Critical Digressions: The Simple Violence of “The Sopranos”

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,

Tony_in_black_and_white Since our incarnation as a destitute and sometimes diligent academic, we haven’t possessed a TV, much less cable. We lead a wonderfully Spartan life here in Cambridge, reading, writing, braving the Massachusetts winter. Like hermits, ascetics, Eskimos, or those lost natives of the Amazon with dangling members, it seems we have also lost the talent for chit-chat, small talk. Consequently, the opening episode of “The Sopranos” Season Six presented us with a project. We had to call up old friends, mend tenuous if not severed relationships, invest in wine, crackers, a pricy lump of cheese. It was an awkward encounter, a bona fide production.

Had Tony been in a similar predicament, he would have done things differently: the balding, bearish, flinty-eyed Soprano antihero would have showed up unannounced, yelled at his host (arguably Arty), consumed the six-pack he brought for himself, sprawled on the couch, hand jammed in trousers, cradling his testicles. Strangely, we understand the impulse. In fact, we have a visceral appreciation of Tony’s likes and dislikes, his aspirations and motivations, his rages, his lusts. Even Tony’s theme song, the moody, bluesy A3 number, resonates in quiet cantons of our head most mornings during Soprano season:

“When you woke up this morning everything you had was gone/
By half past ten your head was going ding-dong/
Ringing like a bell from your head down to my toes/
Like a voice telling you there was something you should know/
Last night you were flying but today you’re so low/
Ain’t it times like these that make you wonder/
If you’ll ever know the meaning of things as they appear to the others…”

Typically, we’d consider having our head checked. After all, identifying with a sociopath is always a troubling development. And Tony is not a mere sociopath; he’s serial adulterer, a misogynist, a man who considered murdering his own mother. He has no real friends and has people he calls friends murdered. He is a very, very bad man.

Another_tony_in_black_and_white We have, of course, empathized with such men before, from Richard III to Patrick Bateman, American Psycho. In American popular culture, the antihero has a rich heritage. The protagonists that populate the canon of film noir, for instance, are real pieces of work. Mike Hammer, the antihero of “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), is, as his name suggests, not a charming rogue but a brute. A commentator characterizes him as a “cheap and sleazy, contemptible, fascist private investigator/vigilante.” Hammer’s doppelgangers populate other genres of cinema, from the cool, squinty, monosyllabic and violent Blondie in the late Western, “The Good, Bad and Ugly” (1967) to the raging, foul-mouthed Cuban gangster, Tony Montana in DePalma’s gangster film, “Scarface” (1983).

Interestingly, David Liao makes the case that Scarface has even influenced gangsta rap:

“Perhaps no movie has had as conspicuous an impact on hip-hop, and more specifically the genre’s gangsta variation, as ‘Scarface’…Since its release, [it] has lent its dialogue, music, fashion and  imagery to countless rap artists and their songs, such as Notorious B.I.G’s ‘10 Crack Commandments’ and Mobb  Deep’s ‘It’s Mine.’ One rapper has even gone so far as to adopt ‘Scarface’ as a stage name, and build an entire career around references to the movie.  Indeed, two decades later, it seems as if the very essence of De Palma’s film has been assimilated by the hip-hop community, or at least a highly prolific segment of it. Evidence of this can be seen in the 2003 album ‘Def Jam Recordings Present Music Inspired by Scarface,’ a compilation of songs by artists including Jay-Z, N.W.A, Ice Cube and even Grandmaster Flash.”

There may be some resonance of the classic American antihero in the rage of old-school gangsta rap but its ethos is informed by a different variety of disestablishmentarianism. Institutional racism dates back not more than a couple of generations and continues to exert itself. NWA’s beef with the police has little to do with Hammer and Blondie, Tony Soprano or Tony Montana. Their anthemns concern certain ground realities; in particular, the reality of being a young black man on the streets of Compton, LA:

“*uck tha police comin’ straight from the underground/
Young *igga got it bad cuz I’m brown/
And not the other color so police think/
They have the authority to kill a minority…

*uckin with me cuz I’m a teenager/
With a little bit of gold and a pager/
Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product/
Thinkin’ every *igga is sellin’ narcotics…”

Yin_yang_in_black_and_white Of course, this raw sentiment has since been appropriated and cheapened by hip-hop, repackaged and marketed for an audience of young white men who wear baggy jeans and tilted caps and furiously mouth manifestos while listening to their I-Pods. Faraway, in the banlieus of urban France, young North African men find meaning in hip-hop, in what Staley Crouch calls the “thug-and-slut minstrelsy,” and roving child soldiers in Sierra Leone also listen to it while hacking off limbs.

But perhaps we shouldn’t treat this generation with too much sarcasm. After all, back in the day, we listened to NWA as well (and can spout lyrics on demand). Why, boys and girls, are we all drawn to the antihero, black, or white?

Montana sagaciously mulled this question before us and arrived at the following conclusion:

“Whattaya lookin’ at? You’re all a bunch of *ucking *ssholes. You know why? ‘Cause you don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your *ucking fingers, and say ‘that’s the bad guy.” So, what dat make you? Good? You’re not good; you just know how to hide. Howda lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth–even when I lie. So say goodnight to the bad guy. Come on; the last time you gonna see a bad guy like this, let me tell ya. Come on, make way for the bad guy. There’s a bad guy comin’ through; you better get outta his way!”

Nwa_in_black_and_white_1In this rather brilliant discursive philosophic pose, Montana seems to be suggesting the symbiotic duality of good and evil, an echo of the Zoroastrian creation myth, the Sufi malamti tradition, the business of Yin and Yang. Also inherent in his response is an allusion to Freudian tension, the Ego grating against the Id. (We here must note that we agree when Nabokov when he says, “Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts.”) Parsing Montana’s pithy treatise is a project for a bigger, better man. We return, then, to our initial impulse, Tony Soprano, and pose a different, perhaps more interesting question altogether: why does “The Sopranos” command such popularity in America today?

That Tony is a sociopathic leader may have some resonance among a segment of the voting populace but this variety of exegesis seems somewhat facile to us (and as a young Muslim male in America today, not at all advisable.) No, we suspect that apart from being an intelligent, dramatic show (when every other critically feted production these days seems to be peculiarly undramatic, whether we’re talking “Capote,” “Good Night and Good Luck” or “A History of Violence”), “The Sopranos” evokes nostalgia for a simpler time, for simpler violence.

Naqvi_in_black_and_whiteAfter 9/11, America, indeed the world, changed. The scourge of international terrorism suddenly threatened civilization. A “War On Terror” was waged. Now, there are different ground realties. Iraqis are daggers drawn, their country teetering on civil war. The Afghans have a smart new leader but continue shooting themselves in the foot as they have throughout their bloody history. And somewhere in the southern Afghanistan, in and around Helmand, lurks Osama bin Laden, and his one-eyed pal, Mullah Omar (who corroborates the proverbial theory that “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”). They are figures we cannot identity with. Tony Soprano may be a very bad guy but he’s goodfella. He whacks some people; he scratches his balls; he’s the sort of antihero we get. It’s kind of like the sage once said, “All I have in this world is my balls, and my word, and I don’t break ‘em for no one. Jou understand?” We do.