by carl wilson

The Glitchpranos: When the Fat Lady Hiccups

Spoiler warning: If you haven't seen the final Sopranos yet, and care, don't read this entry. Here's a picture to shield your delicate eyes.

sopranosopera.jpg

Now: Amid all the miffledment about the conclusion of The Sopranos, the shock non-ending feels better and better to me the longer it sets in: Doomed Tony eating with his now-clearly-doomed children (AJ to low-level mob parasitism, Meadow to corporate mob lawyerdom at best, neo-Carmela mob-wife status at worst), and the rest of Tony's life, be it short or long, to be spent looking over his shoulder in fear that one or another form of justice will find him, and justice may come in the next split-second or it may never come, because that's how justice is. But the kids not escaping is the real ending - saving them was really the only honourable motivation Tony ever had.

But there's one point I haven't heard made: That last little gimmick, when the screen cut to black dead air before going to credits, reminded me of nothing so much as the "glitch" electronic music of the late '90s, most memorably made by Oval - an entire genre of music whose premise was to make you think that your CD player was malfunctioning, and out of that to consider, as a kind of sonic sculpture, the emotional and aesthetic effects of digital degradation, of the fact that data is always becoming corrupt, to undermine the trust we invest in technology, and so forth.

Chase's mischievous move was a similar kind of digital techno-prank: Knowing that the worst nightmare for most Sopranos viewers would be to have their cable cut out or their Tivo/DVR timing fail in the last 10 seconds of the eight-year journey of the series that revolutionized television, he simulated exactly that - a weird kind of participatory art in which he got millions of people to yell "fuck! no!" at their televisions in synchrony. But it was also a way of foregrounding the medium in the final second, to deliver a secondary message to the existential one of the actual narrative ending - a reminder to an over-invested public that there is no Tony, there is no Carmela, there is no diner, that this is all artifice, an imaginary community mediated by the corporate and technological mechanisms of television and cable-HBO in particular. If that were the whole point it would be cheap, but along with the more substantial - but also, in its way, classic and narratologically conventional - diminuendo of the actual scene, it's simply an extra kick, a twist, a fold, a glitch, a skip, a poltergeist in the datapipe. The coda of The Sopranos, scored for you by Journey and Stockhausen and Cage. Rest in flux, T.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, June 11 at 3:23 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (20)

 

COMMENTS

The Elvis duet was with Celine Dion, of course, John!

And no, it's not that Chase is talking in code or ironically or to an "insider" audience. It's that when he says that he doesn't want to give the audience what it's expecting, or that he did one or another thing "just to screw with you", it's received in this exaggerated way as some sort of grand manifesto, and fans end up saying "David Chase hates the audience" and all these unwarranted, paranoid things. But all he's really done is be a little less than obsequious, maybe shooting his mouth off a bit, in the press. I think TV/movie fans aren't as comfortable with the tone of voice because Hollywood people tend to be more earnest in interviews, unlike, say, rock bands. I suppose it's aggressive compared to maybe a Mandy Moore interview or something, but as provocative goes, it's pretty mild.

Nice point about the experience of consuming story being real - I'm sure Chase does appreciate that, though that doesn't make the choice of how to respond to it necessarily easier.

By the way, from bits of interviews etc that are floating around it may be that Chase didn't think his ending was as ambiguous as it was. Perhaps he thought it was clearer.

Posted by zoilus on June 15, 2007 11:22 AM

 

 

"fanfic" -- what a great word! I'd never heard it before. I'm glad to know that it's happening more and more. But it's still a tiny minority, even among Trekkies, who engage in it.

Another way of poking at it is -- Of course the diner isn't real, the characters aren't real -- everybody knows that. However, the experience of consuming the story is real. And how Chase dealt with his story will be experienced different ways, as surely he knew. It is complex, and I'm not sure that my experience wouldn't have been different than yours. All I'm saying is, I can understand why people took it as aggressive.

Fanfic is even going into the realm of non-fictional characters, with video mash-ups with dead performers. Was it Elvis who duetted with someone on "American Idol" this year?

Do you know the story "The Lady or the Tiger?" Someone mentioned it in connection with the Sopranos.

Your formulation, "over-literal readers of Chase interviews" troubles me. It suggests that part of what Chase intends to do is tweak people who don't cut through the irony, and speak at two levels at once, to an "inside" of people who "get it" and an "outside" of people who don't. That's aggressive. I'm not saying it's morally bad or anything -- it's provocative, that's all. And he knew he would provoke people. I'm easily provoked myself, so I'm sympathetic.

Posted by john on June 15, 2007 9:18 AM

 

 

It's not so exceptional anymore, as any search of the word "fanfic" will show, John. Star Trek is certainly a standout in the category, but these days you can find it for just about any cultural product, especially if it falls into the "cult" range. I've never read any Veronica Mars fanfic, e.g., but there's lots of it out there, and I'd be pretty shocked if the open-ended Sopranos finale didn't spawn a million fan-written conclusions. There's plenty of it for Harry Potter, too. It does suggest that people have a different relationship to storytelling in visual media than to the novel (and then applied that relationship to the post-TV novel, too) and in some ways Chase's glitch ending acknowledged, invited and extended that formal feature. Which is another reason I don't think it was quite so aggressive and obnoxious as the most outraged viewers (and over-literal readers of Chase interviews) feel.

Posted by zoilus on June 15, 2007 12:07 AM

 

 

Thanks for posting that link, DW.

The Harry Potter experience shows that stories *are* real for people who experience them. In deep and irrational ways, the consumer of a story gives power up to the teller. It will matter deeply to millions of readers how Rowling decides to end the Harry saga. Even though Harry isn't "real," people will not feel "authorized" to change the ending if they don't like what Rowling comes up with. Sure, people *can*, and maybe some people will, but only at significant psychic cost and effort.

The Sopranos, evidently, have not inspired fervent identification parallel to Harry-mania, but consumers of stories still give up imaginative power to tellers of stories, and how Chase ended exercises that power. Even choosing not to end the story exercises the power. Abdicating power is an act of power that will displease people too. The heck of it is, no matter what he chose, some bloc of fervent partisans would have been displeased.

The "unauthorized" continuation of the Star Trek stories by other authors in other media is exceptional.

Posted by john on June 14, 2007 10:42 PM

 

 

Harry Potter, Sopranos-style:

http://www.slate.com/id/2168397/

Posted by DW. on June 14, 2007 3:03 PM

 

 

"But was there ever any hint of that alleged metafictional impulse in the previous eight years of he series?"

This is hinted at fairly regularly and in the final episodes hinted at numerous times, with each episode making an awkward, even heavy handed, allusion to a specific Godfather scene. Remember a few episodes ago when Tony said, 'Lets go talk in the tomato patch', when the fuck did he get a tomato patch? Or in the final episode when he's eating the orange?
Or how about all the scenes from films and TV that Tony has watched during the whole series? I believe the final TV-in-TV scene was from a Twilight Zone episode:

"The television industry today is looking for talent, they're looking for quality. They are preoccupied with talent and quality. And the writer is a major commodity."

Anyway I've read a lot of responses to the finale and have to say Carl's bit about the message to an 'over-invested public' is fucking spot on. Chase has tried repeated throughout the show to hammer this point home and it makes sense that this would be how he ended it. Brilliant.

(Course it's no 'The Wire' and I highly recommend that show to anyone looking for a replacement to the Sopranos - or even Veronica Mars (RIP!). First couple episodes might seem a bit confusing but keep with it and likely you'll want to watch all four seasons in one go).

Posted by Justin on June 14, 2007 7:48 AM

 

 

I've long felt that ongoing series shouldn't end; that their non-endingness is truer to life than movies or novels. I mostly agree with David Cantwell that "the ending" reveals something of the artist, but I would argue that it reveals "Weltgefuhl" (the artist's *feeling* about the world) rather than "Weltanschauung" (worldview). We don't learn the facts of death from the end of a tragedy. We learn how the artist feels about death, or about this situation, or how the artist feels-in-regards-to-this-piece.

TV shows *should* end *in medias res*. But, unless they're canceled, writers rarely have the what-have-you to go for it (at least as I can remember).

Posted by john on June 13, 2007 10:59 PM

 

 

Didn't the kids grow up in the Sopranos?

Growth is a very interesting organic metaphor that's become a cliche -- I mean, once we're grown. It's a very literal process, and after it's done we . . . well, "evolve" is a loaded term too. Though not in the original Darwinian sense, in which evolution is random and not teleological. So, maybe, we Darwinianly (randomly) evolve.

Oh, sometimes, I suppose, some of us do change for the better. I guess that's the goal, right?

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I'm into some Old Growth. Or, as the 5th Dimension put it in a Bacharach/David song, "Living Together, Growing Together."

Good to have you back posting more regularly! Does that mean (dare I ask . . . ) your book is finished?

Posted by john on June 13, 2007 10:48 PM

 

 

Not to beat a dead horse (too late), but I just want to stress that I have no problem with the ambiguity and agree that we don't need to know whether Tony lives or dies. My only objection was to the nature of the cut, which seemed overly prankish and designed to draw attention to the artist rather than the art. Otherwise, I thought the scene was beautifully done.

Posted by DW on June 13, 2007 8:34 PM

 

 

But in that case the complaint would be justified because Harry Potter's really *not* that kind of story. Whereas in the Sopranos the idea of an ending, as David says, is redundant because these aren't characters who grow and change, these are characters who were always stuck, taking action that wasn't action at all, just maintenance (often brutal maintenance.)

Although if Harry Potter did end on a comma it'd be kind of hilarious! It'd be like, hey, kids, this has been fun and all, but don't you think you're old enough to go read some Thomas Pynchon now?

Posted by zoilus on June 13, 2007 8:25 PM

 

 

"How did Tony live?" Abominably. Does anybody anywhere disagree?

80+ hours of narrative, baddabing baddaboom, let's not give the narrative closure! That's the point. *Tres moderne*. Can't blame people for not liking it.

[I've never seen the show -- maybe I would've liked it; can't say.]

Can't wait for Harry Potter! It ends with . . . a missing page! On a comma,

Posted by john on June 13, 2007 6:27 PM

 

 

PS: A fine take from David Cantwell over on Living in Stereo, including this dead-on paragraph:

"Where any narrative artist chooses to begin and end the telling of a story is a key to revealing what an artist is most interested in getting at. It highlights what the world according to that work of art is, what in this case Chase wants to tell us. And by omitting whether or not Tony dies, The Sopranos’ ending underscores that whether or not Tony dies is not the point. What is the point is how Tony lives."

http://livinginstereo.com/?p=329

Posted by zoilus on June 13, 2007 3:41 PM

 

 

Great post. There's also a suggestion of this same theme earlier in the episode, when the Dylan song warps as AJ's SUV burns.

Posted by Eric Z. on June 13, 2007 1:49 PM

 

 

Don't want to drag this out, but just fyi, David Chase in an interview conducted a little while back but only run in the St Louis Post-Dispatch today:

"No one was trying to be audacious, honest to God," he adds. "We did what we thought we had to do. No one was trying to blow people's minds, or thinking, 'Wow, this'll piss them off.' People get the impression that you're trying to fuck with them and it's not true. You're trying to entertain them."

(The newspaper changed "piss" to "tick" and "fuck" to "mess"; I'm fairly confident I'm right to change them back!)

Posted by zoilus on June 12, 2007 4:20 PM

 

 

For me it's hard not to see it as an "anti-social gag" because so many Chase interviews over the past couple years have played up this idea that he's at odds with his own audience -- that they want story arcs and closure and he refuses to give it to them.

I actually tend to sympathize with his position, and I'd certainly be exasperated myself at getting my 905th "what happened to the Russian?" buttonholing from some fan. But it really did seem that in the latter years Chase slipped into this mindset of confounding expectations for its own sake, which comes off as a kind of arrogance, even if unintentionally.

> What I was trying to suggest that it balances the "and such is life" tone of that final scene by nudging us with "on the other hand, hell, it was only a TV show." In that way it's the opposite of a self-important or arrogant gesture.

I totally disagree with that. As you suggest in your next para, if anything it's MORE self-important. It's the equivalent of meeting some celebrity on the street and having them go out of their way to remind you that they're a normal person just like you. (And you think, Um, yeah, I know.) It's condescending, not humble.

On the other hand, that's an excellent point about the soundtrack songs serving as a kind of metanarrative commentary throughout the show.

Posted by DW. on June 12, 2007 1:46 PM

 

 

Oh, that's for sure, DW, but... I do think the metafictional thing has been there a little, not only in the unfashionably allegorical Sopranos=America thread through the series (re-emphasized by final title "Made In America,") but in the dream sequences and other non-naturalistic aspects that tended to poke at the reality/non-reality of Tony-world as the seasons went by. In particular the role of the soundtrack music as commenting voice throughout the series - music that these characters would never listen to - worked on a meta-level too.

Enough to make the glitch-device natural to the form of the series, though? Absolutely not.

But that form was already baggy: The Sopranos was more novel-like than TV has almost ever been, but if it really *were* a novel, it'd be a structural wreck. So a messy little punchline as kind of formal "special effect" at the end doesn't detract much for me.

The best line about the blackout that's been bandied about the innerwebs has been that "it's the viewers getting whacked," killed off in our role as audience and thrown back into its post-Sopranos afterlife. That's a good way of describing the jokeyness of the glitch-out. But I don't think it has to be taken as so hostile as Chase "punking" us. What I was trying to suggest that it balances the "and such is life" tone of that final scene by nudging us with "on the other hand, hell, it was only a TV show."

In that way it's the opposite of a self-important or arrogant gesture. But at the same time, right, "does anyone really need to be reminded that none of this is real?" No, so Chase's blow against his own self-important is itself too self-important. But given all the hype and hooplah around the show and the finale in particular - which must have seemed even more extreme to Chase - I can forgive him for not realizing we weren't actually in the tunnel with him when he flicked on the "light" at its end. (Or, inverted, to flick off the light at the front of the cathode-ray tube.)

I forgive him because I thought it was a snappy art gag, and snappy gags and self-undercutting *were* part of the form of the Sopranos. But if you thought it was a shitty anti-social gag, then you're not going to see it my way.

Posted by zoilus on June 12, 2007 1:27 PM

 

 

Pursuant to the whole glitch thing, though, I did always enjoy the sudden sound-drops at the beginning of Madonna's "Don't Tell Me." Kind of a digital-age equivalent to the indie-band tactic of recording everything within a sheen of static.

The first time my 14-year-old self heard the Velvets' "I Heard Her Call My Name," I thought my record ws warped. And there's the story of Decca returning the Who's "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" because on the grounds that the tape was defective.

Posted by DW. on June 12, 2007 1:06 PM

 

 

> But it was also a way of foregrounding the medium in the final second, to deliver a secondary message to the existential one of the actual narrative ending - a reminder to an over-invested public that there is no Tony, there is no Carmela, there is no diner, that this is all artifice, an imaginary community mediated by the corporate and technological mechanisms of television and cable-HBO in particular.

But was there ever any hint of that alleged metafictional impulse in the previous eight years of he series?

I would like to swallow that interpretation, as it's a very fine and noble one, but I just can't seem to. It still feels like the cut served no purpose other than for Chase to announce that he's smarter than we are and he's not going to pander to our little minds. To use the very last 10 seconds of a long-running show to essentially punk your viewers seems contemptuous.

Even if he WAS thinking along the lines you describe, does anyone really need to be reminded that none of this is real? Is it so wrong to actually be invested in the fictional world that Chase himself, after all, has created? Don't get me wrong, I like The French Lieutenant's Woman as much as the next guy, but I think theres's a big difference between actually exploring those ideas, as Fowles does, and pulling them out of a hat for a cheap last-minute effect.

I actually liked the scene otherwise, and would have no problem with an ambiguous ending. But the "glitch" approach just seemed like a self-aggrandizing stunt to me.

Posted by DW. on June 12, 2007 12:46 PM

 

 

Hey, thanks for your insightful comments. i noticed your link on GreenCine and came on over to your site. The two points you make: Tony eating dinner with his doomed children, and the intentional digital prank, which signifies the artifice of an imaginary community are, cumulatively, smarter than anything else I've read on this topic, even (or especially) A. Stanley in the NYT. Bravo!

Posted by Cathleen Rountree on June 12, 2007 10:53 AM

 

 

When the screen went black, I actually screamed at my television, "Godammit, NOT NOW!" By the time the credits started rolling I realized that Chase had most certainly had the last laugh. After my initial frustration wore off ("That's it?"), it began to dawn on me that, for all its talky obfuscation, the episode was remarkably complex, full of resonant clues and symbolic, dreamlike portents (like the cat). I really need to re-watch it to start to parse it all out.

Posted by Andrea on June 12, 2007 10:28 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson