I was in the car yesterday evening when I heard on NPR’s All Things Considered that James Gandolfini died, and I finally got it. While I still think that on-line eulogies in general are the absolute worst, and that a hundred monkeys typing on a hundred typewriters in the British museum will all lazily Tweet “R.I.P.” to let the world know they’ve heard of the missing celebrity, in this particular instance I heard the news and actually felt sad. He wasn’t someone that I knew personally, obviously. And thousands of people die tragically young every day with much less fanfare, I know that. (See: standard Videogum sardonic obituary post title construct.) When a celebrity dies you should still stay the hell off Twitter, it is the very worst place on Earth. But I am admitting that I at least understand the impulse now, and I am guardedly apologizing to anyone who has had genuinely emotional reactions to the passing of a famous person in the past if I somehow diminished or disregarded how you were feeling as some form of self-reflective narcissism (as if there’s any other kind). And there is no statute of limitations on this either. I didn’t care when Kurt Cobain died and I made fun of my high school girlfriend for wearing her Nirvana shirt to school with the eyes blacked out. People grow up, OK? Besides, she is married and has a baby now so she is doing FINE, don’t mourn for HER.
Anyway, I will, as I have always encouraged everyone to do, leave the actual eulogizing to people who either knew him or who at least know how to actually write. But, just for my own sake, because ME ME ME (which is the whole problem with this medium) (although I do think there are weird similarities between the death of Nora Ephron and the death of James Gandolfini and I will get to those in a second) I was trying to figure out what made this one different. Why, this time, did I “get it”? Is it the fact that I have been slowly rewatching The Sopranos over the past few months, so I am particularly aware of James Gandolfini’s greatness as an actor? I’m sure that’s part of it. But I think it’s something deeper. I think that my reaction would have been mostly the same either way, and I think it has to do with modern manhood and masculinity. Uh oh, get ready. This post is for BOYS ONLY, so GET OUT OF HERE LADIES. Just kidding. But seriously:
Tony Soprano was the last male role model. Which is obviously a crazy thing to say. He was a fucking sociopath. But that is the genius of James Gandolfini’s performance: that he was able to humanize and even make sympathetic an absolute monster. (If you want an example of how hard this is to do: look at Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. Cranston is undoubtedly a masterful actor, and Breaking Bad is a good show, but the entire endeavor has slowly chipped, beaten, and boiled away any sympathy the audience may have had for its characters, with the possible exception of Jesse Pinkman.) Tony Soprano’s very story was about the old school archetype confronting modern day pressures. He was neurotic and took Prozac and by season six he even had minor difficulty cheating on his wife without feeling guilty! Like the ducks he discovered in his pool at the beginning of season one, his natural habitat was being destroyed, and he was desperately flapping his wings, trying to find safety. (Groan. Whatever, shut up!)
Please bear with me, because in the same way that it is kind of weird and kind of fucked up when a woman says that she’s attracted to Don Draper, I recognize that it is kind of gross to say you want to be a man like Tony Soprano. Really, what most women probably mean is that they like Jon Hamm’s face. So what I am trying to say is not that most men that I know who identify with Tony Soprano hope to one day get into the “garbage business,” but that we simply wish we had some of that brutish, bull in a china shop quality. I am disgusted by most of Tony’s behavior, but I am enamored by the style with which he carried that behavior out. He took care of business, and while that business was selfish, violent, illegal, morally bankrupt, and psychologically damaging to those around him, that business did get taken care of, which is more than you can say for a lot of business these days.
I’m not going to start citing all of the studies that have been done lately about the decline in male self-actualization or whatever the fuck because a) I am too lazy (see: studies) and b) let’s all be honest about what we are talking about here: men are doing FINE. No one is crying for men. Ugh, men.
But if we restrict ourselves to a superficial conversation about male role models as they are related to us in film and television, who do we have? Even Tony Soprano himself, in the show, mourns for the loss of Gary Cooper, the strong silent type. This erosion has been on-going and it is nearly complete. If movies and TV reflect our desires and who we dream of being, who the hell are men dreaming of being these days? Brad Pitt? With his long hair and his sprawling brood and his unattainable spider wife? Nah. George Clooney? With his Italian castle and his string of unserious waitresses and his wry smile when he talks about his back pain? Close, but still not quite right. We certainly don’t want to be Ryan Gosling, who is too pretty and talks with that fake accent. He broke up a fight in the middle of the street? Sure. Now imagine James Gandolfini breaking up that fight.
(I do recognize that I keep conflating the actual actors versus Tony Soprano. It is a rhetorical and logical error that you will allow me in the midst of my grief.)
James Gandolfini represented, through his most well-drawn character, an actual man, with all of his piggishness, yes, but also all of his potential strength and his weakness and his desire to be more. He punched people in the face and he ate big sandwiches and he tried to raise his kids right. He was a horrible father, a worse husband, a sketchy friend, and a selfish lover, but he was doing the best he could. And the fact that James Gandolfini, the actor, died at the age of 51 only adds to the complication. For men and women, we yearn to understand what we are doing here, and to take our best crack at it, hopefully leaving something however small of value behind, always worried that we won’t have enough time because guess what: we almost definitely won’t. So I think that’s why I got sad for a second.
Anyways, I know that this BLOG POST was way too long, but I felt like writing it, and it’s my website, so va fungool, you fat fuck.