Monday, June 11, 2007

Everybody Wants a Thrill

By Kevin Guilfoile

Lots of people have asked me what I thought of The Sopranos finale last night. Many of those people are angry. Like them, I had been expecting something different from the show and so I went to bed not certain how I felt about it. When I woke up this morning (no A3 reference intended) I realized the profound statement Sopranos creator David Chase had just made about storytelling and I was sure that I loved it.

In fiction characters live their lives episodically. We drop in at a particular point and drop out at a particular point and everything that happens in between ties up nicely along the way. Presumably the characters get up the day after the story ends with blank slates. No worries, no debts, no obligations until the next episode starts. It's a manipulation done to satisfy us. Real life, we all know, is a lot messier and a lot weirder.


In the final scene Chase pulls out every manipulative trick in the filmmaker's bag. The two strangers in the restaurant are doing nothing suspicious and there is no reason to think they have designs on Tony except that Chase keeps cutting back to them. Outside Meadow is having trouble parking. Perhaps this happens every time she tries to parallel park but Chase keeps returning to it and suddenly it's ominous. One of the strangers gets up and walks into the bathroom. Anyone who has seen The Godfather knows there's always a gun hidden in the restaurant toilet and we just saw Phil Leotardo killed in front of his wife and grandchildren. The automatic symmetry creator in our heads is already storyboarding the next cut. It's a brilliant scene.

Much has been made about the fact that Journey's Don't Stop Believin' is playing in the restaurant at the time. Some think it's ironic and we're supposed to assume the worst after the screen goes black. Others try to sap meaning from the song's title. But it's obvious why Chase chose it:

Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on

There is no place to end this story. Endings are arbitrary and artificial. It doesn't matter if Tony is about to be whacked in front of Carm and the kids, or if they will just finish a quiet meal and go home. Either way it's not an end to the story, it's middle. The Sopranos was all middle, riddled since the series premiere with red herrings and slow parts and unresolved storylines. Our lives are all middle, too. We never get many answers, and the real story just goes on and on and on and on.


It goes on this month in a federal courtroom where "the last big Outfit trial in Chicago history" begins. Among the 14 defendants will be reputed former boss Joey "The Clown" Lombardo (not to be confused with fictional New York boss Phil Leotardo). Lombardo is alleged to be a brutal gangster who ordered the killings of even close friends including the father of his own godson. A famous cut-up, Lombardo is employing a bizarre defense, claiming that he was never really a part of the mob and even if he was he voluntarily left that life a long time ago. To bolster that claim, Lombardo's attorneys will show the jury a full page newspaper ad that Lombardo took out in the early nineties daring anyone who saw him associating with mobsters to call his parole officer. Um, yeah, no one took him up on that.

One of the main witnesses for the prosecution is former Outfit hit man Frank Cullotta. Cullotta's been a federal informant for over two decades and unlike Lombardo he flaunts his long ago connections. In one of the most bizarre turns in mob (or mob movie) history, Cullotta actually played himself in Martin Scorcese's film Casino, graphically reenacting his 1979 murder of barber union head Jerry Lisner. (Cullotta was also the inspiration for another character in Casino, Frank Marino. Marino was played by Frank Vincent, who by the way played Phil Leotardo on The Sopranos.)

During a Saturday break from the Printers Row Book Fair we were sitting at Kasey's Tavern on Dearborn, just blocks from the skyscraping correctional facility where Lombardo is awaiting trial, and I told Cullotta's story to CJ Box. He shook his head and said, "If you tried to put that in a novel you'd never get away with it."

And David Chase knows it.


Sara N Paretsky said...

Kevin, you remind me of my life back in the Insurance Mills, where one of my co-workers, who was studying theater in night school (she wanted to direct, not act) kept saying we couldn't film our office interactions because everyone would say we were over-acting. Now everyone over-acts, it's part of reality (so-called) TV, but the hysterias, jealousies, and verbal whacking that went on among the most senior levels of management were every bit as dramatic and dreary as Outfit whacking, and everyone's lives were just as messy. As Katherine Anne Porter says at the end of the Garden Party (I think) "Isn't life just--?" and it is, of course.

JD Rhoades said...

In the final scene Chase pulls out every manipulative trick in the filmmaker's bag.

I agree. And that's what pissed me off. There was a certain feeling of contempt to it. "Hah! You want to see Tony whacked? Well we're going to build up to it, then pull the plug! PSYCH!"

It was like Lucy holding the football, and the audience was Charlie Brown.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Sara-It's so true that writing fiction is, first of all, and act of restraint, isn't it? The fictional world, oddly enough, is far more limited than the real one.

JD-I think a lot of people reacted the way you did, but I didn't interpret it the same way. I don't think he was mocking the audience, I think he was mocking the kinds of obvious manipulations that filmmakers overuse. They were so blatant and one on top of another that I don't think it possible that he could have been doing it unironically. As someone who's spent a lot of time in the editing suite, I appreciated the smile. I don't know either way, of course. That was just my sense of it.

Going to sudden black the way he did (and keeping it there for so long) was pretty clearly a joke on the audience, though. I think he wanted people to think, for a moment, that their cable went out. I thought it was funny. Not everyone did.

Libby Hellmann said...

Thought-provoking post, Kevin... not just the Soprano finale (Which I thought was authentic in terms of story, but contrived in terms of technique)...

I'm interested in how the Lombardo trial will be perceived. Are we going to view it as this summer's entertainment.. a replacement for the Sopranos... are we going to embrace The Clown, laugh at his antics... (they're sure to be some).. and rue the "final" chapter of the Old Establishment Outfit? The "Hey, ya shudda seen the good ol' days when they whacked people after a plate of spaghetti Bolognese"?

I hope not. Trivializing the crimes and evils that were committed would be a travesty.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Libby, I think it's already starting. The Sun-Times ran a story yesterday specualting about the new boss of the Chicago mob and the best they could come up with is Al Tornabene, an 84-year-old former owner of a suburban pizza joint. I have no idea if that's a fair characterization of either the Outfit or Tornabene, but the tone of it was certainly "The Witch is Dead now let's have some fun."

I think in general the local media thinks the entertainment value of this trial could be high.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Sorry, meant to include a link to the Pizza Man story.

The Home Office said...

Kevin, I read the Sun-Times article. Seems to be a condition of modern mainstream media to reduce everything to its least intelligentdenominator: elections are sporting events, criminal trials are theater. They are, in their way, but to base too much of the coverage on such simplifying metaphors trivializes the election/trial/newsworthy event of your choice.

Your perspective on The Sopranos is worth a whole 'nuther comment that could morph into a blog entry of its own.

Matt said...


I disagree with your thoughts on the Sopranos ending.

We agree that real life is filled with unresolved conflicts and meandering secondary plots that often add up to nothing. It's a huge, beautiful mess.

Fiction, on the other hand, only mirrors real life. It skips the boring parts. (Can you imagine an author describing every second of his hero's eight hours of shut-eye a night?)

Readers assume that surviving characters "live" beyond the plot to fight another day, but to leave an open ending under the guise of "it's all just middle" was a cop-out by David Chase.

It was even more of a cop-out that the scene was shot and cut to lead the viewer to believe something was going to happen.

I would have been happy if, before the abrupt fade to black, there was a single reaction shot from any member of the family indicating that something terrible was about to happen to Tony. I would have been happy if the scene was cut to show Tony wracked with paranoia.

The Sopranos was a messy, uneven series. A lot of brilliance, but also a lot of bush-league storytelling. (Tony's sudden gambling problem, anyone?)

It would have been one thing had Chase left the show on the bad note. It was downright criminal that he left the show with no note at all.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Fair enough, Matt. I don't agree but I think it's a strength of that episode, not a weakness, that we can react so differently to it.

In Cast of Shadows I made a decision not to resolve one major storyline and a lot of people were upset with me for it. But I did it because if you had this particular piece of information, it would tell you how to feel about everything else that happened in the book. If you had the voice of God whisper in your ear it would be telling you that the characters had either made good decisions or bad ones. And I wanted the reader to be able to judge that for themselves without knowing much more than the characters themselves did.

I think it's possible that Chase chose not to give The Sopranos an "ending" for similar reasons. Because if he had ended with Tony getting whacked or going to prison or turning informant or whatever, the show would have become about only that.

Or maybe not.

Daniel Radosh, as usual, has some smart things to say on the subject. I don't know if I agree with him that Tony is dead, but it's good stuff, especially his analysis of "the rules" of screenwriting coach Robert McKee, who is probably as responsible as any individual for the sadly formulaic screenwriting in Hollywood over the last twenty years. Daniel argues pretty convincingly that many people aren't reacting to the end of the show but to their own conditioning of how a show is supposed to end.

He also links to a page of final episode trivia, myths, and speculation that is definitely worth reading.

There is some discussion of the continuity trick at the start of that restaurant scene (Tony walks in the door and apparently sees himself already sitting in a booth, perhaps even wearing a slightly different shirt.) It's clearly deliberate and I'll admit I don't have a theory for what the heck that means yet.

Matt said...


We'll probably have to agree to disagree, but you make some interesting points. I am looking forward to reading "Cast of Shadows." (And, yes, it's in hardcover; I am all about supporting a fellow Chicagoan.) It's actually the next book on my stack. Just have to finish the Alexander Hamilton biography.

Incidentally, I remember reading the article about you in the Chicago Trib Magazine. I remember laughing when your wife was quoted as saying that you had approximately the length of the human gestation period to complete your book, because after that it was all about the kid.

Exactly what my wife told me as I was pecking away at my first book. But in my case, I sweated it out only to be told that maybe we should wait until we take one last big vacation to Europe this October. I didn't mind; there's nothing like working under the gun. Of course, I am presently trying to ward off the crisis of confidence that comes from shaping, cutting and rewriting my blob of a rough draft. I went through considerable pangs of doubt getting the first hundred pages of rough draft on paper. I figure it might be the same with the rewrite. Fingers firmly crossed. In any case, I bring this up because I saved the article, and read a little whenever I feel the book is going nowhere. So, thanks.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks so much, Matt. Keep it going, man, and good luck. Every first novel is written in a state of total despair. (That probably goes for most second novels, too. And third and fourth and fifth novels and so on.) Try this: When you're feeling good, read a writer you think is brilliant. When you're feeling bad, read a writer you think is a hack. But don't ever do the opposite. One will make you even more despondent and the other is just mean.

And remember there's no reason it can't happen to you. It's not necessarily easy, and it takes luck. But it will be somebody's turn next and it might as well be yours as anybody's.