Wednesday, June 19, 2013

James Gandolfini: In Memoriam

I wrote this piece at the conclusion of The Sopranos.  Never has a television show meant so much to me. Never has an actor inhabited a character on televison with the power of James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. Mr. Curry and I fell in love watching Sopranos and eating bad takeout. We both count it as our favorite television show, ever. Thank you Mr. Gandolfini for what you gave us. Rest in peace.

The Sopranos, Greatest Show Ever on Television

I have never been so sad to see a show end  - The Sopranos closed the season with a nod to the mystery, a closing eye, a fluttering lid- we do not know what stirs beneath.

As Norman Mailer said, the Sopranos was akin to great literature. Large in scope, as a VF article said, like many octopus arms, each long tentacle reaching outward toward some other facet of being human.

Tony Soprano. The acting by James Gandolfini was so magnificent it floored me- I have never seen anyone inhabit a character like that on television. His physicality was an enormous part of his role, in a way usually reserved for stage. The heavy breathing, shuffling in bathrobe, large shoulders bowed in grief, rubbing of bald forehead in times of stress, the way his face could swerve wildly from looking piggish and fat to dangerous and intense, even sexy, was thrilling to watch. I couldn't take my eyes off him in a way that does not happen to me with other actors who are acclaimed as magnetic for their sheer beauty. Tony Soprano was made magnetic by Mr. Gandolfini because he brought the internal struggle to the outward feature. A twisted mouth, a belt adjustment, the pull of a sweet cigar- each gesture was revealing.

The rest of the cast were brilliantly convincing in their roles as well. Edie Falco as Carmella, the wife of Tony, was never stamped out by the enormity of her husband, neither in size nor in the role he played in the family- or families. Even during times of quietude, Carmella was clearly not serene, but forcing her fears and unhappiness underground. This, in fact, was a running theme of the show- the way we try to compartmentalize our emotions; the way we fail. Tony's deep unrest at his lifestyle gave him panic attacks ending in dead faint,  large eruptions of rage under duress; some of the most painful scenes to watch were Tony's transformations to his demons, when his face would slide from conflicted to remote, a dark still water in which his eyes went dead and black. This was the signal that he was no longer connected to himself as a whole person, but only to the part of him that was a thug, a murderer, a brutish businessman with decisive and murderous violence at his beck and call.
His enormous, bear like hands made fist.

Again, struggle- the dominating theme of The Sopranos. Tony struggled the entire show to understand and control himself; his therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi were fascinating to watch as the blunt repression of his mind came up against the sharp, painful knives of memory from his childhood, his dead father, his psychotic, manipulative mother- another brilliant characterization. There were moments in therapy, rare but precious for the depth given to such an unlikeable man, when Tony was overcome with the past, when the reality of what he had grown up in dawned on him, and the pain brought a gravity to his thuggish face that was a fine piece of acting, a slender thread of humanity Tony fought to hold onto, and ultimately failed.

As the show moved forward, the theme of death became pervasive. Death in all forms- small daily deaths of character, large sweeping deaths of hope, human death in the toll a mob life takes from all it's participants. When Tony's mother dies, he goes through a profound struggle trying to accept that this means he is indeed completely adult, ie- the next in line to die. Life moves swiftly through the most dangerous currents.

The murder of Adriana, Tony's cousin's girlfriend and a highly entertaining, hopelessly sad character, propelled the show forward in a gruesome, heartbreaking scene in which Adriana, over the period of a pick up and car ride, realizes she is to be killed. She runs through the forest, sobbing and tripping in her heels, as she is gunned down by a man she has known and socialized with for years. The forest swallows her in it's great silence, and we understand at that moment that there is no recovering these people. Occasionally they try to run away and make a new life, to build something new- a massage parlor, a homosexual life in a new town- but they never escape. No one gets out alive.

Most of the characters in the Sopranos seem to be functioning on small intelligence. The depth and accomplishment of the show lies in the writer's understanding that keen intelligence is not necessary for a full range of existence. The dullest characters still suffer, struggle, reach for mysteries they cannot understand. Tony's son A.J. is perhaps the most shallow of characters, but his sluggish life, devoid of passions, still runs on the small pools, hitches, reverses and sudden understandings that occur in life. Even he cannot escape some internal desire to understand his life.

The mystery that is pervasive throughout this entire show is what captivated me entirely. As a poet I operate on the presumption that there are mysteries everywhere and inside myself, mysteries I try to explore or trace in poems, and these mysteries were touched here in this show, with great reverence in the attention to detail, honesty, and respect for the ultimate loss of each and every character. In the end, even Meadow, possibly the most intelligent and modern of the group, becomes entrenched in the dogmatic sublimation of humanity that the mob demands. She protects her father, and loses herself in doing so.

The dream sequences were the most profoundly moving scenes I have ever seen on television. The grey, wet cold chopping of ocean. Boats rocking. The sky, remote and removed, all seeing and uncaring. Sounds that transport us to somewhere else, another time. Faces that become other faces. We are confused, we are lost, we know not what we do. We love. We hurt. We fumble and reach for things beyond our grasp. We find consolations. We endure. We fear. We weep and we laugh, we hold on to what we can never hold on to. This is life as we do not understand it.

Sopranos, you were the greatest show I have ever known.

Thank you David.
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