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.
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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.