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this thing of ours

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In the wake of the Sopranos finale, I must have sifted through a hundred web launched interpretations of what the final scene… Hey, it’s not everyday that a scholar of modernism with a formalist bent is able to feel like the field of his expertise has made it onto the heavy rotation list of the scroll running across the bottom of the screen that is culture. Of course the interpretations were largely rubbish, an index of poor literary training and the persistence of the very attitudes that modernist Entfremdung effects were aimed at slapping. Occasionally you could find a surprisingly sharp reading from an unlikely corner – the Star-Ledger reader who can barely spell who nonetheless writes something sharp about that fade to black.

Many readings fell in between the two poles. One very memorable one was Wax Banks’s effort, which went for a big kill, only to stumble on its own evidence. He saw

Tony and Carmela as a dark ethnic undereducated mirrorworld Bill & Hillary – the physiques, the complicity-in-adultery, the complex negotiated (and negotiable) attitudes toward social welfare, the calculated united-front marriage, the mysterious deaths of friends and coworkers (I kid). The finale’s final scene made that nasty little parallel clearer than ever before.

You can go check out the evidence issue on the site if you like. But whatever it’s problems, and however frustrated I was with the interpretation as an over-reading at first, the idea has stuck with me over the last week. After all, it’s no wonder that a serious show like this one, bent on a quasi-Balzacian analysis of American culture and political economy (actually… I think the last few episodes made it abundantly clear that it was more Flaubertian than Balzac-inspired, and gloriously so…), that found its start in January 1999 would be preoccupied with Clinton and Clintonism. It starts with schizophrenic relationship of both Tony and Bill to their backward backgrounds – they can’t stop diving back into it, can’t stock speaking the patois, but fit in on the golf course better than the BBQ hut or the sausage shop. That McMansion that Tony drives up (distinctly up, right) to in the opening credit sequence may well be the long-term result of Reaganite policy changes in the 80s, but it was during the Clinton administration that they truly started to fill every acre of rural space left in northern NJ. And of course it goes deeper than that: the more-than-complicit relationship to violence and exploitation that comes of a deathstruggle to simply stay on, no matter what the price. The constant threat that Tony will lose his spot at the top (as well as, in his case, his life) formed the operative tension of the show, right down to the last scene. And like Tony, Clinton never knew whether the killing shot would come from the other family or from someone in his own outfit.

Above all else, the Sopranos from the very start was a show that presented itself as a workplace fiction that couldn’t stop going home to check on the wife and kids. Or it was a family-centered sitcom that couldn’t help but bring the issue of where the money for all the SUVs and Ivy-League educations home. Of course, it wasn’t either – it was both at once. And I don’t need to tell you, however you feel about Clinton, that the mould for this conceit was cast during the sinister and stupid era of the Clintons, whose marriage was the driving political issue of my late adolescence and early adulthood. And true to form, if GWB’s initial campaigning and presidency borrowed heavily from the born-again playbook (where alcoholism + refound salvation = a higher approval among key, dry constituencies than if he had never hit the bottle, never fallen, in the first place), it was the language of therapy, marriage counselling, recovery and relapse that Bill and Hillary both drew on so cynically and so effectively in order to slide by the nets set by their worst antagonists – themselves. (In one of the last episodes, Tony’s shrink’s own shrink and mentor warn her that sociopaths tend not to benefit from therapy, at least not in the intended way. Rather, they learn to use the lessons of therapy as rhetorical tools in order to become all the more effective at the game of socio-pathology… Could it get any clearer than that?)

So anyway, Wax Banks is right. It’s there. And how could it not be. Well and good – a more interesting politico-cultural story to allow yourself to spend sometime with than most of what floats to the surface when lit types try to jump the aesthetic / real politics divide nowadays. The stuff of B list conference papers – maybe I’ll write one myself. And not much more. Or so it seemed for a day or two.

And just when I thought it was safe to put the Sopranos to rest for a bit, I get, as it were, pulled back in.

Just too much, this. It’s not really a mystery that the Clintons would watch the show – they are, I imagine, exactly the target demographic: high-performing NYC area pros, middle to late middle age, high income bracket and educational attainment, etc etc. And at this point in the game, where fund-raising is still the predominant issue at hand, the Tony fan is their core demographic as well. No need to finesse the Iowa ethanol-head or the yankee-cranky New Hampshire schoolteacher yet. So it’s a smart ad on that level. (Apparently, the song that they choose as the campaign anthem is some Celine Dion number. I’ll bet if you asked my folks their favorite musical performer, Celine would come out #1. They’ve seen her in concert a bunch of times, and dad, like me, has never missed an episode of the Sopranos…)

But what is a bit baffling and amazing and disgusting all at once is that, despite all that I’ve said, following Wax Banks’s lead, above, the Clintons would nonetheless consent to embrace this conjunction, sit in the diner seats with the fucking Journey song playing in the background. The folks they are impersonating in this ad are, after all, gangsters. Gangsters, yes, with marital problems, who have achieved institutional and financial priority by nefarious means, and all the rest, but in the end gangsters – what are we to make of tbe easy adoption of something that one would think would be the last thing that the Clinton family would get in bed with, given all the stunning connections above between themselves and our friends from Jersey?

And further, if David Chase’s final turn in the show was meant (this is my sense of it anyway) to bring the viewers, so enchanted by the show’s violence, to some sort of sudden awareness of the strange paradox wherein they are horribly disappointed by the fact that their favorite show failed to kill off their favorite character in its final scene – that not only are they gluttons of televisual violence, they have further determined that this guy that they know and love really in some sense deserves to have the contents of his skull splattered all over his wife’s face in an ice cream parlor, Hillary’s ad, in the act of appropriation, sends this whole issue in a totally new direction… In sitting in the booth of the gangster, Hillary and Bill are not simply much informing us of the wide-spread desire to do them harm, but rather the impossibility of doing them harm, the fact that they are free, despite all of the associative sludge that is conjured up by this ad, to do whatever the hell they want to and still pull through. They use the funny but inappropriate ad about being knocked off precisely because they will not be knocked off. They can take the risk of appearing in plain sight only because it is not a risk – they, like the American public, are completely shameless. What is so great about being shameless, of course, is the ability to hide in plain sight. We catch them out precisely because they have chosen to be caught out, to make a game of it, because the stakes are the stakes of a game, and nothing more.

In short, the final fact of the matter, and the fact that we are being slammed with even harder with than we were with the final fade to black of the Sopranos, is the fact that if Hilary wins the 2008 election (as of now, that’s where I’d put my money, unfortunately) and if she serves two terms, the position of American executive will have been shared between two rival families, and two families alone, for a full 28 years. A father and a son, a husband and a wife. This thing of ours indeed And any one want to take odds on the last name of the top candidates in 2016?

Written by adswithoutproducts

June 21, 2007 at 2:22 am

Posted in america, teevee

2 Responses

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  1. All very interesting stuff, but would you explain more specifically why it is more Flaubertian than Balzacian–I’ve read a fair amount of the former, less of the latter, but Flaubert would not come to mind with a long-running television series, no matter how good. I think the show is the best television series I know, which does not mean I think it’s quite the ‘great work of art’ that many do.

    Also, the ‘sinister and stupid era of the Clintons’, why? I mean, yes, but which ones before and after it weren’t stupider. of course they were all sinister and stupid, but the arms race led to the downfall of the Soviet Union, even if too many people give Reagan too much of the credit (even those of us who, as you say ‘don’t like him’, that was still the kind of reckless thing that was needed there).

    I don’t know, your arguments all make sense, but don’t seem absolutely convincing, because given that all the power-people are somehow gangsters, a world of innocence in which people would NOT use their marital problems and marriage therapies is not especially practical–although that could still be what the Clintons are banking on them due to surveys, etc., the Edwardses might literally be using Mrs. Edwards’s bad health in some unmentioned way, the Bushies use anything–and maybe that’s where there is a slight difference: The Bushies use ALL the tricks at ALL times, not just some of the time. And they are not very smart, because they keep using the same tricks after they don’t work anymore (or at least they do stick with them longer than anybody else.)

    True about alcoholism parallel–much more impressive to Joe Six-Pack than someone who merely drinks moderately, because that, for one thing, is never even given any publicity at all. Alcoholics I’ve known that have actually gotten really involved with AA are different from other people with different illnesses–they evoke it one way or another very often, and many (though not nearly all) become huge bores. I’m sure the late Texas governor Ann Edwards did not serve rotgut to those who ‘can still drink’, but several people I’ve known have given me just that.

    And quite a number of American writers have pointed out the American joy at scapegoating its favourites. The recent Paris Hilton escapades (not over yet) are well-known, but I’d never looked at a Paris site: TMZ is full of people who kept saying that, if it was at all possible that Paris had a cellphone in her ‘non-jail hospital’ room (back in that long-ago period), then she should be EXECUTED. Now, I thought that just be checking Verizon News and the NYTimes everyday I sort of knew what people loved and hated with piranha-like passions, but I didn’t know it had become common by now to call for executions for naughty socialites guilty of misdemeanours–and this again is along the AA lines. My impression (not sure, but pretty sure) is that Hilton is not really an addict, just a loose Hollywood babe, as Raymond Chandler would say: That’s why she goes to jail and gets no sympathy, whereas all the other bimbos really are addicts and rehab makes them seem more ‘human’ and ‘weak’. Even if they total cars, etc., just weaving about a little woozy is ‘worse.’

    I don’t know if the Clintons’ smart cynicism is all that terrible. They were always tacky, and still like to be. Aren’t they just counting on people liking this ad, testing it out, seeing if it works. Then if it doesn’t, why, they have no allegiance to Tony and Carmella–they’ll fucking change it in a split-second. They know how to keep their eye on the baseball is what’s really important in terms of results, and they’ve always known that. Obama may imagine this, but he doesn’t know how to do it. The worst thing about Clinton is what he did to usher Gore out and Bush in: Sure, he’s a totally selfish man, full of shit, but we have to choose between pieces of shit (at least ‘at this writing’, as they say.)

    My guess is that choosing Celine Dion was a bow to the possibility that blandness needed to be bowed to as well as the charm of the sinister. Come on, the show doesn’t really make sense except as a TV series and people’s forgetting crimes which they wouldn’t in real life: The audience is expected to forget what an obvious thug Christopher is from time to time and see him as ‘sensitive’ for his playwrighting ‘skills’ and that his nice girl friend (who knows what he’s up to even more than Carmella knows about Tony) just ‘loves him more than anything’ and ‘wants them to always be together’, shit like that. Anyway, the Clintons have always had a tin ear, but the Bushies do too. At least the Reagans still liked the Beach Boys, which is not scaling the heights, but one can stand it. They at least like Barbra Streisand, who is a real musician, but that would be too reminiscent of Olden Days.

    Only one thing is sure of that ending: Chase knew everybody was expecting Tony to be killed. Whatever the ending means, one result of leaving it hanging wherever is that it actually just presents a kind of rudimentary lesson in how to watch any TV series–the endings of the serials (like this one) are the SAME as the ones which always had an ‘ending’ to the action in the old days: The show was merely over, but there remained a hypnosis that it wasn’t. Chase had reached a point where he could show this more literally by doing the opposite of what the old series did: He could make it seem ‘not over’. (which it probably is not, as many who are not hypnotized by the show have already pointed out.)

    patrick j. mullins

    June 21, 2007 at 12:33 pm

  2. Occurred to me,when I first read of the ad the other day (still haven’t seen it), that the Clintons were surely thinking of Harry and Louise too…The Clintons’ Revenge (of course, they are big on revenge in a more general sense, just like all the big power-couples). I don’t know, can they get some money from Grasso? I guess almost anybody.

    patrick j. mullins

    June 21, 2007 at 6:42 pm


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