I have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and Ned Beatty will not have it.
As Game 2 of the least competitive NBA Finals since 2002 lumbered its way to tip-off at 6 PM PST, I was anxiously aware that television history was being made on HBO's East Coast feed. But, being a dutifully obsessed Cleveland sports fan, I was more than willing to wait a few hours for The Sopranos' finale; my team had a playoff series to even up and critics of their own to answer. If all went well, I had a richly satisfying four hours of television ahead of me (the premiere of David Milch's John from Cincinnati would have to wait).
Oh, what a lovely evening of thwarted expectations! And I bet you can't guess which of the two programs I'm watching again today!
Disappointment wears better in drama; as ravenous consumers of it, we deserve a swift sucker punch every now and then. Entertainment has become so commodified that filmmakers and television writers can't afford to stray from formula. When they do, they are punished by viewers and executives alike: one stops watching and the other stops hiring. If you're going to provoke, you'd better stack the deck and do all the intellectual heavy lifting, such as it is, for your audience (e.g. Crash), or you're going to have some pissed off patrons bitching to their friends and posting vengeful diatribes on any number of internet message boards. People crave closure because it has been meted out to them time and again; hell, one of the greatest last-second gut punches in the history of cinema - Fernando Rey eluding Popeye Doyle at the conclusion of The French Connection - necessitated a sequel in which the bad guy finally gets it - and this was during the decade of ambiguous endings (obviously, there was a financial consideration here as well, but it's not like Frankenheimer was contractually obligated to bump Charnier off). Justice must prevail. The World must be restored.
Interestingly, audiences don't much care about the moral order of the world being restored, which explains the enduring popularity of gangster movies. Though these films often have a tragic sweep, the most popular of their ilk reliably close out with a bloodbath. The genre's modern paradigm is Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather saga, in which, after losses are sustained on both sides, the Corleone family business is always settled in a gruesomely satisfying manner. Even though we're shocked by Michael's ruthlessness (especially when he has his own brother whacked), there is a rightness to it; we rationalize a justification for his deeds and decide, for all his monstrousness, we still like him. He has been too cool and too professional to be bested by a jerk-off like Hyman Roth.
This is what David Chase was up against heading into last night's series finale of The Sopranos. Despite his persistent denial of closure throughout the show's brilliant eight year run, viewers still figured Chase would satisfy a bloodlust that's been quenched since the Greeks started wheeling out the dead on the eccyclema. In the last few episodes, he'd been uncharacteristically compliant - e.g. Tony curbing a thug who disrespected Meadow, Bobby getting perforated in the hobby store, Silvio absorbing multiple rounds through the windshield of his car, etc. The final shot of the series' penultimate episode found Tony holed up in a safe house, lying in a narrow bed and brandishing the assault rifle given as a present from Bobby. All hell, it seemed, was about to break loose.
The smartest dramatic compromise made by Chase in the show's swan song was the murder of Phil Leotardo - not because it was unexpected (the minute we transitioned to him, we knew damn well he was finished), but because it was so loaded with furious symbolism (already dead from a bullet to the dome, Phil gets his skull crushed by the slow-rolling rear wheel of an SUV hauling his infant grandchildren). No matter where the show went from there, viewers had at least one spectacularly grotesque killing to celebrate (replete with a literally sickened reaction from bystanders congregating around the filling station), while Chase could sneakily register his contempt for American society.
As for the big "Fuck You" to the audience that had fallen in love with Tony just as they had Michael Corleone, Henry Hill or, worse, Tommy DeVito, Chase saved that for the very last shot. With Tony's world set aright (A.J. is finally the asshole son he always wanted, Meadow is marrying the son of a made man and Carmela is… appeased for now), Chase gathers the family in a diner for an old-fashioned American greasy meal. But, as familiar, sinister faces from previous seasons congregate on the periphery, this scene begins to acquire the pall of a last supper - for Tony if not the entire brood. With Journey's anthemic "Don't Stop Believin'" screaming in the background (Tony's choice from the jukebox), it looks like Chase is going to pay off in the classic Coppola tradition after all. And then, just as Meadow's entrance is registered with the clanging of a bell and a suspiciously worried glance from Tony… blackness. Then, a few seconds later, credits.
The popularity of The Sopranos did not force Chase to give 'em what they want, though, in a way, I think he did. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still considered one of the goriest films ever made even though it's a model of restraint compared to the other grindhouse bloodbaths of that era. This is because the viewer is left to fill in the blanks; when Leatherface slams shut that ominous metal door, our imagination kicks into overdrive, and the picture we paint is not pretty. That innocuous doorbell that signals Meadow's arrival achieves the same effect; unless the Sopranos are dining at Chez Coincidence, Tony's getting whacked, and this is probably the moment. What does it look like? What's the reaction? Who else gets plugged? Like we haven't seen this scenario played out dozens of times before?
Tony Soprano is dead. And Chase didn't give us the money shot because that was never the point of the show. Though Chase certainly grew more contemptuous of his audience when The Sopranos became America's Favorite Family during Season Two and did everything to drive the sensation seekers away with each passing year, he was always coming at the gangster genre sideways. It's just that, as the country went to shit in the Bush years, he decided to broadside it. Last night was the conclusion of one seriously pissed-off saga. It was also a litmus test. And if most people are willing to accept it, then maybe we've woken up a little. And maybe David Chase played a small but significant role in setting off the alarm clock.
The Horror Show
"Why aren't you writing about this?" Blame Devin, folks.
What happens when two teams noted for their hard-nosed defense make it to the 2007 NBA Finals? Nobody watches, that's what. It's one thing for David Chase to get all esoteric, but quite another for a professional sports league to court purists who go gooey at the sight of defenders quickly rotating to close out on three dangerous three-point shooters as the ball is passed around the perimeter. If you love to watch the game of basketball played as your junior high coach taught it, Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs are the hardcourt equivalent of early Spielberg. But if you prefer an up-and-down game with lots of scoring from both teams, what the Spurs are doing to the Cleveland Cavaliers is as pleasurable as attending a Jess Franco film festival in Gary, Indiana.
As a die-hard Cavs fan who died very, very (R-rated) hard during the reign of His Airness, Michael Jordan, I have considered shoeing myself like a horse just to see if that hurts more than the experience of watching these first two games. Actually, wipe out the first game; it was last night's tilt that nearly drove me to death by Tommy's (i.e. order the entire menu and don't stop eating until you see Heather O'Rourke). Let's begin with the Cavs' overmatched head coach Mike Brown: forget LeBron sitting nearly the entire first quarter after picking up two quick fouls (always good to bench your star player before he's had a chance to break a sweat; warming up's for suckers), why, when your team had erased a twenty-eight point deficit to get back within nine in the final minutes, did you not try to extend the game by fouling an occasionally shaky free-throw shooting team after every offensive possession? I watched Eddie Jordan do this in the first round against the Cavs (with his team down by eight or so), and the Wizards nearly pulled it out. This is the Finals. This is it. You don't surrender games this close when you've got two perimeter assassins like Boobie Gibson and Damon Jones on the court. Also, when you make defensive/offensive substitutions at the end of a quarter, try to remember this: when the Spurs are at the line, Jones goes in; when the Cavs are at the line, Eric Snow goes in. I mean, are your assistants equally clueless, or do you just not listen to them?
If only the blame could be exclusively stuffed in Brown's slack jaw; I seem to recall Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden being nightly double-double threats. Unfortunately, after some sporadically competent play in the earlier rounds, the Cavs' starting center and power forward can't knock down open shots and routinely find themselves out of position on defense, thus allowing easy baskets from Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Without ten a night from one of these guys, the Cavs will not win a game in this series.
They also won't win with LeBron or Larry Hughes guarding Tony Parker; actually, they won't win with Larry Hughes in the game period. Hughes has been telling the press that his plantar fasciitis is no longer bothering him - which is stupid because now he has no excuse for looking like the worst big money free agent signing in franchise history ahead of John "Hot Rod" Williams. Mercifully, Hughes only logged twenty minutes last night, but he's still jacking up out-of-rhythm twenty-foot jumpers like he's… someone with a jump shot (let's go with Sidney Moncrief). Given his outrageously rich contract (a classic panic signing by GM Danny Ferry after Ray Allen and Michael Redd took slightly more money to never get within catapulting distance of the NBA Finals), the Cavs are stuck with Hughes for another couple of years. Because Hughes is apparently a decent human being, I'll refrain from wishing him into a torrid love affair with Elle Fanning.
Here's the really fucked up thing: I honestly believe the Cavs as constituted can beat the San Antonio Spurs. If they spread the floor with two or three guys like Gibson, Jones and Marshall, LeBron will be able to operate in the paint. And when LeBron gets the ball deep in the paint without a cluster of defenders draped over him, you have two options: foul (and hope the officials don't give him the call, which they typically don't) or end up in a stylish black-and-white Nike ad scored to a neo-reggae version of "I Shall Be Released" (that's not a non-sequitur).
It's a Spooky Date!
Whilst driving down to Groundworks for my morning cup of steaming black inspiration, I noticed some activity atop one of the nearby buildings on Cahuenga and Sunset, and was pleased to see it was centered on a Captivity billboard. If only I had a picture phone, I could've captured the latest revision to the embattled film's outdoor advertising: henceforth, Captivity is opening on "Friday the 13th, July 13". Incidentally, this ad was spray-painted-cock free.
Am I a Racist When I Sleep?
Last night, I dreamt the NBA Finals had become so unpopular that they were moved to BET.
Is This a Replacement for "The Crop Report"?
Nope. I just haven't received any good scripts over the last couple of weeks. If you've got that John Logan/Michael Mann screenplay, time to hand it over.