Saturday, May 12, 2018

I blame David Chase.

A few months after I moved to North Carolina, I was in the lobby of the Chapel Hill Ronald McDonald House, as part of a group awaiting the organizer of the meetup to prepare dinner for guests of the facility that evening.  We got to chatting with a gentleman in the lobby whose son was a patient at UNC Hospital.  I hadn't been her that long, and to my still-of-NJ ears, this guy sounded like part of the cast of a musical called "Deliverance:  The Musical."  He started saying how he's real good at telling where people are from, and that he knew I was from New Jersey.  I laughed and asked him how he knew, and he said "Because you sound just like The Sopranos."  I have since been told this twice more.

If you don't know who David Chase (nee DeCesare) is, he's the creator of "The Sopranos", one of the most influential and lauded dramas in television history.  In 1995, the production company Brillstein-Gray approached Chase about doing a TV series based on "The Godfather."  It was Chase's idea to make the series about a Mob boss in therapy, and the rest is history.

America loves gangsters.  I don't know why, but the Italian Mafia has become as integral a part of tough-guy American archetype as the Western Cowboy, The Noble Soldier, or The Private Eye.  The Holy Trinity of the Mob in modern poplar culture is, of course, The Godfather films, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos

What's interesting about considering these works together is the descent from a strong, if archaic and often brutal moral code followed by Vito Corleone, where you only do to others what they do to you, down to the anarchy of late-season Sopranos, where the brutal killing of a leading female character guilty of nothing but inability to choose to take one for the team appalled pretty much everyone. 

What gets lost in our admiration of these tough guys is the operatic nature of their tragic, empty lives. are.  Michael Corleone, the former idealist who enlisted to serve his country in WWII, ends up alone, having vanquished all of his enemies, but losing his soul in the process.  Henry Hill in Goodfellas ends up in the witness protection problem, living like a schnook somewhere in the Midwest, similarly bereft of that sense of belonging.  And you can rest assured that no matter what you think happened at the end of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano was still on some level crying over the ducks.

And all of this brings us to Donald Trump, who is the walking, living, real-life embodiment of the operatic tragedy of the Mob goon. 

Bill Maher touched on this last night and I'd been thinking about it all morning:

Oh yes, he's always pretended to have the veneer of a businessman in the way Tony Soprano was in the trash hauling business, but as we are now finding out from the discoveries of the antics of his attorney Michael Cohen, Trump is, and always has been, just another New York Mob goon, surrounded by the same supporting cast as the rest of these guys have always had.  Maher pretty much nailed the cast of characters, though his focus on the Godfather trilogy characters doesn't really reflect the utter amorality of the Trump universe, which is probably better represented by Jared Kushner as Christopher Moltisanti, Steve Bannon as Big Pussy, Paul Manafort as Paulie Walnuts.  The problem is that Trump thinks that Robert Mueller is the hapless Agent Harris and that he, Trump, is the lead actor whose character can never be killed off. 
Maher asks, "How did the salt-of-the-earth people get hooked up with the salt-in-the-wound people?"  The answer to that is easy:  because even in the flyover states, they loved Tony Soprano. They loved him because he did what he had to do in order to take what he wanted.  It's an ingrained part of the American identity -- we take what we want.  Europeans came to this soil and took what they wanted.  The mythos of the Great American West is all about taking.  The cowboy may have LOOKED like Gary Cooper, but he slaughtered everything in his way.  The Americans won WWII in real life, but since then we've seen endless movies about that last Noble Victory fought by American Tough Guys. 
Even when a war is a botch job like Iraq, we take guys like Chris Kyle, who painted himself in his autobiography American Sniper as a Gary Cooper-esque multiple-medalled patriot and hero, and turn them into demigods, even after it turns out that Chris Kyle inflated his own war record.  Worse, we take thoughtful guys like Pat Tillman, the lantern-jawed, right-out-of-central-casting NFL player who gave it all up to join the military after 9/11 only to find that the war he was fighting in was based on lies, and was murdered by his own guys, and turn them into John Wayne.  How many people now even KNOW the truth about either of these two very different guys?  Or are they stuck in our collective consciousness as what the story was that first got "out there", because those stories play into the American Tough Guy archetype?
From 2000-2008, we had a president who wore the Tough Guy suit even though it didn't fit him.  He stuffed the crotch of a flightsuit and Chris Matthews fell in love.  He walked like John Wayne and talked like John Wayne, and the "salt-of-the-earth people" loved it.  Then we had eight years of a thoughtful guy who was slim and wore a suit well and spoke in complete sentences; who "spoke softly and carried a big stick", as Teddy Roosevelt used to say (and that was probably what played into the primal fear of those people who love the American Tough Guy, because that thoughtful guy happened to be black).  And then, for some reason, we decided that real American toughness was Tony Soprano after all.
These people forgot how Tony Soprano fucked up his marriage, fucked up his kids, couldn't manage his anger, was prone to deep bouts of despair.  They forget how utterly lonely he was. They were never able to see the tragedy behind the Tony Soprano persona when they used to tune into HBO on Sunday nights, or the wreckage he left in his wake.  And they still can't.
Oh, and David Chase is planning a "Sopranos" prequel movie.  Just to keep the mythos alive.


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