Last night's unorthodox and cofusing ending to The Sopranos is a perfect time to talk about pretention in art.
Basically, what needs to be said is this: there is a lot of pretentious bullshit involved in art. People often pretend to appreciate art in order to make themselves out as smarter than other people. That's why there's so much pretending to "get" stuff in the art world.
Quick story: I actually began college as an art major. In one class, we had to produce one piece of art each week based on a selected reading. On Friday, the class would get together and critique each others' art. The was an extraordinary amount of bullshit involved in these sessions. People would describe the deep symbolism embedded in their shitty paintings, talk about how their work reflected societal trends, and gratuitously throw around words like "composition," "visceral," and "juxtapose." One girl (her name was Willow - that's the type of crowd we're dealing with) actually executed a feat that rates a perfect 10.0 on the Bullshit Scale of Difficulty by speaking for five minutes about an almost entirely blank canvas that should have been entitled "I Woke Up This Morning and Suddenly Realized This Was Due, So I Crapped This Out."
At the time, I was working part time at a day care. The kids spent a lot of time finger painting, and they would often give me the paintings they made. One week, I decided to take one of the paintings that a three-year-old had given me into class (in addition to the actual, real painting that I had made for that week). I presented the finger-painting just as I would any other painting, describing how the red represented rage, and the yellow represented hope, and blah, blah, blah, wank, wank, wank. And absoultely nobody called me on my bullshit. I got a full participation grade for that day of class. Presumably, everyone was too afraid to admit that they didn't get it.
And now, people are too afraid to admit that they don't get the ending of The Sopranos. And no matter what you think, you don't get it. Does the blackout mean that Tony was killed? That's what I thought. But Tom Shales of the Washington Post seems to think that it means that the family continued living, same as always. Some people think it means that the whole family was gunned down. But, basically, we'll never know, because we weren't given any information. So one person's guess is as good as any others, and anyone claiming to "get" it is completely full of shit.
Of course, that's not stopping people from pretending to get it. Here are some comments from a New York Times message board:
What's great about this ending is the calm narcissism with which this nuclear family goes off to eat onion rings after some of their closest friends have been murdered. Sort of the Discreet Charm of the Anti-bourgeoise. Anybody have a thought on the fifties getups on Tony and Carmella in the final scene?
I had to watch it twice on TIVO to get it. Good for David Chase...he had his cake and ate it, too. Bravo.
**Note - I like how this asshole proclaims that he gets it, but then decides not to share what "it" is. Thanks, dickhead; I guess we'll all just try extra-hard to understand that which is obvious to you.**
A great ending. The mood of foreboding shows us the peril Tony lives with every day, and the unresolved conclusion could as easily mean that his life ends abruptly as that his life goes on. But as A.J. reminds Tony, Tony once told him that you just have to focus on the good things in life. That's what Tony was doing at dinner with his family. That's all that any of us, no matter how perilous our situation, can do.
I personally think that the ending was far from a joke on the viewers. The ambiguity allows each of us to make what we want of the ending. Some folks have delved into going back through the diner to look for clues to what happened after Tony looked up - that one of the FBI guys was in the diner or some such. If that's what they want to make of the ending, good for them. Another possibility: the mob in the US, one of the most storied periods in our history, ultimately just faded away, just like Junior and just like the show. Or: the show was really about how a mobster dealt with the problems of everyday life, so the show ended with just a scene as everyday as possible. It's up to you, people, to make it an awesome ending. If you're disappointed, you have only yourself to blame. The canvas is there.
These comments have the distinctive markings of artsy bullshit: proclamations of genius, liberal use of "art words," intense focus on themes, parallels, messages, and other elements of storytelling that often enhance a story but do not, in themselves, make for a good story. My favorite comments was by the guy who encourages us to imagine our own ending. Great suggestion, Dipshit! Actually, I'm going to take it one step further and imagine an additional four seasons of the show! I'm also going to imagine an additional five Nirvana albums - it'll be like Kurt Cobain never died! Wow, it's so nice not having to wait around for people to actually produce art or entertainment that communicates something to the audience! Maybe I'll try that at my next show: "A guy walks into a bar, and...well, I don't want to lock your imagination in a thought-prison, so you just imagine the rest."
Actually, I may be one of the few people who actually does get the ending of The Sopranos. For years, I've become frustrated with all of the loose ends and unexplained symbolism in the show (what did the ducks have to do with anything?...and the bear, which supposedly didn't actually exist?...and was Tony actually in pergatory after he was shot?...and what about all the dreams?...and what ever happened to that Russian dude from the episode in the forest?) and have wondered if these were meaningful elements whose meaning would be ultimately - and dramatically - revealed, or is David Chase just a pretentious asshole who likes jerking his audience around? Well, this last episode provided a definitive answer: the purpose of the blackout was to symbolize, beyond any reasonable doubt, that David Chase is a pretentious asshole who likes jerking his audience around.
For those who would argue with me, I ask this: what, then, did it mean? Are you sure that you get it? Did you notice that all of the commenters I quoted above who claim to get it actually "got" different things? Isn't that evidence that, if David Chase did have something he wanted to communicate, he completely failed? And if you argue that the show doesn't need an ending, I'm calling bullshit on that, too. David Chase has talked in interviews about how he enjoys plot lines that go nowhere, and events that ultimately don't mean anything, because that's the way things happen in real life. Well, guess what, asshole: storytelling isn't supposed to be a perfect reflection of real life. It's supposed to be a story. Nobody wants to watch a perfect reflection of real life, which is why we watch compelling shows about mobsters who kill people. You know why Casablanca didn't have fifty sideplots about Rick's early life, and the time in high school when his football team went 6-4, and the time he thought he lost that pair of shoes that he really liked but then found them underneath his coat, and that time when he had a dream where his hands were made of pudding? It's because nobody gives a shit about any of that. It's not entertaining. By writing a story or making a TV show, you're saying: "This is a series of events that are worthy of your attention." And that's doubly true when you pepper your story with teasers and hints and confusing elements with purported deep meanings.
I'm not arguing for complete gratification (which, for me, would have been Tony getting killed or busted). The "Tony never pays for his sins" angle would have been a justifiable and interesting ending. But you do need an ending. And, if the symbols and surrealism had any meaning whatsoever, you should give us a fighting chance at understanding them before you end the show.
But, I think we can draw a clear conclusion: none of it meant anything. It was all bullshit. It was weird, and intriguing, but ultimately meaningless. The Sopranos was a good show with great characters, several outstanding stand-alone episodes, memorable venues, and - perhaps most importantly - the best chance for 14-year-old boys without internet access to see boobs. But the symbolism and mystery and other elements that allowed it to stake a claim to genius were - as so often happens with art - just bullshit.