Sunday, June 17, 2007

Me Too, Dept: On Wings of Silver Hair and Foaming Surf


“We all dream of being a child again. Even the worst of us . . . perhaps the worst most of all”—The Wild Bunch.

The whole world has pitched its two bits on David Chase’s DIY ending for The Sopranos saga and . . . yeah, it guess it’s “brilliant.” It’s not the first time a blackout’s been done. John Sayles snipped the scissors the same way in his 1999 movie, Limbo. I walked out on that one. “That’s like real life!” sang one critic. Me, I thought it was a movie. The only time I conk out like that is by hammer blow or anesthesiologist’s needle. Let’s call the ending a courageous act of gutsy indecision.

I was puzzled by some of the more anguished reactions, like Gary Kamiya’s overwrought piece in Salon¬ (So seething with anguish, I thought his kids were being shipped off to Iraq). More refreshing was National Lampoon alumnus Tony Hendra’s anti-Sopranos rant at the Huffpo. Though I’m on the pro-side of the argument, I found that Hendra’s growly (and knowledgeable) skepticism put things in perspective.

One thing I enjoyed most about The Sopranos, even when the show was flat, boring and, yes, predictable, was one of its most durable supporting characters: Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri. Most all the male characters in The Sopranos were no more than deadly delinquents, but Paulie Walnuts, (wonderfully acted by Tony Sirico, once a real-life hoodlum himself) with his fussy vanity and big sad brown eyes, was the most childlike and childish of them all.

I didn’t catch on to Paulie until Episode #2.9 (“From Where to Eternity”). In one scene, Paulie’s girlfriend’s kids (none of whom ever appear again) awaken Paulie in the early morning suffering from a nightmare. Instead of whacking them (like he does with everyone else) Paulie gently leads them back to bed, sweet morning light shining on his face: Here, the vilest of a gang of thugs and killers, is given an angel’s moment. Grace might be in the offing. This moment is echoed again, in the same episode, when Paulie attends a séance where he’s confronted by the spirits of his victims and becomes a man who fears Hell.

A few other favorite “Paulie” moments: Paulie and Christopher bumbling around the woods like Laurel and Hardy in the “Pine Barrens” episode; Paulie’s devotion to his mother (a devotion later both betrayed and restored) and how it inspires some of his most appalling acts; Paulie’s “1984” moment, when he realizes that hanging a Napoleonic portrait of his boss in his living room maybe isn’t such a swell idea. Paulie’s neediness leads him to his near-betrayal of Tony at one point and almost fire up a gang war. This same neediness endangers him and Tony in the last season and almost drives Tony to whack him during a boat trip similar to the one that ended Big Pussy’s life.

Paulie Walnuts was the Sopranos character Elizabeth and I probably yelled at the most: “Paulie! Put that gun down!” “Paulie! Stop smothering that old woman with that pillow!” “Paulie! Go apologize to your aunt! Now!”

Watching Paulie was like a having an adorable—but lethal—two-year old tearing around the house. The kind of kid you have to pat down for weapons before giving him a hug.

I didn’t think he’d make it to the end. His impulsiveness was sure to lead to his doom. But it was not to be. Paulie lived after all and even came out on top. David Chase handled this plot strand beautifully, I thought. Unlike some commentators I could name (that’s one great thing about the Blogosphere—I can publicly thumb my nose at Brian Williams!) I thought that cat was the perfect comic foil for Paulie’s insecure superstitious nature. We last see Paulie contentedly sunning himself in front of Satriale’s, once again securely in Tony Soprano’s grace. The cat—a handsome, well-trained orange tabby--wanders into the frame from the right, cautiously approaching Paulie. But he stops just short and hunkers down, content to share some of that same sun. Like some of us, he’s drawn to Paulie . . . but close enough is close enough.


So, I’m over the ending of The Sopranos but here’s something I’m not over: the mysterious frustrating fate of Deadwood. If there’s ever a TV show I’m happy to get pretentious about, it’s David Milch’s glorious American creation myth: I pompously believe Deadwood to have been a much more truly “American” show than The Sopranos ever was. With a production sculpted down to the last muddy detail and maybe the greatest ensemble acting in the history of film and tape, Deadwood was an artistic treasure box of pleasures sensual, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. It was violent and profane, but not afraid to cast its eye on the spirits, both heavenly and demonic, that helped build this nation.

But, puff my chest up all I want, it’s gone, for reasons unclear, it seems, even to Milch and HBO. What we get in its place is a comparatively low-key (and low-budget), surf/noir, magic realist, maybe-a-Christian-allegory, comedy/drama about a surfing family titled John from Cincinnati. The reviews have been mixed. I was prepared to hate it like I’ve hated nothing since Battlefield Earth, but I’ll surf another episode, if only to see *Deadwood alumni* like Jim Beaver, Dayton Callie, and the amazing Garret Dillahunt. (Who will this remarkable chameleon become now?)

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