Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Final (and so far, only) comments on The Sopranos

The lady and I just finished The Sopranos the other day. Whew... what an investment. Of time, to be sure, but also emotion -- on which there is very little return. Not that I'm saying by any means that I didn't immensely enjoy the show; on the contrary, it's one of the best TV series I've ever watched. Possibly the best, with the only real competition being Deadwood.

By the way: don't read this if you don't want the finale spoiled for you.

What I mean by the low return on emotional investment is: almost none of the characters show any real development in recompense for our attention and affection over the show's six-year run -- and by "development," I mean change for the better. Again, I'm not disappointed by this; it's one of the things that makes the show so fantastic. As consumers of a fictional story, we have been trained to expect the characters to grow, to improve, or to experience some sort of grand enlightenment as they traverse their precarious tight-ropes. In other words, they should have the proverbial "character arc," as Christopher Moltisanti pointed out to Paulie once upon a time (Chris was right, by the way -- he doesn't have one). With the exception of being slightly less of an asshole for a while after he's shot in the beginning of the sixth season, Tony is the same exact character in the final shot as he is in the series pilot. It's our own fault if we expect anything else -- we are dealing with (arguably sociopathic) criminals, after all.

With that in mind, I find it really ironic that everyone seems so concerned with "what happens" after the show's finale ends. On the one hand, I completely understand the feeling; we don't like not knowing. And, to be perfectly honest, we all develop an affection for Tony despite the fact that he's a murderer (even of friends and family), and so part of us hopes he can pull it together -- both out of genuine goodwill, and the expectation that he should, because this is fiction and that's what happens to the main character.

But there is no character arc, for anybody -- except perhaps pointing slightly downward. Our emotional attachment to Tony is always rewarded with more of the same (making it really easy, by the way, to empathize with many of the other characters on the show). He doesn't keep his end of the implicit bargain that is always present between the audience and the characters. Perhaps on some level, we feel guilty for liking a guy like Tony (and Chris and Sylvio and Paulie etc. etc.), and we want him to change for the better so we could genuinely like him if we knew him in real life.

But he doesn't, so what more can you really ask for in an ending? While briefly rising out of his coma after being shot, he asks Carmela, "Who am I? Where am I going?" The answer is either "nowhere" or "the same place you've always been going." If you think about people in your own life of whom the same is true, people who have had every opportunity to change and who have been repeatedly prodded by friends and family to improve themselves but refuse to do so every single time, eventually the only option is to just disconnect, for your own good.

And yet, a whole lot of viewers complained vehemently about the abruptness of the ending -- it wasn't enough, there were too many loose ends, we needed more of Tony and his mid-life crises and his seedy criminal predicaments. In a brilliantly ironic twist, The Sopranos puts viewers in the shoes of characters like Carmela and Tony Blundetto, who wanted to get away from Anthony Soprano but couldn't, and at the same time manages to get people craving what is so often leveled at TV shows as a criticism -- more of the same.

What I'm saying, basically, is that, right along with the baggage of obligatory affection for fictional "protagonists," I also don't feel like I have any real reason to care what happens to Tony after the screen goes black, whether in a long-term or immediate sense. Ambiguity is perfectly satisfying sometimes.

Other comments:

The tension between safety (family) and danger (the walking Michael Corleone reference) in the final scene is amazing, particularly because the only reason we get anxious while watching it is because we know it's the last episode, and, judging from the clock and the show's subtle cues, we know it's the last scene. If that same sequence had been in the middle of the episode, or a few shows back, it would've been just another dinner out for the Sopranos.

I love it when a movie or a TV show connects a song so strongly with a particular moment that I'll never think of one without thinking of the other again (i.e., "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey). Other examples that come quickly to mind include "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News (Back to the Future), "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel (Reservoir Dogs), and "The Times They Are A-Changin'" by Bob Dylan (Watchmen).

Also, "The Man in Me" by Dylan, in The Big Lebowski (twice!).

Friday, June 11, 2010

Jaws of Unquenchable Thirst -- A Tidbit of Tolkien Ecocriticism

On a recent road trip back to the Twin Cities from somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin, the lady and I listened to an episode of This American Life about why General Motors has continually lost revenue to foreign competitors (namely Toyota) for the last 30 years. The show centered around the joint-venture plant called "NUMMI," that is, New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., a cooperative endeavor between GM and Toyota that could have shown the United States' biggest auto manufacturer how to increase both efficiency and sustainability while still maintaining profits.

In any case, you know the end of the story, at least generally speaking -- GM didn't learn nothin', and went bankrupt because of it. This episode details the repeated opportunities the NUMMI plant afforded GM, and the repeated, persistent, idiotic refusal of GM's top executives to change their company in ways that could have saved them from, well, its near-death experience last year. In every instance, they were more concerned with the immediate profits of CEOs and shareholders than long-term interests such as sustainable-energy vehicles, better working conditions for laborers, avoidance of Chapter 11 proceedings, etc. The episode is exceedingly interesting, featuring interviews with several high-level managers and executives who were involved with the NUMMI project.

On another car ride recently, this one likely from work to home or vice versa, I was listening to a story on MPR about the coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 people. Specifically, the radio host interviewed a Mine Safety Expert regarding investigations into Massey Energy Company's safety policies. Once again, the corporation was more interested in its own profit margin than the lives of its workers, even to the point of implying in several memos (but of course not exactly stating outright) that worker safety concerns are always secondary. After all, the money comes from the coal, not from the miners making it out of the tunnels in one piece at the end of the day.

And, of course, there's the catastrophic event of BP unleashing a Balrog* -- er, millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Shockingly, they cut corners and greased up government officials (under the Bush administration, wouldn't you know) in order to swell their coffers. And 11 people died, not to mention the as-yet untold damages to multiple ecosystems upon which thousands depend for their livelihoods. And, you know, the Earth is way prettier when not slicked with the decomposed remains of prehistoric lifeforms, but hell, if they don't care about their sentient employees, who can expect them to give a fuck about a few pelicans?

I guess the solution is: Jesus H. Christ, you oblivious persons and wildlife, stop putting yourself in the path of these few dozen ass-wipes trying to make a buck. Or you know, a few billion that they don't even know what the fuck to do with (Exxon-Mobil continues to be the United States' most profitable company).

In the wide realm of Tolkien criticism (you saw this coming, didn't you?), exploitation of resources in order to consolidate power (i.e., money) is frequently likened to the recklessly destructive actions of Saruman and his minions at Isengard. Indeed, Peter Jackson's film version of The Two Towers goes so far as to have ol' Sharkey saying "the forests will burn in the fires of industry," which to me is about as clear a finger you can point at ecologically irresponsible organizations.

But as we drove home from WI that day (I was in the passenger seat, and thus probably waxing more philosophical than otherwise), looking at some pretty sun rays coming down through dark rain clouds, the concept of these corporations as individual entities (which, according to the Supreme Court, they are) struck me as something else entirely. They don't even seem to be as rational or as deliberate as Saruman was in his machinations to conquer Middle-earth and destroy the natural world in doing so; they seem to me more akin to Carcharoth (also called Anfauglir, the Jaws of Thirst), the watch-wolf at the gate of Angband who, after biting off the hand of Beren that holds a Silmaril, is driven utterly mad by the jewel's power. He rampages all across Middle-earth attempting to slake his now unquenchable thirst, inconsolable and unreachable to logic or reason of any kind, rending apart all who come in his path. The only choice left to Elves and Men is to either slay him or continue to suffer the swath of death and destruction he cuts through the green, living lands of the world.

To quote Théoden, "What can men do against such reckless hate?" The whole thing would be a lot simpler if "ride out and meet them" was the appropriate response, swords a-swinging and a-cleaving. But really, the day at Helm's Deep is saved by the arrival of Gandalf and Théoden's allies -- the key word being "allies," in that unity is required to defeat the hosts of the enemy. Holding true to the comparison, though, the Rohirrim didn't really fight back until all was nearly lost. Such seems the likely outcome in our lives, as well.

Really the answer, I think, is to just wake up the Ents. Or, in the event we can't find any, build some robotic ones, maybe. I think laser beams in their eyes would also expedite the whole process.

*Excuse the slip-up. Crude oil and Balrogs are just so similar. I mean, both are readily flammable, hide in deep underground caverns, and are, according to all evidence, impossible to stop once unleashed. Incidentally, crude oil and Balrogs tend not to cause problems if you just leave them the fuck alone. Just sayin'.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Brilliant Tolkien Passages, Vol. I

Blunt as Morgoth's mace, that title. If you're not into Tolkien, you will be both bewildered and bored to tears by the extent of this post.

Thus begins what will likely be a very long series of entries in which I'll highlight and comment on a selection from the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien that I find especially insightful, moving, funny, etc.
As some of you may know from the succinct, conveniently-placed "Currently Enjoying" list to the right side of this text, I'm reading through The History of Middle-earth. What you wouldn't know from that conveniently-placed list is that it's the first time I've done so with the express intent of getting through them cover to cover. Retain your gasps, please; it's extremely dense reading at times, particularly if you look at all the endnotes Christopher Tolkien sticks in there. But it's also very rewarding for a Tolkien enthusiast to understand the truly lifelong creative process that went into Middle-earth.

Case in point: this entry's selection, which comes from The Lay of Leithian, the poetic version of the tale of Beren and Lúthien, written in octosyllabic couplets and found in The Lays of Beleriand. In this excerpt from the poem (which, only about three quarters finished, extends over 4000 lines), we are treated to what is perhaps the very first textual appearance and description of Sauron, here called Thû. Beren and (Finrod) Felagund, disguised as Orcs, attempt to sneak past Tol Sirion, an Elvish watchtower now inhabited by Morgoth's servants and called Tol-in-Gaurhoth (Isle of Werewolves). Enjoy!

An isléd hill there stood alone
amid the valley, like a stone
rolled from the distant mountains vast
when giants in tumult hurtled past.
Around its feet the river looped
a stream divided, that had scooped
the hanging edges into caves.
There briefly shuddered Sirion's waves
and ran to other shores more clean.
An elven watchtower had it been,
and strong it was, and still was fair;
but now did grim with menace stare
one way to pale Beleriand,
the other to that mournful land
beyond the valley's northern mouth.
Thence could be glimpsed the fields of drouth,
the dusty dunes, the desert wide;
and further far could be descried
the brooding cloud that hangs and lowers
on Thangorodrim's thunderous towers.

Now in that hill was the abode
of one most evil; and the road
that from Beleriand thither came
he watched with sleepless eyes of flame.


Men called him Thû, and as a god
in after days beneath his rod
bewildered bowed to him, and made
his ghastly temples in the shade.
Not yet by Men enthralled adored,
now was he Morgoth's mightiest lord,
Master of Wolves, whose shivering howl
for ever echoed in the hills, and foul
enchantments and dark sigaldry
did weave and wield. In glamoury
that necromancer held his hosts
of phantoms and of wandering ghosts,
of misbegotten or spell-wronged
monsters that about him thronged,
working his bidding dark and vile:
the werewolves of the Wizard's Isle.

From Thû their coming was not hid;
and though beneath the eaves they slid
of the forest's gloomy hanging boughs,
he saw them afar, and wolves did rouse:
'Go! Fetch me those sneaking Orcs,' he said,
'that fare thus strangely, as if in dread,
and do not come, as all Orcs use
and are commanded, to bring me news
of all their deeds, to me, to Thû.'

From his tower he gazed, and in him grew
suspicion and a brooding thought,
waiting, leering, till they were brought.

[Beren, Felagund and Co. appear before Thû, he questions them, and grows still more suspicious.]

Thû laughed: 'Patience! Not very long
shall ye abide. But first a song
I will sing to you, to ears intent.'
Then his flaming eyes he on them bent,
and darkness black fell round them all.
Only they saw as through a pall
of eddying smoke those eyes profound
in which their senses choked and drowned.
He chanted a song of wizardry,
of piercing, opening, of treachery,
revealing, uncovering, betraying.

As noted in a previous post, Sauron (or at least, the figure who occupied Sauron's place in the narrative) was originally a great predatory feline called Tevildo, Prince of Cats. Tevildo was, to be quite honest, comically vain and not terribly bright, and therefore difficult to take seriously -- more like to a crabby house cat than the eventual Dark Lord of Mordor. And though in Leithian his persona has almost completely morphed into the cunning, cruel, and hateful form we recognize, in common with the feline portrayal we still find a curious emphasis on eyes and watching, making it quite apparent that Sauron's primary character element is one that survived almost thirty years of further revision and development, from the writing of The Lay of Leithian in the late 1920s to the publication of The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955. The last three lines, with the repeated use of active participles, especially evoke a relentless gaze from which one cannot hide.

The feline origin of the Tevildo/Sauron character was, of course, not destined to completely die out, as we see in this passage from The Lord of the Rings:

"The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing."

I always find those last four words particularly chilling. And, again, the sorcerous power to uncover all that is hidden:

"The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable."

I read once that Tolkien's editors/publishers were wary of a novel in which, after hundreds of pages leading up to a decisive moment with monumental implications (i.e., All Lands Covered in Darkness or... Not), there is no direct confrontation with the Enemy. But it is precisely this aspect of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings that allows him to function as such a terrible force: he cannot be faced directly, and thus he remains a mystery beyond all our power and our knowledge -- literally a shadow.

And lastly, an image of Sauron painted by Tolkien himself: