“Glad Tidings”

Sign of the times: in the subway an Air New Zealand billboard reading DEFECTORS WELCOME.

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Even at this relatively late date it looks like David Chase has left himself one of two choices: unalloyed despair, or a state of despair that’s tempered by some – and this is crucial – convincing note of redemption. After the six or seven years we’ve spent tracing the wintry fortunes of Anthony Soprano, pure despair would appear to be the logical, uncompromised outcome for The Sopranos, but has Chase really drawn his viewers on so long only to leave them with nothing? It seems unlikely, for Chase would seem to be that rare bird, a cynical humanist, who’s tickled and fascinated by human foibles even while he’s certain that they’re only drawing us on to some insupportable outcome. Even if things end up with Tony trundled away to Allenwood or getting plugged while scooping up the morning paper from his driveway, we’ll still take away the same exact things we’ll glean come the end of our own lifetimes: “the little things,” as Tony once described them, all the warm experiences that keep spiking up out of the commonplace happenings that stitch our lives together. That probably doesn’t sound like much but it has to make do for us secular types, and to an unabashed nostalgic like Chase – whose show wouldn’t be the same without its torrent of references to Claude Rains and the Maguire Sisters – memory must be an irresistible comfort. The season opened with a montage of the Soprano backyard that felt beamed in from some time after the series’ eventual conclusion, as if in remembrance of a bygone life that somehow involved a barbecue pit and a duck feeder; as Ezra Pound showed with The Pisan Cantos, living memory may not offer the freedom of actual life but it’s still a lot better than no life at all.

Not to make heavy weather but if The Sopranos has had a single theme, it’s the self-tyranny that drives its characters to maintain appearances – psychological, social, religious – no matter what the cost to their personal integrity. “There’s plenty I’d like to forget,” Uncle Junior says at one crossroads, offering up a bleak world view that pictures everyone frenziedly waving away unbidden thoughts and desires. Our popular narratives mostly focus on people caught in the process of opening up to the world, but Tony Soprano, who seems more likely to have sprung from the mind of Thomas Hardy than the producer of The Rockford Files, has hunkered down in the years that we’ve known him, growing more defensive and violent in direct proportion to the riches he stands to lose. The show may beckon to mind the old cliché of the man who sells his soul to gain the world, but it’s even more concerned with those people so routinely pulverized and enslaved by self-interest – disguised as their understanding of “what’s right” – that they never get to become themselves.

It’s a tragedy that’s endemic in the world. You see it in so many ways nowadays, from the posturing, self-justifying tropes people unthinkingly take up in their everyday conversation through Michael Moore and George W. Bush refusing to address questions which, if bluntly answered, would certainly prove embarrassing to them. We just can’t get enough of our own bullshit, whoever we are. Chase’s savvy shows up in the way he wedges characters we care about into this dilemma, so that the sight of Tony, forced by his intransigence into tramping like a hobo across a snowy New Jersey landscape, becomes painful, even shaming, stuff. (Adriana, of all people, gets the clearest view of things just before her touching escape fantasy is stamped out by the murderous gaze in Silvio’s eye.) But Chase is as big a jokester as he is a Freudian or cynic, and he caps off Tony’s torments with a superb bit of domestic comedy: Carmela, deliciously clueless as to how narrowly her husband has just escaped arrest or murder, cries out at him, “What happened to you! Your shoes are soaking wet!”

However the series ends, this last few months made for one hell of a season, and more than made up for the doldrums the show sometimes fell into during its fourth go-round. Much of its success has always flowed from its psychological consistency (we felt like we’d crawled across every inch of the broken glass in Gloria Trillo’s psyche by the time Patsy Parisi delivered that tender goodbye to her), and as Tony and Carmela’s hand-in-hand trip to oblivion nears its end, their slow unraveling feels ever more binding and right. In the meantime, the Gandolfini-Falco-Imperioli tag-team has formed itself into the gold standard of contemporary acting, and at a point when most shows would be repeating themselves, Chase and his writers-directors are working on fully charged batteries, with their energy spilling into everything from the darkly evocative episode titles (“Irregular Around the Margins,” “Long Term Parking”) to such small touches as the sound of an unseen children’s choir breaking into “Mr. Tambourine Man” at just the right moment. Amazingly enough and against all odds, it really might be what my friend Scott Von Doviak has been tempted to call it: the best season of The Sopranos so far.

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And that’s a good thing, for I’ve been shit out of luck with movies this weekend. Yesterday’s disappointments, rented for polar opposite reasons: Master and Commander and Morvern Callar, a pair of wildly different film journeys that carried me away to the same latitude of exasperation. However, I do recommend the re-release of Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner on DVD. Beyond a beautiful transfer that does full justice to Lucien Ballard’s camerawork, the disc also contains a commentary by a quartet of renowned Peckinpavians, including Paul Seydor and Garner Simmons, who sit around gassing about “Sam” as his friends and fans rather than as scholars. At $14.95 it’s a steal; just be prepared for the faux Western motif packaging, which makes it look like it ought to be sold off the back of Curly Bonner’s Rancho Reata parade float.

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