Why James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano Is “the Greatest Acting Achievement Ever Committed to the Screen”: A Video Essay

The ongoing "golden age" of prestige television drama began more than twenty years ago, but how many shows have truly surpassed The Sopranos, the one that started it all? However many series come and go, raising large and often obsessive fan bases with their varying mixtures of crime, history, politics, science fiction, fantasy, and intrigue, none have shown the cultural staying power of this six-season tale of a mob boss in turn-of-the-21st-century New Jersey. That The Sopranos remains relevant owes in part to the vision of creator David Chase as well as to the tour de force performance of star James Gandolfini.

Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, has stronger words of approbation: Gandolfini's is "probably the greatest acting achievement ever committed to the screen, small or big." In the video essay "How James Gandolfini Navigates Emotion" he marshals in support of this claim just one scene, but a scene that features Gandolfini at the height of his dramatic powers.

Taken from the fifth-season episode "Unidentified Black Males," originally aired in 2004 (and co-written by Matthew Weiner, later to create the prestige-TV franchise Mad Men), this selection takes place in the office of Tony's psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco. (When The Sopranos debuted, two months before the premiere of Harold Ramis' Analyze This, a mobster in therapy was very much a novel idea.)

"Tony Soprano is going to have a panic attack in this therapy session," says Puschak, and "the way James Gandolfini builds to that attack" demonstrates "how he carries us with him through a complex sequence of emotions." Here Gandolfini rises to the formidable challenge of lying convincingly: not convincingly in the sense that Dr. Melfi believes him, but convincingly in the sense that we believe the grapple with conflicting truths and untruths that characterizes Tony's life. Tony must pin his recent spate of panic attacks on something other than his cousin Tony B, who committed a hit he shouldn't have. That Tony doesn't quite believe his own words Gandolfini transmits with "his tone, his eyes, and the tilt of his head." He uses the musicality of Tony's speech, "some combination of leftover Italian rhythms and a New York-inflected North Jersey accent," to build to "larger and larger crescendoes."

As it foreshadows the approaching emotional turmoil, his "rhythmic anger, like waves crashing on the shore, is hypnotic, drawing you deeper into his mental and emotional space with each new cycle." Tony then doubles down on his lie, trying to cover for his cousin by inventing on the spot a story about having been beaten up by a gang of shoe thieves in 1986. Only later in the scene does the truth come out, or at least partially leak out, even as Gandolfini portrays Tony struggling to fight back the panic attack that has emerged as a result of telling these stories. For all the technique it showcases, the scene ends in a classically dramatic fashion, with a kind of catharsis — which, if you know The Sopranos, you know is hardly the word Tony has for it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Why The Wire is One of the Most Brilliant TV Shows Ever

There were a lot of moments during my first view of The Wire when I realized I wasn’t watching the usual cop procedural. But the one that sticks in my head was when an obviously blitzed and blasted McNulty, the Irish-American detective that you *might* think is the hero of the show, leaves a bar, gets into his car and promptly totals it. In any other show this would have been the turning point for the character, either as a wake-up call, a reason for his boss to throw him off the case, or to gin up some suspense. But no. McNulty walks away from the accident and...it’s never really spoken about. The cops took care of their own.

Life does not follow the contours of a television drama, and neither did David Simon’s groundbreaking HBO series. Beloved characters get killed, or not, or they just transfer out of the show as in life. Nobody really gets what they want. Neither good nor evil wins.

As Simon told an audience at Loyola University, Baltimore in 2007: ““What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”

The Wire still feels recent despite premiering in 2002 and in 4:3 ratio, no widescreen HD here. It feels recent because the problems depicted in the show still exist: corruption at all levels of city government and governance, institutionalized racism, failed schools, a collapsing fourth estate, a gutted economy, weakened unions, and a general nihilism and despondency. Simon may not have seen the Black Lives Matter movement coming, but the recipe for it, the warning of it, is there in the show.

So there’s definitely a reason to give it a re-watch to see how we’ve changed. The above essay from 2019 makes the case for The Wire as a subversion of the usual cop show, with Thomas Flight noting it “doesn’t try to grab and keep your attention. It requires it. And if you give it your attention it will reward you.”

It also reminds us of the literary giants in the writers’ room: crime novelists Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price were on the team, as was journalist Rafael Alvarez, and William F. Zorzi. That combined with David Simon’s years in journalism covering Baltimore and Ed Burns' experience on the police force meant the show feels right, and the writers did research and actual Baltimore extras were encouraged to speak up if something didn’t.

If that video essay intrigues you, there’s more in the series, though with many more spoilers, such as this one on Character and Theme.

Not long after The Wire finished its fifth and final season, there were plenty of books published on the show. And now we’re nearly two decades in from its premiere, The Atlantic’s Jemele Hill and The Ringer’s Van Lathan decided to spend quarantine kicking off a podcast where the two black cultural critics give the show a spirited re-watch. Does the show feature too much “copaganda” as my leftist critics now contend? Does it hold up like white liberals (its biggest fans, let’s be honest, despite President Obama’s shout out) think it does? The hosts just wrapped up Season Three, but if you’re ready to start the show again with commentary, here’s their first episode:

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“The Wire” @ Harvard

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

The Pentagon Created a Plan to Defend the US Against a Zombie Apocalypse: Read It Online

For keen observers of pop culture, the floodtide of zombie films and television series over the past several years has seemed like an especially ominous development. As social unrest spreads and increasing numbers of people are uprooted from their homes by war, climate catastrophe, and, now, COVID-related eviction, one wonders how advisable it might have been to prime the public with so many scenarios in which heroes must fight off hordes of infectious disease carriers? Zombie movies seem intent, after all, on turning not only the dead but also other living humans into objects of terror.

Zombies themselves have a complicated history; like many New World monsters, their origins are tied to slavery and colonialism. The first zombies were not flesh-eating cannibals; they were people robbed of freedom and agency by Voodoo priests, at least in legends that emerged during the brutal twenty-year American occupation of Haiti in the early 20th century. The first feature-length Hollywood zombie film, 1932’s White Zombie, was based on occultist and explorer William Seabrook’s 1929 book The Magic Island and starred Bela Lugosi as a Haitian Voodoo master named “Murder,” who enslaves the heroine and turns her into an instrument of his will.

Subtle the film is not, but no zombie film ever warranted that adjective. Zombie entertainment induces maximum fear of a relentless Other, detached, after White Zombie, from its Haitian context, so that the undead horde can stand in for any kind of invasion. The genre’s history may go some way toward explaining why the U.S. government has an official zombie preparedness plan, called CONOP 8888. The document was written in April 2011 by junior military officers at the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), as a training exercise to formulate a nonspecific invasion contingency plan.

Despite the use of a “fictitious scenario,” CONOP 8888 explicitly states that it "was not actually designed as a joke.” And “indeed, it’s not,” All that’s Interesting assures us, quoting the following from the plan's introduction:

Zombies are horribly dangerous to all human life and zombie infections have the potential to seriously undermine national security and economic activities that sustain our way of life. Therefore having a population that is not composed of zombies or at risk from their malign influence is vital to U.S. and Allied National Interests.

Substitute “zombies” with any outgroup and the verbiage sounds alarmingly like the rhetoric of state terror. The plan, as you might expect, details a martial law scenario, noting that “U.S. and international law regulate military operations only insofar as human and animal life are concerned. There are almost no restrictions on hostile actions… against pathogenic life forms, organic-robotic entities, or ‘traditional’ zombies,’” whatever that means.

This all seems deadly serious, until we get to the reports’ subsections, which detail scenarios such as “Evil Magic Zombies (EMZ),” “Space Zombies (SZ),” “Vegetarian Zombies (VZ),” and “Chicken Zombies (CZ)” (in fact, “the only proven class of zombie that actually exists”). It’s fascinating to see a military document absorb the many comic permutations of the genre, from George Romero’s subversive satires to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. No matter how funny zombies are, however, the genre seems to require horrific violence, gore, and siege-like survivalism as key thematic elements.

Tufts University professor Daniel W. Drezner, author of Theories of International Politics and Zombies, has read the Pentagon’s zombie plan closely and discovered some serious problems (and not only with its zombie classification system). While the plan assumes the necessity of “barricaded counter-zombie operations,” it also admits that “USSTRATCOM forces do not currently hold enough contingency stores (food, water) to support” such operations for even 30 days. “So… maybe 28 days later,” Drezner quips, supplies run out? (We’ve all seen what happens next….) Also, alarmingly, the plan is “trigger-happy about nuclear weapons,” adding the possibility of radiation poisoning to the likelihood of starving (or being eaten by the starving).

It turns out, then, that just as in so many modern zombie stories, the zombies may not actually be the worst thing about a zombie apocalypse. Not to be outdone, the CDC decided to capitalize on the zombie craze—rather late, we must say—releasing their own materials for a zombie pandemic online in 2018. These include entertaining blogs, a poster (above), and a graphic novel full of useful disaster preparedness tips for ordinary citizens. The campaign might be judged in poor taste in the COVID era, but the agency assures us, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, “Never Fear—CDC is Ready.” I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide how comforting this promise sounds in 2020.

via MessyNessy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Monty Python’s Michael Palin Is Also an Art Critic: Watch Him Explore His Favorite Paintings by Andrew Wyeth & Other Artists

Many a parent who caught their kid watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the 1970s felt, as one 70s American dad proclaimed, that “it was the singularly dumbest thing ever broadcast on the tube.” Fans of the show know otherwise. The Pythons created some of sharpest satire of conservative authority figures and middle-class mores. But they did it in the broadly silliest of ways. The troupe, who met at Oxford and Cambridge, where they’d been studying for professional careers, decided they preferred to follow in the footsteps of their heroes on The Goon Show. What must their parents have thought?

But the Pythons made good. They grew up to be avuncular authorities themselves, of the kind they might have skewered in their younger days. After several decades of making highly regarded travel documentaries, Michael Palin became president of the Royal Geographical Society, an office one can imagine him occupying in the short-pants uniform of a Bruce. Instead, photographed in academic casual holding a globe, he was dubbed by The Independent as “a man with the world in his hands.”

Unlike fellow accomplished Python John Cleese, who can never resist getting in a joke, Palin has mostly played the straight man in his TV presenter career. He brings to this role an earnestness that endeared viewers for decades. It’s a quality that shines through in his documentaries on art for BBC Scotland, in which he explores the worlds of his favorite painters without a hint of the pretentiousness we would find in a Python caricature. Just above, Palin travels to Maine to learn about the life of Andrew Wyeth and the setting of his most famous work, Christina’s World.

Palin’s passion for art and for travel are of a piece—driven not by ideas about what art or travel should be, but rather by what they were like for him. Palin brings this personal approach to the conversation above with Caroline Campbell, Head of Curatorial at the British National Gallery. Here, he discusses “ten paintings which I cannot avoid when I’m going in the gallery. They always catch my eye, and each one means something to me.” Artists included in his “rather esoteric” collection include the late-Medieval/early-Renaissance pioneer Duccio, Hans Holbein the Younger, William Hogarth, and Joseph Mallord William Turner.

While these may be familiar names to any art lover, the works Palin chooses from each artist may not be. His thoughtful, perceptive responses to these works are not those of the professional critic or of the professional comedian. They are the responses of a frequent traveler who notices something new on every trip.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Lynch’s Popular Surrealism Considered on Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #59

Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt--along with guest Mike Wilson--discuss the director's films from Eraserhead to Inland Empire plus Twin Peaks and his recent short films. We get into the appeal and the stylistic and storytelling hallmarks of his mainstays--Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive--and also consider outliers like Dune, The Elephant Man, and The Straight Story.

What's with the campy acting and the weird attitudes toward women? Why make us stare at something moving very slowly for a long time? Are these films appealing to young people interested in something different but not on the whole actually enjoyable? Is there actually a "solution" to make sense of the senseless, or are these wacky plots supposed to remain unassimilable and so not dismissible?

Some articles we drew on included:

Also, read Roger Ebert's reviews of Dune and Blue Velvet, and his subsequent thoughts on the latter. What did critics say about "What Did Jack Do?" Watch "Twin Peaks Actually Explained."  Check out his short films if you can sit through them.

Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. If you're not subscribed to the podcast, then you missed last week's aftertalk highlights episode. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts

Watch the Opening Credits of an Imaginary 70s Cop Show That Stars Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett: avant-garde dramatist, brooding Nobel Prize winner, poet, and…gritty television detective?

Sadly, no, but he had the makings of a great one, at least as cut together by playwright Danny Thompson, cofounder of Chicago’s Theater Oobleck.

Some twenty five years after Beckett’s death, Thompson---whose credits include the Complete Lost Works of Samuel Beckett as Found in a Dustbin in Paris in an Envelope (Partially Burned) Labeled: Never to Be Performed. Never. Ever. Ever! Or I'll Sue! I'll Sue From the Grave!!!---repurposed Rosa Veim and Daniel Schmid’s footage of the moody genius wandering around 1969 Berlin into the opening credits of a nonexistent, 70s era Quinn Martin police procedural.

The title sequence hits all the right period notes, from the jazzy graphics to the presentation of its supporting cast: Andre the Giant, Jean Paul Sartre, and Jean “Huggy Bear” Cocteau. (Did you know that Beckett drove a young Andre the Giant to school in real life?)

Thompson ups the verisimilitude by copping Pat Williams’ theme for The Streets of San Francisco and naming the imaginary pilot episode after a collection of Beckett’s short stories.

He also notes that a DVD  release of the first, only and, again, entirely non-existent season has been held up by the notoriously litigious Beckett estate. Alas.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock & Other Jazz Musicians Sell Whisky & Spirits in Classic Japanese TV Commercials

I like to think that, when the occasion arises, I can speak passable Japanese. But pride goeth before the fall, and I fell flat on my first attempt to order a whisky in Tokyo. To my request for a Suntory neat the bartender responded only with embarrassed incomprehension. I repeated myself, pushing my Japanified pronunciation to parodic limits: saaan-to-riii nee-to. At some point the man deciphered my linguistic flailing. "Ah," he said, brightening, "suuu-to-raaay-to?" To think that I could have handled this situation with dignity had I but seen the Suntory commercial above, in which Herbie Hancock suggests having a drink "straight."

Would even the maddest men of the American advertising industry countenance the idea of putting a jazz musician in a commercial? Japan thinks differently, however, and in its economic-bubble era of the 1970s and 80s thought more differently still.

At that time, Japanese television spots — at least those commissioned by sufficiently deep-pocketed companies — began featuring American celebrities like James Brown, Woody AllenNicolas Cage, Paul Newman, and Dennis Hopper. A 1979 Suntory ad that put Francis Ford Coppola alongside Akira Kurosawa would, a quarter-century on, inspire Coppola's daughter Sofia to dramatize a similar East-meets-West commercial situation in her film Lost in Translation.

Of all the things American embraced (and repurposed) by Japan after its defeat in the Second World War, jazz music has maintained the most intensely enthusiastic fan base. Japanese-made jazz has long been a formidable genre of its own, just as Japanese-made whisky has long held its own with the Western varieties. But when the makers of Japanese whisky made an effort to sell their own product on television to the newly wealthy Japanese people, they looked to American jazzmen to give it a shot of authenticity. Having recruited Hancock to promote drinking their single-malt whisky at room temperature, Suntory got bassist Ron Carter as well as both Branford and Ellis Marsalis to promote drinking it hot.

Could the cultural association between jazz and whisky extend to other liquors? That was the gambit of a 1987 commercial featuring Miles Davis, recently investigated by InsideHook's Aaron Goldfarb. Its product: shōchū, "a colorless, odorless, yet often challenging spirit typically distilled from rice (known as kome-jochu), barley (mugi-jochu) or sweet potatoes (imo-jochu)." Newly launched with an apparent intent to pitch that staid beverage to moneyed younger people, the brand VAN hired Davis to play a few notes on his trumpet, then take a sip of its shōchū and pronounce it a "miracle." He also describes himself as "always on the vanguard," hence, presumably, the name VAN (though its being reminiscent of VAN JACKET, the company that had earlier brought Ivy League style to the same target demographic, couldn't have been unwelcome).

Though Davis' brand of cool did its part for the success of Honda scooters and TDK cassette tapes, it proved not to be enough for VAN shōchū. The brand "was a big flop and had a very short life," Goldfarb quotes an industry expert as saying, "probably because shōchū is so quintessentially Japanese, and a foreign-style shōchū just didn’t make sense to most." Perhaps the commercial itself also lacked the pleasurable simplicity of Suntory's many jazz-oriented spots, none of which turned out simpler or more pleasurable than the one with Sammy Davis Jr. performing a cappella just above. In the process of pouring himself a drink Davis plays the part of an entire jazz combo, using only his mouth and the objects at hand, including the ice in his glass. The concept wouldn't have worked quite so well had he taken his Suntory neat — or rather, straight.

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A 30-Minute Introduction to Japanese Jazz from the 1970s: Like Japanese Whisky, It’s Underrated, But Very High Quality

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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