Jesus H. Christ! How many thoughts can you squeeze into a single e-mail?
I want to tell you a story: One day in late 1998, I was hanging around the Westchester federal courthouse, waiting for another of John A. Gotti’s interminable pre-trial hearings to begin, when I bumped into Gotti’s friend, Angelo Ruggiero Jr. Fat Angie (I think they call him Fat Angie) is the son of Angelo “Quack-Quack” Ruggerio, who got his nickname because he talked too much into government wires. Ruggerio the Son is a nice guy, not too smart, maybe, but nice, and we made small talk about his Filas.
There was, in fact, not much I needed to know from Angelo. But I did have one question: Why did he and his buddy-boy John eat so often at Cracker Barrel? This was one of the amazing true facts I uncovered about Junior Gotti (some mob reporters uncover complex union kickback scams; I expose the secret dining habits of pathetic goombahs). What I asked Angelo was this: Why would an Italian-American, heir to the greatest cuisine on the planet, stoop to eat chicken-fried steak at a redneck restaurant chain? Angelo looked at me, shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know. I mean, how much Italian food can you eat?”
Your e-mail–and the cultural elite’s obsession with the The Sopranos–reminds me of Angie’s profound comment. What I mean is, how much Culturebox-style commentary about The Sopranos can the public eat?
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Hey, I got your Culturebox right here, you fuckin’ mook you.”
I also know I’m as guilty as anyone of overhyping The Sopranos. I just recently wrote that The Sopranos is the best TV show ever.
So please don’t think for a second that I don’t want to hear your theories. I have always counted on you for all of that hermeneutics and semiotics and dianetics and other really dope Lingua Franca shit. It’s just that I fear that too much in the way of high-end yammering about The Sopranos and its profound meaning will cause a backlash against the show. Expectations are just too ridiculously high (i.e., the comparison to Alexander Nevsky in the Times, etc.). I think the producers would have been smart to intentionally lower expectations over the past six months by leaking stories about massive attacks of writer’s block on the set. And David Chase, the series’ creator, should have killed off Livia Soprano (not that I don’t love Nancy Marchand) when he had the chance. But more on that later.
Whoa. I think I just hinted at my opinion of the new season. No way I’m showing you mine until you show me yours.
Let me address your pet theories. I agree with most everything you’ve said (or at least, everything you said that I understood), except that I wouldn’t characterize any part of Goodfellas as a “jaunty laugh-fest.”
I think you’ve got one thing exactly right: The Sopranos works so well precisely because it is understated, because it is the opposite of the operatic Godfather. Together, The Godfather and The Sopranos make up some kind of whole, but here’s the fundamental difference between them: Every mobster I’ve ever met imagines himself a player in The Godfather. I interviewed Sammy Gravano a few weeks ago and he said as much; The Godfather invested the lives of mobsters, who are in fact seedy and boring characters, with honor and drama.
But I haven’t talked to a single mobster who would take Tony Soprano’s life over Michael Corleone’s. We’re only one season into The Sopranos, so it’s a bit too early to say if this particular manifestation of mob art is influencing mob life, but I think it’s fair to say that no one in actual organized crime would ever want to be hooked up with Tony Soprano’s crew.
In a way, I think I’ve just answered the interesting question you’ve posed, namely, how realistic is The Sopranos? Very, I’d say. Not being an actual mobster (to my everlasting regret), my assessment might be worth bupkus (as the hysterical Silvio Dante would say), but The Sopranos accurately captures the desperation of today’s mobsters. The smarter wise guys know that they are the track-suit-wearing equivalents of one of those prehistoric tribes living in the Orinoco River Basin, just waiting for extinction.
I was talking to David Chase a couple of weeks ago (am I just the most insufferable mob-related name-dropper, or what?), and we got to talking about his use of humor. What Chase evidently realized (and what Coppola didn’t, Clemenza aside) is that real-life mobsters can be quite funny–self-consciously funny–in a non slapsticky, non-Analyze This, sort of way. Knowing this makes The Sopranos seem real to me. Today’s mobsters, too, are fluent in psychobabble and in the language of self-improvement, and Chase, of course, captures this beautifully (I will disagree with you on one thing at the outset: the writing on The Sopranos is better than the acting, not that there’s anything really wrong with the acting.)
By the way, can we also talk about how badly Analyze This sucked?
I’m going to sign off for the moment, but first I wanted to tell you I think you ought to have a mob moniker, at least for the week. How about Judith “Little Herring” Shulevitz?
Also, a question, for your consideration: Do you think mob movies are dead? The genre’s tired, obviously, but is The Sopranos a sign of new life?
Also, tell me what you think of the new season already. Inquiring minds want to know.
Jeff “Fuckin’ Mook” Goldberg