Archive for July, 2009

Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

July 22, 2009

Bruce Springsteen NebraskaNebraska

 

“You wanna know why I did what I done/ Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”  These are the final words of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” the first track on his 1982 album of the same name.  If you’ve heard or even become a fan of Nebraska, it likely took a while to remember and warm up to this song – just a quiet, plaintive guitar melody and lightly vibrant harmonica that slowly reveals itself as a tale of murder.  Taken from the tale that inspired Terrence Malick’s equally surface-dispassionate 1973 movie Badlands, the supposed blandness of that melody underscores that meanness, and our powerlessness to affect it.  Sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.

 

The album’s second song, “Atlantic City,” is one of Bruce Springsteen’s best, but I should do my best to avoid labeling “one of Springsteen’s best,” because that label misses the point.  There’s a quality to the song that serves as contrast to “Nebraska,” and using the two songs to open the record is exactly the contrast Springsteen wanted to sing about – “Nebraska” sings of the quiet madness that exists – killing sprees and ferocity that cannot be defeated.  On the opposite end – mind you, still with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica – “Atlantic City” is a tale of total economic desperation.  “Down here there’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” 

 

“Atlantic City” is a story of a man who has “debts no honest man can pay” and decides to do some not honest deeds to compensate.  His world is full of men getting blown up, houses burning down, cops who can’t compete, and a world going to hell, so a man, desperate to survive, tries not to get caught on the wrong side of that line.  Where “Nebraska” takes you some time to get along its strumming, psychotic structure, “Atlantic City” plugs you instantly inside the desperation of normal, lost, struggling Americans.  A song of class and anxiety, stitched together with the hope of innocence and release – “Meet me tonight in Atlantic City” like a beacon in the night, a dream that seems impossible and enormous.

 

Nebraska is an album length exploration of these twin themes – desperate, ordinary people on their last breath of sanity, and a madness that creeps along calmly and cannot be defeated.  The songs take these varying approaches – sadness and impossible dreams running so closely with the decision to do very bad things.  “Mansion On The Hill” takes a view of a mansion nearby that’s like gorgeous scenery, an idea of perfection that’s as distant as the moon.  It sits on the album next to “Johnny ’99,” a song of a killer driven by his economic desperation, repeating that line “Judge, I got debts no honest man can pay.”  There’s the “Highway Patrolman,” an honest man who helps his “no good” brother escape the confines of the law because “Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good.”

 

That Highway Patrolman’s morality is exactly the conflict Springsteen explores and exploits – there are inconsistencies with our firm moral beliefs and the world we live in.  Those of us living by codes have tough awakenings when we come close to the meanness in this world.  One man on the record sings “Mister, the day the lottery I win, I ain’t never gonna ride in no used car again.”  Who of us haven’t had that thought, dealing with the week in week out of economic turmoil.  That’s the same turmoil that have driven a man from his father in “My Father’s House,” who hears, across a chained door, that his hopes of reconciliation are impossible.

 

Springsteen’s Nebraska is the cause célèbre of artists trying to speak of The Boss’s greatness – it’s the album that shows his everyman approach isn’t disconnected from the struggle of what that everyman actually experiences.  Which is all just a fancy way of saying something even more obvious – what other album even speaks of economic struggle?  How many of us have experienced concerns about money and been confronted and oppressed by a music collection full of only songs about love?

 

For the Springsteen layperson, I’ll provide just a little background, though not much, because I think this subject has been to death.  It’s been said of Bruce that when he experiences some success, he goes back to create something a little more rim and “honest” because the more theatrical side of himself begins to feel removed from the ordinary man he is purported to represent.  This album was released between the grand double album The River in 1980 and Born in the USA immediately afterwards in 1984, which made Springsteen a megastar and had 7 top 10 hits.  Nebraska is like a purification of his soul before taking in the fame and fortune of doing songs like “Dancing in the Dark,” but please don’t take that as a judgment of any kind – I love “Dancing in the Dark.”

 

But I love Nebraska more.  This album is often compared to 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2005’s Devils and Dust as the “pure,” acoustic Bruce speaking for the common people.  These albums are actually pretty distinct from each other for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Nebraska is so superior to both of those records.  Tom Joad speaks to even more desperate Americans – ex-cons and homeless men – and its construction is even more acoustic and forgettable.  The harmonica that runs like a thread through the songs of Nebraska mostly disappears on Tom Joad, and its great songs seem even quieter than “Nebraska.”  I loved Devils and Dust but I almost feel the comparison is a phony one – Devils is defined and invigorated by its glossiest songs like “All The Way Home” and “Long Time Coming” that pop up throughout the record, propelling its acoustic numbers into supporting roles that bracket the album’s true theme – love, even when it comes from soldiers, workers, and dead immigrants, unites us all.  That’s hardly the populist Bruce back to work.

 

Love doesn’t unite the characters of Nebraska, a morality that’s slipping away and feeling astonishingly remote is what unites them.  Yet Nebraska is, I believe, the great Bruce Springsteen record because it affirms its existence.  In “Reason to Believe,” the magnificent final song, Bruce observes a whole host of beliefs that begin from the delusional (a man standing on the highway over a dead dog “like if he stands there long enough, the dog’d get up and run”), to things we want to believe in but may be just as delusional (a man baptizing his baby).  “Struck me kinda funny,” Springsteen muses, “that at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe.”  We keep going, the desperate and anxious, in the face of madness, of cruelty, of disbelief, and hard times.  Still, Springsteen finds reason to keep going, and finds a world full of beauty and hope.  Nebraska isn’t simply the best Bruce Springsteen record because of its “edginess” and “purity,” it’s everything he hoped his music would accomplish.

Made In America

July 15, 2009

“Made In America”

Season 6, ep. 21holstens

Written and Directed by David Chase

Call it as close to a mission statement as David Chase ever wrote or his worst bit of writing ever.  Call it deeply routine regarding the lives of The Sopranos’ characters or a treatise on modern America and the immigrant experience.  In fact, call it brilliant or call it terrible – that’s the divide that occupied most of the episode’s discussion immediately after it aired.  “Made In America,” the final Sopranos episode, was more divisive than anything the show ever aired, and perhaps (as I certainly believe) that only emphasizes all of the astonishing elements that fascinate about it.  The second Tony, Carmela, and AJ pick up their onion rings at their table at Holsten’s, a certain iconic logic immediately overcame all discussion of the episode.   It is an episode full of dichotomies, and is, in its own effect, composed of two episodes anyway – one resolving the immediate storyline of Tony’s gang war with Phil Leotardo’s New York crew, and one telling the story of where all of these characters we’ve known will wind up – and perhaps, where everyone winds up.

As a unified whole, however, “Made In America” moves at a different pace than other Sopranos episodes, a fact seized upon by my idol Owen Gleiberman, writing a synopsis for Entertainment Weekly – he found it choppy and declared it “hardly David Chase’s deftest hour of writing.”  Like many so-called flaws pointed out in The Sopranos run, I have no doubt as to the intentionality of this approach.  The scenes jut at you, cut quickly into one another, and move away instantly.  Things, important things, seem to have happened between the last scene and what we’re watching, but  we’re supposed to catch up.  Life, after all, is a composition of moments we did not know going in were important, so we’re given many perspectives on many moments and asked to compile the entirety of the story ourselves.

Start with the first scene – Tony’s where we left him at the end of “The Blue Comet,” alone in a dark room, in front of its door, with a very large gun, totally unsure what will happen next.  His best friend Silvio is near death and Bobby Baccala is gone for good.  The episode opens as virtually half of the episodes of this second half of season 6 (which aired in the spring of 2007) does, with a medium shot of Tony waking up from sleeping.   This scene, with music blaring, find him in his room, and then suddenly, we’re in a car on a snowy, cold night sitting by the Newark airport, waiting to hear from Agent Harris as Tony solicits information he has no right to get on Phil Leotardo’s whereabouts.  Then it’s daytime and we’re driving along the Jersey shore as Tony heads to his safehouse.  Later, even conversations will have their own internal jumpiness – a sit down between Tony, Little Carmine, and Butchie of the New York crews in a Queens car parts warehouse will sometimes sound as if a train is hurtling past them, and other times be silent.  Or even later, Tony will discuss with AJ his plan to join the military, and then suddenly we jump to him saying “He’s joining the army!” to Carmela as she sits in the bath.  This sentence (what is that, 3 seconds in duration?) comprises the entirety of that scene.

I am firmly certain this is intentional and meant to feel jumpy, sudden, disorienting.  It speaks to the actual rhythms of actual life.  David Chase spent so much of his time on The Sopranos working himself away from conventional storytelling and narratives, and eventually, this drove him from any type of the comforts of scene-to-scene rhythm altogether.  In “Made In America,” we can expect life to jump around like this forever, and for Tony to come to in realizing these moments’ importance at any second… or the opposite, the significance will end everything.  Such as the episode-changing moment in which Paulie walks into the Bada Bing, finds no one (including, thankfully for him, no Virgin Mary – he stares off at an empty spot on the Bada Bing stage where he’d seen her a year earlier in “The Ride”), and calls Tony to tell him Carlo is missing.

Has this war with New York continued, Paulie wonders?  Tony concludes something else – that Carlo’s turned on him.  This is a moment Tony’s waited for in these 9 episodes that ran as a mini-season concluding the series.  He speaks in “Kennedy and Heidi” over the relief he feels in Christopher’s death in that, “every day I wake up wondering… which of my fat fuck friends is going to kill me, or rat me out.”  This is what Carmela speaks of when she cries to Tony, in “Chasing It,” “we walk around here as if there isn’t a giant piano hanging over your head.”  And this is what Tony means when he tells Bobby, sitting peacefully on a lake in the Adirondacks in “Soprano Home Movies,” “80% of the time, this ends in the can like Johnny Sack, or on the embalmer’s table,” a conversation he flashes back to briefly in “The Blue Comet” after Bobby has found himself on the latter half of that 80%.  This season is about that anxiety that lurks everywhere.  Never has anxiety been more interestingly or unnervingly chronicled as it was in the 9 hours that made up this half of the season.

This is the other way in which “Made In America” speaks to the rhythm of actual life – not only do the scenes jut with a rhythm we can’t recognize, but big events happen in it with little fanfare, with people not acknowledging the enormity of their implications.  Tony sits down to have a conversation with Mink, his lawyer, who spends their conversation trying to unstop a ketchup bottle and glancing at security camera footage of Bada Bing strippers.  He invokes Tony’s same language: “80-90% chance you’ll get indicted,” he tells Tony.  Tony registers sadness in his eyes, and Mink now must move on to his next argument – “Trials are made to be won,” he tells Tony.  Small comfort.  Tony too, later, confirms with Carmela what they suspected – Carlo, Tony’s longtime friend, is going to testify against him in order to keep his own son out of jail.  Carmela does not respond, they just go on eating onion rings.  The consequences there are too big to discuss at this dinner, and in any case, what would discussing them change anyway.

There are so many elements to discuss in this episode, but if I can narrow it down to one thing David Chase hoped to accomplish, perhaps with the entire series, is an acknowledgment of the modern America as distinctly different than the stories we tell ourselves about it, because we continue to perpetuate myths from our past.  This is an America he shows us full of products – business meetings provided with Polish Spring Bottles, Phil Leotardo decapitated by his giant Ford SUV.  Early in the episode, at Bobby’s funeral, AJ, borderline incoherent, starts babbling, “I mean America, it’s still where people come to make it.  And for what?  Bling?”  He wonders why we tell these stories, and we see them, in form, throughout the episode.  Butchie calling Phil from Little Italy in New  York City is passed by a tour bus that blasts “New York’s Little Italy once spanned 40 square blocks, and has since been reduced to one row of shops and restaurants.”  As Butchie continues walking in the snow and wind, he is absorbed into a crowd of faces that are white, black, Asian.  America’s cultural identity isn’t what we said about it – this is Little Italy, but it’s also where America has moved forward and become something else.   Later, Tony and Paulie sit in front of Satriale’s “Italian Sausage” sign, but as they are sitting, the capital letters of Sausage – based on the position of their bodies – compose the shot into saying “Italian USA.”  Like the opening credits that symbolically moved a mob story away from New York City and into the place it truly exists (or, perhaps better stated, also exists), the high end suburbs of New Jersey, the story continues to exist in its way, but our conceptualization up until now has distorted it.  “Italian USA” helps David Chase proclaim that he’s telling a little more of our story now.

The past gets reduced to legend – from a bus, or from memory itself.  A sad, unnerving scene at episode’s end hammers this theme further  – Tony, finally visiting Uncle Junior ostensibly on defense of Bobby’s survived children, finds Junior more incapacitated and demented than he realized.  “You ran North Jersey,” he tells Junior, “you and my father, your kid brother Johnny.”  “I did?” Junior asks.  “That’s nice,” he states, and seems to mean it.

There is much to be said about many other elements in the episode.  Things come back from moments past in small, circular fashion in the way good writers love to speak of their projects.  Tony, before going to see Uncle Junior, stares up at the bare end of his trees, like he did in “The Fleshy Part of the Thigh” after being shot, in reflection there that every day was a gift.  Tony still wants to believe that, truly.  He also holds Silvio’s hand at the hospital in the same manner  Silvio held his when Tony was in the same hospital bed.  AJ refers to military school (season 3), Tony and Paulie run down the list of dead Captains from Ralph Cifaretto’s crew (“Gigi died taking a shit!”), Meadow runs back through traffic towards the family in a way she did away from the family at the end of season 3’s “Army of One.”  AJ references to Tony something he once said – “remember the times that were good,” a mistelling of that quote anyway, but one Tony remembers so little of, he initially thinks AJ’s joking – but ultimately concludes, “well, it’s true I guess.”  And Tony – in our only resolution to his sudden dismissal by Dr. Melfi in “The Blue Comet” – gets to regurgitate what he’s been able to admit from therapy as well – his mother’s a borderline personality, and he could never please her.  We smile for Dr. Melfi’s ethical convictions, but also that her work has made Tony somewhat more understanding.

Because we do care about him, we do.  This is a fact David Chase seemed surprised he had to assert again when he went on the defensive about his final hour of his show.  By now, you likely know how the series ended – mid glance from Tony, up from a table, ostensibly towards a bell being rung at Holsten’s entrance.  This scene is incredibly tense and sits on that cut for a very long time before credits begin (and, Chase states, he initially wanted no credits at all).  This was one last jolt from the complacency of being able to say goodbye to people, but also without getting closure on the deeds they’ve committed.  As close as we get is Carmela’s glancing down at the table when Tony tells her Carlo will be testifying against him.  David Chase says he was surprised to find out people wanted Tony dead, wanted his blood on the wall.

Perhaps it’s there.  There’s more than enough room to find that in the Holsten’s scene – the man in the gray jacket who comes in before AJ, sits down looking at AJ, and later goes into the men’s room, which looks suspiciously like the bathroom from The Godfather, a fact we see right away, even if we feel we’re reaching for it.  Tony has referenced this scene in his own mind too, reliving it in kind during a dream in “The Test Dream.”  This scene cuts suddenly to silence, which is what Tony remembered of his conversation with Bobby after Bobby died – back to that boat ride on the Adirondacks, when the two said to each other, “you probably don’t even hear it when it happens.”  We don’t hear anything, total silence.  Tony has just killed a boss, and it seemed all too easy.  Why not?

What does it mean if they die in this manner?  No one really believed Tony would die, right?  He’s the entire show!  My initial conclusion on the episode when I saw it was that Tony didn’t die, it’s just a mood of anxiety the show proffers, intending to show us that the anxiety is, for Tony, for us, more real than the actual occurrence.  OK, I can buy that enough now, but that’s not the whole story.  Yes.  You can conclude that the Sopranos were killed then, and certainly Tony was.  All of my “anxiety” rhetoric is protecting me from the truth that is so plainly in that scene.  No.  Tony was not killed in this scene, we’re just being anxious, and worse, buying into typical TV narrative logic that David Chase wants to break.

“I didn’t want to say crime paid.  I didn’t want to say crime didn’t pay.”  On the commentary of “The Blue Comet,” Steven Van Zandt recalls this was David Chase’s answer to the question, “why did you end the show like that?”  Instead, he says both.  This is the ultimate dichotomy of this episode – Tony lives, and there is meaning, and Tony dies, and there is meaning.  In some interviews, David Chase has sidestepped the question and said, “it doesn’t matter if it happened then or sometime later, the end was coming.”  That is true especially in that we already know Tony’s one of his dreaded 80%, but we just assume it’ll be part of the 80% that winds up in jail.  Perhaps that was enough, and that was what fate had in store for him.  That’s easier to deal with also.  But we do not know what fate has in store for us, and we don’t know what it has in store for Tony.  Why must we expect Chase to tell us this?  Both are real answers, both occurred, and both never happened.  In that moment, the world is a realm of certain possibilities, the kind that lucky people will dodge or perhaps curse their luck and their choices as they take their dying breaths.  Some people will die like Junior without the aid of even the stories of your life to comfort yourself, saying, only mildly “Me, I never had children.”  Some will die like Christopher did, suddenly, without much warning.  Some will continue living with all of their agita around death and superstition, like Paulie, who we last see sunbathing at Satriale’s next to the cat he wants to kill.  Fate and life are the ultimate untold stories of all of narration, and in telling this story with this much bold narrative control and uncertainty, David Chase got us a little closer to telling that story.

Something you may have missed:

What did you think of the scene in which Rhiannon and AJ, listening to Bob Dylan, make out, only to have his car blow up on him?  One thing David Chase did beautifully, always, was to capture the mood and words of his characters, who sometimes are living clichés, but to not devalue them – they are, after all, real to the characters they’re occurring to.  Rhiannon and AJ are connecting over Dylan’s meaning like a million college co-eds, and Rhiannon says, “It was written so long ago but is still true,” as if it’s the deepest thought ever.  Yet they have a true connection to each other, do they not?

How about the snap Janice delivers to an orderly at Junior’s hospital minutes before attempting to play a sad widow “inveigling him” for money (as Junior’s friend Pat describes it)?  “It doesn’t cost anything to be nice!” She snaps.  “That goes both ways,” the orderly snaps back.

AJ mispronouncing Yeats, Agent Harris’s affair with a Brooklyn agent, Donna Parisi’s inability to tell a joke, Carmela’s glow of success as a parent upon hearing Meadow’s initial offer of a starting salary.  This is a show that treasured the small, characterizing details of its characters and believed wholly that their stories, however silly, clichéd, or stereotypical, deserved to be told and told with respect.  That is ultimately why The Sopranos is the best show ever written.