Tag Archives: The Sopranos

James Gandolfini

Not many actors get to portray a character so perfectly that they burn themselves into popular culture. James Gandolfini played the conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano so well that not only did he become forever linked to the character, he added the entire Mafia family to the stockpile of things in which New Jerseyans take ironic pride — hey, we got Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, lotsa Superfund sites and we got Tony Soprano! I felt it when my California in-laws, who had always considered New Jersey something of a practical joke on the rest of the country, suddenly took a keen interest in places like Kearny and the Caldwells.

Shortly after the BBC began airing the show, I was talking on the telephone to a British investment banker with a great toff accent, who idly asked what part of the U.S. I was calling from. When I said “Hoboken” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You know that bridge he drives across in the opening credits . . . “

Another gasp, this one a little louder. “I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!”

I’ll spare you the details of how I gave a lesson in North Jersey geography to a Tory in the City of London, but I will say that even when the series was at its wobbly, self-indulgent, let’s-see-how-we-can-justify-staying-on-the-HBO-sugar-tit-for-another-season worst, I felt a link to The Sopranos. Partly it was commercial: the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits was an easy hook to use whenever I did author appearances in connection with The Last Three Miles. But it was in large part due to Gandolfini’s artistry.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Gandolfini excelled at conveying the sense of deep currents of thought and emotion going on beneath an impassive exterior. Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest of the mob cast became cartoon characters as the show staggered through its last three seasons, but Tony Soprano stayed real, thanks to Gandolfini’s immensely subtle talent.  During the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s switching between the paternal and the predatory made “College” the most perfectly realized episode in the only perfectly realized season. One of my favorite moments in The Sopranos comes when a dirty cop on the mobster’s payroll complains about how he’s perpetually broke. Tony tells him he should stop gambling because he loses so much. “Yeah, well I got two bills on Rutgers this weekend,” the cop says, and Tony replies, in a tone that shows he can barely keep from rolling his eyes, “That’ll solve all your problems.” Gandolfini may have done booster commercials for the Scarlet Knights, but whenever I hear about the latest ups and downs in my alma mater’s Big Time Football crusade, I think of him delivering that line.

Gandolfini did good and even great work after The Sopranos: as a played-out hit man in Killing Them Softly he gave a much-needed shot of oxygen to a film that really should have worked much better than it did. His performance as the father in Not Fade Away, directed by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, showed he still had talent and artistry to burn. There have been a lot of tributes to Gandolfini in the wake of his untimely death, but I particularly like this one from Glenn Kenny, who explains exactly what made him so great in Not Fade Away. As for Kenny’s closing line, all I can say is yes.

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Bridges of sighs

Apparently the Golden Gate Bridge is, along with being one of the most awe-inspiringly beautiful things ever constructed, a choice place for suicide jumpers. This fact has sparked a rather macabre series of posts at Andrew Sullivan’s site in which readers list other bridges favored by suicides. So let me offer my own tidbit: the Donald and Morris Goodkind Bridges that span the Raritan River in Middlesex County, New Jersey. Not only do they attract a fair number of jumpers, but their status has been certified by an appearance in the first season of The Sopranos — specifically, the episode “Nobody Knows Anything,” in which a crooked detective (John Heard) opts to kill himself before he can be prosecuted and disgraced. I’m sure the location was chosen quite deliberately: The Sopranos was usually very astute in its use of New Jersey scenery. We’ll just pass in silence over that “Pine Barrens” episode that was (a) shot in upstate New York, in (b) an area largely devoid of pine trees.

The reason the bridges serve such a grim purpose isn’t hard to see: the steel Donald Goodkind Bridge, which carries traffic south into New Brunswick, has a low railing and a relatively wide sidewalk that offers easy access. (Ironically, the Donald Goodkind Bridge’s wide footpath makes it one of the few safe places to walk along Route 1, and venturesome moviegoers use it to reach the AMC Loews megillaplex on the New Brunphuss side.) The concrete arch Morris Goodkind Bridge, which carries traffic north into Edison, is far less accommodating to pedestrians; the footpath is all but impassable, and walking the narrow shoulder would be an equally effective way to kill oneself.

There’s actually a charming backstory to the naming of the bridges. The concrete span, built for two-way traffic in 1929, was designed by Morris Goodkind, an engineer with the New Jersey Department of Transportation. The steel span, built in 1974, was designed by Goodkind’s son, Donald. The father-and-son designations were approved many years later. 

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United Scatinos of America

I wrote this for my now-defunct political blog in July 2005. Seven years on, I think it’s still pretty apt about the Republican program.

One of the things that redeemed the second season of “The Sopranos,” which had gone all wobbly after a good start, was the unblinkingly cruel subplot about David Scatino, a boyhood friend of mobster Tony Soprano, who talks his way into one of Tony’s high-stakes poker games and almost instantly buries himself under an unpayable mountain of debts. It quickly turns out that Tony knew about Scatino’s compulsive gambling problem, but let him into the game anyway because Scatino and his wife own a successful sporting-goods store. What follows is more frightening than any monster movie. After siphoning out Scatino’s bank account (including his son’s college fund), Tony and his cronies gorge themselves on the store’s credit lines, buying up easily resold big-ticket merchandise and leaving the store awash in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills. The business dissolves into bankruptcy, taking with it Scatino’s marriage (his wife divorces him), his family (his son, cheated out of an Ivy League future, hates him) and a good portion of his sanity. In the end, as he prepares to embark on his new life as a drifter and day-laborer, Scatino asks Tony why he let him destroy himself. After all, haven’t they known each other since childhood? Tony replies with the story of the frog and the scorpion. “This is what I am,” Tony says. “This is what I do.”

What we’ve just seen is a variation on an old con called a bust-out. Usually it involves con men offering to buy a business, making a partial payment to gain access to the firm’s credit and name, and then hollowing out the company’s finances by running up the existing credit lines and opening new ones, all of which are maxed out to buy electronic gear and anything else that can be resold quickly at a fraction of its value. For the con men involved in the bust-out, it’s all gravy. The phony buyer — usually a shell company with no discernible assets — defaults and the business reverts to its original owner, by which time the once-thriving firm has been turned into a rotting hulk ready to have its bones picked clean by creditors.

The Bush family has often been referred to as the WASP version of the Corleones, but the Soprano clan makes for a much better comparison. At its best, “The Sopranos” is an acid mockery of the phony gravitas of the three “Godfather” movies. Where Michael Corleone is heroically evil, an international player who consorts with statesmen and the Vatican before succumbing to his tragic flaw, Tony Soprano is a sewer rat engaged in the grubby business of preying on human weakness and fear — when his fall comes, it will be tragic only to himself. Until then, however, he’s going to make as much money as he can for himself and his buddies, and leave the rest of the world holding the bill. I’m not just using hyperbole here. I do think that when honest historians assess the Bush administration, they will find it more useful to treat George II and his Republican cronies as a criminal organization rather than a political party.

The best tool for analyzing Bush’s policies is not historiography, but the procedures used by federal agents as they pursue a RICO investigation into a mobbed-up business. Take the money and run. As long as Republicans are in power, that phrase should replace “E Pluribus Unum” on the national seal. It’s the natural outcome of a quarter-century of rhetoric about how government is the problem, not the solution; how government doesn’t work; how deregulation is the only way to build the economy. If government is nothing but a taxpayer-funded scam, then why not use it to enrich yourself and your buddies? If the very idea of public service as an idealistic calling has been turned into a mealymouthed joke, then where’s the shame in abusing power and running the country into the ground? As long as you can convince just over 50 percent of the suckers to vote your way, you can throw yourself a party and leave the world holding the bill.

This is what they are. This is what they do. Didn’t they tell you?

The recess appointment of John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is all of a piece with this scenario. Even many Republicans find this loudmouthed dolt hard to take; certainly no foreign leader will be able to take him seriously as a player on the world stage. Bolton will face a building full of career diplomats who know his nomination was dead in the Senate, that he had to be smuggled into office under cover of darkness, that the best they can expect is three years of low-down entertainment until the Bushies pack up their swag and head for the hills. If you despise the very idea of the United Nations — and if your core voting bloc cherishes Satanic conspiracy fantasies about the UN being the Antichrist’s method for achieving one-world government — then an ambassador capable of effective diplomacy is unnecessary. The important thing is that a plum job went to a crony. Sure, he may very well be implicated in the Valerie Plame case, but after a couple of years on the government sugar tit he’ll be able to lawyer himself up and hold the prosecutors at bay for a long time.

Insane tax cuts for the wealthy. Delusional military ventures abroad. From the minute the Bushies took power, their biggest concern has been to break open the cash registers, empty the shelves and open the bank vaults. Stewardship is a joke to them. What we are witnessing may very well be the biggest bust-out in human history. And if you, good citizen, are wondering where you fit into this picture, just cast your mind back to the last episode of the second season of “The Sopranos.” One of the closing shots shows us David Scatino in an empty parking lot, tying some gear to the top of his car as he prepares to leave his ruined life behind him. He wanted to play poker with the big boys, so you can say he brought his troubles on himself. A majority of Americans voted for Bush in at least one of the last two elections, so you can say we brought this on ourselves. In Scatino’s case, human weakness created a business opportunity for Tony Soprano. America’s weakness created a business opportunity for the Republicans. With the national press at a historic low ebb, the Democratic Party flat on its back and the airwaves humming with wingnut propaganda, the pickings couldn’t be any richer.

They saw their chance and they took it. That’s what they are. That’s what they do.

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True dat

Undercover Black Man informs us that the DVD editions of my most favoritest TV show, The Wire, are such a hit in the U.K. that the BBC has started rebroadasting all five seasons, five nights a week.
 
My day job frequently has me calling bankers and other executives in London and a number of other time zones. Several years ago, when the Beeb started broadcasting The Sopranos, one London banker practically had an aneurysm when he heard I sat with my back to the Hudson River five days a week. Imagine a thick, slightly nasal toff accent for the banker:
 
BANKER: Where is your office, anyway?
 
ME: Hoboken.
 
BANKER: (Voice rising in pitch) I know that! That’s where the Sopranos live!
 
ME: Uh, well, actually, they’re a little west of here. You know in the opening credits, that bridge Tony drives over . . .   
 
BANKER: (Voice even higher) I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!
 
It was rather startling to talk to someone who thought of New Jersey as an exotic, interesting place, so I told him that Hoboken is in Hudson County and the Sopranos were more of an Essex County bunch, though they certainly had tentacles extended and bodies buried all through the Meadowlands. I hadn’t finished writing The Last Three Miles, otherwise I’d have talked up the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits. Maybe the investment bank would have bought a couple of cartons for its Christmas party. Oh well. Regrets, I’ve had a few.
 
I wonder how many Baltimore cubicle-slaves will have people with British accents asking them if they know the spot where Stringer Bell bought the farm, or where Omar got arrested, or how close they are to Prezbo’s school. If one of my London phone-buds says “True dat,” I’ll know the show is having an impact.

ADDENDUM: I just remembered the second season episode when Jimmy McNulty, a working-class American cop played by a British actor (Dominic West) doing a pretty damn good Yank accent, poses as an English businessman in order to get access to a private sex club. So the BBC audience is going to get treated to a Brit playing an American doing a Brit with an American’s bad idea of what a British accent sounds like. I don’t know if Dominic West has a Yorkshire accent in his regular speech, but if he does, then British viewers will probably be able to pick it out.

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