Avoiding Tough-Guy Cliches, Sexy Beast Shows Up The Sopranos
The Sopranos blamed Mom, and analysands nationwide (posing as journalists) fell for it, running to their word processors to type out feebleminded, hype-induced hosannas. The makers of Sexy Beast know better than to use a simplistic Oedipal explanation for the problem and intrigue of crime. This new British gangster-horror film makes the arresting insinuation that cultural influences (entwined with psychological motive) are what inspire masculine and criminal behavior. It's neither Mom nor simply Patriarchy that gangsters respond to, but a culture of masculine aggression. Both Sexy Beast and The Sopranos appeal to adolescent gangster fascination, but while The Sopranos condescends to all, Sexy Beast stays admirable?even shocking?for what it refuses to indulge about tough-guy cliches.
Gary "Gal" Dove (Ray Winstone) is a retired crook sunning it up at a mountainside retreat in Spain with his best mate Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and their hard-boiled ladies?real dames, redhead Deedee (Amanda Redman) and blonde Jackie (Julianne White). They aren't successful young smoothies big pimpin' on the Iberian peninsula; they're middle-aged, conventionally paired-off and nearly exhausted. Whatever luxuries these thieves and good-time girls partake?restaurant dining, a swimming pool with a two-hearts mosaic at its bottom?were desperately earned and seem desperately enjoyed. Yet, Gal's new "casual" life ("Nine years and no risk") isn't free of accident or destiny. His brooding peace is intruded upon by his past. It's not guilt but consequence. And this triggers an avalanche of obsessions, starting with a boulder that unexpectedly slides down a cliff into Gal's pool and a broken rifle ("a blunderbuss") that his houseboy misfires. Fears and weaknesses never countenanced by Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, the Hughes Brothers, Hype Williams (or most film critics) blow up in Gal's face?a cold splash of surreality in the hot sun.
Everything this group of expatriate friends loathed about England's mean streets is embodied by Gal's old boss Don "Malky" Logan (Ben Kingsley), an unpredictable, foul-mouthed, sinew-in-sandpaper brute. When Logan shows up, flexing intimidation, he demands Gal come home and make one more bank heist. "They pull me back in!" Michael Corleone famously groaned, but Gal is petrified at risking everything he clawed and pinched and probably murdered for (including Deedee). Above all, he's scared to re-enter the old rivalries and competition, tired of having to prove his manliness again. Seeing big burly Gal coerced by the bantam Malky suggests a terrifying version of that old Saturday Night Live skit ¿Quien es mas macho? That Sexy Beast is powered by these men's specific paranoia?the sociopathic need for ballsiness?makes it an intriguing gangster movie offshoot.
Director Jonathan Glazer, working from a script by playwrights Louis Mellis and David Scinto, approaches Gal's midlife crisis as a primal male melodrama. Gal's homelife gets disrupted by resurrected impulses; the illusion of sanctity he's built for himself is rattled by Malky's greed and vulgarity. ("She's fucked hundreds!" he wails about Jackie, a former porn actress?and his old lover.) Envious of Gal's respectable pretense, Malky is appalled by it, too. He sees the quartet's delusions as preposterous: Pale, aging Brits baking their lizardly skins pink. The first shot of Gal sunbathing recalls that Key Largo description of Edward G. Robinson as "a crustacean with its shell off." That was literary sarcasm, and Sexy Beast similarly uses?updates?a self-conscious, derisive approach to gangster-movie conventions. Good as all this is (as when Gal says "I've had enough of this crime and punishment bollocks" or Malky decries the quartet's "insinnuendoes"), it's still a bit sophomoric. There isn't the sense of lived-in corruption or enough crisis-of-conscience such as gave masterful depth to the precarious friendships in Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend, a rare movie admitting the anxiety of noir.
Glazer?a pop director with a music video pedigree like that of Charlie's Angels' McG?doesn't feel anxiety, so he resorts to actual monster depiction (a hairy, horned demon stalking the subconscious) rather than letting beastliness haunt and fester. We don't really need to see the werewolf beneath the skin of these thugs, yet that's the kind of pop critique the pomo audience can relate to?making it easy to catch everyone's terror. This extends to the actual caper in London, where Malky's associate Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) plots to rob a banker (his lover Harry, played by James Fox) of his safe-deposit contents?lifting jewels, bills, society's rich secrets. From the dyed, pomaded Teddy (he's also a sexy beast, a talking death's head) to Fox's discreet pederast, Glazer gets sharp displays of jowly, stubbily masculinity?icons under stress.
Winstone is well practiced at exploring how to be a man. In Nil by Mouth and The War Zone, he gave Brit male loutishness brute authenticity (especially in the underrated mob comedy Love, Honour and Obey). Dressed for Gal's London mission, his head seems to be swelling out the top of his collars. Pathetically contrasting Kingsley's trim menace, he shows there are various ways to be insecure. (Although compared to Brendan Gleeson in John Boorman's The General, the estimable Winstone loses this time out.) The film's female sexy beasts suffer differently; they respond to Malky with clear revulsion. When Deedee dispatches him, her cellulite arms grip that blunderbuss fearlessly.
With Sexy Beast's cunning title (recognizing how people like to perceive movie gangsters, yet also skeptical) it immediately one-ups the contemporary crime film's pseudo-sophistication. Since Pulp Fiction, crime-movie audiences have been both self-congratulatory and ignorant about the moral and art worlds outside the small purview of film noir. Sexy Beast's reassessment of gangster sentimentality raises a startling thought: more people thrilled to Pulp Fiction than have ever heard of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. Pinter's 1965 cauldron of fear, tension and homoeroticism underpins Glazer, Mellis and Scinto's very conscientious effort. Not an obscure reference, The Homecoming was a landmark critique of masculine aggression, especially for Brits. (Less specters of real-life, Malky complaining "I'm sweatin' like a cunt" and Gal exclaiming "It's the charge, the jolt, the buzz, the sheer fuck-it-ness!" are descendants of Pinter's family of rancorous monsters.) Glazer and company don't entirely trade The Homecoming's legacy for Tarantino style; unlike most noir-meisters they've apparently learned something of the moral propositions in modern art, and that's the cultural connection that makes Sexy Beast worthwhile.
It's become so difficult to see through the lies of pop culture that a deceitful tv show like The Sopranos was officially recognized last spring at the Museum of Modern Art (partly to promote the start of a new HBO season). It was like giving a drunk the key to the city. That step-up in class followed the series' attempt at legitimizing our culture's moral confusion. A decade after The Godfather trilogy, The Sopranos worked vigorously to deny every mea culpa Coppola had summarized. That may explain why mob boss Tony Soprano's therapy sessions were such a big, uh, hit. (The show replaced Catholic and political guilt with secular absolution.) But nothing justifies its canonization. A New York Times tout published a book calling it "the most important pop cultural event of the past 25 years." At a National Society of Film Critics meeting, one critic suggested a special prize be awarded to The Sopranos. The present membership was silent?dumbstruck??until the chairman diplomatically advised: "It takes long enough to simply vote prizes to the year's movies. Let's just stick to that."
In a sense, the movies are to blame for The Sopranos. In 1990, the year of The Godfather, Part III, popular taste preferred Goodfellas?a flashy view of criminal behavior in a slippery quasi-documentary style. Scorsese had translated Reagan-era wealth, treachery and self-righteousness with ethnic bravado (making both law enforcement and crime ambiguous); then 1994's Pulp Fiction added jokes, sinking us even lower. The Sopranos' high concept shrewdly imitates all this. TV writer-director David Chase knew the cable market likes to think itself film savvy (last season episodes were actually broadcast in the letterbox format). HBO could give audiences that had stopped regular moviegoing the chance to feel they were still hip. (All that cursing and violence and sometimes nudity. On tv!) When Salon's David Thomson claimed The Sopranos for "the smart classes" nobody was embarrassed at the preposterous self-aggrandizement.
Viewers who would scoff at daytime soap operas hail The Sopranos' serial structure. Its Narrativus Interminus doesn't gain depth, it just constantly delays moral consequences with cheap excitement?mob killings, stripshows at the Bada Bing titty bar. Instead of bringing an end to narrative fantasy (like Coppola's Godfather trilogy called for), Chase deliberately jettisoned ethical imperative. Pop journalists unable to gauge their tv enjoyment as ethical capitulation?the kind of conscientiousness real movies inspire?also could not critique Chase's generic shallowness. Comparisons of The Sopranos to the movies ignore the fact that our culture has lost the old principled focus gangster movies used to have?that Coppola and Peckinpah extended, that even Sexy Beast alludes to. The purpose of art?almost tangible in the last truly great tv drama series, Twin Peaks?has been deranged for a more morally convenient brand of entertainment.
Basically a devious sitcom, The Sopranos encourages audiences to see themselves in Tony's effort to run the organization and keep his family afloat. Chase makes the erroneous (but tv-typical) suggestion that mobsters are just like us. Journalists in therapy may speak for themselves, but killers and extortionists don't represent how most people live their lives. Only in a twisted, grandiose self-projection are the Sopranos "family?redefined." That contrivance holds for every tv sitcom.
Brando has been proven right in his insistence on The Godfather as a corporate metaphor. It was always more about business than family, and soon after its 1972 premiere, Watergate proved the metaphor was applicable to our political system as well. Despite James Gandolfini's end-of-the-year renunciation, his characterization of Tony Soprano was sheer capitalist exculpation. "You ain't gotta love me," he told Christopher. "But you will respect me!" The problem of esteem in corporate capitalist America is this sitcom's real theme. Big shot tv producers don't just want money, they want respect from critics and MOMA, too.
Chase's faith in psychiatry also seeks respect?or at least permission. Casting Goodfellas' Lorraine Bracco as Tony's shrink establishes a dubious pedigree. Even her "truth" is specious when she tells Tony, "Your selfishness is too strong...Actually, in spite of everything, you're a very conventional man." Tony Soprano stands in the same position as All in the Family's Archie Bunker?a spurious Everyman who actually sentimentalizes national flaws, whether racism or exploitation. Average pop consumers don't need this, but the middle-class and middle-brow establishment desperately prides itself as a lovable bigot, a sexy beast.
The Sopranos relentlessly courts the egotism of cable subscribers by emphasizing cultural savvy over realism. As when Tony makes the loaded malapropism, "Now he has to piss into a cathode tube," every episode guaranteed a couch-potato smirk:
Carmela gets pangs of conscience while touring the Metropolitan Museum of Art (but it's no Dressed to Kill). Tony complains to the shrink about Carmela's obsession with "Goyim" (meaning Goya) and she gets to instruct him on "L'Amour Fou." A mobster (Paul Mazursky) quotes Kipling ("If") at a card game. The Russian caretaker Tony hires for his mother is named "Svetlana," an obvious cue to boomers who remember the U.S. media welcome of Stalin's daughter in the 1960s. The shrink explains Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and how madeleines ("a tea cookie") "unleashed a tide of memories." Carmela's coffee klatch even discuss Hilary Clinton: "She took all that negative bullshit he gave her and spun it into gold. She's a model for all of us." Tony's sister Janice (Aida Turturro) brags about visiting an ashram in Pradesh. A tattooed mobster is called "The Illustrated Man" (after Ray Bradbury). An FBI agent is named Marshal McLuhan. Tony's Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), a retired mafia don, makes like an English don displaced in New Jersey, sprouting phrases like "Where does he get the effrontery!" and "Talkin' to that dreadnought would help?" and "I'm ready for the George Sanders long walk here." Even Tony's teenage son gets in the act joining a philosophy debate: "Sartre's a fucking fraud. He stole it all from Husserl and Heidegger."
So much of the dialogue is a cue to the informed (New Yorker, New York Times) audience. This high-tone name- and phrase-dropping is not a democratic gesture, it's elitist?a way of placing the show's makers and viewers above the muck of real life mobsters. This is more important than the authenticity of dialect and profanity. The Sopranos speaks a language all right, but it's a middle-class language of weakness, compromise and arrogant self-delusion. We no longer have a term for culture that isn't first rate, that's easily appeasable, that takes the place of the old "magazine fiction," but it ought to be television, because that's the current middle brow popular art form.
Given this class ambition, even an Italian-American actor like Michael Imperioli gets to sell out his own people (as in his Summer of Sam script) under the guise of being "real." But since Goodfellas, mob movies have been least honest linguistically as they affect ethnic nomenclature. (Donnie Brasco's insultingly misdefined "fuhgeddaboudit.") The art of the word "fuck"?how white ethnics say it, the thrill, the taboo-busting?is a trite way of pretending verisimilitude. Besides, no Sopranos moment matches Gal in Sexy Beast confessing to Deedee: "I love you like a rose loves rain water, like a leopard loves its partner in the desert. I know you love me because I feel strong."
Tony Soprano lacks such self-knowledge because David Chase lacks Sexy Beast's implied spiritual quandry. This is what's missed by Italian-American protesters against The Sopranos. They disregard that the show disregards how society constructs ethnic criminality. (The Sopranos has no sociological basis like the British gangster film The Krays.) Plus they obviate the key fact that mob flicks are fantasies of power, extolling Italianate nerve and rascality. Abel Ferrara's The Funeral bravely refuted this glamorization. Annabella Sciorra's guest spot seemed to refute her participation in The Funeral, but her Sopranos psycho?like Burt Young's guest spot?was genuine and instructive. These actors briefly raised the show's standards by bringing genuine complicity such as Coppola dared with his daughter Sofia in Part III. Chase avoids letting Tony's daughter Meadow suffer the family's legacy?also letting viewers off the hook.
Some of the cast?David Proval, Steve Van Zant?have videogenic mugs, somewhere between Dick Tracy and Mott St., but they're frequently used for sensationalism. In this way Sopranos is worse than Oz, cuz its superficiality has the stench of seriousness?Carmela confusing menopause with guilt, Joe Pantoliano as Ralph overacting evil. It winds up evading mob-story issues. What passes for complexity?Tony telling an underling, "Don't blame yourself. You took this kid under your wing, you schooled him"?is said ironically, so it's old-fashioned tv moralism. One killing, where a goon does "a Lee Trevino" on an innocent man's head, never gets an accounting.
David Chase is content with the outrageousness of the violent act. And only in the third season is there any (slight) confrontation with racism. That's why Chase needs to portray a shrink (raped and guilt-ridden but rich) as the series' moral conscience?he's trying to absolve tv, not real social conflict or its ambiguity. One should be appalled at David Chase's ease with crime and his confidence that we all are complicit with it. It doesn't matter how many media professionals?unreliable cutthroats, unsexy beasts?swear by The Sopranos.
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