Whaddya Hear, Whaddya Say?
By Violet Lucca and Michael Koresky
The Many Saints of Newark
Dir. Alan Taylor, U.S., HBO/New Line Cinema
They say there‚Äôs no two people on earth exactly the same. No two faces, no two sets of fingerprints. But do they know that for sure? ‚ÄôCuz they would have to get everybody together in one huge space. And obviously that‚Äôs not possible, even with computers. But not only that, they‚Äôd have to get all the people that ever lived, not just the ones now. So they got no proof. They got nothin‚Äô.
I‚Äôm reminded of that drugged-out speech made by Christopher Moltisanti at his boss‚Äôs mother‚Äôs memorial because here is a movie in which a son (Michael Gandolfini) plays a younger version of his deceased father (James Gandolfini), and a film that is literally about a deceased son telling the story of his deceased father, who also happens to be the man who killed his own father. This is the one thing about The Many Saints of Newark that feels in line with the show: Tony Soprano was a sociopath with an Oedipal complex, and he killed Christopher, the man he had groomed to be his crime son and heir. (Understated motivation for doing so: Tony couldn‚Äôt stand that Christopher had a fling with Julianna Skiff.) I didn‚Äôt really like the film the first time I watched it, but I rewatched it to check for the fingerprints David Chase has left behind for us. I have theories, but I hate that I rewatched it.
I immediately recognized that the opening scene is‚ÄĒor, as my editor suggests, ‚Äúmust be,‚ÄĚ because this is psychoanalysis‚ÄĒa reference to the original opening for Sunset Boulevard: Joe Gillis was at the L.A. county morgue with two other stiffs who were talking about how they died. (Naturally, Gillis‚Äôs story is the best one.) However, our narrator Christopher Moltisanti‚ÄĒwho, like Gillis, is a failed screenwriter‚ÄĒisn‚Äôt interacting with the other stiffs at the cemetery. Instead, he‚Äôs monologuing. I know people are already bouncing around the idea that this is Chrissy‚Äôs screenplay (which is why it sucks), but despite the frustrating and sometimes stupid nature of the plot, the confusion of Neil Armstrong and Neil Young [see below], unreliable narration, and autobiographical elements, it feels like this isn‚Äôt a movie but rather a long-winded story Chris is telling at a bar. (After all, Hell is an Irish bar where every day is St. Patrick‚Äôs Day.)
But, as in so many bad screenplays, there‚Äôs a second structural device in the film. Gil Scott-Heron‚Äôs poem ‚ÄúThe Vulture,‚ÄĚ recited over the Newark riots, is also the title of Scott-Heron‚Äôs first novel, which tells the story of the life and death of John Lee, a teenage drug dealer, through the voices of four characters (one of whom is named Junior). Each of these narrators has a motivation for killing John Lee and embodies a cross-section of people in Harlem of the late ‚Äô60s. So, if Dickie Moltisanti is the John Lee in The Many Saints of Newark, who are the four narrators? I would argue that Junior Soprano, Sally Moltisanti, Tony, and the newly created character Harold (Leslie Odom, Jr.) are those narrators. Chase wants the viewers who aren‚Äôt in it for the whackings to wonder which one (if not all of them) killed Dickie. It seems that, despite years of getting pissed off when asked if Tony died at the end, Chase wanted to create another mystery that will forever remain unanswerable. Time is a flat circle! ‚ÄĒViolet Lucca
Just to put that Neil Armstrong goof in its proper context, the narration goes like this: ‚ÄúThe sixties ended‚Ä¶Neil Young gave that speech from the moon‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ I think it‚Äôs fair to say that one of the endless reasons The Sopranos was so great is because it never would feature a voiceover line in which someone says, ‚ÄúThe sixties ended.‚ÄĚ Then again, The Sopranos didn‚Äôt indulge in the kind of historical whimsy and faux-critical self-mythologizing that is the bread and butter of The Many Saints of Newark. And no, I don‚Äôt buy that Christopher wrote the script.
I didn‚Äôt dislike the film from start to finish (even though its start and especially its jaw-dropping finish engender the kind of embarrassment that one rarely felt during the show‚Äôs 86-episode run). There are few moments that offer that singular Sopranos mix of psychological precision and pinprick comic deflation, but this is a movie after all, with overly mannered ‚Äôscope cinematography and a single narrative arc that tries valiantly to contain what an entire season of television might have persuaded you was worth your time.
When I first heard that David Chase‚Äôs Sopranos movie was going to be a prequel set in the Jersey of Tony‚Äôs adolescence, my heart sank a little. One of the things I always liked about The Sopranos was how ultimately disinterested the show seemed in the flashbacks of its protagonist‚Äôs childhood, mostly leaving them alone after the first two seasons, when the (already exciting) show was still finding its legs. Arguably the least compelling moments in the entire series, the flashbacks always felt intentionally ersatz: the artificial-looking memories of a chronically dishonest man for whom masculine idol worship was just one symptom of a sociopathy.
Hence the failure of his psychiatric ‚Äújourney‚ÄĚ with Dr. Melfi‚ÄĒone of the many disappointing feints at self-improvement that are the crux of the series for nearly every character. So even if Chase‚Äôs new film, which hinges on the evils done by Tony‚Äôs toxic father figure Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, who does have something of Gandolfini‚Äôs toothy grin and winking charisma), sometimes lucidly reiterates the destructiveness of male hero worship, two hours is an awfully long time to be stuck in the past with all these guys. Remember what Tony told Paulie in one of his most lucid moments: ‚Äú‚ÄėRemember when‚Ä¶‚Äô is the lowest form of conversation.‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒMichael Koresky
Well, he was right! (Or rather, the guy Chase went to high school with who said that was right.) Although there are locations that are laid out like spaces from the show (the back room of Vesuvio, the Crazy Horse, the Bing) and key locations (Holsten‚Äôs, Satriale‚Äôs Pork Store), I felt deprived of a true sense of space. There‚Äôs no breathing room because there‚Äôs so much plot to get through. There was no point when one could absorb the mundaneness of these mobsters‚Äô day-to-day existence. The put-upon Jerseyness of it all is gone, as are the suburban excess and the humor. Can it really be The Sopranos without those things? This absence of space becomes especially glaring with the prominent subplot devoted to Harold and the other characters from the Black community‚ÄĒi.e., all the people who didn‚Äôt appear/weren‚Äôt mentioned on the show. Though we see that Harold is inspired by the uplifting, revolutionary political zeal of the era to start his own criminal thing (at the cost of his community), there‚Äôs no real tension or transformation: he‚Äôs characterized purely by his resentment. By contrast, Olivier Assayas‚Äôs Carlos did a great job of characterization through action‚ÄĒexcept that was told over six hours. Maybe Chase should‚Äôve embraced long-form storytelling?
These details are replaced with reference and physical objects. Did you know that Saint Roch, the saint that Junior breaks after failing to have sex with his goomah, is a patron saint of dogs, invalids, of falsely accused people, bachelors, and prosciutto, among other things? In fact, the breaking of a Saint Roch figure is a key moment in Clochemerle, a French novel set in the third republic about petty squabbling between Catholics and‚Ä¶Madonna mia, I‚Äôm putting myself to sleep! I didn‚Äôt want to write a thesis about this. I hated the character of Dickie‚Äôs goomah Giuseppina, even though I understood she‚Äôs meant to be a flashy thing for Dickie to hold rather than a person to love. Oh yeah, and she‚Äôs a lot like Adriana: her desire to have her own business; the loneliness she suffers because she‚Äôs just a goomah; her big hair; the free-spirited drive in a light blue car with Van Morrison playing before she gets murdered. But I liked Adriana, and could identify with her, because she was driven by her desires and fears; she was undone by her need to look the other way. Giuseppina, drowned in the waters that brought her to America, was just that: shallow, a signifier for weirdoes (such as me) to decode.
In the end, I am left with the feeling that Many Saints is an expression of Chase‚Äôs archness run amok, rather than an invitation to immerse myself in a universe like that of The Sopranos, where, like our own, everyone feels put upon, can‚Äôt see past their pain, and therefore fail to notice the pain of others. I too have depression and, like Tony, go about in pity for myself sometimes; seeing a show about people who do the same bullshit can shake me out of both. Though it‚Äôs foolish to wish that art has a purpose or utility, those 86 episodes have gotten me through a lot (well, maybe not the first two seasons). The show was so powerful that it even tricked a bunch of psychos who get off on murder into watching a Douglas Sirk movie (Is Johnnycakes and Vito‚Äôs arc the greatest part of the show?). I walked away feeling like I was supposed to have an answer ready, so here goes: Tony shot Dickie. But who cares? The color-grading on this movie looked terrible, too. ‚ÄĒVL
I intermittently admired the movie, especially for the way it created an entirely separate narrative, which is the power struggle between Dickie and Harold. David Chase devising a main story that refuses easy identification for his show‚Äôs superfans is very much in keeping with his streak of perversity. The Sopranos was a show that frequently denied satisfaction for viewers, at least in the expected ways. It was an expression of the show‚Äôs intense, permeating jaundice, which, for those really watching, became the point. The Russian never came back, sure, but also Carmela never listened to whatever was left of her conscience and called the private investigator to look into Adriana‚Äôs disappearance; Meadow‚Äôs narcissism and lack of ambition superseded her intellect; and A.J.‚Äôs spark of morality got snuffed out by inherited greed and crippling stupidity. These are the kinds of troubling character arcs that are likely only possible in an 86-episode series‚ÄĒhence the unfairness of comparing them to a largely conventional two-hour movie‚ÄĒbut they also indicate the philosophical richness with which the series created its domestic drama, and the feeling of this being replaced by the rote beat-hitting of a period-piece crime story is acute and kind of sad.
What will we remember most from this ‚ÄúSopranos story‚ÄĚ? Easter eggs like hearing Junior (Corey Stoll, too hot) say Tony doesn‚Äôt ‚Äúhave the makings of a varsity athlete‚ÄĚ and seeing Livia (Vera Farmiga with a fake smoosh-nose) getting a bullet through her beehive feel like the kind of fan service that the series always avoided and are entirely divorced from the narrative proper. Meanwhile, Paulie (Billy Magnussen) does bicep curls, and Silvio (John Magaro) sports a toupee and a scowl so contorted and creviced he looks older than Steven Van Zandt did in season one. It‚Äôs all hammy beyond belief, and even rather grotesque, like Halloween versions. But perhaps this is partly the point: Chase never seemed to want us to love these people, which in a way made them even more beloved. So, it makes sense that they would become bizarre facsimiles of their former selves.
If there‚Äôs one thing that feels like it most unites the show and movie it‚Äôs the way they depict violence, which bursts out of nowhere, and comes quick and nasty. In this case, however, the violence felt particularly gratuitous, especially a scene graphically depicting the torture and murder of a Black man, and another that shows a woman being horrifically drowned, which is a shot in a super-stylized fashion on a windswept, widescreen beach. It‚Äôs the kind of studied, glorified killing that The Sopranos tended to stay away from, preferring to make murder brutish, heavy, and physical. Death had weight, important in a show that also believed that life itself, like family lore, like mythmaking, was full of shit. ‚ÄĒMK