The main topic of conversation about The Sopranos, seven years after the series finale, is still whether Tony Soprano, mob boss of North Jersey, is dead or not. And series creator David Chase couldn't care less about that.
Instead of giving Tony a final scene in which he is either killed or arrested — the two possible fates Tony and his fans had imagined for him — the last episode ends unexpectedly during a domestic scene with an ominous tinge. Tony (James Gandolfini), his wife (Edie Falco), and his son (Robert Iler) are waiting for his daughter, Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), to join them for dinner at a popular restaurant, while a number of suspicious characters mill around. Outside, Meadow burns rubber trying to get into a parking space and then runs across a street against the light as cars whiz by her. Inside, Tony raises his head, and — CUT TO BLACK. Millions of television sets across America went dark and silent suddenly. Is my television broken? we wondered, each in our individual homes. At THIS moment? Then the credits rolled, and all hell really broke loose. Are you kidding me? This is the end?
What did it mean? Was this Chase's way of artfully — or contemptuously, depending on your opinion of Chase’s attitude toward his audience — creating Tony's death? Some recalled that Bobby Baccalieri, Tony's brother-in-law, once said that when the bullet with your name on it arrived, you probably didn't hear it coming. The questions have not yet stopped since the episode aired in June 2007.
Chase, he wouldn't tell. For him, that kind of obsession is as misguided as asking, "What happened to the Russian in 'Pine Barrens'?" — a reference to a season-three episode in which two men in Tony's crew, Christopher Moltisanti and Paulie Walnuts, drive a Russian mobster they have severely beaten up to the snow-covered New Jersey Pine Barrens to kill and dispose of him. Moltisanti and Walnuts are stunned when the Russian not only musters the energy to escape, but also disappears without a trace in a hail of bullets as they try to recapture him. It's an early "did he die?" series moment. In response to audience agitation to know what became of the mobster, and even the lobbying of Terry Winter, who wrote the episode, to give the incident closure in a subsequent episode, Chase replied, "I don't give a fuck about the Russian." Chase clearly meant that disappearance to be one of life's loose threads.
Chase wasn't just playing with our heads when he designed the conclusion of The Sopranos; he was part of the ongoing evolution of the American imagination
I had been talking with Chase for a few years when I finally asked him whether Tony was dead. We were in a tiny coffee shop, when, in the middle of a low-key chat about a writing problem I was having, I popped the question. Chase startled me by turning toward me and saying with sudden, explosive anger, "Why are we talking about this?" I answered, "I'm just curious." And then, for whatever reason, he told me. And I will tell you. So keep reading.
My earliest fascination with Chase, was, unsurprisingly, a result of The Sopranos, which led me to a couple of interviews with him at Silvercup Studios in 2005, for a book about gangster films I have long since published. And we have continued to exchange ideas through e-mails and discussions at Upper East Side coffee bars and restaurants. When you're across the table from him, he makes an impression without making a commotion. He oscillates between intense verbal pyrotechnics, laughter, and silences, which might mean "I am listening to you" or "I am thinking." He is forthcoming, but tends to maintain a reserve about his own work, insisting that if he could say what it means then he wouldn't have to write it. He's right, of course. All the same, he and I both think there is value in conversations between artists and critics; ours remains in progress.
On occasion he breaks his reserve, but makes it clear that I am not to write about anything he says that is an interpretation of his own work, since he believes that the art of entertaining is leaving the audience imagination to run wild. So when he answered the "is Tony dead" question, he was laconic.
Fine. Tony's not dead. But what do we do with this bald fact? And isn't Chase's flat response exactly the point? The mere answer doesn't really go anywhere unless we consider it as a part of the larger context of The Sopranos, and as a part of the much bigger story of Chase's art.
Chase has a lifelong love of detail. When he was a child, he busied himself constructing complicated models. After he saw the movie Frankenstein, he built a small simulacrum of the mad scientist's laboratory, complete with a tilting balsa wood gurney. "I'm still doing that," he says. But in itself his precision with bits and pieces tells us only about part of who he is. As Allen Coulter, one of the key directors on The Sopranos, says of Chase, "He's a man of many dimensions."
And surprising dimensions they are. On very rare occasions Chase will say that once, long ago, he glimpsed something fleeting that he could never quite pin down, could never quite hold onto, and could never forget. It's there in the lyrics of one of his favorite songs by Pink Floyd, "Comfortably Numb": "When I was a child/I caught a fleeting glimpse/Out of the corner of my eye/I turned to look but it was gone/I cannot put my finger on it now/The child is grown/The dream is gone/I have become comfortably numb." It's also there in one of his favorite poems, by Edgar Allan Poe, "Dream Within a Dream," which envisions the transitory quality of life that slips from his grasp: "O god can I not save/One from the pitiless wave?/Is all we see or seem but a dream within a dream?"
Chase is the son of a man who owned a hardware store. His family photograph album reveals his origins in the mid-20th century American middle class. Turn to the page with a picture of him as a baby, sitting in one of those huge carriages that were common in the 1940s. His large eyes shine. He is a child who lacks no creature comforts, the proof of American post-World War II prosperity. A picture taken a few years later suggests the feeling articulated most vociferously by the Beats that the prosperity of the 1950's was sliding off the rails.
One look at Chase's prom picture and it is clear that something has turned stale. There he stands next to a girl he had never liked and who never liked him, both of them dressed up to party. But, as Chase recalls, they barely exchanged a word during the entire evening. She was a pretty girl; he was an appropriate escort. They had made the comfortably numb choice that social conventions dictated. When Chase and I looked at this photo together, his eyes lit up at a remembered comic absurdity, the kind that is abundantly present in The Sopranos. Viewed as part of the big picture of his life, the image commemorates the boredom that might have characterized a series of stultifying choices, had Chase followed in the footsteps of the community of small merchants like his father.
Might have, if the 1960's hadn't happened. In college, Chase's eyes were opened to the tantalizing Romanticism in Hawthorne, Melville, and especially Poe. He read Carlos Castaneda's early books about Don Juan, a sorcerer who teaches the controlled use of drugs as a portal to alternate worlds. He found Italian cinema. He was already into rock and roll. Now, he experimented with LSD, which he took nine or ten times. That was enough, he says.
The experiences of his college years became Chase's turning point as a man and an artist. Rock and roll and sex never lost their appeal for Chase, but drugs did. He didn't follow the druggies of his generation into fatal excesses. Maybe he just loved this world and its detail too much for that. But mostly, he says, it was because he could see that repeated drug episodes did not lead toward liberation but toward paranoia and a lack of creativity. Reading Carlos Castaneda convinced Chase that using drugs "without a whole belief system around it was really fourth rate."
Though you wouldn't know it from watching Hollywood movies, endings are by nature mysterious
Unable to find the necessary whole belief system in the Waldensian Christianity of his immediate family, in anyone else's religion, or in the ideals of an America that he saw broken all around him, Chase did find it in the art of film and in music. He also found himself working in television as the protege of Stephen J. Cannell, writing for The Rockford Files and learning a lot about formula and entertaining America. And then he wrote Kolchak: Night Stalker, I'll Fly Away, and Northern Exposure. Those were the years of craft.
It was only when he was able to take his chance with The Sopranos at HBO that he found the liberty to use his craft to further his art. The Chasean vision that was stoked by the genius for detail fused with Castaneda and Poe became the fuel that powered Tony Soprano's crime story. Chase's gangster series became a succes d'estime as well as a ratings giant; it won 21 Emmys in its six-season run, and more than 13 million people watched the Season 4 premiere, The Sopranos' most popular episode.
Chase wasn't just playing with our heads when he designed the conclusion of The Sopranos; he was part of the ongoing evolution of the American imagination. When he embeds his gangster story with both his love of detail and his fascination with Poe, he is infusing a popular genre with the mysteries of the two persistent though contradictory tributaries of American letters: one beginning with the pragmatism of The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, filled with his many lists of things to do and things done; the other the dream-haunted stories and poetry of the American Romantics. This double face of America the doer and America the dreamer shimmers behind the basic premise of The Sopranos.
Chase's story of a gangster in therapy is built on the tensions and contrasts between Tony's concrete to-do list as a mob boss — the illegal version of Benjamin Franklin's self-help style chronicle of his rise from obscurity — and the momentary glimpses in Dr. Melfi's office and in his dreams of something like the ungraspable sands in Poe’s "Dream Within a Dream." Toward the end of the series, in "The Blue Comet," Tony verbalizes a kind of hunger caused by the way momentary enlightenment slips through his fingers, "You know you have these thoughts and you almost grab it and then, pfft."
The show’s gangsters’ lives are filled not only with savage murder but also farcical struggles for garbage routes; funny, obsessive material concerns — like the way Tony’s consigliore Silvio Dante walks around reading How To Clean Practically Anything — and also with dreams, visions, glimpses. "I'm not a religious person at all," Chase says, "but I'm very convinced that this is not it. That there's something else. What it is, I don't know. Other universes. Other alternate realities."
The glimpse — what the old Romantics called an epiphany — is in the comedy of Christopher Moltisanti's dream of Hell, Italian-style, while he is in a coma: an Irish bar called The Emerald Isle where it's St. Patrick's Day forever and the Italians can never win at shooting craps.
It takes a sublime turn in Carmela's trip to Paris in "Cold Stones," when she gazes with the wonder of a child at the carvings on a Paris bridge, transformed for the moment. Her mind opens like a flower in sunshine when she realizes on the streets of the "city of light" the immensity of human history beyond her small bubble in New Jersey. There are lives that went on centuries before she was born, and that will go on in Paris when she is back in New Jersey and even after she dies.
That this magic can happen in collaborative media like film and television is another kind of mystery. Unlike in literature where the author is alone with his pen/typewriter/computer, the film or TV auteur is never alone. And in most cases, the collaborators never know precisely what the auteur is thinking. Chase's key collaborators were familiar with his obsessive fixations on details. There were many midnight phone calls discussing questions like why Paulie Walnuts was wearing a sweatsuit. But they didn't know a lot about his personal vision; Chase has never discussed Poe or Pink Floyd or Carlos Castaneda with any of them, and they were not fired up by the sense of the fleeting glimpse that so moves Chase. However, during my conversations with several of them I could see that even if their motivations were different from Chase's, there was a collective synergy, the bond that makes auteur television possible.
Matthew Weiner, one of the crucial series writers, now the creator/producer of Mad Men, was enthusiastic about the presence of the dreams in The Sopranos and regards them as a natural outgrowth of the experience the camera creates for the audience. Early in the history of The Sopranos, two of Chase's key directors, Tim Van Patten and Alan Coulter, created the look of the series, using the camera to magnify its revelatory functions. Coulter evolved a tradition of creating a subjective, point-of-view camera that gives us the sense of being inside the characters' heads and looking out. Van Patten used wide-angle lenses and close-ups that produced, in his words, the "in-your-face experience" that you are so close to the characters you can see through their exterior appearances to what is inside them. This is, in fact, Van Patten's alternate way of portraying point of view. Yet somehow these creators following their own passions came together to serve Chase's vision that, as he wrote to me in an e-mail, "Nature is part of Our Universe and Our Universe is part of Nature and there could well be more universes or mirror universes."
Coulter is more aware than most about this other side of Chase. It was brought home to him when he was assigned to direct the first season episode called "Isabella," in which Tony thinks he has met and spent time with his neighbor's house sitter, a gorgeous Italian exchange student. Chase suggested that Coulter prepare for directing this episode by taking a look at Luis Bunuel's 1963 film The Exterminating Angel: guests at a dinner party are unable to leave the house although there is no visible obstacle barring their way. Bunuel's realistic photography creates a sense of factuality for a situation that most directors would have represented as a dream. Chase wanted just that look for the episode, so that when it turns out that there was no Isabella next door, just Skippy, a neighborhood kid who came around to walk the dog, there would be no visual coding of the remarkable events as a dream. Dr. Melfi interprets Tony's encounter with Isabella as purely psychological, a wish for the nurturing mother he never had. This ties in well with the series narrative. But the episode suggests the possibility of an experience with an alternate universe as much as it suggests a dream. Which is it? Chase won't play umpire and give us a ruling on this question.
In making The Sopranos this way, Chase aligned himself not with the decades of writers who filled television with stories where all the pieces fit neatly, the way they do in the lists of Benjamin Franklin, as if life was a machine that could be set in motion to produce a predictable result. Instead he associated himself with the art of the modernists who, like Poe, a great, great grandfather of modern art, were flummoxed by their days and nights. Orson Welles, a great favorite of Chase's, put it this way: "The camera is far more than a recording apparatus. It is a means by which messages come to us from the other world. This is the beginning of magic." This is an elegant way of saying that the camera's reproduction of concrete detail is only half the story, and the less exciting half. What the camera does that draws men like Welles and Chase to make cinematic art is its magical production of that elusive something more, Welles' "messages from the other world;" Chase's mirror universes.
Did the audience for The Sopranos think about Bunuel? Or Welles? Surely a few, but no one needed to while the gangster stories were in play. It is nevertheless true that the series would not have lured us to our TV's if we were not titillated by the surreal strangeness of Tony's stories on a subconscious level. That doubleness that leavens The Sopranos dictated the way Chase had to end it.
Here's where I tell you about the final cut to black at the end of the series.
Welles' magic, Bunuel's real-looking dreams, Poe's sand that keeps flowing through our fingers no matter what we try to do to stop it, are the inspirations for the cut to black. The cut to black brought to American television the sense of an ending that produces wonder instead of the tying-up of loose ends that characterizes the tradition of the formulaic series. Tony's decisive win over his enemy in the New York mob, Phil Leotardo, is the final user-friendly event in Chase's gangster story that gratifies the desire to be conclusive, and it would have been the finale of a less compelling gangster story. The cut to black is the moment when Castaneda and the American Romantics rise to the surface and the gangster story slips through our fingers and vanishes.
I'm not guessing. When I asked Chase about the cut to black, he said that it is about Poe's poem "Dream Within a Dream." "What more can I say?" he asks when I prod him to speak more, and I admire his silence. I am his audience too and he wants me to reach for his meaning. And here's what I conclude. Though you wouldn't know it from watching Hollywood movies, endings are by nature mysterious. There is the instability of loss in an ending as well as the satisfying sense of completion. American television before Chase, with the exception of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, one of Chase's avowed key inspirations for the art of The Sopranos, built a craft that dispenses with the destabilizing aspects of an ending. The true art of closure will not tolerate such a boring decision. Moreover, the art of closure forbids merely telling the audience in words that there is loss, since words can create the illusion of safety and control. Chase's art seeks a silent level of knowing more profound than words. He believes we already know if we open up to that deeper part of us.
"I've had this happen my entire career, in some form or other: I think I've done a regular movie. And people go, 'What the hell was that?'"
Chase also believes that the marketing of entertainment, which involves shoehorning movies and television into slogans, cuts us off from us the wonder of life's contradictions. After all, it is in part the successful marketing of The Sopranos as gangster television that made the ending of the series so shocking. Expectations were created on a level below conscious thought that it would follow the pattern of what we think of as a gangster story.
Chase believes, with good reason, that the inability of the marketers to pigeonhole his first film, 2012’s Not Fade Away, is responsible for its less-than-stellar showing at the box office. Yet it would follow that the failure of the marketers to find the right slogans is also responsible for leaving the audience free to experience the wonder of his choices. It is a catch-22. If you can't market a film with easy-to-understand slogans, the audience doesn't come. If you can, the audience builds up expectations that may block the true fascination of what is on screen.
When Chase didn't do a gangster film or a thriller for his encore, as some of his intimates advised, he took a dangerous route. Steeped in his delight in detail, Not Fade Away tells an unorthodox 1960's story, set in a beautifully recreated New Jersey of that period, about the failure of hero Douglas Damiano and his pals to find big-time success with their garage rock-and-roll band. A film about a dream that doesn't come true, it bumps up against America's obsession with against-all-odds success stories. On the other hand, its rejection of the template makes possible discoveries that are usually suppressed in the Hollywood tales of Americans who surmount the obstacles. Success stories tidy up narratives about career aspirations; they justify everything that happens to the main characters with the big reward at the end. Chase chose instead to invoke the wonder of following one's bliss, the mantra of the ‘60's, which involves the dangers as well as the pleasures and the indeterminacy of that kind of choice.
In Chase's film, the characters enter into a process that is not part of a Benjamin Franklin-like conveyor belt to success, but a process of listening and looking. As Mark Johnson, the film's producer, pointed out to me, Chase repeatedly asks his camera to register extreme close-ups of the eyes and ears of Douglas and his girlfriend, Grace Dietz, as they listen to music and watch film and television. Chase shows us these sensory acts as silent attempts to go beyond the blinkered perspectives they see around them. Instead of making his film rise and fall on the band’s commercial success, Chase asks us to engage with Douglas and Grace's journey of discovery of something riveting in the films of Orson Welles and Michelangelo Antonioni, as well the television show The Twilight Zone. Doug and Grace are straining for something beyond words.
Going beyond the safety of words and recipes for success is not for the faint of heart. Douglas and Grace take off for California, on the trail of the elusive something, and the result is the breakup of everything Douglas has previously known. Once in Los Angeles, Douglas is not sure about what he is doing, and when we last see him, he is separated from Grace at a Hollywood party. We’re left wondering where she has gone and whether he will ever see her again. Douglas's isolation leads to the film's climactic moment when he tries to hitch a ride home from the party. It is an ending that we do not see coming for this story about a boy who wants to play rock music.
When a car finally stops for Douglas on a dark boulevard windswept with garbage, our hero looks in to see an eerie-looking girl whose face is tattooed with pictures of tear drops while a sinister, only partly visible male driver looks on. The genius of this concluding scene is in the suspense of the long moment Douglas takes to observe his situation before backing off from the car. Chase takes his time to let the audience experience the full potential for disaster in this choice, before we watch Douglas reject it and walk off into the night, still on his way somewhere that neither he nor we can pin down.
In an e-mail to me, Chase wrote, "I guess what I was trying to get to in Not Fade Away is that experiencing art is the closest an atheist or agnostic can get to praying." What I understand Chase to mean here by praying is that in going beyond the cramped boundaries set by his parents, Douglas has opened himself up to the universe and life, a freedom that is not without perils and cannot guarantee rewards. Chase doesn't tell us this. He gives us space to experience it for ourselves. Because Not Fade Away is a story of youth and potential, not Tony's story of a life steeped in blood and greed, the sense of this ending has an upbeat tone, rather than the shock of The Sopranos finale.
What could the craft of the marketer have done for this film? Hard to imagine packing 'em in with the tagline, "In a time of social unrest, one boy found Art, the nearest thing to praying." Over-dependence on neat formulas has reduced the movie industry to this kind of absurdity as well as promoting a widespread avoidance of originality.
This is easy for an artist to understand in concept, but hard to recognize in practice. Chase thought, until he got puzzled reactions from fans and critics, that Not Fade Away was a completely accessible film. "I've had this happen my entire career, in some form or other: I think I've done a regular movie. And people go, 'What the hell was that?' And I go, 'Really?' After a while you begin to realize that you are different."
I didn't get the originality of the film either, until I had thought about it a long time and spoken with Chase. Chase believes that my revised thoughts on Not Fade Away are "bullshit," an emotional contamination of my first ostensibly truer response because I know him better personally now. I fight him on this every chance I get because I believe that criticism doesn't mean beans if our first responses are all we believe in. I don't think they are emotionally truer, but rather the opposite. First responses tend to ignore our emotions in favor of stock responses we have learned either through long exposure to formulaic entertainment or long exposure bad criticism.
I insist again that I like Not Fade Away better now because I've gotten beyond the confused marketing of the film. But whatever. Even if Chase and I might be ready to throw the silverware at each other over this dispute, both of us think this is a better kind of discussion than furiously arguing about Tony's ultimate survival.
These days, Chase is talking about the growing fatigue he feels with language. It's not a depletion of ideas; he has plenty of them. Chase's reading tells some of what his "word weariness" is about. He revisited Castaneda's early books about four years ago, and recently he opened up for the first time Castaneda's last book, The Power of Silence. He's also reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Living with a Wild God: The Non-Believer's Search for the Truth About Everything, which is about the exploration of the knowledge buried in our deepest, most silent recesses.
Chase is entering now into pre-production on Little Black Dress — about a severely wounded female soldier — which he tells me has a more familiar structure than Not Fade Away. That is, his heroine has a clearly focused, high-stakes goal. When I ask him if it is formulaic, he looks at me, his face darkened by a wordless revulsion at the thought, and he shakes his head "no." It would be foolish of him to say much more about a movie in the delicate first stages of production, and he doesn't. Early in the game whether a project will go forward is often uncertain. But I have to surmise that if he does make this film, Little Black Dress will be in some way affected by Chase's feeling that words are in the way and that he's more and more impatient to "get to the set and move the camera around."
On very rare occasions Chase will say that once, long ago, he glimpsed something fleeting that he could never quite pin down and could never forget
When he directs Little Black Dress, will Chase want to adopt an improvisational method? More likely, Little Black Dress opens the possibility of a further plunge into silent knowing, since the limitations of language threaten to trivialize the depths of human experience during wartime. Because of Chase's playful exploration when he makes a movie, his deeply intuitive methods, and his demand that a film "mean something," Eigil Bryld, the Danish cinematographer who worked on Not Fade Away, thinks that Chase is exactly the kind of director that cinema needs urgently today. "He must go on," Bryld said passionately when I spoke to him.
But it all depends on us, finally, doesn't it? And maybe Chase's art itself can be of some help here. Consider an example offered by Not Fade Away, when Douglas and Grace are watching Blow-Up, an enigmatic film about the mysteries a photographer uncovers as he begins to look more and more closely at what his camera is photographing. It is not what Douglas expects.
"What kind of a movie is this?" he asks Grace. "There's no music to tell you how you're supposed to feel or what's going to happen." "I think the rustling of the trees is the music," says Grace. Douglas doesn't understand immediately, as Grace does, that it's only by discarding his expectations that the film will give him some simple set of instructions that he has any hope of escaping from the comfortable numbness of the life he wants to break away from.
Might we not do well to take up Chase's challenge? To look and listen intently, letting ourselves experience our own sensations at the images of life slipping and sliding this way and that on the screen, instead of relying on marketers and formulas to regiment and organize us? It's not whether a character dies on screen that is at stake, but whether we die to our own capacity for wonder.
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