Archive for September, 2008

“Cortes Island” by Alice Munro

September 17, 2008

“‘Forget it,’ he said, and made a halfway joke to cheer me up.

‘What is the point of an old woman anyway?'”

I know my reading habits pretty well, and there are times when I am thrilled to be finished with a novel, because it means I can get back to the short stories I love – and there are times when I feel additional comfort knowing what I’ll soon be reading is an Alice Munro story.  She addresses human behavior in a way that is more honest and inquisitive than every other writer I know, and when I read “Cortes Island” for the first time, it was unlike anything I had read.  I wasn’t even aware I was in the midst of a story until I found myself hooked and mesmerized and horrified and titillated.


“Cortes Island” is the story of a bride whose name we don’t really learn beyond her nickname of “Little Bride.”  She and her husband have moved to a small room east of Vancouver early in their marriage.  Our narrating bride admits to us that they had married, basically, out of lust, coming “from homes where unmarried sex was held to be disgusting and unforgiveable, and married sex was apparently never mentioned and soon forgotten about.”  They live underneath the Gorries, an elderly couple in which the wife is looking after her husband sometime after a debilitating stroke. 


The bride has much time to ruminate and read, and under the microscope of Mrs. Gorrie is sort of horrified and sort of irritated – Mrs. Gorrie is difficult, socially self-conscious, full of awful stories, and, mostly, annoying beyond belief.  We watch our bride recoil in disgust at her conversations with Mrs. Gorrie, but feels that “maybe my peculiarities, my ineptitutde, were in a class with Mr. Gorrie’s damages.”  But something else emerges when the bride begins to look after Mr. Gorrie himself – a hint of a past.  Through a series of saved news clips, Mr. Gorrie shows the bride what once was the wild soul beneath the haggard exterior of Mrs. Gorrie now – news clips showing an affair that burned down a house on Cortes Island, sending Mrs. Gorrie’s child to be lost in the woods for days.  After developing what seems like a sense of communication, the bride pictures Mr. Gorrie saying to her, “Did you ever think that people could be like that and end up like this?  Well they can.”


That was the line that kept me coming back to this story, and it changes for me each time I read it.  During the first time I read that line, it was an attempt to humanize a character of intense puzzlement.  Mrs. Gorrie is disgusting, judgmental, unaware of boundaries and decorum but also obsessed by them.  We’ve all perhaps known people in our life like this – people who seem in the midst of nervous breakdowns, and we too can sense their confusion and instability.  I thought that Munro, who seems to never employ a first person voice, wanted to use it here to allow an outside character to be a further form of speculation.  And I thought, most of all, that the craziest among us have something we can identify with.


Perhaps that is true, but I got a different sense in my second reading of “Cortes Island.”  Here is a peripheral story containing a story of a couple whose passion was so strong it burnt down the forest around them, and now, it lead to the same isolation and duldrums they always feared, incapable of avoiding the boundaries of love and sex and social decorum they so feared.  This time, I read the story and saw an implicit endorsement of the “conventional” mode of love and life – our bride, confused as she is, finds herself admitted to a club she thought she could never be a part of, and it is her compromise based on lust that allow it to happen.


But that is not entirely the case either, and if it were, then it could not explain the final sections of the story, in which the bride begins to have sexual dreams about Mr. Gorrie, about the woods he burnt up around them.  What “Cortes Island” does is expose the raw nerve of lust and sex that underscores motivation and gets hidden in social interaction.  Merely in the interplay between two women, we’re given access to the varieites of inspiration, lust, and irrationality that motivates the behavior of women – and men.  Munro is always at her strongest when she seeks to expose these rawer sensations that underscore our constructs as society, but what makes the writing so strong is that she does that through slight, invisible characterization.


Throughout The Love of a Good Woman, characters are consistently shocked by the own source of their motivations.  In “Rich as Stink,” we view a housewife undone by her desires through the eyes of her bewildered daughter.  In “Save The Reaper,” a woman cannot bring herself to fully describe her day’s actions to her grown daughter and son in law, even though, we realize, they are not that bad – they simply expose her loneliness and desire.  In “The Children Stay,” we see a woman enter an extramarital affair without thinking much of it at all.  Yet “Cortes Island,” I think, goes deepest with its themes because it has such a stark behavioral contrast at its center – Mrs. Gorrie’s total irrational behavior is given a Venn diagram specificity in the way it overlaps with the more rational, introspective actions of the story’s narrators, whose true life, like her name, is hidden in the small, outlying details.  Munro is the type of writer whose craft is so exciting, you don’t know it’s exciting, whose work is so under the surface, you’re breathless before you realize what you’ve read.  “Cortes Island” pinches the nerve of human interactions and rips it out without ever, seemingly, having to break the skin.


“The Knight In White Satin Armor”

September 16, 2008

“The Knight In White Satin Armor”

Season 2, Episode 12

Written by Mitch Burgess & Robin Green

Directed by Allen Coulter


Plot: Tony’s Russian mistress, Irina, tries to commit suicide when Tony tries to end things.  Tony and Richie, fed up with each other, start making plans that don’t go quite as expected.  Janice and Richie head towards wedding plans, but things get very complicated when Richie and Janice start fighting.  Carmela’s frustration and sadness deepens as she observes Janice and Richie around her – and as she learns the nature of why Vic Musto rejected her.



“Those who want respect give respect,” says Tony to Richie Aprile (David Proval) in a rain-soaked meeting about garbage routes.  Richie finds out this is true – and that’s not even because his own crew is moving against him.  Richie’s just in the wrong era – he wants to rule by force, wants his women to not speak up to him, wants his son to be a goonish college dropout like his nephew (Jason Cerbone as Jackie, Jr., in his first appearance) rather than the ballroom-dancing son he has.  He also wants everyone to be as fed up with Tony as he is, and this year, that’s just not the case – everyone has their own issues to deal with, but Tony’s the one person they can count on.


Each year in The Sopranos, the penultimate episode of the season is where the biggest action of the year occurs, and though each episode of those is extraordinary, “Knight” remains the one that captivated and shocked me the most.  It’s a spot in the season in which the Big Deaths of the year often occur – such as in Adriana’s shock murder in “Long Term Parking” in season 5, or Bobby Baccala’s symbol-heavy tumble into a pile of trains in the second-to-last episode of the series, “The Blue Comet.”  It’s when Tony vows revenge against Junior and his mother punctuated to the opening guitar of Cream’s “I Feel Free” during season 1’s “Isabella.”  It’s when Carmela truly begins to believe her marriage is over in season 4’s “Eloise.”


But this is the real shocker.  Throughout The Sopranos run, the show would prove its bravery and unpredictability by knocking off characters you knew would probably bite it eventually – but never in the way you expected.  When Ad dies in the woods at Sylvio’s hand, the shock is visceral, as it was when Ralphie Cifarretto (Joe Pantoliano) suddenly and brutally gets beaten to death in his kitchen during “Whoever Did This,” and when Christopher suffocates on his own blood in the opening minutes of “Kennedy and Heidi” – even when you see it coming, you don’t see it coming.  This is where that tradition began – as Richie punches a defiant Janice, Janice shows her true stripes and kills him, suddenly solving Tony’s problems by accident.  In the director’s commentary, Allen Coulter said that to preserve the shock even longer, he attached a special set of legs to Richie’s chair that made his tumble to the ground last longer.


The titular knight in this episode is, of course, Tony himself, flawed as he is, because he simply is the best game in town – something it may have benefited Richie to realize, because everyone else seems to figure out they’re best off with Tony.  Janice, in her own desire for power, spurs Richie on to move against him by informing Richie that Tony wants AJ to never spend any time with him, yet in the end she finds herself begging Tony not to leave her alone as Richie reveals his true colors.  We know certainly that Livia has her own hatred towards Tony to deal with, but she too winds up crying that she gave her life to Tony, and here he is leaving her, and here she is begging him not to.  Uncle Junior is just a year past himself ordering Tony killed, realizing that he’s just a better bet than Richie, missing coke routes or no.  And of course Irina, Tony’s sad Russian mistress, tries to kill herself when she realizes her alternatives – strip clubs?  Prostitution?  Her abusive uncle in Kazakhstan?  She’d rather have a loveless affair with a man that belittles her than that.


Janice herself is a literal revelation here – she reveals the Soprano within.  Wildly selfish, foolish (she says of finding love in Richie, “I don’t know why I thought I’d find someone decent in some Ashrang in Pradesh”), manipulative, power-crazed, and unstable, she is her mother’s daughter through and through – just witness the way both collapse on Tony even though both have spurred weaker men to take him out.  Junior sorta gets it when he warns Richie Aprile against her earlier in season 2, and, later, Bobby Baccala, but he’s too selfish, foolish, and power-crazed himself to do much about it.  Here, she shows that her desire for the top is matched by a temper and a rage – and a shock at what that temper entails.  In season 5’s “Cold Cuts,” Dr. Melfi will point out that her rage and Tony’s depression are connected – that depression, after all, is “rage turned inward.”


This, to me, is the definition of fearlessness, both in the performance by Aida Turturro, and in the way Janice is always written.  Janice came in during season 2 to the annoyance of everyone, but it’s Janice as a long-term character that’s so interesting – considering we see her kill, manipulate, say embarrassing things, and frustrate many, she should be a villain or a caricature, but she’s not.  She’s crazy enough to make us uncomfortable and human enough to make us not quite know why.  Actresses get called fearless often for playing drug addicts or prostitutes or “ugly” people, but in a way, what Turturro does is much braver – she plays an unsympathetic character with enough recognizable characteristics that we’re not entirely certain Turturro isn’t the one with which we’re uncomfortable.  For her, she’ll likely never get to play a “likeable” roll for the rest of her career, she’s simply too convincing here.  Tony points out she came by this naturally – he yells at his mother, “What kind of chance did she have, with you always nagging her about her weight?  After every date she’d come home, you’d call her a whore.”  Might we not turn out just as crazy?  Perhaps many of us have.


We also get to see the toll of the crazy on the stable.  Carmela, fed up with Tony’s crazy women gets her reward.  First, as Tony tells her of Irina’s suicide attempt, she screams at him, “You’re putting me in a position where I’m feeling sorry for a whore who fucks you!”  She’s been rejected by housepainter Vic Musto, and though she doesn’t get the same revelation that she’s better off with Tony, she does realize she’s stuck with him, and can at least play on her stability for some material good.  Her final line to Tony is an all-time great – she’s decided to take a 3-week trip to Rome with Rosalie Aprile, and tells Tony he’ll have to take care of AJ and Meadow himself.  She says with little inflection, “You’ll have to find a tennis clinic for Meadow to join, because if I have to do it Tony, I just might commit suicide.”


It’s the perfect punctuation on the perfect type of episodes fans love best – fast-moving, exciting, unpredictable, funny, shocking, violent, and sly.  To that, I’d add also that it is in these high-action episodes that The Sopranos plots are most moved by the core instability of its characters – instead of just getting violent clashes, we get action instigated by people who are, at their core, limited to who they are, much like all of us are.


You may not have noticed… the editing in this episode, which Coulter seems to speed up to punctuate the sense of fast-moving suspense.  In the opening scene, ironically set to ballroom music, Tony and Janice fight in extreme close-up with the cuts between each of their face happening more and more rapidly.  Later, Pussy will open a car door and it will suddenly segue to Carmela smelling Tony’s laundry as she opens the door of her washing machine – the two doors create one fluid, fast movement.  Most dramatically of all, as Albert Barese rebukes Richie’s attempt to take Tony out, we hear, suddenly, a sound of gunshots – only to reveal itself as a paint can being shaken at Vic Musto’s shop as Carmela wanders to find her would-be lover.  There won’t be love to be found there, just as Richie won’t find himself in charge – each is a fast-moving illusion mucked up by imaginary gunshots. 






September 15, 2008


Season 1, Episode 4

Written by Jason Cahill, Directed by John Patterson


Plot: Christopher, his life spared by Mike Palmice under Junior’s orders, finds his friend Brendan Fallone hasn’t been as lucky.  AJ gets into a conflict with a friend at school, only to find it mysteriously resolved.  Tony and Uncle Junior come to blows, but when Jackie Aprile finally dies of cancer, an unlikely resolution happens.



Although the first three episodes of The Sopranos – the ones screened for critics – had been widely praised, it must have been “Meadowlands” that taught its audience they were watching a creation that transcended all of television quality that had come before it.  It’s hard to know for sure, at least for me, because I’d never seen the episode before I’d been through much of the rest of the show, and now, watching it, there’s no way to undo my knowledge of the rest of the series.


Season 1 of The Sopranos are 13 self-contained episodes that, in and of themselves, constitute a great narrative – a mobster with depression, his therapy, his mother, his uncle, his wife and kids.  The pilot episode shows Tony confessing to Dr. Melfi that he feels like he’s “Come in after all of the good stuff,” and the series itself follows characters trying to reconstitute a life that doesn’t make sense anymore.  Tony has panic attacks and needs analysis, and in a way, he’s one of the luckiest characters in the show to have an outlet for the conflicts he’s feeling.


That becomes especially clear in “Meadowlands,” which is an episode of people facing up to the truth of what they’re doing and what they’re involved in.  Tony does that, rather conveniently, by connecting the frayed mental health of his mother to the needy insecurity of his uncle.  His mother, doddering sadly away at Green Grove, can’t look positively at the idea of going into New York City for some fun as “all those mothers throwing their babies out of skyscraper windows”, and Junior, feeling his power threatened, wants to take Christopher out and steal his routes.  Tony realizes the answer to both – via Dr. Melfi helping him with his thoughts about his mother – is to present the illusion of control, to create decision-making that doesn’t exist.  For Tony, it’s a knowledge that his kids and adults operate on illusion.


At the same time, Christopher’s illusions are gone.  Christopher has just been beaten and held at gunpoint with a gun he wasn’t aware was unloaded.  When Adriana picks Chris up from the hospital, she tells him the doctors have told her Chris, when found, had “gone #2 in his pants.”  This comes up throughout the episode, prompting violent reaction from Christopher, but the essential truth is still there – Christopher saw the truth of what he does, saw what its possibilities, and literally shits his pants with the knowledge.


Because knowledge can’t go back.  I can’t rewatch The Sopranos with fresh eyes, as much as I’d like to recapture the wonder I felt seeing “Meadowlands” the first time.  Now watching the episode, I find myself restructuring the plots in my head – Raymond Curto, for example, a side character who is intentionally never developed except as a red herring of an FBI informant later in the series, here is said to have been another obvious choice to take over for Jackie once he dies.  I know that that never comes up again. 


But this is an episode that only gets better the more you know, and it’s because you never forget the extraordinary wonder of its final scene.  AJ in this episode finds himself fighting at school with Jeremy Piocosta, only to have his conflict mysteriously resolve.  It’s not mysterious to us – an oblivious Tony was carrying an axe when he ran into Jeremy’s father at a plant shop, not understanding what was going on when a terrified Mr. Piocosta says, “I’m not even sure how close the boys are anymore.”  He is sure, and is sure Tony knows too, which he doesn’t.


As Meadow explains to AJ about their father’s “Other family,” something takes over, and we don’t fully comprehend it until a wink shared between father and son at Jackie’s funeral.  The song picked to end the episode, “Look On Down From The Bridge” by Mazzy Star, is what must have astonished me most – what is “looking down from a bridge”?  In one sense, Jackie looks down on his friends and family he’s left behind.  In another, Tony looks down on AJ and passes on information about what awaits him.  In a third, AJ looks down on his own ignorance and removes the innocence from what he used to know.  Life is full of disappointments and unmasking behind the truth of our nature, of why and how we act.  As the era of Jackie April goes into the ground and Tony’s era forges ahead, what awaits?  “Meadolwands” is when that question is truly asked, and the rest of the series is its answer.


A great trend begins… of notable actors playing way against type in daring, small guest performances.  Here, we are introduced to Vin Markazian, a dirty Jersey cop and alcoholic that owes Tony money from gambling so does favors for him.  He’s played by John Heard, the father from the Home Alone movies.  He and Tony have some sort of friendship, and some sort of disdain for each other, but each have an understanding of the intense desperation Vin feels.  Heard is extraordinary, and he starts a trend picked up by other sorta-famous actors like Anabella Sciorra (as Gloria Trillo, Tony’s depressed, angry girlfriend), Juliana Marguilles (as Christopher’s crackhead lover Juliana Skiff), Robert Patrick (as self-destructive gambling addict David Scatino), Robert Loggia (as beyond-his-prime mobster Feech LaManna), and, eventually, Joe Pantoliano and Steve Buscemi in starring roles.  Apparently the ugliness of real characters could draw movie talents to the small screen – and make the actors better than they’d ever been before.


A scene you might not have noticed:  After a nightmare in which Tony sees his friends showing up around Dr. Melfi’s office, he awakes to the sound of a truck honking on the highway.  I don’t know if this is consistent throughout the first season, though I imagine it is and want to check, but after that scene, the sound of cars on the highway is omnipresent throughout the episode, as it is, truly, around Newark.  This is one of those outstandingly placed Sopranos details that goes unnoticed because of how accurate it is, and takes on symbolism in its specificity – outside their doors, life moves callously on, and the noise is like the panic that’s begun to surround Tony’s thoughts on life.