Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Tony Soprano

There exists a great tradition of rogue heroes: Moliere's heroes are almost all of this stripe, powerful main characters who behave in morally ambiguous or immoral ways.  The classical view was to indulge such characters only if they paid the price for their immorality by the end of the story.  Thus we have Don Juan carried off to Hell, Falstaff abandoned by Prince Hal (King Henry V), etc.  The 20th Century will be remembered as the formative years of an entirely new artform: The cinema.  Cinema did not have the equal rights with print media, and it was explicitly contrary to the Hayes office that evil or immoral characters be allowed to avoid punishment for their behavior.

These days, the rogue has become a favorite for writers wishing to explore morality in the modern world.  This has given birth to some remarkable characters: James Ellroy's Bud White (if not all Ellroy's policeman characters), The Shield's Vic Mackey, and The Sopranos' Tony Soprano to name a few of the more obvious examples.  These characters are complex mixtures of light and dark.  But the serial form of storytelling, which has become every bit the vigorous, trenchant equal of cinematic storytelling, does not provide easy answers due to its very structure.  A character such as Vic Mackey and Tony Soprano must perservere.  We see more intimately into their lives.  They are not simple symbols, but metaphors for society at large.

In the first season of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano begins seeing a psychiatrist due to debilitating anxiety attacks that leave him collapsed and on the verge of unconsciousness.  As he begins to explore his feelings, his agitation increases, rather than decreases, but he stops collapsing.  By the 12th episode he experiences anhedonia and hallucinatory fantasy (he interacts with someone who doesn't exist and has no awareness that he is experiencing a hallucination).  It isn't until an attempt is made on his life that he breaks free of this downward spiral and resurfaces as a strong, self-assured, mafioso.

Clearly, Tony Soprano was suffering from an existential vacuum; the loss of personal meaning.  Tony was unconscious of his own value as a man and a capo, until someone saw in him enough of a threat to attempt to whack him.  At that point Tony's inner demon is vanquished.   This is piquant irony.  It is also an extremely powerful character arc.  Who cannot identify with what Tony is going through?  We must all tame our feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, and anxiety.  Sometimes we have to have an external change before the internal change can occur.  For Tony, that was surviving an assassination attempt.  Few of us need to endure such a dramatic event, but the idea of cheating death often lead to a strong sense of existential certainty.  Maybe this is why we ride roller-coasters, after all. 

I have also found that making a big life change can also stir up the emotions and get one back on track.  Moving is a good example.  A new job, relationship, etc. can kick-start the psyche.  Something that leads us to the new awareness that life is an unfolding series of revelations.  As long as we're open and receptive to our own lives as they are, we will stay relatively sane and healthy.  It isn't until we try to "cope" that our troubles ensue.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


Two reports of infanticide this week.  One is the continuing saga of Andrea Yates, the incontrovertably insane mother who drowned her five children in a Texas bathtub.  Apparently the state of Texas is no longer thinking that her actions were criminal but rather criminally insane.  She will be moved from prison to a mental hospital.  There is no question she pushed her little one's heads under the water until they died.  That she did the deed is an undisputed fact.  However her convictions were overturned when forensic psychologist Park Deitz wrongly implied that she had hatched the idea based on an episode of Law & Order.  Such an episode did not exist.

On the other hand, a 33 year old Morman man in Twin Falls Idaho was arrested in connection with the deaths of three young children under 10 in his home.  Nothing about the relationships of the children to the man has been reported, but they had been seen playing in the house's yard prior to their deaths.  I assume that the children where his children and that he killed them.  Andrea Yates was originally convicted of capital murder.  Through a technicality she has been released.  I don't believe that this was necessarily an error on the part of the court system, because the expert (Park Deitz) testified incorrectly and erroneously. 

What does this teach us?  First, never send anyone to prison based on the opinion of an expert.  Second, women and men may not suffer unequal fates when convicted of killing their children.  Andrea Yates, if we are to believe the experts who defended her, suffered command hallucinations.  If that can be proved (and the insanity defense is a defense which must be proved) then she was de facto legally insane.  Family annihilators, such as the guy in Twin Falls, or Christian Longo or John List, are psychopaths, but fully aware of the illegality of their actions.  Their motives stem from a neurotic desire for control, rather than a mental defect.  They have choices.  People with mental defects such as those of Andrea Yates do not.

Monday, December 19, 2005


Interesting that I should have mentioned Dan White in Friday's post.  On Friday, John Spencer died of a heart attack.  In 1985 I saw John Spencer play Dan White in Execution of Justice at the Guthrie Theater.  I remember it vividly.  I went to the opening night performance, which was on a Friday in October of that year.  For those who don't know who Dan White was, he was a former San Francisco city supervisor (an elected official, like a councilman) who assassinated Mayor Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.  A few years later, Dan White was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, even though he brought a pistol into City Hall, and reloaded it after killing the mayor and before killing Milk.  He presented a novel defense: that the amount of chemicals he had ingested from the junk food he had consumed in the weeks leading up to the murders had given him some kind of diminished responsibility. 

The irony, which was lost on nobody except the jury, was that if White had murdered only the mayor, he probably would have been in prison for life.  But because he also killed Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States, he was convicted of a lesser crime.  The result was 6 years in prison.

At any rate, fast forward to October of 1985.  Execution of Justice opened on Friday.  On Sunday the news broke that in San Francisco, Dan White had asphyxiated himself in his garage.  Emily Mann, the author of Execution of Justice, flew back to Minneapolis to rewrite the ending of the play.  But the metatheatrical nature of the event has stuck with me ever since: all of the outrage engendered by the play abruptly resolved by a very real death.

So it is that John Spencer has always defined that moment for me--because although I never knew what Dan White looked like, John Spencer embodied him for me.  So that whenever I saw John Spencer on television or in films, I hearkened back to that extraordinary moment when theater and life intersected in a uniquely dramatic way.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Michael Jackson: Last Days?

M. Jackson is mere days away from going into default on nearly $300 million worth of loans.  The Enquirer reports that an overdosed, drunk Michael collapsed in Bahrain and was in critical condition.  Though it was darkly fascinating to speculate on Jacko's suicidal tendencies during his trial, wouldn't it be ironic if in freedom, sublimated guilt over whatever crimes he may have committed and been acquitted of, ended up destroying him?  It wouldn't be the first time--remember Dan White?

Friday, December 2, 2005

Epictetus' Hymn to God

Lead me, Zeus, and you too, Destiny,
Wherever I am assigned by you;
I'll follow and not hesitate,
But even if I do not wish to,
Because I'm bad, I'll follow anyway.

--Handbook 53, trans. White

Thursday, December 1, 2005

America's Best Christian

Whenever the devil gets me down, and rampant sinning seems to be the order of the day; when all about me swirls a miasma of godlessness, I turn to Miss Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian (tm) who can put me firmly back on track.  Betty's beatific bloviations can be read here.  You have nothing to lose: except your ticket straight to HELL--so enter the "No Sin Zone."  Her movie reviews are especially good, particularly The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Glory!