Like Ibsen or Dickens, Sopranos is Our Peak

A lot of us know how Tony Soprano feels. His world seems to be coming apart. The takings-for-granted on which his life has been predicated are breaking down or are being dismantled by forces he doesn’t completely understand or, if he does, over which he seems to have lost control.

It’s not hard to see why a large (9.5 million) audience that certainly includes this correspondent has connected with The Sopranos. David Chase’s HBO novel-in-parts (as we might think of it, today’s version of a Dickensian serial) is a parable about the center not holding, about the Great Anarch drawing nigh with heavy, bloody tread, accompanied by a rough beast. That it’s about a criminal enterprise is a concession to the postmodern thirst for irony but in this case, irony gives the parable added force.

Everything in the show flows from the memorable line of the first season, when Tony bursts out, “Out there it’s the 1990′s, but in this house it’s 1954!” Back then, it sounded like bluster, but given all that’s happened since in the series, you think back, and you think twice, and you see that what David Chase was setting us up for is that 1999, or 2000, or now 2001 is outside, rattling the windows, trying the doorknobs, howling to get in. It’s like an extrapolation of that moment in Close Encounters … when the world outside fills with light and the doors rattle and the walls swell and the electricity goes crazy.

The song that Uncle Junior sang with such passion at the end of this season’s final installment is exactly the kind of song people who think in 1954 terms, or cling to 1954 memories and values, will recall: sung back then by the likes of Roberto Murolo, Tino Rossi, Gino Bechi. The tears in the eyes of the elders listening are for themselves; they weep for the Old Country from which they emigrated, from which they sprang: as in L.P. Hartley’s famous dictum, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” These people weep for the Old Country which is still in them, for its customs, language, ways of doing things. That they are thugs and gangsters is momentarily beside the point. In the American present, they have reverted to being foreigners.

None of this means a damn thing to the young; our young, for whom time present is the only time that exists, let alone matters. Which may be O.K., may be deplorable, but is the way it is. When Meadow Soprano hurls a roll and storms out, who is that but Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, slamming the door on what has been but can be no longer.

If I sit Francis down and play him my Roberto Murolo CD’s, he’ll look at me as if I’m crazy. Who needs this s ? is what he’ll be thinking. The past is over. It can fight a rearguard action, can put up pockets of resistance sleek, clever, buff, ambitious, glib Jackie Aprile Jr., poster boy for Cosa Nostra.com come the day, is blown away by a goombah so fat he can hardly walk but resistance, we begin to see, is futile. There’ll be other Jackies; there’s Ralph, the Russians, and above all there’s the money. Suddenly, there’s not enough to go around. No sooner is Christopher “made” but he’s in the hole, to Paulie, who’s now thinking about selling Tony out.

When this series started, everything was pretty much fixed; now, all is relative; everything carries a dollar sign. These were people whose compasses and sextants were calibrated just so. Now the fixed stars have been rearranged and nothing makes sense. Not even the Holy Mother Church. Carmela goes to see a priest and finds herself dealing with an African padre who feeds her Mitch Albom bullbleep in a Geoffrey Holder voice: Tuesdays with Father Obosi.

And yet …

The success of a work of art like The Sopranos (Is Dickens art? Is Trollope? If so, why not Tony et al.?) suggests that people still want to connect, culturally, with something outside their own self-involvement. But let’s look at the numbers. By television standards, the 9.5 million that HBO is boasting about is a fraction of the audience pulled by the final episode of Seinfeld. It’s a fraction of those who watch Will and Grace or Friends, which are two really stupid shows.

Inside that 9.5 million is perhaps the core middle- and upper-brow audience of, say, three million to four million that, I suspect, are the people who keep the serious arts going in this country. On top of these are perhaps another five million to seven million who are plugged in enough to want to see what the fuss is all about and decide to stick around. At this point, we leave the orbit of The Sopranos and enter the astral void where dwell, culturally, the tens of millions to whom connection means having been there, done or seen that, too. Been to Tate Modern, seen the Jackie O. show and Vermeer or Disney World or the Mona Lisa. The urge to connect doesn’t disappear; we may not bowl as much as we used to, but that doesn’t mean we can live with being out of it, whatever “it” is.

I was up at the Met the other day to show my daughter’s Italian in-laws the glories of the Met. We got in a little early and took a fast five-minute spin through Jackie O., and then went on to Vermeer before moving out into the permanent collections.

As deplorable as the Jackie O. show is in conception and principle, it’s even worse in execution and fact. Given its sponsorship the Newhouses’ decision to entrust Vogue to a badly dressed Englishwoman continues to amaze me and curatorial direction, who can be surprised? And, as Philip Weiss observed last week: the clothes are so bad! As one friend of mine said: “All those buttons!” Talk about niminy-piminy.

As for the potted history, bleeeah! Someday, someone who wants to let the word go forth to newer generations of Americans what the three-year Kennedy “era” was really about will put together an experience in which pilgrims will sit in a dark room and for, say, eight hours endure what the country went through or perhaps was put through over the weekend of Nov. 22, 1963: an endless black-and-white TV loop, Dallas, Ruby, Air Force One, John-John on the steps, the riderless horse, Cronkite haggard. Over and over and over and over and over again. In those three days, the box took control of our sensibilities, and the country was put into a quasi-hypnotic state of self-doubt from which we have never fully emerged.

Then it was that Jackie sold herself to the country. It was an easy sell if, as she did, you had the time, the money, the opportunity and the balls. After all, these were people who pulled off in 1960 in Cook County electoral scams what anything alleged with regard to Dade County in 2000 didn’t come close to.

Still, there’s this to be said for the exhibition: It is certainly the greatest achievement on record in cretin control. By late morning, the line waiting to get into Jackie stretched down through the drawings galleries ruining any chance to see what was hanging there back along the well of the Grand Staircase and northward along the balcony; thousands of people standing with their mouths open. Fifty feet away from the Jackie O. entrance, in a gallery hung with a dozen great paintings by Cézanne, a painter who is on everyone’s Top 10 roster, there was no one!

Vermeer was doing boffo B.O., too. By my reckoning, some 550,000 people have seen the exhibition, or almost the same number as there are copies out (according to Jim Dwyer in The Times) of a novel called The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is driving attendance. From what I’ve read, I’m sure it’s a dreadful book, sort of an artsy Bridges of Delft County, but it’s getting more people to look at Vermeer than Proust ever did, so let’s look at the bright side

Maybe this is where the future lies: “hot’ shows driven by extra-artistic interests that concentrate the noise which has become almost intolerable at the Met and the crowds out of the way so that others can look at the art. At the Frick today, such “crowds” as there ever are mass in front of the Vermeers, which the Frick can’t lend, while down the hall is an El Greco show that teaches more about art, painting and genius than almost any exhibition I have ever seen anywhere.

So it’s not all bad, and it could be worse. Some might not call this consolation, but there is a certain peace that comes from sitting on a bench in an empty Met gallery, studying a great Cézanne and wondering, as I’m sure Tony Soprano does, whatever the hell became of 1954.