Jeff Smith noon, March 8
Movies are still "the cathedral."
But who goes to church any more?
In the wake of the sad news that James Gandolfini had died of a heart attack at the age of 51, I wound up reading two articles, "An American Family" and "The Night Tony Soprano Disappeared". Both stories touch on Gandolfini, but they both center on Sopranos creator David Chase.
What struck me in both was the fact that Chase changed the culture in a way that most storytellers can only dream about - Tony Soprano gave rise to a new breed of anti-hero, and The Sopranos showed what long-form televised drama could be - but he did it in a medium for which he had little regard.
From "An American Family" -
"A severely truncated version of Chase's career goes like this: When the idea for The Sopranos finally floated to the surface, he had been laboring in the vineyards of network television for some 20 years. He had come of age in the late 1960s and 1970s, and had grown up with the great films of that era, particularly those of Federico Fellini. He desperately wanted to write features. Television was a byway he fell into when, after graduating from film school, at Stanford, in 1971, he was cast onto the mean streets of Hollywood."
Despite his successes - Northern Exposure! -
"Chase was still miserable. 'I could not cross that line, from TV to features, to save my ass,' he says. Meanwhile, his years on the ground in network production had given him plenty of time to brood about the deficiencies of television. 'Television is really an outgrowth of radio. And radio is just all yak-yak-yak-yak. And that's what television is: yak-yak-yak-yak. It's a prisoner of dialogue, film of people talking. Flashy words.'"
From "The Night Tony Soprano Disappeared" -
"For all The Sopranos' accomplishments, its executive producer was at best ambivalent about his career in television, at worst as tormented as Gandolfini. Chase had grown up worshipping Film with a capital F. His heroes were the auteurs of the European New Wave and the 1970s American filmmakers inspired by them: Fellini, Godard, Coppola, Scorsese. These men were mavericks, artists who sacrificed the easy path to realize their vision on-screen. Television was for sellouts and hacks, and his career, as Chase saw it, was a long succession of unfortunate successes...Each had dragged him deeper and deeper into the business. Chase had come, he tells me, to believe that he'd made a grave karmic error."
"Movies, Chase says, are still 'the cathedral,' never mind that the modern movie-going venue is far more like a cheap parking garage. Television, for all he'd done on and for it, remains second-class. The most he would concede is this: 'Look, I can't argue with destiny. This is what happened. And I'm very lucky that as I lie on my deathbed I won't have to say, "I accomplished nothing." I did something, you know?'"
Back to "An American Family" now for an elaboration on that "cheap parking garage" comparison, courtesy of the man who wrote Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:
"So, finally, after some 35 years of trying, Chase will get his shot at directing a feature—thanks to The Sopranos, the greatest calling-card film in the history of motion pictures. He has plenty of unproduced scripts in his drawer; if he knows whether his first film will be based on one of those or something new, he's not saying. But be careful what you wish for. The irony is that, in the course of those 35 years, features, both studio and 'independent,' have become more and more problematic. Even this past year's mainstream attempts at serious filmmaking (The Good Shepherd, Blood Diamond, Letters from Iwo Jima) are distended to the point of exhaustion, as if length itself has become the measure of quality, as if the filmmakers have lost confidence in their gifts and are falling back on relentless accretion of screen time to achieve what they have failed to do by other means. Critic Manny Farber once famously championed 'termite art' against 'white-elephant art.' In today's Hollywood, we have 'tapeworm art.' Television, on the other hand, has gotten progressively better—in large measure thanks to Chase himself. He will be entering an industry in crisis, aesthetic, if not commercial, which may be a good thing—fewer hard acts for him to follow—and if we're lucky, he will be able to do for features what he did for television. But that's a crushing burden to shoulder, too much by far to wish on anyone. Better to hope he makes a feature as good as any one of the 86 episodes of The Sopranos."
The feature he made? Not Fade Away. It garnered okay reviews, and made $610.792 on a $20 million budget. Like so many indies, it came and went without leaving a mark. As Biskind notes, things have changed.