Issue 236 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
It's hard to imagine Marlon Brando lying on the couch and exploring his childhood. Yet Tony Soprano, uneasy capo of a modern Mafia, spent a good part of the brilliant television series The Sopranos unburdening himself to Lorraine Bracco's counsellor. At the same time Billy Crystal and Robert de Niro met in the psychiatrist's chair in Analyze This. Is this the return of the prodigal Mafioso, a cold blooded killer now exposed as a flawed and unhappy human being?
At a time when any attempt to explain the behaviour of people by looking at their material circumstances or their background is sneered out of court, this is a strange turn of events. Just when 'evil' has reappeared as an explanation for everything the return of the analyst as hero and the gangster as victim seems oddly liberal. Or perhaps not.
The thing about the Mob is that their values and ideas are profoundly conservative--apart, that is, from the odd multiple killing. The family has become an obsessive subject for panel discussions--and its breakdown a sign of the collapse of all moral and ethical values. What group of people could, by contrast, be more loyal, family oriented and deeply committed to the traditional hierarchies than the Mafia Family? Not for them long discussions on morality--the word from the head of the table is beyond questioning. That's why both De Niro's character and Tony Soprano are so afraid of discovery. In Sicily, it seems, there is no inner life, so talk behind closed doors can only mean betrayal.
In some ways, both characters are exemplary family men. They could for all the world be middle aged corporate executives in crisis. Their houses are in respectable neighbourhoods. Their children overeat junk food and are obsessed with Playstation. Their daughters sneak out to meet unsuitable boys. They are obsessed with mortgage and reputation and the price of swimming pools. And in a way that's exactly what they are--middle management under stress. Except, of course, that an average day in Tony Soprano's 'waste management' business will produce one or several dead bodies.
What is powerful about Soprano is that his pain is so real, his doubts so searing; his dreams and yearnings are lyrical and romantic, his utopia some kind of version of The Truman Show. De Niro's mobster is less convincing, and the film's resolution--the gangster turning his back on the whole show and returning to a decent family life--just isn't very plausible. Tony Soprano, with all his moral dilemmas, sustains the separation between work and home like the rest of middle America. And that's the basis of the programme's brilliant black comic power.
In a way, it is the Mob without the opera. The characters in The Sopranos, especially the pathological cousin Christopher, are constantly quoting the Godfather or Edward G. This new dramatic crop is less about the Family than about the family--its routine betrayals, contradictions, unspoken tensions. This first series ended with the discovery that mother, the vicious, vengeful old harridan at the head of the Soprano clan, was the one who had plotted Tony's murder. Is nothing sacred?!
In the old days you knew the gangsters, and you knew what their values were. They believed in God, family and the American way--and mirrored faithfully what went on just across the line in corporate America. The executives of General Dynamics and Dow Chemicals planned death and destruction with the same sangfroid--and commuted home to the same safe suburbs. These days its all different: drugs and prostitution are run by faceless mobs--Russians, Armenians, Colombians and the rest. Not that this is a nostalgic plea for a return to old style crime. The new lot are already signing contracts with the respectable institutions of world finance and commerce.
In the transition from the comfortable old certainties--family life and violent death--it is the psychiatrist who is sometimes called on to ease the bumpy ride: Billy Crystal's foil to De Niro, Lorraine Bracco facing Tony Soprano and occasionally allowing her fear to be seen, or even Frasier or Cracker. These are unlikely heroes in a world scornful of the inner self or the contradictions of the heart. In fact, the joke is that they are required to reconcile these people with their world. The power of the original Cracker series was that it dispensed with the how and the where very quickly, and concentrated on why people killed. In a Blair Britain so dismissive of the idea of psychological pain, there is no room for Cracker at all. With a lighter and more mischievous touch The Sopranos goes beyond the pop psychology of a Frasier Crane, dispensed like recipes for grandma's honey cake (though you wouldn't eat it of course if it was Grandma Soprano's baking). The real scars that a violent and contradictory society leaves in the mind are darker and more painful and above all far more confused than Frasier's little formulas can resolve. And not even the Family can guarantee a place of safety.
Theatre de Complicité
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
We are taught as children that memories are faithful pictures of reality--like photographs stored on a computer, which can be accessed at the click of a button. But a moment's reflection reveals that the act of remembering is far more complicated and fluid than that. We remember through associating events with one another and other memories. And our brains store and retrieve our memories through physical associations within it.
This play opens with a monologue from the director. He asks us to reconstruct our own memories at the beginning of the play. We then enter an extraordinary world of fragments and coincidences. A couple's relationship collapses; she travels across Europe to discover her father's roots. The body of a Neolithic man is discovered in a glacier in Austria; an Italian pianist who vanished on the same mountain in 1941 appears on stage. Scientists examine the 5,000 year old body. The woman confronts her family's past; her lover's life falls apart.
Objects, phrases and events in one scene transport us instantaneously to another time and place just as our own thoughts move. They act as mnemonic sways in which we recall things. The play rests on the skill and energy of Theatre de Complicité, one of the most brilliant companies around. Actors flit from one character to another; a table becomes a mountain outcrop, a piano and then the site of an autopsy.
The result could easily be chaos. It is not. The play and the acting combine to provide a structure. This tells us something else about memory and our experience of the world. There is fragmentation, but there is also an underlying unity.
At one point the play refers to chaos theory. Accounts of this branch of modern science are often vulgarised into meaning simply that the world is chaotic and beyond understanding. In fact, chaos theory is about discovering understandable structures beneath apparently chaotic events.
So in the play we are drawn to coincidences and absurd connections (because these are the things we remember most). But these also reveal parallels between characters in different situations which reflect our common humanity and shared history.
The play is as much about how we come to terms with what can seem an overwhelming history as it is about how we order our own lives.
It might just be possible to come away from it with the cynical, postmodernist prejudice that we have to surrender to the chaotic fragmentation of the world because that is all that exists. But it is only possible on two counts: first, that you believed it before you went in; second, that you refuse to make the connections.
Ride with the Devil
Dir: Ang Lee
The Confederate fighters in the American Civil War in Missouri and Kansas have featured in many Westerns, often portrayed as popular heroes like Josey Wales and Jesse James. Ang Lee's film tries to go a little deeper into their motivations.
Two young men, Jake Roedel and 'Bull' Chiles, join Confederate guerrillas after Chiles' father (a slaveholder) is shot on his farm by Unionist irregulars ('jayhawkers'). There they meet Holt--a black man who is evidently not a servant or slave and fights alongside them.
During the ensuing skirmishes, flight from Unionist forces, injuries and deaths, the underlying themes of slavery, xenophobia and racism emerge. While holed up during the winter months, Chiles is fatally wounded, and nursed by Roedel and Holt, together with Chiles' lover, Sue Lee Evans. Holt is illiterate and persuades Roedel to read him letters from a captured bag of Union mail. As the humanity of their opponents emerges, so too does the issue of slavery, to the apparent discomfort of both.
The sporadic violence reaches a crescendo when bushwhacker bands, united under the notoriously vicious Confederate commander William Quantrell, attack Lawrence, Kansas, killing every male inhabitant. Both Holt and Roedel are injured in the bloody retreat and their commitment to the war wanes.
At first the idea of a free black fighting alongside Confederate 'bushwhackers' seems unlikely in the extreme. Fighting along the Kansas/Missouri frontier had begun well before the outbreak of the civil war proper. An Act of Congress had left the decision on whether or not to permit slavery in Kansas to the voting inhabitants of the state. Armed 'border ruffians' from neighbouring slave state Missouri crossed over to vote for pro-slavery candidates and terrorise their opponents. In response armed bands were formed by abolitionists and Lawrence became a centre for such forces. The massacre was as much an assault on anti-slavery as it was revenge for the deaths of several Confederate women prisoners in the collapse of a jail.
But a little research reveals that three black men probably did ride with Quantrell, at least one of them (like Holt) motivated by feelings of loyalty to a family killed by jayhawkers. In fact the presence of Jake Roedel was probably unlikely. The German population in the area was universally abolitionist and therefore pro-Union. German emigrant societies prohibited the holding of slaves, and many had come to America fleeing the consequences of the failed revolutions in 1848-49. For them the war was a second struggle for liberty.
The gradual acceptance by the fugitives that they can no longer support the aims of the Confederacy is well handled. But while the Confederacy's objects are eventually questioned, little is presented in favour of the Union. Yet despite the various motives of those fighting for the Union, there is no question that its victory in the war was necessary to end slavery.
At heart, this is a romance, featuring a young cast whose attractions are not hidden by the blood and dirt of battle. The brutality of the war in Missouri is also graphically presented, but it blunts the key argument: in a struggle such as this, it is necessary to choose the right side. I felt that Ang Lee sidestepped this issue.
East is East
Dir: Damien O'Donnell
Set in the 1970s, this excellent film deals with a whole range of problems affecting a Pakistani father, his English wife and their seven children living in Salford. When the father, George Khan (Om Puri), left Pakistan he only had a suitcase but now he has his own business--a fish and chip shop.
When Nazir, the oldest son, walks out during his arranged wedding ceremony, George believes his family is spinning out of control and desperately tries to pull it back together again--by secretly preparing arranged marriages for two more of his sons. This is where things really start to kickoff. One of the sons involved in the latest marriage plan often sneaks out to the disco and is dating the daughter of the local Enoch Powell supporter. While handing out leaflets for Powell's speech on immigration, the racist's young son greets his neighbours in Urdu.
East is East is guaranteed to make you laugh with its humorous situations and several running jokes throughout the film. Someone yells 'Dad's coming!' and suddenly the sausages, bacon and girlfriends disappear and are replaced by people working hard, slicing and battering fish. But the film has an amazing ability to change between the funny, sad and scary times. It tackles serious issues in a sensitive manner, throwing together various emotions of fear, love and anger. The cultural and emotional clashes produce a wonderful film, sharing a family's attempts to come to terms with each other's differences.