A Hooplehead Reunion

The first half-dozen years or so of the 21st century saw some of the strongest arguments that a Golden Age of Television had arrived. Many of those were produced by HBO, from the New Jersey mobscapades of The Sopranos to the sprawling social canvas of The Wire. While it was cancelled after three season, the Western series Deadwood stands tall among the standouts of that time. Even thirteen years after its cancellation, it’s difficult to find a series as accomplished, with an ensemble cast as strong, and with writing as distinct.

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A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #25: Psychopaths (2)

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Sometimes they come back: since our last episode, where we discussed black and white movie psychopaths, couldn’t contain all the cinematic psychoses, we’re dedicating a second episode to our favourite psycho killers. Starting from the question what we consider the archetypical pop culture psychopaths, our three intrepid pop culture baristas embark on a journey, beginning with the capo of New Jersey from HBO’s The Sopranos. Is Tony Soprano a narcissistic psychopath or does he really care about those ducks? We then move on to ’60s and ’70s San Francisco and gaze into the absence at the centre of David Fincher’s Zodiac, before the episode finally ends on American Psycho and the dark, cold, empty heart of Wall Street psychopathy.

If you haven’t already done so, make sure to check out episode 24, where we talked about movie psychopaths and psychopath movies, from Night of the Hunter via Fritz Lang’s M to the psycho granddaddy of them all: Norman Bates and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?

In an instant, they were gone. Family, friends, lovers. You turned around for one moment, and when you turned back they were gone. Where? Why? Who knows. How to go on? Who knows. And how can you ever hold on to anyone again if you don’t know whether it might happen again?

No, I’m not talking about the Snap. (We’ve done enough of that elsewhere.) I’m not talking about the Rapture either, not quite. What I am talking about is one of the strangest, saddest, most infuriating, most hopeless, most hopeful stories I’ve seen, on TV or elsewhere: The Leftovers.

The Leftovers

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The Rear-View Mirror: Goodfellas (1990)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

goodfellas

A car rides into darkness. The film cuts to the three passengers and we hear noise from the back of the car.

“The f*&k is that? … Jimmy?” says the man behind the wheel. “Did I hit something?”

“… the f*&ck is that?” the man in the back says. They pull over and get out. Lit by the red back light of the car the men draw their weapons. The man in the trunk is bloodied but still alive. Swearing, they finish him off. They are Henry, Jimmy and Tommy, our protagonists.

After this violent beginning Henry’s voice-over starts with what is probably the most famous line in the movie:

“As far back as I remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

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Empathological behaviour

On most message boards, forums and online communities that I’m a part of (all… let’s see… 3 1/2 of them) I probably post most frequently in threads relating to films, TV series, novels, plays, comics and other media that are largely dedicated to storytelling, characterisation and the like. One recent discussion I took part in was about the HBO series Game of Thrones, and while many of the topics were predictable (OMG sexposition! Just how much does Tyrion rule? Is there such a thing as posting that animated GIF of Joffrey being slapped too often?), one caught me by surprise: a poster criticised that there’s barely anyone in the series to root for.

The reason for my surprise was this: I realised that ‘rooting for someone’ has never been a measure of whether I enjoy a story or not. Of course I root for the Indiana Joneses and John McClanes, the Bastian Balthasar Buxes and… I’m actually finding it difficult to come up with more examples, which is quite telling. Some kinds of stories necessitate a ‘good guy’ to root for, but this isn’t anything I’m looking for in storytelling. On the other hand, what I am looking for is the potential to empathise with the characters whose lives I’m following. And that’s something I find quite easy – you could go so far as to say that I’m a bit of an ’empathy whore’. I’ve never really rooted for Tony Soprano, Richard III, even a Darth Vader – or, for that matter, a Cersei Lannister, not exactly one of the nicer characters in a series that isn’t exactly famous for its many loveable protagonists.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve greatly enjoyed series whose protagonists do questionable, petty, selfish things all the time, from the characters in Six Feet Under (as the series goes on, Nate becomes more and more selfish in his actions, yet that never makes me care about him any less), to the shades-of-grey cast of any season of The Wire (yes, I even care about Rawls, while fully acknowledging what a dick he is) to the moral monsters of The Sopranos. Which is also why the flip-side of rooting for a fictional character is something I very rarely do – I often read about other forumites wanting this or that character to die horribly, to get knifed in the back or thrown off a cliff or get a bullet in his head, which I just don’t get. I don’t get the vehemence and sadism with which these things are often formulated (and yes, I do understand that wishing death on a fictional character is not the same as wanting a real person to die), but more than that, whether a character is morally reprehensible or not doesn’t have anything to do with whether I want to continue watching them. Al Swearengen is a Machiavellian monster, happy to kill, or have killed, anyone who stands in the way of his plans, yet I can think of few characters who are as enjoyable to watch as him. Tony Soprano made The Sopranos must-watch TV for six seasons, even in the worst episodes. Even generally likeable characters like The Wire‘s Bodie or Rome‘s Titus Pullo do horrible, heinous things. It’s not just that I don’t get why or how the moralities of their actions would influence my wanting to watch them: it’s that their flaws, their ambiguity, often make them more interesting characters for me. (Obviously my enjoyment of the characters also has a lot to do with how they’re written and acted – I want to watch an Al Swearengen at least as much because of Ian McShane’s performance as because he’s a fascinating, complex character, and the same’s definitely true for Breaking Bad‘s Walt White and the fantastic acting by Bryan Cranston.)

However, there are characters – very few, but they exist – that don’t evoke any empathy on my part. There are some that I dislike so much I wouldn’t mind something horrible happening to them. I’ll admit it right here and now: every time I watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I hope that McMurphy will succeed in strangling Nurse Ratched to death this time round. I guess that while I’m a bleeding heart of the worst kind when it comes to fictional characters as well, there’s still a tiny little reactionary inside me wanting to get out and flip the switch.

Vale of Tears, HBO style

My tastes probably tend towards the dark and tragic somewhat. For a while David Fincher’s Seven was my feelgood film (and I’m only exaggerating slightly). I’m not particularly into comedies, mainly because I don’t tend to find them funny – but I think that Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are both rich in humour, though of the blackest sort. I tend to label things as “bittersweet” that my Significant Other would call “depressing as hell”.

Imagine my surprise when we finished watching season 2 of Oz… and my reaction was pretty much this: Whoa. This series may be too negative, too pessimistic, too “everything is going to shit” for me. By comparison, the last two seasons of Six Feet Under were light tragicomedy, The Sopranos is Analyse This! and Deadwood is Paint My Wagon. In the season 2 finale, Oz gives us a pedophile ex-priest getting crucified by Arians, a Latino guard’s eyes getting stabbed (with disturbing visuals of the damage) and one inmate’s arms and legs being broken. (I can still hear the snapping sounds…) When an old Nigerian gets stabbed to death, it almost feels like a relief: Thank god, they could have put his arm down the garbage disposal and then fed him his own kidneys!

Oz is open to allegations of being gratuitous in its use of violence, at least in this episode – but then, I can think of scenes of Deadwood, Rome and indeed Six Feet Under (elevator bisection!) that are as visceral and gory. So what is it, if not the gruesome depiction of violence? Is it that the characters are by and large doing evil things? Hey, Al Swearengen could pull off as many as six evil things before breakfast, without breaking into a sweat. The Soprano mob was no bit more angelic than the inmates of Oswald Penitentiary. So, again: what is it that makes Oz less bearable?

I think it’s this: Oz is about a world where hope is mostly dead, and what hope is left is killed over and over again. All these other series, for the pain, suffering and evil acts they depict, they haven’t killed off hope. Goodness can exist and survive and sometimes even thrive. In Oz, the only way that goodness can avoid being trampled is by hiding away, making itself smaller. There are sparse moments of light, but they are so exceptional and all the characters seem to know it that you almost dismiss them as a mere distraction from the doom and gloom. And yes, there is humour, but most of the time it’s grim as hell. Even the world of The Wire is more hopeful. Consider that: The Wire is more hopeful than Oz.

Arguably, that’s the world the series depicts: its version of the American penal system is Hell, an institutional hell where goodness is weakness, and the weak get their arms and legs broken. But if a series is that relentlessly negative and nine out of ten times something good happening is just occasion for the characters to fall from a greater height, it becomes wearying. And it’s the first HBO series where I’m not exactly eager to get started on the next season as soon as possible.

Perhaps I need to recover with something lighter.

Don’t stop-

As always, I’m pretty late to the party, so please bear with me as I write about the pop culture event of the year… 2007, that is. “Remember when” may be the lowest form of conversation according to some – but remember when The Sopranos ended on the ten seconds of silence heard around the world?

The Sopranos has been with me for a long time. It has a special place in my heart for accompanying the most important relationship in my life. Even beyond its personal significance, it was the first HBO series I got into – arguably it’s the one that got me hooked and that led to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, and so on. And while it had its ups and downs, feeling at times like it had continued past its prime, it is clearly one of the strongest pieces of TV fiction ever, featuring one of the best written, best acted core casts.

In seasons 4 and 5, I felt that while the individual episodes were strong, the series wasn’t going anywhere. The episodes were exchangeable. There wasn’t all that much of a compelling story arc (they should’ve had Christopher writing the series – there’s a man who knows about the importance of arcs). Idiosyncratically named season 6 part 1 (if you want to top that, you need to go to video games and check out Star Wars: Dark Forces III: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast) was a mess in some ways, but it tried, and succeeded, in getting the series out of its rut. The whole of season 6, but especially part 2 (the final nine episodes, that is), had a sense of purpose: we were spiralling in on the destruction of everything that Tony holds dear, often at his own hands.

“Made in America”, the final episode, ended… strangely. Was it a massive anti-climax? Was it a subtle way of saying that Tony’d been whacked? Was it a “Fuck you!” to the fans who’d been loyal to the series for almost a decade? Personally I’m leaning towards the “Tony’s dead” interpretation myself, since it’s pretty stringent – the strongest argument being Bobby Baccalieri’s line earlier in the season, referring to the moment when you get shot: “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” A lot of things point, more or less strongly, towards Tony’s violent death.

At the same time, though, season 6 part 2 (paragraph A, line 23) is a season of red herrings. There are several episodes that ratchet up the tension, suggesting very strongly that by the end of it, character X would be dead: Paulie Walnuts, Hesh, Bobby, Christopher. The latter two do end up dead, but only after a bait and switch pulled by Chase. “Made in America” works pretty much the same way, with everything pointing towards that final gunshot – but then we get nothing. Blackness. Silence. “Don’t stop-” indeed. Does it stand for death? Tony’s death? The series’? Or for Chase denying us the closure we want, whether that is Tony getting away with it all or getting the punishment he undoubtedly deserves?

Shrodinger’s Tony aside, though: the episode is perhaps the strongest of the entire series in terms of filmmaking, and the final five or six minutes are a brilliant example of this. I can’t think of many films or series that ratchet up the tension so deftly while showing what can easily be seen as wholly innocuous. Add to that Chase’s usual good hand at picking the perfect soundtrack for this series:  “Don’t Stop Believing” will forever be stuck in my head together with this scene. And cutting off the music when it does? Perfect. What better moment to end than in mid-sentence, right after “Don’t stop”?

Farewell, Tony. Farewell, Carmela, A.J., Meadow. Good bye, Sil, Chrissie, Uncle Jun, Paulie, Bobby, Janice, Livia. Ciao, Dr. Melfi. Many of you were pricks with an over-inflated sense of entitlement – always with the drama! – but damn, if you didn’t make these ten years of TV watching memorable as hell. (Quite conceivably a hell run by the Irish, where every day is St. Patrick’s Day.) Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing-

P.S.: Another nail in the “Tony’s dead” coffin, and one that I find pretty convincing: there’s no reason to end before the entire family’s together, but we don’t get to see Meadow with her parents and brother. If the end was supposed to be open, it would’ve ended with all four of them; instead, we get the Blam! of the black screen just before Tony sees her. Either Chase’s fucking with us, which I don’t believe – or something interrupted the family union. Something pretty final.

P.P.S.: Think what you want about the woman, but Hilary Clinton’s Sopranos spoof campaign ad had class:

Blood Wing? True West? Something along those lines…

Since Switzerland is behind the rest of the world in all things pop culture, we’ve only just finished watching the first season of True Blood. Now, for those of you who have been following my HBO fetishism for a while, this will come as a bit of a surprise, but… I thought that True Blood was nothing much to write home about. It was entertaining enough, but I wouldn’t give the best episode of the series for the worst of Deadwood, The Wire or Six Feet Under, that other Alan Ball series. (I might be willing to exchange any episode of True Blood for that episode of The Sopranos where Tony meets his father’s mistress. Shudder…)

One major problem with the series, at least from my point of view, is that the main characters are much less interesting than the side characters that wander in for a couple of episodes. Bill and Sookie (or “Sookaaah!”, as Bill might put it) are okay, as are Sam, Tara, Jason and all the others, but I never really cared all that much about what was going to happen to them. On the other hand, I cared about poor, shlubby, gay vampire Eddie, I cared about psychotic, sexy hippie/murderess Amy, and I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more of Kurt Kobain lookalike Eric (a charismatic performance by Alexander “Iceman” Skarsgard) or the Magister as played by Zeljko Ivanek.

At the same time, True Blood is almost perfect fare for a tired evening after a day at the office. It’s fun, it’s nice to look at, and that title tune always gets my toes twitching. Now, if only it was on offer as a downloadable track for Rock Band

We’re also almost at the end of the first season of The West Wing. It took me an episode or two to forget that the guy playing the President had also been Greg Stillson in David Cronenberg’s film version of The Dead Zone, i.e. not a man you’d want anywhere near the White House, but now I’m okay with Prez Jed Bartlett sitting in the Oval Office.

So far I’m enjoying the series a lot, although it’s pretty much the opposite of True Blood – intelligent writing, heavy on words and ideas, and very little in the way of graphic sex, fangs, shapeshifters and blood. It does, however, have Allison Janney, an actress who I’ve come to like a lot. If I had to single out one of the characters from the series as my favourite one, it’d be her C.J. Gregg. Janney is as pitch-perfect with scenes of political drama as she is with understated humour and outright goofiness.

It’s amazing, though, how bad most of the characters on the series are when it comes to interpersonal relationships that aren’t primarily defined by work. They make great colleagues (when they’re not making vicious fun of you after a root canal) – they seem to make for lousy boy- and girlfriends (though mostly boyfriends). Déformation professionelle, I guess.

In a world…

Okay, this is a bit of a cheat entry – but I was just surfing DVD reviews and was reminded of one of my favourite trailers ever. So, without much further ado, here it is:

What else? I’ve started rewatching The Sopranos, and I’m surprised at how many of the scenes I remember best are actually from the first season. What happened in seasons 2 to 5? (I haven’t seen the final season yet, but I’m very, very curious. From what I’ve heard and read, I could imagine being one of those Hipster Douchebags(tm) who actually like the way the series ended.)