Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Strong Silent Type.

"Pain and truth? I'm a fat fuckin' crook from New Jersey." - Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano often refers to Gary Cooper as the consummate American male, strong and silent, focused and not emasculated by confession. Tony says in one therapy session that Cooper "wasn't in touch with his feelings, he just did what he had to do". Cooper was a staunch anti-communist and was famed for playing cowboys, an imitation of the mass-murderers who led a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Native American population. He equates the identity of the American male with unaccountability. The genocide of the Native American tribes was not confronted in American society until the 60s and 70s. It is made clear throughout the show that the characters prefer to focus on the subjective violence - violent acts committed against them - and do not confront the objective violence - the violent acts which they are responsible for, as a way of sustaining their life styles. After watching all the episodes of The Sopranos it is clear that murder is just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the human suffering that these mobsters are responsible for.

In a flashback to the early 1970s, Tony watches as his Uncle Junior and father Johnny Boy take Francis Satriale into the back of his pork store, there his father chops Satriale's pinkie off with a meat cleaver.
This act of extreme violence is aesthetically symbolic of castration - with all of it's Freudian connotations. Later on in the episode, Tony has a conversation with his father, explaining his reasons for cutting off Satriale's finger, the music playing in the background is reminiscent of the Westerners of the late 1960s. The prepubescent Tony later suffers his first ever panic attack, as his father cuts up the pork before his eyes, just after seeing his father dancing with his mother. He once confides in a therapy session that he was told that he was as a child, that his father was in Montana living as a cowboy, when in fact Johnny Boy was in prison. Tony experiences great existential despair and anxiety as he has such enormous "shoes to fill". At the same time, he experienced impotence as his father handled the meat cleaver so swiftly.

In the first episode of the second season, we see Tony driving along in his SUV and listening to heavy metal music. Along the way he passes dilapidated warehouses and rundown buildings, obliviously, as if Tony does not want to acknowledge the destruction his "journey" has brought upon the community. But when his car's radio begins to malfunction during this journey Tony becomes enraged and begins hitting the dashboard, he eventually suffers an anxiety attack and passes out, crashing his car. Tony was overwhelmed by feelings of intense rage triggered by a minor disruption in his journey. As if it were a desperate attempt to avoid facing the destructive consequences of his actions - his true responsibilities. These responsibilities Tony has avoided since childhood, as his father had done before him, which was expected of him as he chose to follow in his father's footsteps.

It is often said that The Sopranos brings us to fall in love with character whom we would find totally abhorrent if we encountered them in reality. Tony Soprano is one character in a long line of fat working-class lovable oaths, like Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin, that American popular culture has produced over the years. It is his many flaws that make him so human and what helps the audience sympathise with him. This is why we constantly put up with his despicable behaviour, as does Dr Melfi and most of his loved ones. It could be down to the Judeo-Christian values which remain dominant in Western society generally - which set a low standard for human nature - and as a consequence of them we generally do identify with flawed characters.

Perhaps, such characters appeal to the parental instincts of the audience. Fat, helpless, unable to resist gratification, these are much like the features of babies, which are innocent and in need of guidance. It could be our desire to protect and guide the weak of this world that is behind our shared compassion for such oath-like characters. There are allusions to this during the course of the show. Gloria Trillo referred to a guerrilla in the zoo as looking "innocent" like a baby, since the term "guerrilla" has been used as a euphemism for Mafia thugs in the past, this may be an insight into her, as well as our own, fascination with Tony and other men like him. In the episode Amour Fou, Carmela is at an art gallery with Meadow where they view The Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, which depicts Saint Catherine kneeling down and kissing the hand of the Baby Jesus who is being held by the Virgin Mary. Meadow comments "She's marrying a baby. Good luck." to which Carmela replies "We all do." But does not just imply Tony is a "big baby", it puts him in the place of Christ - a martyr.

In his sessions with Dr Melfi it is revealed that as a sociopath Tony mimics empathy by showing affection for animals and babies. Melfi later concluded that Soprano, due to his sociopathic personality, was an untreatable case after reading The Criminal Personality, a particularly damning case study.
Though, Tony had previously summed it up, we just didn't want to listen, "Pain and truth? I'm a fat fuckin' crook from New Jersey." This effectively ended the fantasy of Tony redeeming himself and becoming a reformed character, it effectively ended the hopes of the audience. But on an even deeper level it is as if this realisation, is a recognition of the "con" played against the audience. The therapy sessions provide what the show lacks, narrative, Dr Melfi is the presence of the audience in the show. She is fascinated with Tony Soprano, a gangster, like the audience and like the audience she is ultimately "conned", charmed by a sociopath and the tricks he's mastered over the years.

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