' in 1903 onward, the whole excitement of moving pictures is that it can show us the world's most exciting images, and nothing excites the senses more than violence, not even sex. Until Scorsese and Kubrick, movie violence was not real. Movies like Taxi Driver and A Clockwork Orange showed us the real ugliness of violence and its perpetrators. But in two hours, you could never show us violence's effect on people, what leads people to commit acts of violence, and what violence does to the people effected by violent acts.
In my opinion, the single most revolutionary aspect of The Sopranos is the fact that its violence is so rarely the climax of any episode. In Scorsese, violence is the point: Raging Bull is literally about violence, and Taxi Driver is one long buildup to an act of unspeakable brutality. But in The Sopranos, violence is just something that happens, and The Sopranos is about the emotions which violence elicits in the people affected by it - victims, perpetrators, mourners and beneficiaries. And because The Sopranos is never limited by its violence or its genre, The Sopranos is able to explore universal themes in a way even Scorsese often finds difficult.
What makes art great, really great, is not the stuff on the surface. On its most superficial level, The Sopranos is a slightly gimmicky show about a 90's mobster who's also a suburban dad. But on every level beyond that, The Sopranos is about so much more important things. The really great stuff: the Shakespeares and such, uses that surface level of what the work is about to find awesome things that give us fuller views of the cosmos: nature, science, history, philosophy, transcendence, god.
What makes The Sopranos the greatest TV drama is that it gives us that view in episode after episode, but does so from the vantage of a stupid little TV show that has all the tropes of Hollywood hacks. Nothing in Hollywood could possibly sound more gimmicky than a show about a mobster who goes to see a psychiatrist. You can almost hear desperation of the pitch in the office of a studio executive - as though David Chase had run through his best nine ideas and finally just decided to throw out his worst one which he would be ashamed to make...
The Sopranos enfolds us in the familiarity of American TV, with which Americans have an unspoken social contract. All the violence is ultimately cosmetic and meaningless, all the characters are ultimately redeemable, every episode ends with happiness, comfort, and order. The Sopranos broke that social contract into tiny pieces, and we can never put it back together.
In The Sopranos, we now see everything American TV and movies have always been, but wiped clean of all the lies.
In The Sopranos we see the same murders and action we see on a couple hundred other shows, and not just with the beautiful grisliness of a Scorsese setpiece, but watching the slow emotional agony of how people live with violence's consequences.
In The Sopranos, we don't just see nudity and sex, we see the ugly exploitation of it. It may sound bizarre to say that The Sopranos is the most feminist show ever made, but for those who don't believe me, watch it... It's also just about the least erotic show ever made. We see how easy it is for amoral men to assault their mistresses and lie to their wives, and how easy it is for them to get away with it.
In The Sopranos, we don't just see how money is made, we see the corruption of it. We see how easily the rich are influenced by greed and how easily the poor are influenced by addiction, and we see how easy it is for people to look the other way at others' suffering if it benefits them.
In The Sopranos, we see how generation after generation is born into endless cycles of violence and evil from which it's nearly impossible to escape, and amid all that difficulty and pressure, upholding that cycle can seem like a much more virtuous act than rebelling against it.
So Martin Scorsese may have spent his career feted as the greatest American artist of his and our time, but in the future, I wonder if this Hollywood hack named David Chase who made just one show to stand as his historic monument may turn out the much more influential artist.
In so many different ways, America is its movies and TV, so in that sense, The Sopranos didn't just present us TV wiped clean of its lies, but America wiped clean of its lies. The Sopranos is the first show that really and truly told us the truth and showed how easy it is to do evil in this country which holds its virtue so high.
In its art, as in everything else, America has always been attached to its lies about itself. As a country, we cannot get enough of art that tells us comforting lies. We love happy endings, love songs with hooks, action movies where the bad guys die, and TV shows with laugh tracks. We don't even read great literature unless Oprah recommends it. But The Sopranos really and truly opened the door to a new chapter of American art, a novelistic TV show where we can tell stories with all the cosmic depth and worldly vision of Dostoevsky and Balzac: a popular artform designed for art rather than commerce, an artform as contradictory as America itself, with which a once young country can finally attain some degree of maturity and view itself with honest clarity as a country in which all the deep flaws of human nature still flourish as ever before, but humanity can still thrive, even in all its messy complications.
America was made in The Sopranos.

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