Watching the Sopranos last night, I started dry retching at the murder and 'disappearing' of Ralphie Cifaretto, all the while appreciating the bizarre juxtapositions this series achieves: after Chris has dismembered Ralphie, he and Tony sit watching an old Hollywood weepie together; Tony gives Chris some fatherly advice about his drug problems while they dispose of the body parts. Ralphie has been my least favourite character in the whole series so far. And I can well understand Tony's anger over the needless destruction of his horse, which Ralphie precipitated. But still.
The sense of disconcerting juxtapositions and ambivalence this series provokes permeates people's recommendations. Before I started watching The Sopranos, I was told it's a great series, as good as 6FU: I should really watch it, though the violence is terrible -- peek out between your fingers, etc. Some cult studs-type heavyweight types even told me they couldn't bring themselves to watch The Sopranos 'because of the violence.'
Yet the violence begs to be watched: without the violence, The Sopranos would never be what it is. Family would not be redefined to quite the same degree. Like 6FU, The Sopranos is built on a series of clever, ironic conceits, which hang off the premise of the tag 'family redefined', here the Mafia mobster who visits a shrink, takes Prozac, occasionally has couples-counselling, discusses self-help issues with his henchmen, etc; the American-Italian family who struggle for successful integration of their children into mainstream society whilst retaining their own culture...even though they're mafioso; and of course, the violence. What does it mean to suspend 'normal' boundaries and act on your death drives, even kill some of your closest friends and relatives -- as Tony Soprano does?
I suspect part of the appeal of reconciling Tony Soprano's actions with his humanity is the commonplace joke that some people work for or are married to sociopaths. Indeed, I used to work directly to someone whom I suspected to be a sociopath and who later become the defendant in a high-profile rape case. I occasionally catch glimpses of my former work self in Jennifer Melfi -- calm, reasonable, occasionally scared, hammering away against hope with someone who ain't ever really going take you all that seriously at some level. That former boss person of mine could also be quite charming, even caring, in their own way, and had cronies and a sex life not unlike Tony Soprano's. But as far as I know, he wasn't 'clipping' anyone.
If Tony Soprano is a sociopath, he isn't one of the same order as a white-collar corporate type. Tony's actions are in part ritualised; he acts according to (at least the remnants of) a social code. At times he discusses with his cronies how aspects of this code have been lost or softened since immigrating from Italy. He tries to use military imagery with Jennifer Melfi to justify some of his activities: he's fighting in a war, etc. The bitter-sweet violence is an accepted trope in Mafia movies, as well as the juxtapositions: think of Al Pacino watching wildlife documentaries after participating in blood-baths in Donnie Brasco. I would have told you before watching The Sopranos that I liked watching Martin Scorcese movies -- except for the violence. But the issue remains: how, if at all, do you reconcile the violence with an otherwise likeable family man?
A week or so ago as I was driving home, the first bulletin of the news ran something like this: 'A man from L community has been charged with causing grievous bodily harm after he poured boiling water over his wife twice one evening ...' I winced and changed the channel, thinking, I don't know if I can hear any more of this. As you probably know, Alice has a reputation for being murder capital of the nation, with the highest assault rate per capita, etc. However, most of the current violence is black on black, and probably attributable to family violence.
Talking to S during my trip to Y community, he gave a rationale, one that I've heard before, for the reasons why family violence has spiralled: the original social codes have been blurred, they aren't properly remembered by the current generation. What was once ritualised, law-enforcing violence has now taken on another dimension. Payback is often loosely interpreted and out-of-control. People take matters into their own hands: you avenge the killing of my family member, so I avenge your vengeance, and so forth. Many of the original checks and balances that used to exist are lost.
When S started talking about this, something slotted into place and I said, 'Oh, it's The Sopranos.' This might seem like rather a long, and perhaps inappropriate bow to draw (esp given the Mafia's associations with organised crime), but it struck me that there is at least one common thread here with The Sopranos. Smaller ethnic minority has specific, clan-based code of justice which doesn't match with the dominant culture's legal system. Under pressure, things fall apart, become open to personal interpretation, and sometimes spiral out of control. The ambivalence that viewers feel trying to reconcile the violence of The Sopranos with the familiar quirky terrain of the dysfunctional family drama probably relates to the relative incomprehensibility of the remants of this unfamiliar social code.
Recently an Aboriginal woman told me that one of her relatives had been killed in a family feud: 'But that was a while ago; we've put things behind us since then.'
How does anyone get over one relative murdering another in a feud?
I don't know what the answers are to this one, if there are any, but it's one of the questions The Sopranos begs: how credible is it that these people manage to stay together as a cohesive entity, despite the carnage amongst them? (And for that matter, how credible is it that Tony Soprano keeps on swinging such gorgeous chicks, even tho he is so well inhabited by the luminous james Gandolfini?)
I don't know what a postcolonial, Italian, cult studs take on all this would be (it's not that clear to me what wave of immigration Soprano belongs to), tho I suspect much cult studs ink would have been spilt on this series. As I near the end of the fourth season, and realise I'm just halfway through, I wonder what the television future can hold for the Soprano dynasty, how long Jennifer Melfi can keep her cool, what on earth the future can ultimately hold for Chris (will Tony bump him off or will he beat Tony to the punch)? Who if anyone will be left standing?
In other news: I have finished and posted off the marking -- yeah! But now I feel as tho I'm coming down with the virus everyone else seems to have in this town. It almost seems as though I catch viruses as soon as I hear that they're going around sometimes. I don't seem to have managed to rehydrate properly since the weekend (don't ask me how I know this; you don't want to know): that's probably part of it.