Sunday, January 20, 2019
One Thumb Up, One Thumb Down, For The Sopranos
In response to this :
It’s a nice philosophic question whether it’s a fact that, say, Macbeth is excellent. But however much a conundrum that question might be, I get what you’re saying. And to support that “fact,” its excellence may be “proved” in one way by its high estimation over time by what at least convention would consider the best minds.
Where I fall off though is with your saying The Sopranos is excellent the way Macbeth is, that that’s a fact, (regardless of whether that fact is ontological or metaphoric.) I fall off because great art, and you consider The Sopranos that, (maybe, respectfully, a little too rhapsodically), must have a moral dimension. Macbeth certainly has that. But I argue The Sopranos does not.
I don’t mean to be a scold: I loved it: it was for me destination television. As entertainment it’s great. It, in one set of terms, delights us, but, in the deepest sense of those terms, it doesn’t instruct us. Not the way Macbeth does, and not the way The Wire or Deadwood do. And the reason for that, in my view, is that despite the scenes of homicidal and less than homicidal brutality, greed and thinly transient loyalties, it at bottom gives the utter grimness and the brutal exploitation of mob criminality a pass. That comes from in part the comedy in it, which you note, in part from the focus on domestic strife and Tony’s anxieties, seeing his shrink and all that, and generally, from all the lightness running through it. I say, that in giving that criminality a pass, in presenting much of mob life in a such a fun, diverting, entertaining way, the series deprives itself of moral dimension.
That same split, by the way, is the reason why Godfather 1 is a compelling gangster fairy tale and why Godfather 2 is among the greatest of movies. It’s the reason why Goodfellas, a juicy, rollicking movie, totally entertaining, is finally a kind of moral idiocy, say in Scorsese’s images of a paranoid Jimmy Conway’s murder victims winding up in comical poses, in glamorizing thug life seen from the thugs’ perspective and having Henry’s final wish to be back in thug life as something devoutly to be wished for.
Donnie Brasco’s grimly real representation of the lowness of thug life—was Al Pacino ever better?—makes mincemeat of what Goodfellas glamorizes as Scorsese euthanizes its violence by making it comical and fun, like say when Tommy stabs the shit out of the guy trapped in the car trunk, stabs him over and over after a cozy funny scene at his mother’s house. Totally entertaining movie which for sure bears repeated watching but morally askew.
So that’s my argument against your claim for The Sopranos’ transcendent greatness, its perfection as excellence as a fact, the way Macbeth’s excellence is a fact.