Television

'The Sopranos': Mythologizing the Gangster Genre

Carl Wilson
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), trapped by the gangster mythology.

From The Public Enemy through to Scorsese, the Sopranos family knows how to pick a bad example to follow.

Page 2: What Would The Godfather Do?


A crucial difference to Uncle Junior's unknowing predicament comes in the scene from "46 Long" when a truck full of stolen, expensive suits materializes. Silvio Dante (Steven Van Zandt), a gangster, has put on one of the designer jackets and in front of that hoary trope of a symbolically fractured mirror recites his Al Pacino Godfather Part III (1990) impression: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in again". Where Uncle Junior wanted to look like a "real" gangster but unconsciously appropriated the metaphoric baggage from a fictional classic gangster, Silvio explicitly desires to look like a modern movie gangster (also echoing the scene in Goodfellas, where Henry Hill, as a child, is dressed, in his mother's words, "like a gangster") and for the moment he avoids all negative repercussions as a consequence of this reflexively foregrounded, textual knowledge.

"... I’m getting the feeling I might be in at the end. That the best is over."
Although the classic gangster may be an ur-text of sorts for the genre, for the gangsters within The Sopranos, The Godfather films are primarily perceived to be their own originative myth. Compared to the classic films of the '30s, The Godfather films are considered "modern" in that they signify "an articulate and consciously conceived nonillusionistic cinema" (Dreams and Dead Ends: American Gangster/Crime Film, Shadoian, 1977: 6), which ironically, is possibly why Tony's crew are so quick to believe in the realism of the film trilogy. If they can mimic the Corleone gangsters, then they'll be like the Corleone gangsters.

In attempting to rely on a previous taxonomy of the gangster genre, however, the gangsters in The Sopranos misappropriate what they believe is their birthright. By this, I mean that the postmodern gangster in The Sopranos believes he knows how to behave like a gangster because he's seen modern gangster films, but this simply is a false equivalency to their own predicament. In saying "gangsters behave like gangsters", Tony’s crew make an error as they aren't aware that they exist as an evolving product of the gangster genre; they're part of a mythology that isn't natural and is always in part motivated by a world knowledge exterior to their own. The Sopranos gang cannot control their own lives (not least because they are not actually real, lacking true agency); having intertextual knowledge doesn’t equal some kind of metatextual transcendence. To quote Henry Hill, "Everybody knew the rules", except nobody bothered to explain how or why they work, or how can be changed, to the Sopranos, who are presented as a case study for the culturally competent viewer.

For example, David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, states that in one of "the later Puzo books […] and Bella Mafia, I think they had the Mafia wife going to bed with the priest, and I thought 'it's so tacky and sensationalistic, so let's invent a priest that she cannot go to bed with'" (Video interview with David Chase conducted by Peter Bogdanovich, 2002). Consequently, in The Sopranos, Father Phil (Paul Schulze) -- who's himself a film fan, using dramatic tools such as the rain-soaked pathetic fallacy to ingratiate himself to the housewives in his parish -- fails to properly seduce Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) ("College"). He fails, not because he didn't know the genre he’s consciously enacting, but because David Chase chose to explicitly change the rules of the game.

David Chase has also stated that "The Godfather is everything to these people …. It's their Bible [….] The Godfather can be seen as something like a manifesto of strength and pride for Italian-Americans" ("Mobbed up: The Sopranos and the Modern Gangster Film", Pattie, 2002: 140). Unlike the classic gangster, which sits silently on the addled minds of the older generation of gangsters like Uncle Junior, The Godfather is repeatedly mentioned in The Sopranos. Silvio is proud of his Pacino impression, but other references, such as Christopher’s "Louis Brassi sleeps with the fishes" in the epsiode "The Sopranos" (corrected by Big Pussy [Vincent Pastore] to "Luca Brassi"), and Big Pussy’s reference to a "Moe Greene special [….] Moe’s eyes got too big for his stomach so they put a caliber in his eye" in "Meadowlands" (corrected by Paulie [Tony Sirico] to "in his glasses"), demonstrates that although gangster semiotics and intertextual referencing takes place, their manifesto is often misquoted, once more signifying a rupture in their ability to fully become the characters that they quote and the world that they wish to inhabit.

In City of God (2002), in response to being called the Godfather, Lil’ Ze (Leandro Firmino) tells drug addict Tiago (Daniel Zettel): "Godfather my ass! Did I baptize your kids?" Yet one can't help but feel that this synonymity is the desire of the gangsters in The Sopranos. Paulie has a car horn of Nino Rota's signature soundtrack, "The Godfather Finale", which literally announces his arrival into a scene in "Nobody Knows Anything" (so even then, Paulie opens with an ending), and when the football coach declares that Rhode Island doubled his salary and in offering his "daughter a free ride", "an offer [he] couldn’t refuse", Silvio, looking dismayed, exclaims, "Well, you haven't heard ours yet!" ("Boca"). Furthermore, Tony is ridiculed on the golf course by his aspirational peers when it's obvious he was only invited to explain one conundrum: "How real was The Godfather?" ("A Hit is a Hit"). Piling on the associations from home, Tony’s son also quizzes him, asking "There were all these guys at Uncle Jackie’s funeral [….] They were feds right? Like in Godfather I?" ("Down Neck") Tony evades these questions (although whether he ever answers them adroitly is a matter for debate), but the films clearly play on his mind and within the brains of those that share in his world.

Referring to her husband, Carmela Soprano tells Father Phil that "Tony watches Godfather II all the time. [….] He likes the part where Vito goes back to Sicily. III, he was like, 'what happened?’" ("The Sopranos"). Arguably, Tony's less enamoured with the third film because it’s the one in which the Corleones become virtually omnipotent: something that Tony can’t relate to and, when weighed down by the petty bureaucracy of mobster governance, is finding great difficulty in aspiring towards. By contrast, the decadently rich, carefree rapper Massive G (Bookem Woodbine) -- who’s all about surface appearances and far more comfortable with reaping the benefits of self-mythologizing -- happily states: "You people are all right. Godfather, I seen that movie two hundred times. Godfather II was definitely the shit! The third one a lot of people didn’t like it, but I think it was just misunderstood" ("A Hit Is a Hit").

If the Sopranos crew intend to shape their world to more closely reflect The Godfather, then this is an especially precarious situation that they're inviting in through the textual door. When Uncle Junior wants Tony killed for seeing a psychiatrist and having secret meetings at a "retirement community" (an act that itself draws parallels with the illegal land-purchasing antics in the rest home of Chinatown [1974]), in the episode "Isabella", Tony finds his intertextual heritage violently catching up with him. Standing before a newspaper stand next to his car, in slow motion, the orange juice that he's just purchased shatters from a bullet fired at him and Tony escapes after successfully battling his assailants.

There's a parallel scene in The Godfather, where the Don has left his car to purchase some oranges from a fruit stall, except the people hired to shoot him succeed, and the Don is hospitalized. Tony looks favorable in this comparison -- he's a stronger man and the experience reinvigorates him -- however, Tony still crashes his car and is hospitalized with a cut ear. The comparative amount of physical harm is minuscule, but Tony fails to realize that in attempting to replicate the positive aspects of The Godfather (from the gangster’s point of view), then there are textual consequences which aren’t so conducive to a healthy gangster lifestyle. Or, as Dr. Melfi (who is paraphrasing Italian philosopher George Santayana) puts it: "He who doesn’t understand history is doomed to repeat it" ("Down Neck").

In trying to orientate his position in the world, Tony calls himself (only in the presence of his therapist) the "sad clown, laughing on the outside, crying on the inside" ("The Sopranos"), but this artifice of self-created identity isn't entirely shared by others. For example, when Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) asks her father "Are you in the Mafia?" because she's "seen the police come with warrants", and "Did the Cusamano kids ever find 50 thousand dollars in Krugerrands and a .45 automatic while they were hunting for Easter eggs?" Tony emphatically replies, "I'm in the waste management business. Everybody immediately assumes you're mobbed up. It's a stereotype. And it's offensive" ("College").

In allowing a question to be asked about his business, but then lying about the answer anyway, this confrontation within the family sphere is very similar to the end of The Godfather, where Michael concedes to his wife, "All right, this one time I'll let you ask about my affairs, one last time", and then denies having had his brother-in-law killed (when, to be blunt, he has). Luckily for Tony, who asks about Meadow's friends: "They seen The Godfather right?", Meadow replies, "Not really. Casino, we liked. Sharon Stone, the '70s clothes, pills" ("College"). The intertextual knowledge of Meadow (and her friends) is lacking as she fails to recognize the parallel scene with The Godfather. Instead, as a part of the younger generation (like Chris), she’s more focused on the aesthetic, surface appearance of the gangster world (and later develops her own pill problem -- also like Chris).

Of course, Tony isn't the only liar within the Sopranos household. In The Public Enemy, a police officer pointedly states that "The worse thing is, [Powers has] been lying to his mother." In The Sopranos, the mother’s the one that lies. From her humble attempt to alter history, declaring her deceased husband Johnny "was a saint" ("The Sopranos"), when by all other accounts he wasn't, Livia Sopranos' (Nancy Marchard) distorted truths grow exponentially out of control, taking in cognitive dissonance ("I don’t know that world", she says of the world she has actively helped to create), manipulated murder, and feigned dementia all within her stride.

Although David Pattie has acutely observed that "It is not simply that there is no respect anymore; it is that the older generation -- the Juniors, the Livias -- are not worth respecting" ("Mobbed up: The Sopranos and the Modern Gangster Film", Pattie, 2002: 141), I believe we can go further in saying that by having contemporary figures that should represent the old mythology actually represent a mutated version that’s been channeled through contemporary genre developments, expectations are forcibly and drastically realigned within the diegesis, with the mythology of the gangster encouraged to develop, not in spite of, but because of historical forces being motivated towards distortion.

After Livia’s funeral reception in "Proshai, Livushka", the viewer witnesses Tony watching the end of The Public Enemy. The closing scenes of the film depict the mother sitting by Powers’ bedside telling him "All of us [are] together again" and crying, followed by a scene in which Powers appears dead on the doorstop. Watching this, Tony himself begins to cry. Having misguidedly hoped that his mother was an expression of classic gangster film ideals due to her age, Tony (like the older Uncle Junior and the younger Meadow) makes the fundamental error of failing to update his understanding of the gangster genre based on more recent conventions. With the classic gangster of The Public Enemy, and also with the modern gangster of The Godfather, family harmony was the bedrock that was churned but resettled in one configuration or another by the closure of the narrative. In this new story, the mother always hated her son and she died while holding on to that firm belief. The possibility of familial reconciliation was an impossible dream of fiction made all the more tragic by its anticipatory generic precedents.

Given that The Sopranos is a television program,,it’s appropriate that discourses surrounding the myth of the gangster are articulated on the television sets within the fictional world, although they may not help Tony. Appropriately, opinions vastly differ on the discrepancies between "truth" and "entertainment" within the information presented. On a talking-heads news program, for example, Chris is informed that the "slaying of Soprano family associate Brendan Filone", may have been "part of a power struggle". Chris' simple response, based on his own diegetic experiences, are summed up succinctly: "Brendan Filone? Associate? Soldier? Fuck you!" ("The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti"). Unlike Lefty (Al Pacino) in Donnie Brasco (1997), who watches nature shows about "hunter and hunted, predator and prey, endless cycle of nature repeated" (metaphorically suggesting that the gangster/FBI dichotomy is an active part of the natural order), the "factual" news casts only serve to highlight the textual discrepancies that arise from the mythologizing process.

At the end of the first season, a reverse situation occurs when the Soprano family are watching the television and Junior is arrested for the crimes he did commit. Tony’s immediate response in front of his children is to animatedly gesture, and awkwardly offer: "Look at that old guy, making him do the 'perp' walk! A legitimate business man!" Meadows' curt reply is, "Dad, cut the crap" ("I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano"). There exists an obvious difference between all the portrayed realities, yet none of them, when shown on the television, has any greater currency towards a fixed truth.

In the opening scene of the first episode ("Sopranos"), Tony enters the cultural imagination with a pre-loaded awareness that the myth of collapse, as perpetuated by antecedent forefathers such as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando, is very much real for end-of-the-century gangsters such as himself. He tells his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi:

I'd been thinking: it's good to be in a thing from the ground floor. I came too later for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling I might be in at the end. That the best is over.

To which Dr. Melfi replies: "Many Americans, I think, feel this." Although being a gangster, a mobster, or a fugitive from the law is a trade to which only a limited number of people may find themselves being beckoned, the anxieties concerning family, appearances, wealth, lifestyle, and general existential unease regarding a place in some grand scheme of things, may be equally keenly felt by those that watch The Sopranos. As the intertextual elements help the Sopranos family and their associates to navigate life (and explicitly warn of the dangers in blindly doing so), so too can the show reflect American, or more widely speaking, human, apprehensions in reality. For The Sopranos, the opening scene showed us that the best was actually still yet to come (with some lows thrown in to test the waters), but maybe, with some help from Tony Soprano, Michael Corleone, and Tom Powers, we can use the pleasures and concerns of fiction to help us with the reality of our own daily toils. The best isn't over; like the gangster myth, it's just metamorphosed into something different.

This article is dedicated to Dr. David Lavery (1949-2016).

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