Thursday, August 28, 2014

Revisiting the end of The Sopranos

The Sopranos is undoubtedly one of the best shows ever on television and also one of the most influential. There are other shows I like better, but it's mostly personal preference. I was less happy with the later seasons and as I wrote, I was unhappy with the ending. Rereading that post now, I still agree with it all. Spoilers below.

Yesterday Martha P. Nochinson wrote in Vox, Did Tony die at the end of The Sopranos?: David Chase finally answers the question he wants fans to stop asking. David Chase responded and Todd VanDerWerff of Vox followed up, David Chase responds to our Sopranos piece.

I really don't get this. I'm sure Chase gets asked about the ending all the time, and I'm sure he's tired of talking about it. I'm also sure it's exactly what he wanted it to be and that he thought about it a lot before making it. Everything he wanted to say was in what we all watched. The finale was inherently ambiguous. Aside from wondering if your cable went out, everything you wondered is a valid thought that Chase wanted you to think about. Maybe he died, maybe nothing happened. What's certain is that the show ended. If Chase said now that he lived or died it doesn't matter. The finale left it open to interpretation and that's fine. You can love it or hate it, but it's not like this has been a seven year cliffhanger and we're just waiting for the resolution.

Here's Nochinson's opinion (there's some other setup about Welles, Brunel and Poe being influences to Chase):

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 call bullshit. First off, if this is true and related to The Sopranos then to most viewers he certainly missed the "satisfying sense of completion" part. I also don't agree that endings are mysterious or know what "you wouldn't know it from watching Hollywood movies" is supposed to mean. Isn't that saying that this is true, except for these thousands of counter-examples I'll just ignore? And what does this mean: "The art of closure forbids merely telling the audience in words that there is loss". Who mentioned that as a rule? Since when does closure have to involve "loss"? Who said anything about using only "words"?

There's no doubt that great works of art can have meaning at deep levels. And film is a medium that has the potential to reach us non-verbally. Silent films succeeded (even without interstitials) and then with the invention of sound many filmmakers got lazy. Stanley Kubrick (who never got lazy) once said "I don’t like to talk about 2001 too much because it’s essentially a non-verbal experience. It attempts to communicate more to the subconscious and to the feelings than it does to the intellect." Few people ever understood the ending of 2001 but there was an ending to the story, even if it was the beginning of another.

Since The Sopranos ended, the film Inception came out. If you haven't seen it, go see it. Spoilers for it in this paragraph. That famously had another cut-to-black ending and I loved it. The whole film was about dreams and recognizing reality and questioning how we know something is real. That last scene could have one of two possible outcomes that were setup previously. The ending made the audience answer that question about the film and if they thought hard enough, about their own lives. It was a great ending and made the film more than merely about the plot.

The last season of The Sopranos used other characters to explore a lot of different ways one could get out of the mob (suicide, running away, turning snitch to the feds, etc.) I'm sure that was meant to foreshadow Tony's choices (if he wanted to get out) but the first half of the finale resolved so many plot points so neatly I thought it was a dream (unfortunately I don't remember those details now). I still think the last scene was a remarkable achievement in creating tension but I don't think leaving it open as it did, accomplished much for telling a story.

Lets say Tony died. Would it have been unsatisfying to see someone suddenly kill him and have it cut to blood splattering on his family? It would have been shocking and people would have been talking about it (and maybe even wondering who did it), but it would have also been justified. Tony did a lot of bad things and that's what he had coming to him. Let's say he didn't die and this was just another day in the life. Would it have been unsatisfying if the camera pulled away and the music faded? Maybe a bit, but the show was also about how people in this life also struggle with everyday things and that will continue forever (because there will always be criminals). People would have complained that justice was not served but that happens some time (there's still a mob). There are a few other possible endings but the way it was setup, none of them would have added much to the story. Nevertheless, to say that endings are inherently mysterious and yet somehow cheapen the experience is a cop out.

If endings are so mysterious and Chase hates them so much, then why did every other episode have an ending? The show was one of the early examples of a new era of serialized story-telling on TV. Individual episodes that collectively told a larger story. The episode that hooked me on the show was when AJ found out what his dad did for a living. It had an ending. Lots of other characters on the show had "endings" and they were usually poignant. Character arcs don't have to end in death, so by definition their story continues but a well crafted arc still has an ending.

I stand by my original thought, the cut-to-black was a gimmick. It was certainly memorable and generated tons of buzz so it was successful in that. Maybe all publicity is good publicity but I still think there's a difference between famous and infamous. One thing is clear to me though (and VanDerWerff agrees and claims Nochimson agrees), David Chase saying whether Tony Soprano died or not is not a useful question and people should stop asking him it. Asking what he meant to convey is more valid, but it would also mean he failed to get his point across.

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