Tag Archives: Essays

Tip-toe through the P-path: No Impact Man ***

By Dennis Hartley

“Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It’s a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I’m not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort.” –Wallace Shawn, from My Dinner with Andre.

I don’t know about you, but I’m with Wally. And Kermit the Frog. Because, dammit, it ain’t easy being green. Oh, I suppose I feel pretty good about myself when I toss the empty cereal box (made from post-consumer fibers and printed in soy ink) into the recycling bin, bring my reusable bag to the farmer’s market, or screw in a low-wattage compact fluorescent bulb, but does that mean I’m doing my part to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint? After watching the new eco-doc, No Impact Man, it would seem that my crimes against Mother Gaia are running a close 2nd only to those of Capt. Hazelwood.

Yeah, it would take another guilty liberal to make a guilty liberal like me feel, uh, guilty; and filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein have succeeded in doing just that in their film, documenting the efforts of blogger/author Colin Beavan to spend an entire year making as little environmental impact as possible. Operating under the supposition that there are more than a few liberal minded, well meaning, self proclaimed “environmentally conscious” wags out there who don’t exactly practice what they preach (and humbly considering himself to be among them) Beavan set out to put his, uh, mulch where his mouth is. Beavan decided that if he was really going to go for it, he would have to convince his dazzling urbanite wife, Business Week writer Michelle Conlin (a classic New York neurotic) and their toddler to join in as well. So how does a family of Manhattanites pull this off without leaving their metropolitan cocoon? This paradox provides plenty of rich narrative compost for the filmmakers, and they cultivate it well.

Beavan’s strategy was to go whole hog; well, not literally, because he and his wife were apparently vegetarians already going in. But any food they were to consume in the course of the experiment would have to come from local growers (although, dwelling in the heart of New York City, they had to fudge the definition of “local” a tad). Much to Michelle’s chagrin, this meant no more Starbucks (the inevitable scenes dealing with her caffeine withdrawal angst, while initially amusing, begin to feel a little stagy). Electricity was right out, so they dutifully shut down the breakers in their apartment. Automated transportation was also nixed, only walking and biking allowed (elevators were also verboten). And lastly, they make what is arguably the ultimate sacrifice: no material consumption (during a thrift store visit, Michelle gazes wistfully at a used Marc Jacobs bag; the look on her face speaks volumes about the twisted pathos of consumer culture). When Beavan announces that toilet paper is off the list, the shit (no pun intended) really hits the fan.

Okay, despite the obvious “Dah-link I love you, but give me Park Avenue!” parallels, it’s not exactly Green Acres; after all, this is a serious-minded documentary, not just going for the quick yuck. In fact, one of the more fascinating aspects of the film is its exploration of the outright hatred that Beavan receives from some quarters. In one scene, he mopes at his laptop, so befuddled and browbeaten by all the negative comments on his blog that he’s ready to just throw in the towel on the whole project (“Ah yes, Grasshopper, we bloggers must all suffer through that phase at some point,” I mused to myself, while thoughtfully stroking my imaginary Fu Manchu mustache). Ironically, some of his detractors accuse him of being the very creature that he set out to prove to himself that he wasn’t-one of the hypocritical “green fakers”. Even one of his consultants, an urban gardening expert who he has befriended, questions his sincerity. He proffers that Beavan’s wife writes for Business Week, “…for which millions of trees are cut down on a regular basis in order to promote the thoroughly fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people.” He’s only getting warmed up. He concludes: “If it’s your contention that it evens out because she doesn’t take the elevator in your 5th Avenue co-op…I have to say you’re either dishonest, or delusional.”  Ouch!

For me, the most pragmatic takeaway from the film stems from one of Beavan’s more thoughtful observations. Perhaps the point is “…not about using as little as we can possibly use…but to find a way to get what you need, in a sustainable way.” The major question that looms is: why are some people so threatened by the very idea of “thinking green”? Beavan offers that perhaps it is “…the idea of deprivation that scares people the most” – which of course brings us back full circle to Wally’s lament from My Dinner with Andre that I quoted at the top of the post. Short of chucking it all and joining an Amish enclave, I think it’s possible to be eco-conscious and enjoy some comforts of modern technology without feeling guilty about being alive in the 21st Century. For Wally, it’s the idea of losing the use of his electric blanket. For me, it would be my DVD player. And my DVD collection. OK, and my cable service, and my DVR. I will happily sort out all my garbage, buy locally (when feasible) and avoid using my vehicle whenever practical, but you’ll only get my Universal Remote…when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Electric Kool-Aid acid reflux: Taking Woodstock ***

By Dennis Hartley

Bob & Carol & Ted &…uh, has anyone seen Alice?

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe socio-political commentator trots out that tired old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

 That summer seemed to last forever
and if I had the choice
Yeah – I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

 Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really there, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead (duh!)?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

 By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub (drum roll please): she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

I suppose my point is, there’s always been a disconnect between the “Woodstock” that has morphed over the last 40 years into a highly romanticized representation of the ideals of a specific generation, and the actual “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” event that took place near Bethel, New York in August of 1969. In other words, can anyone who was of a certain age and shared mindset in 1969 rightfully claim (like Joni) that they were “there”, in spirit, and that it was a beautiful thing? Or, did you have to physically attend the event, parking miles away, slogging through a muddy sea of humanity, with only a slim chance of getting close enough to the stage to identify who was playing? And in spite of the impression given by Michael Wadleigh in his brilliant rock doc, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (which was carefully whittled down from over 300 hours of footage into the 4-hour distillation we all know and love), the sound system reportedly left much to be desired, and many of the bands (by their own admission) did not give career best performances (the ingestion of certain substances may have, er, played a role).

None of the main characters in Taking Woodstock get that close to the stage, either (although some do ingest certain substances, play in the mud and take a figurative wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of 1969). For the most part, Lee doesn’t set out to just reenact the grand canvas of the event as has already been depicted in Wadleigh’s iconic documentary (what would be the point?) Instead, he has opted for a far more intimate approach, based on a memoir by Elliot Tiber, who helped broker the deal between the producers of the music festival and the Bethel Town Board to hold the event there after the permits were refused for the originally intended location in the nearby  town of Wallkill, N.Y.

Elliot is played by stand-up comic/first time leading man Demetri Martin (a former writer for Conan O’Brien who you will most likely recognize from his sporadic appearances on The Daily Show). In 1969, he is living in the Village in N.Y.C., eking out a living as an interior designer. When it becomes clear to him that his aging parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are overextending themselves trying to singlehandedly keep their flagging Catskills motel business afloat as the bank threatens foreclosure, Elliot heads back home upstate to become their Man Friday. Serendipity eventually puts Elliot face-to-face with concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff, who captures his real-life counterpart’s shrewdly manipulative charm and angelic inscrutability to a tee).

Seeing little more than an opportunity to sell out the motel for a few weeks and give the business some much-needed cash flow, Elliot (having no idea that he is playing a pivotal role in enabling what is destined to become seen as the high-water mark event of the 60s counterculture movement) introduces Lang to alocal farmer, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who has some spacious fields that might fit the bill. There is some resistance to overcome from grumpy neighboring farmers, as well as consternation from a local Town Board members about the idea of their sleepy hamlet being overrun by a bunch of Dirty Fucking Hippies (this part of the tale takes on a Footloose vibe). The rest, as they say, is History.

“Dramedies” can be a tricky business. Too much drama can curdle the comedy. Too much comedy can sabotage any dramatic tension in the piece. Unfortunately, Lee’s film takes a fair stab at both but doesn’t fully succeed at either, leaving you with the cinematic equivalent of tepid dishwater. That being said, there are a couple decent sequences; particularly a protracted scene in which Elliot, wandering the outskirts of the massive crowd and trying to work his way closer toward the distant stage, gets waylaid by a mellow couple who are camped out in their (wait for it) VW van. The couple (played with requisite doe-eyed blissfulness by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner) invite Elliot aboard for a nice little trip (which doesn’t involve any actual driving- nudge nudge wink wink). It’s a well staged, very sweet little interlude, beautifully played by all three young actors.

However, one well-executed vignette doth not a great two hour film make (is that proper English, or am I still high?). There are some good supporting performances; Liev Schreiber does an admirable turn in an underwritten role as a cross-dressing ex-Marine (don’t ask-just think John Lithgow in The World According to Garp) and Levy is so engaging as Max Yasgur that I wish they had given him a few more scenes to play . One notable misfire is the casting of the usually dependable Emile Hirsch, whose cliche (and ill-advised) portrayal of a Vietnam vet resurrects the pre-Coming Home movie stereotype of the shell-shocked loon screaming “Incoming!” and hitting the dirt every time a car backfires. There are also a few possible  intriguing dramatic sidebars that are hinted out, but never fully explored.

For example, Lee (and screenwriter James Schamus) take pains to telegraph that Elliot is on the verge of reaching some sort of epiphany about his sexuality, and his own sense of liberation and growing feelings of empowerment as a (gay? bisexual?) man, but then underplay it to the point where you’re left asking questions. Is he about to come out to his parents? Or is he is still struggling with coming out to himself? Elliot is a gay man, living in Greenwich Village in 1969. Surely he was at least cognizant of the Stonewall riots that very summer (not to mention the burgeoning gay lib movement)? Is it even intended that we concern ourselves with this, or is it just incidental to the story? If you are really hell-bent to skinny-dip in 40th anniversary nostalgia, you needn’t scratch your head over Taking Woodstock. Dim all the lights, plug in the lava lamp, light up the bong, then “take Woodstock” (the original documentary) off the shelf (I know you own a copy, you DFH liberal pinko!). All together now:

Gimme an ‘F’…”

Punk is a feeling: The Gits ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

Viva Zapata: Mia and her fans, circa 1991.

In the fall of 1992, I moved to Seattle with no particular action plan, and stumbled into a job hosting the Monday-Friday morning drive show on KCMU (now KEXP) , a mostly volunteer, low-wattage, listener supported FM station broadcasting from the UW campus with the hopeful slogan: “Where the music matters.” I remember joking to my friends that my career was going in reverse order, because after 18 years of commercial radio experience, here I was at age 36, finally getting my first part-time college radio gig. I loved it.

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to cue up whatever I felt like playing, as opposed to kowtowing to the rigid, market-tested “safe song” play lists at the Top 40, Oldies and A/C formats I had worked with previously. A little Yellowman, Fugazi, Cypress Hill, Liz Phair, maybe a bit o’ Mudhoney with your Danish this morning? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set off with an oldie like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to take you up to your first coffee break? Sure, why not? I was happier than a pig in shit.

What I didn’t realize until several years following my  7-month stint there, is that KCMU was semi-legendary in college/alt-underground circles; not only was it literally the first station in the country to “break” Nirvana, but counted members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam among former DJ staff. I was just a music geek, enthusiastically exploring somebody else’s incredibly cool record collection, whilst taking my listeners along for the ride; in the meantime I obliviously became a peripheral participant in Seattle’s early 90’s “scene”.

One of the countless bands that migrated to Seattle during the city’s brief and shining heyday as America’s D.I.Y Mecca was a quartet hailing from Ohio, who called themselves The Gits (in honor of a Monty Python sketch). Led by talented singer-songwriter Mia Zapata, the band mixed the musical tightness and aggressive melodic punch of L.A.’s X with the art-punk lyricism of San Francisco’s Romeo Void. Zapata’s powerful, bluesy Janis Joplin-meets-Exene Cervenka vocal delivery and charismatic stage presence made her a formidable front woman, and the band quickly gained a strong local following.

They also soon gained the attention of local music producers, and were on the verge of being courted by some of the major labels, when it all came crashing to earth with a resounding thud. In the summer of 1993, Mia Zapata was beaten, raped and killed, her body unceremoniously dumped in a vacant lot. Her murder remained unsolved until an astounding break in the case in 2003 helped bring her killer to justice (thanks to a carefully preserved saliva sample taken from the crime scene and advancements in DNA forensics technology). Her frighteningly random and brutal murder not only had a profoundly disheartening and long-lasting effect on Seattle’s incestuous music community, but at the time, symbolically represented the beginning of the end for the city’s burgeoning music renaissance; it was sort of the grunge era’s Altamont, if you will.

In a new documentary simply entitled The Gits (available on DVD) super-fans and first time filmmakers Kerri O’Kane (director) and Jessica Bender (producer) have constructed an engrossing, genuinely moving portrait of the band and Zapata’s legacy. When O’Kane and Bender were doing initial research for their project, they began snapping up all the Gits memorabilia they could get their hands on, acquiring much of it via eBay, and mostly through one particular seller.

That person turned out to be the band’s drummer, who was beginning to wonder who these two particularly obsessed fans were. This serendipity eventually led to the full cooperation of all the surviving band members, after they were fully assured that O’Kane and Bender weren’t a couple of weird stalker fan types. This was a legitimate concern due to the fact that Zapata’s killer was then still unknown and presumably still at large. Thus began a six year labor of love for the pair.

The first half of the film is devoted to the history of the band, beginning with their formation at Antioch College in Ohio in 1986. By the time they moved to Seattle in 1989, the band had developed a sonic sensibility that was more simpatico with classic punk rock than it was to the trendy “grunge” sound of the time (speaking strictly as an “old school” rock fan, grunge always sounded like warmed-over Blue Cheer or Sabbath to me, while punk was closer to the spirit of The MC5 and The Ramones).

O’Kane does a nice job encapsulating their Seattle years with well-chosen performance clips and archival photos. Interviews with the band, some of their friends and members of Mia’s family are supplemented by recollections from professional peers like Joan Jett and members of 7 Year Bitch, an all-female Seattle band who were generously mentored by the Gits (and ironically, signed by a major label long before their more musically accomplished mentors were “discovered” themselves). The music business is a harsh mistress.

The second half of the film deals with Zapata’s death. Much to their credit, the filmmakers don’t exploit the sensationalist aspects of the crime or dwell on all the gory details of the murder itself. Instead, they take the high road and examine the profound effect her loss had on her family, friends, fans and fellow members of the music community.

The sensitive and respectful handling of the latter part of the story ultimately accentuates what lies at the heart of a film that could have been a real downer: an inspiring portrait of a group of close friends truly committed to each other, their music and their fans. With all the soulless pap oozing from the music charts and Stepford Idol marionettes warbling their glorified karaoke at us from our Empty Vee these days, it’s enough to give one a glimmer of hope that, somewhere out there in the ether, there will always be someone making Music That Matters (I can always dream, can’t I?)

O’Kane even manages to find and highlight one bittersweet “positive” (for want of a better word) that resulted from the tragedy, which was the formation of Home Alive, an anti-violence non-profit organization that is perhaps best described by the mission statement posted on their website:

Home Alive is a Seattle based anti-violence non-profit organization that offers affordable self-defense classes and provides public education and awareness. We believe violence prevention is a community responsibility as well as an individual issue. Our work in self-defense encourages everyone to recognize their entitlement to the basic human right to live free from violence and hate. Our goal is to build a cultural and social movement that puts violence in a context of political, economic and social oppression, and frames safety as a human right.

Sounds like a damn fine plan to me. Now, if we just could convince the rest of the world to start acting so…punk rock.

Death of a Lens man: R.I.P. Laszlo Kovacs

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2007)

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You know what “they” say- it always comes in threes. We recently lost two masters of world cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Then, on July 21, we lost someone with a bit less name recognition but no less importance. I am referring to one of American cinema’s most respected and influential cinematographers, Laszlo Kovacs. This week, we’ll take a look at some “must see” films from this craftsman’s prolific 50-year career.

Kovacs’ journey to the United States from his native Hungary plays like a nail-biting Cold War thriller. When the Hungarian Revolution exploded on the streets of Budapest in 1956, the young Kovacs, together with fellow student Vilmos Zsigmond, boldly documented the ensuing events with a hidden camera (on loan from their school). The budding film makers then risked life and limb to smuggle the resulting 30,000 feet of footage across the Austrian border. Both men subsequently sought and won political asylum in the U.S. in 1957. (BTW, there is a forthcoming documentary entitled Laszlo & Vilmos: The Story of Two Refugees Who Changed the Look of American Cinema). The cinematography style of Kovacs and Zsigmond was quite literally borne from revolution; and it certainly revolutionized American cinema in the 1970’s with a signature “look”.

Hands down, the film that put Kovacs on the map was Easy Rider (1969). The dialog (along with the mutton chops, fringe vests and love beads) may not have dated so well, but thanks to his exemplary DP work, those now iconic images of expansive American landscapes and the endless gray ribbons that traverse them remain the quintessential touchstone for all subsequent American “road” movies, from Vanishing Point, Two Lane Blacktop and Badlands, through Lost in America, Thelma and Louise and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, all the way up to the recent Little Miss Sunshine.

I’m not sure what his feelings were about this (or if he even cared), but in the course of his long and illustrious career, it’s interesting that Kovacs never once snagged an Oscar (although he was nominated a few times). His friend Zsigmond fared better with the Academy; likely because to tended to work on higher profile films, whilst Kovacs gravitated more toward artistic and/or independent projects (at least through the period leading up to Ghostbusters, the biggest box office hit he ever collaborated on).

Ironically, the final film that Kovacs is credited on prior to his death was a 2006 project with his old friend Zsigmond, a documentary that was produced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution called Torn from the Flag. In an artistic sense, you could say that he came full circle.

Here’s a Whitman’s sampler (if you will) of more cinematic gems from Kovacs’ resume:

Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967) – Easy Rider wasn’t the first foray into the 60’s biker scene for Kovacs and Jack Nicholson; this cult film/guilty pleasure from director Richard Rush (The Stuntman) may have been the warm-up. Separated from the rest of the era’s grind house grist by Nicholson’s charisma and the skillful work from director Rush and DP Kovacs. Adam Roarke lives!

Targets (1968)-Director Peter Bogdanovich’s impressive debut and the first of many collaborations with DP Kovacs. Bogdanovich created a minor classic with this low-budget wonder about an aging horror movie star (Boris Karloff, not such a stretch) who is destined to cross paths with a seemingly “normal” young man who is about to go totally Charles Whitman on his sleepy community. This film presaged the likes of Taxi Driver, The Stepfather and Falling Down in its implementation of the “disenfranchised white male who snaps and goes on a killing spree” theme. A real sleeper.

Five Easy Pieces (1970)-“You see this sign?!” Easy Rider collaborators Kovacs, director Bob Rafelson and star Jack Nicholson were reunited for what is arguably the defining road movie of the 70’s. Nicholson fully realized what we now think of as the iconic “Jack” persona in this character study about a disillusioned, classically-trained piano player from a moneyed family, working a soulless blue-collar job and teetering on the verge of an existential meltdown. Karen Black (Oh! The voluptuous horror!) contributes outstanding support as his long-suffering waitress girlfriend. Kovacs makes excellent use of the verdant, rain-soaked milieu of the Pacific Northwest. No substitutions!

What’s Up, Doc? (1972)- Another Bogdanovich-Kovacs collaboration, this hysterically funny homage to Hollywood’s golden age of screwball comedies (think Bringing Up Baby) features wonderful tongue-in-cheek performances from Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand. Kovacs works his usual DP magic with the luminous San Francisco locale.

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)-The Rafelson-Nicholson-Kovacs triumvirate hits yet another one out of the park in this intense neo-noir character study about a cynical radio talk show host (Nicholson) who attempts to save his low-life con artist brother (Bruce Dern) from himself, only to become embroiled in one of his sleazy schemes. Ellen Burstyn gives one of the best performances by an actress ever, period. Kovacs expertly wrings every possible drop of noir atmosphere from the grim, gray Atlantic City locale. A brilliant work of art, any way you slice it. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Paper Moon (1973)-The true test of a cinematographer’s mettle is how well he or she can work in black and white; and Kovacs passes the “shadows and light” test with flying colors in this Bogdanovich film about a Depression-era bible salesman/con artist (Ryan O’Neal) and his precocious young sidekick (40 year-old midget Tatum O’Neal).

Shampoo (1975)-Sex and politics (and more sex) are mercilessly skewered, along with the shallow SoCal lifestyle in Hal Ashby’s classic satire. Warren Beatty (who co-scripted with Robert Towne) plays a restless, over-sexed hairdresser with commitment “issues” (Oy, having to choose one “favorite” between Lee Grant, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie would give anyone such tsuris!) Beatty allegedly based his character on his close friend (and hairdresser to the stars) Jay Sebring, one of the victims of the grisly Tate-LaBianca slayings in 1969. This was one of the earliest films to step back and satirize the 60’s counterculture zeitgeist with the hindsight of historical detachment. Kovacs gives the L.A. backdrop an appropriately soft, gauzy look that perfectly matched the protagonist’s fuzzy approach to dealing with adult responsibilities.

Heart Beat (1980)-John Byrum’s slightly flawed but fascinating take on the relationship between beat writer Jack Kerouac (John Heard), Carolyn Cassady (Sissy Spacek) and Neal Cassady (Nick Nolte) over a 20-year period. Hmm, a character study about restless people, non-conformity and going On The Road-who ya gonna call? Why, Laszlo Kovacs, natch! (Byrum wasn’t dumb). A low-budget sleeper.

Frances (1982)-Speaking of non-conformists. The sad story of how the bright, headstrong and politically outspoken actress Frances Farmer transitioned from a promising young Hollywood starlet in the 1940’s to a lobotomized mental patient, dying in near-obscurity is dramatized in this absorbing biopic from director Graeme Clifford. Jessica Lange throws herself into the role with complete abandonment and fearless passion, providing a compelling impetus for staying with this otherwise overlong film. Kovac’s sharp DP work drenches the dark, tragic tale in haunting, gothic atmosphere.

Shattered (1991)-Kovacs teams up with action director Wolfgang Petersen. Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi steam up the screen in this Hitchcockian tale of a man attempting to piece his life back together after suffering amnesia following a serious auto accident (or was it an accident?). Sure, this plot has been done to death, but the attractive leads, taut direction and the dynamic lens work by Kovacs make it a worthwhile watch.

Also-for additional back story of the American film renaissance of the 1970’s, I highly recommend the documentary Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Kovacs is a featured interviewee.)

Whacking philosophical: The Sopranos coda

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 10, 2007)

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Well, this is it. After tonight, no more Sunday night dinners with Tony, Carmela and the, erm, Family (Hmmm…maybe no more Tony-we’ll know definitively by 10pm Eastern).

Whatever happens tonight on the series finale of HBO’s The Sopranos, one thing we can count on is this: It’s not likely to resemble M*A*S*H: The Final Episode (with the possible exception of the gunshot traumas). Let’s just say I don’t foresee a lot of hugging.

This mash-up of The Honeymooners with I, Claudius was a stroke of genius, and we probably will not see its like again anytime soon. Love it or hate it, David Chase’s epic mob drama has changed the formula of what constitutes a “hit series” and upped the ante considerably on TV drama in general. A 48 minute story arc just won’t cut it any more.

The Sopranos has weathered many storms since its 1999 debut, from initial accusations that the show was only serving to reinforce the Italian-American gangster stereotype, to a sophomore slump (Chase allegedly endured a paralyzing creative block getting the much-delayed and grumpily received fourth season underway), and most recently suffering a dramatic drop-off in viewership.

But despite the vacillating loyalty by viewers, the outcries from the PC police regarding stereotypes, sex and violence, and all the fan boys hand wringing themselves silly online over who shouldn’t have been whacked and who deserves to be whacked, one thing about the show has remained consistent. The directing, writing and acting has been, hands down, some of the best I have seen in any medium, whether it be network TV, cable or film. The Sopranos deserves every Emmy it has received and more, and I miss it already.

So what are we going to watch now on HBO Sunday nights? John from Cincinnati?! I hate it already. Somehow, the idea of a show centered on a philosophical surfer dude by the creators of Deadwood isn’t exactly grabbing me (why don’t they just fucking call it “Driftwood”-because that’s all it’s going to be in the wake of The Sopranos, IMHO).

And the biggest question of all-what’s James Gandolfini going to do now? Will he face the “Spock” curse of being so indelibly linked with one particular television character that he can never be taken seriously in any other role? Well, maybe he could look to Bill Shatner for inspiration… wait a minute…that’s it! Picture if you will: later tonight, after the final episode has been put to bed, Denny Crane and Tony Soprano are sitting on the balcony, enjoying their well-earned scotch and cigars. Denny turns to Tony and says reassuringly, “Don’t worry, Tone. There’s life after a cult series. Seriously.” Tony raises his glass, and with a sparkle in his eye, says: “Sleepover tonight?” To which Denny replies: “You don’t mean…’with the fishes’, do you?” Both men laugh and clink glasses.

(Music up, fade to black.) Adieu, Tony. Adieu.