[Warning: Sopranos spoilers ---follow]
In last night’s episode, Christoppher Multisanti goes to the apartment of JT Dolan, the recovering drug addict and addicted gambler who wrote Cleaver -a slasher/gangster film film that Christopher is producing with mob money; he describes it as “Godfather II meets Saw.” Christopher sees a statute on JT’s mantlepiece and asks about it. JT says it’s an award from the Paulists for upholding the values of social justice in the entertainment industrty. This is hguely funny, because Cleaver is really gross–but it is also the last name of Beaver’s family in “Leave it to Beaver”–the wholesome television show of the fifties. It alludes to last week’s boundaries between Family and the family.
At any rate, Christopher promplty wacks him over the head with the award–it seems the script has gotten Christopher into trouble with Tony, by cutting a little too close to the bone, you might say. Christopher is expressing his using the award for social justice to express his displeasure. So much for social justice.
This episode explored the boundary between narrative and reality– which is primary? The Godfather books and movies modeled their plots and characters on the life of the mob. But later, the mob modled its action on the characters in the books. It is indisputable that the characters in the Sopranos have viewed the characters in the Godfather movies as iconic inspirations. Now we’re caught in another cyle.
Cleaver is about a made man–a man ike Christopher– who is killed by the mob, and who seeks revenge on the boss (a man like Tony) — for sleeping with his fiancee –and on everyone else for killing him and distributing his body parts throughout the area. (Needless to say, he has to pull himself together before exacting revenge.) . The boss character (perfectly played by a disintegrating Baldwin brother) gets killed with the cleaver at the end of the film.
So Tony is wondering whether Christopher–the man he views as his son –really hates him and wants to kill him. And Christopher is wondering whether his fiction– portraying Tony as being killed for having an affair with his still-missing fiancee Adraiana– is about to have unpleasant repercussions in his real life. It’s not as if elements of Cleaver don’t have a grain of truth to them-who could forget the scene when Christopher dismembers Ralphie on Tony’s order after Janice kills him? And the audience is wondering whether this film is going to affect the outcome of the real livves of the Sopranos by helping to fix motives and cement rivalries.
We viewers are also wondering more generally about the relationship between film and the reality of the Sopranos. I mentioned in my last post on the topic the prominence of the boating scene with Bobby and Tony–right out of Godfather II. Last night’s episode ended with a baptism in a (really modern) church– in Godfather I, the baptism scene (in a really old) church was the scene where Michael kills all the rival mob bosses of New York. So we catch the clue, and think we know where we’re going with this, but do we? The writers and the directors have directly addressed the viewer’s willingness “to absorb the [[Soprano's] world into the biblical tex [of the mob]” –to modify and borrow from what Hans Frei used to say. So they have diffused it. We don’t know what’s going to happen, because our predictions have become part of the plot. Really brilliant.
Another key thing: the movie to which the series owes the most, but which isn’t here, is Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990). In fact, several of the actors in the Sopranos were in Goodfellas –Lorraine Bracco (Dr. Melfi), Michael Imperioli (Christopher), and Tony Sirico (Paulie), and Vincent Pastore(the late Big Pussy). There’s a reference to Scorsese in the episode “Well, he’s good, but he’s not Marty.” Two other directors are in the episode as actors: Sydney Pollack –who plays an oncologist imprisoned with Jonny Sack for killing his wife–and Peter Bogdanovitch –who plays Dr. Melfi’s shrink.
In the end though, reality has to win out. Jonny Sack dies of cancer in a prison ward–his family is prevented from hugging him to comfort him when they hear the news. He is not the big mobster we saw when we first met him, and his death is not this mesmerizing scene of gore we just saw in Cleaver. He’s just a frail old man dying–and wondering if the dream he lived his life for was an illusion.