Thursday, 20 June 2013

Anthony Soprano - The Beast in Me

RIP James Gandolfini 1961 - 2013

james gandolfini

It may be ironic to mourn a mobster, but for some years "The Sopranos" gave me support through a difficult time.  To hear of the sudden death of James Gandolfini, on holiday in Italy, is almost as disturbing as hearing that Tony Soprano had died in the last episode of the HBO series (though he didn't, did he?) which is not to say that the death of a character in a TV series is as important as the death of a real person, but it is to say that the two were inextricably and irrevocably fused together in my mind at least.

James Gandolfini came to public attention as a hit man in "True Romance" (which is a top film) in 1993.  Then David Chase created "The Sopranos" for HBO and a star was born. 





For those who may not have had the pleasure or perhaps the stomach to follow "The Sopranos" on TV or DVD a very brief outline is this: James Gandolfini plays the Head of an Italo-American crime syndicate which he has inherited from his brutal father. His Uncle is not happy about this and there is tension in the family over the leadership. Tony's mother, a demanding and unsympathetic character, lives through the first few episodes, and Tony's two sisters appear from time to time, one of them complicating issues by getting involved with one of Tony's rivals.



In the meantime Tony lives in New Jersey and has a wife and two children and all the domestic cares of you and me, more or less, with growing children who get into trouble at school and with their friends.



Within the family and business world Tony has a number of close followers, as well as some enemies.  The series sees the working out of territorial and business conflicts with other bosses and other families, with a particular squabble over the waste disposal firm that is Tony's most legitimate source of income.



As a husband and as a role model for his children Tony is ambiguous, though he lives by certain codes and works hard, within his sphere, to care for and protect his family.



He also has a personal problem, which takes him to consult with a Psychiatrist, Dr Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco.  This is, of course, a tense and also a secretive arrangement, as Mafia bosses do not normally fare very well if they start disclosing their private thoughts and actions to a third party.  At the same time it is hard for Dr Melfi to observe the confidentiality of her case, and she is troubled by the relationship.



Where it became personal for me was when Tony passed out at a summer BBQ in his garden.  He had grown fond of a family of ducks which had taken to resting in his swimming pool (ornithologically unlikely, but none the less a distracting symbol) and we are given to think that their flight from the pool leads to his syncope.

Another episode of loss of consciousness moves him to consult the Psychiatrist and so begins the theme of psycho-analysis which unravels something of his past and leads back to a singular act of violence by his father.  An uneasy mafia boss sits across from an uneasy psychiatrist.  She asks if he is depressed, and he answers that he, "Had a semester and a half of college, and so [I] understand Freud and I understand therapy as a concept, but in my world it does not go on....."



At the time I was watching this, a member of my close family was attending sessions with a psychiatrist who was investigating a seemingly inexplicable series of sudden losses of consciousness - very similar to Tony's - and the very methods of inquiry, even the welcome into the consulting room, were uncannily similar to Tony's experience.

OK the similarity ends there, in that (I don't think - or if I did I wouldn't tell) I have mafia connections and most of the circumstances were different.  But the core theme, that even a mafia boss can have psychological problems and that perhaps all of us can be helped by careful and sensitive therapy, was ultimately both fascinating and reassuring.

And none of this would have worked without an actor of the class of James Gandolfini. Perhaps Al Pacino could have carried it off, but even he might have shown less humanity within the violent and abusive framework.



Yes there are some horrible crimes in the name of Soprano, but also there are some endearing touches - so much so that we named our black cat after Tony's daughter, "Meadow;" (our first cat, who had a rather high mew, was called "Soprano"). The episodes, many written and curated by different directors, are superbly made, with many different story lines and themes interwoven.  Dark humour pervades the scripts, and horrors are counterbalanced by touches of humanity where all humanity seems to have been lost.  "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in," repeats Steven van Zandt (ex sidesman for Bruce Springsteen) whenever someone needs cheering up.

It must be a platitude that we have forever enjoyed and benefited from the arts, and that from Greek Tragedy through Shakespeare to Arthur Miller and Howard Brenton, we are willing spectators in the downfall of villains but also enthusiastic followers of flawed heroes   Who cannot watch fascinated as Macbeth and his wife slip down the slippery slopes to hell.  Who does not feel sympathy for Lear as he causes his own world to collapse?  Is not the tragedy of Othello both his own and Iago's?  And isn't Willy Loman a bit like all of us?

The Greek idea of catharsis is something to do with it, but also it is the spell-binding attraction of observing how things go wrong in a society which is not at all perfect.  As Tony himself said, "We are soldiers; we live by a code."  To understand the Italian mob, or indeed the Chinese Triads, or the Russian 'mafia' is to understand a little more of our real world.  Just as to understand the Nazis might help us avoid the recurrence of such a nightmare.



I am reminded of the poem, "Vultures" by Chinua Achebe:

...Thus the Commandant at Belsen
Camp going home for
the day with fumes of
human roast clinging
rebelliously to his hairy
nostrils will stop
at the wayside sweet-shop
and pick up a chocolate
for his tender offspring
waiting at home for Daddy's
return...

Tony Soprano may have been a criminal monster, but he was also a loving father and a living human being.  It is not better for us to look for the good in a man than to damn him for his material crimes?







51 is too young to die these days, but perhaps there are worse ways to go than to collapse suddenly in Rome on holiday?  Who knows?

The Sopranos actor James Gandolfini


Sleep with the angels, James.  You deserve a long and peaceful afterlife.



"Born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eye....."


I beg everyone's pardon for borrowing these pictures.  I know it may not be quite right, but in the grand scheme of things I wanted to pay tribute to James and hope that the mob will understand.




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