Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Sopranos: "Mr. and Mrs. Sacrimoni Request..." (6x05)

This week, the show tackles the issue of masculinity in the mob world, examining what behavior is acceptable and what isn't acceptable. This is done through the three primary stories, Tony's, Johnny's and Vito's. The opening of the episode, with the six week gap announced by a title is unlike anything they've done, but I guess it was necessary to explain Tony's recovery.

That said, I'm glad that they're continuing to dwell on the effect that this experience has had on him, both mentally and physically. Last episode I was a bit disappointed that he seemed to be pretty close to normal mentally, considering all the warnings the doctors had given about how he wasn't going to fully recover. So, clearly there's been some major physical deterioration, which is a problem in his circles. But more interesting is the mental transformation. He's stepped out of his world, and as a result finds it hard to adjust to being back in it.

Throughout the episode, we see how Tony is now being treated like a weak person in need of help, not unlike Junior back in the early seasons. When Carmela sends him off to work, she says "I feel like a mommy," and once he gets there, it's clearly all about making Tony comfortable and keeping things easy for him. The poker scene is wonderful because it marks the reunion of the family, with Tony taking his place at the head of the table, but also shows how far removed Tony is from their world. Despite the respect they initially show him, when he starts talking about the surgery, Silvio cuts him off and restarts the game. There is no place for that sort of introspection in the mob world.

The episode did a great job of conveying Tony's physical exhaustion. He can barely make it up the stairs, and his greatest pleasure seems to be collapsing in bed. One of my favorite scenes in the episode was Tony's discussion with Meadow in the kitchen, where he presents himself more and more as someone on the way out. He just wants to spend some time with his grandkids before he dies. When Junior shot Tony, he basically turned Tony into him, the boss, but someone whose time has passed. This weakness is wonderfully conveyed during the entrance to the wedding, where just the act of walking into the wedding is too exhausting for him.

One interesting bit in this scene was Meadow's claim that what the government was doing was absurd, further emphasizing the way that she's being drawn more and more into the family. She does seem very unsure about the marriage to Finn, and we haven't gotten a sense that they have any kind of strong rapport. The closest they come to a major moment is when Finn is about to say something to her at the wedding then stops. That was a great moment, the lack of words saying a lot more than any actual comment would.

Leading up to the wedding, we get some strong scenes with Johnny Sack. The whole opening of the episode was very funny, I particularly liked Johnny's thin daughter lamenting the fact that all anyone talks about in their family is food. Another good bit was Johnny's disgust at the patent leather shoes.

After Tony's near collapse, we get a lot of strong comedy bits at the wedding. AJ's date claiming that she wouldn't eat fish because of the toxins, while at the same time smoking a cigarette. Vito's awkward compliment to Finn. Tony and Johnny talking business with the old people was another hilarious bit. But the funniest thing was when Tony tells AJ he should be observing things if he wants to be an event planner, then AJ goes around and says "An event planner? Where do you come up with this shit," effectively puncturing all the speculation that line in the fifth season finale prompted during the off season.

Side note, that "High ho the merry-o" song had to be one of the most annoying things ever composed, yet as it went on, I couldn't help but enjoy it. Just the guy's sincerity in delivering the lines, like each time he was discovering the "merry-o" for the first time, you just believe in him completely.

However, as things progress, it starts to get sad. We're aware that this could very well be the last time that Johnny will ever see his family outside of prison, so the idea of "giving away" his daugther has a deeper meaning. We start to see the cracks during the "Daddy's Little Girl" song, where Johnny starts singing along, reluctant to let his daughter go. Here we also see the close bond between Meadow and Tony, which seems a lot deeper than what's going on between her and Finn. And another side note, the whole song is a bit creepy.

I was really feeling for John when the marshalls said he had to leave, the moment when the federal jeep pulls up to block the wedding car mars the happiness of the wedding. Johnny tried to give her a perfect day, which his prison stay would not prevent, but in its final moments, the reality of his sentence becomes clear to everyone looking on. And knowing that this is probably the last time he'll see his daughter outside of prison, he starts to break down. Clearly, this is a tough situation and the fact that the marshalls couldn't wait a couple of minutes puts a mar on the whole day. So, John is carried off crying, perhaps aware that even though he claims to have done all this for his family, wouldn't they rather have a less lavish wedding, and actually have him around with them after?

The Johnny Sack crying incident effectively ruins his credibility as a mob leader. While Johnny's fall is sad, it's mainly interesting in the way it relates to Tony's progress. Tony tries to defend Johnny, clearly aware from his own experience of the fleeting nature of life. For Tony, every day may seem like a gift, but for Johnny those six hours literally were a gift, and when it ran out, he had nothing left. Tony is the only one of his crew that can relate to that complete despair. He's got a depth of emotion and intelligence that far exceeds any of the other mobsters, and that's what makes him such a fascinating character. Throughout the show's run, it's been the moments where the characters strive for good, and ultimately fail, that are the most compelling. In their world, doing the right thing is rarely an option, because to help someone else can make you seem weak.

That's the basic lesson that Tony learns when he hears them talking about Johnny. Even though his crew may be helping him out while he's there, they're almost definitely talking about how weak he is when he's gone, and the open insolence that Christopher displays is a clue to him that things aren't like they used to be. If he wants to avoid Johnny's fate, he has to change things.

Melfi's role here is interesting, once again she provides him with business advice, as was the initial conceit of the show back in the first season, but she must be aware that what she's doing is going to lead to violence. In the mob world, reasserting power isn't done through words, it's done through action, and I'd be interested in seeing where she is morally on Tony right now, because in that scene she was pretty much saying "go out and hurt someone." In a lot of respects, the show has outgrown Melfi, we're so aware of Tony as a character that he doesn't need to explain things for us to understand what he's feeling. There's certainly good things that can be done with those scenes, but they don't feel essential to the narrative, as they once did.

She presents him with the idea of the alpha male, and when he goes to Satirale's he literally acts the concept out. He seeks out the strongest male, pretty easy to spot considering the rather shoddy physical state of most of his crew, and beats him up, thus asserting his own dominance, and letting his crew know that the old Tony is still present.

If the episode had ended with that fight scene, I wouldn't have been thrilled with it, it's the subsequent scene in the bathroom that makes it effective. Here we see that even though Tony may be able to win the fight, he's far from the man he used to be. He looks at himself in the mirror, with an expression that says "I've still got it," but then quickly collapses to the floor to vomit. So, we're more aware than ever of the facade of manliness. Tony may have won back his crew's adoration, but he knows that his body cannot afford to do that anymore.

The fight scene is also interesting in how it shows that Tony has changed. He has definitely cooled down, as evidenced by the early scene with the truck, so it becomes difficult for him to find a reason to actually beat someone up. He invents this completely fictitious refrigerator door incident, clearly playing the role of the guy who will snap at anything. He's not that guy anymore. The question that now arises is, if Tony is putting on his old persona while he is at work, will he eventually revert to being that guy again, or will the disconnect between who he really is and who he's pretending be cause him to become more revoled at the world of the mob?

The other major plot thread of the episode involves Vito's troubled life as gay man in a straight world, he's living his very own Brokeback Mountain, and I imagine if these episodes were filmed a few months later, we'd definitely be catching some references to the film. The episode starts out with a number of coded references to his sexuality, not unlike stuff we've seen earlier in the season, however apparently the wedding frustrates him and prompts him to head out to the gay club circuit.

The scene in the leather club may not reach the bizarre heights of "Le Rectum" from Irreversible, but it's still a pretty weird scene. It's certainly not going to pick up any GLAAD awards, but considering the world Vito comes from, it's pretty likely that he'd end up at a place like this. When he first appeared in the leather outfit, I was cracking up, it was such a ridiculous visual, he looked like an S&M Mario.

I read the two guys who saw him were from New York, and it's pretty clear that word about what happened hasn't made it back to Jersey. We saw this in the great scene in the hotel room. So, either word got back to Phil, and he's going to talk to Vito about it next episode, or maybe Vito has killed the two people who saw him. Or it's possible that he killed himself in that hotel room. I will say that seeing drive into a motel alone with that gun was not what I expected to happen. It's harsh, but in his world, it might make more sense to kill himself than to let his secret get out.

If Johnny's crying was a major faux pas, then actually being gay would probably be the greatest social breach, somewhere right around being an informant for the government. Besides the obvious societal prejudice, I think homosexuality is so threatening for these mobsters because their world is such a closed, masculine one, with a lot of open physical affection. They're always kissing and hugging each other, and that's acceptable because they're all so staunchly heterosexual, so if one man turns out to be gay, that makes it difficult to keep up the physicality of the relationships.

I'm surpised that Vito was outed this way, through a random interaction, they had been building up the Finn angle for so long, I assumed that's what would set things off. However, Chase always deviates from the expected, and now I'd guess that the stuff with Finn will be used in some other way. Regardless, Vito's return is going to create some major issues.

Along with this, we get our first idea of what's up with Junior. He's apparently fluctuating between lucidity and total mental detachment, and doesn't remember what happened with Tony. The episode represents a new low for Junior, placed in an institution, begging to go home, even as we know that he's likely there for the rest of his life.

And the one scene that leaves me wondering is Christopher's interactions with the Arabs. Clearly they're setting up that these guys aren't from America, hence the credit card joke, and I'm not sure what kind of family dispute requires a Tek-9 to resolve. Clearly, the Agent Grasso's talk with Christopher a few episodes ago is still on the table and could lead to something down the line.

This was another fantastic piece of work, they've got more complexity and thematic layering in a single episode than nearly any film you'll see, and I'm really eager to see where things go from here. The only bad thing about the show right now is the one week wait between episodes.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

SPOILERS: Don't read until you've seen the film

This is a French musical from the 60s, about a pair of star crossed lovers, Genevieve and Guy. This film acheives what Scorsese's New York, New York and Coppola's One From The Heart attempt to do, namely make a film with all the glamour and style of a classic Hollywood musical, but also place the characters in a world that's more emotionally real. While those films poured on the nastiness, and thus undermined the essential pleasures of the genre, Umbrellas tells a more realistic story, but still keeps the fun and style of the best musicals. It's basically got all the things you'd want from a musical, while telling a story that doesn't hew strictly to the happy ending setups favored by Hollywood.

Unlike a lot of musicals, this one is entirely sung. A lot of contemporary audiences seem to have issues wth musicals, but when done well, it can create uniquely powerful cinema. The combination of music and visual is the most cinematic construction, and this film takes full advantage. The production design is great, making a world that's more stylish than reality, but doesn't cross over into fairy tale excess, and you never question the fact that all the characters are singing. A part of that is that the film doesn't do big production numbers, so you never get the sense that they're putting on a show for you. This is just the way they live their lives.

The really interesting thing about the film is the way it plays with your emotional attachments. In the beginning of the film, it seems like Guy and Genevieve are made for each other, and it's tough when Genevieve's mother is trying to keep them. Side note, but the mother acted and looked exactly like Emily Gilmore. I doubt there was a direct inspiration, but it was quite striking. Anyway, so you're initially attached to these two, and the news that Guy is going to war is quite sad.

Once he's gone however, Roland gradually develops as a character and, like Genevieve, we start to forget about Guy. In most romance films, you've got the true love and the guy she'd settle for. Normally this is done to build narrative tension, if you've got a woman with an abusive boyfriend or her true love, it's not much of a love triangle. However, when you've got the good, reliable guy, or the fiery, passionate love, it's tougher to decide. So, you're expecting Roland to be someone who's just there to bulid the tension, will she get together with this guy, or will she wait for her true love, Guy?

But, as things progress, Roland seems more and more like a good choice for Genevieve. One of the character types I've seen a lot in fiction recently is the ultra self deprecating guy, who is constantly insulting himself, seemingly as a way of ingratiating him to the audience. They first did this on Buffy with Riley, and then later with Ben. Veronica's cop boyfriend on Veronica Mars was a similar type. However, I wasn't really with these characters because the self deprecation seemed more like an act. With Roland, this is a guy who really is socially inept, and as a result you want Genevieve to be with him. When he agrees to raise her child as his won, you know that this is a great guy, and even if it's not a passionate love, it will probably be the best life for Genevieve and her daughter.

By the time they came to the bridge scene, where Roland says he will still marry her, it was pretty clear that she couldn't just abandon him to go with Guy. We've become emotionally invested in their relationship, so leaving him would mean losing any attachment to Genevieve. The thing that's brilliant about this segment is that the audience is going through the same thing as her, so when she looks at the picture and can barely remember Guy, we're feeling the same thing. Whereas once we really wanted the two of them together, now that is a distant memory.

But it's not for Guy, who returns from war to find his whole world shaken up. Initially he despairs, but gradually he too realizes that it might be better to go for a relationship with the person who clearly loves than to try and recapture something that was once, but now is gone. In his case, it means Madeleine. When the two of them sit together at the funeral, they're posed and shot in the same way that Roland and Genevieve were at their wedding, indicating the creation of a significant bond between them. I was definitely rooting for them to get together, and it was satisfying when he committed to a relationship with her.

Everything builds up to the fantastic last scene. Here we see how Madeleine and Guy's life has turned out. It's almost exactly like the life he imagined with Genevieve, and he seems quite happy. And then Genevieve drives up to get some gas for her car. Earlier in the film, we're led to believe that in some respects, both Genevieve are settling for someone else when they choose to get married, and that the real love they have is for each other. So, are we looking at a Before Sunset situation here, one last chance to recapture their true love?

Not quite, the ending of the film leaves us with the feeling that even though they were in love once, that time is passed, and each of them is happy with the life they have. I'm sure they both wonder what could have been, but when Guy's family returns, it's pretty clear that he's moved on from Genevieve and is fully committed to his marriage and his son. The film seems to be a direct reaction against the traditional musical ending, the young lovers find out that maybe passion isn't the only thing and when they settle, they've actually found people who they can love and share a life with. Genevieve's mother's claim that people only die from a broken heart in the movies is apparently true, though she lost Guy, she can move on and make a happy life for herself.

That final scene is a masterful fusion of music and visual. The snow falling at night is beautiful, and the large window in the gas station makes for a wondeful contrast of inside and outside. And the final pullback shot gives us wonderful emotional closure. The pullback shot is backed by a magnificent score cue, full of orchestral swells that build up the power of the moment. It reminds me a bit of the end of The Empire Strikes Back, in the way that the score builds up the emotion of the moment to this massive level, providing a fitting closure to the film.

This film really brought back the merits of the orchestral score for me. Moments like the ending and Guy's departure at the train station feature huge cues that make the moments really work. It's used in the manner of a lot of classical Hollywood scores, but unlike those scores it's not intrusive. Rather than trying to tell you how to feel, it's creating an external representation of the characters' emotions, and drawing you into their emotional world. Used poorly, a score like this can become almost comical in its excess, but when you're caught up in what the characters are going through, it serves to dramatically deepen your experience of the film. I'd rather see a film that goes for the emotional heights, and risks looking bad, than one that just sticks to easy, noncommital territory. This film goes for broke, and generally succeeds.

By subverting our narrative expectations, and not giving us the typical happy ending true love message, this film stands out as one of the best musicals I've seen. The characters feel very real and the story is emotionally compelling. This does pretty much everything you could want from a musical, and the final moments give it an emotional weight that few films acheive.