December 31, 2015

Slouching Toward New Outlaws

Administrator's Note - Spoiler Alert: There are a few plot points and key scenes discussed below that could taint your enjoyment of either The Wire or The Sopranos. If this doesn't dissuade you, then read on. However, if you have about 130 hours to spare, or a couple of weeks give-or-take, and plan to watch both of these HBO shows in marathon viewing sessions before reading this essay, you have my blessings, admiration and respect.
And Happy 2016 to all!

The popularization of the American teenager as rebel since the 1950s was closely associated with a joyful irreverence and rejection of the status quo. Beginning with pop culture icons like Marlon Brando and James Dean, the motion picture industry visually crafted this “teen as rebel” image and skillfully associated the idea of teen rebellion with fashion and a sanitized version of the outlaw, as the older traditions of family and patriotism valued by the “straight” citizens of the U.S.A. were openly mocked in TheWild One and Rebel Without A Cause. By the early 1960s, teenagers would focus on rock-and-roll music as culture, their working-class wardrobe of jeans and t-shirts becoming de rigueur as the newly affluent United Teens of America became a new family and nation, generating incredible amounts of profit for both the film and music industries.

Yet even as America’s teens developed their unique subculture in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they also became increasingly alienated within their new social community. As Kierkegaard had theorized, social unification is deceptively alienating, and the unique qualities of individual teenagers became stifled as they conformed to their requisite peer-group fashions and rebellious attitude. Moreover, the idolization of the rebel outlaw image by teenagers was soon overrun by ennui, political corruption and the United States military actions in Southeast Asia. Teenagers of this era could hardly keep up with their government’s machinations. “At somepoint,” Joan Didion wrote, “between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game.”(1)

Meanwhile, as envisioned in film noir of 1941-1959, lead actors became more realistic protagonists, capable of greed and vulnerable to lust as femme fatales easily swayed them to lawless acts that often lead to their eventual downfall or death. This cinematic portrayal of an alienated hero reflected the harsh realities faced by soldiers returning to America post-WW II, dealing with repatriation and unemployment because women held down most of the jobs during the war. The resultant noir narratives are gritty and sordid, chiefly occurring in urban settings, involving crime, deception, violence and depravity, usually with bleak outcomes for this new anti-hero.(2)

I propose that the teen rebel and anti-hero are both related to America’s fascination with those individuals who live outside the rule of law. But Mid-Century teen rebels weren’t threatening, they were merely annoying. And the Mid-Century anti-hero was rendered very human and flawed so we had sympathy for them, even if we didn't admire them. However, within four decades these two archetypes were resorbed back into conventional culture and nearly evaporated. Soon street thugs and gang-bangers took their place in film and pop culture, and a brute reality emerged. Slowly we began to see the outlaw way of life, however fascinating and seductive, was still punishable. Surely if these new outlaws weren’t captured and punished by law enforcement, then the street itself would be their judge, jury and executioner.

Once we were able to enjoy the image and antics of teen rebels like Dean and Brando because even though their actions were permeated with alienation we could at least comprehend them. Mid-Century rebel angst seemed more hormonal, brought on by the arrival of puberty. We could comprehend Brando's "Johnny" in The Wild One as simply bored with the "straights." When questioned about what he’s rebelling against, Johnny asks,“Whaddaya got?”

20th Century outlaws, on the other hand, are marginalized in the social order, existing in a culture of moral ambiguity and anarchy, where freedoms aren’t granted but taken and conflicts are often resolved with sudden violence.

In the 21st Century, HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire both further extend this transformation of the outlaw, along with their counterpart post-noir damaged law enforcers. Both of these television productions reinforced the “outlaw rebel” and “anti-hero cop” archetypes, yet they represented a unique evolution. The outlaw rebel that was once a less threatening pop culture symbol is recast as a hardline criminal; the anti-hero cop is now revealed as either corrupt or a vigilante. That both Cable TV shows received widespread popular and critical acclaim is substantive evidence that these shows' producers definitely had their finger on the collective American pulse.

The outlaws in The Wire (2002-2008) are gang-banging street soldiers, many are just kids, and their drug dealing kingpins with their drug trafficking rituals morphed from rudimentary business models into real estate holdings; second-in-command, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), is discovered taking college courses on marketing and sets up complex money-laundering schemes. The “drug dealer as businessman” cliché not only helps with character motivation but it also initiates later plot developments merging criminals with Baltimore’s corrupt politicians.

As Fredric Jameson noted, even with its “seamless necessity” of realism, The Wire develops “cracks and rifts” when “Utopian elements are introduced, without fantasy or wish fulfillment, into the construction of the fictive, yet utterly realistic, events.”(3) One of these Utopianisms occurs when Major Colvin (Robert Wisdom) sanctions a “free zone” where drugs can be sold openly, and used with impunity, with no arrests. This “legalization of drugs” momentarily slows down the numbing violence perpetrated by the soldier-children and the dispiriting decay of Baltimore's ghettoes. But Colvin's zone is hastily disrupted and the scheme skillfully dismissed by police administration as a failed experiment.

Running nearly the same years as The Wire, The Sopranos (1999-2007) offered a pop cultural grounding in organized crime as told through the lives of Italian-Americans living in New Jersey. Significantly, much of the action takes place in Jersey, not in the usual urban ambiance of New York City, and this gives the stories a regional nonchalance that makes the violence that much more shocking and effective. 

In addition to theft, extortion and prostitution, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) also runs "legit" businesses, including a waste management company and a topless joint; the crude symbology of the former is only matched by the flaccid non-sexiness of the latter. From the first episode, the show's creator, David Chase, establishes an integral narrative device as Tony begins psychological counseling. Throughout its six seasons, Tony's therapy sessions give the sparse plots a bit of breathing room as Tony, with the help of his coolly academic therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), tries to discover why he's been having panic attacks that cause him to pass out. 

The therapy sessions with Dr. Melfi's analyses of Tony's crime boss mind are just one of the unique ways The Sopranos transformed the outlaw image in pop culture, from cold-heartedness to self-awareness.(4) It is during these sessions that Tony confesses some of his many sins and crimes, albeit without naming names; here the "doctor-patient privilege" is used to establish Tony's intimacy with Dr. Melfi. Here too is where Tony attacks America's popular but incorrect perceptions of Italian-Americans. Defending their criminal activities, Tony compares the successive generations of crime families with America's 19th Century industrialists (see Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, et al), in a rationalization of their crimes, claiming that was how early Italian immigrants "took care" of their families. This also sets up our identification with Tony as someone who does whatever is necessary to care for his family. This begins to humanize Tony as a "family man" in much the same way as the film noir anti-hero was often humanized by showing him in scenes of domesticity or with his family. (See Pitfall and The Killing.) Tony is a boss, but he's also a patriarch.

Yet the most powerful transformation of both outlaw and teen rebel acheived in The Sopranos is the on-going relationship of Tony and his son, Anthony Soprano, Jr. (Robert Iler) aka "A.J." In the early episodes, A.J. is merely a nuisance, much like the teen rebels of the 1950s; lazy, sullen and dismissive of traditional "family values" or interests. In a chain of events over successive seasons, A.J. learns to use his father's infamy as a crime boss to his own teenaged advantage. Soon, however, A.J. finds love and then loses it, becoming disenchanted with almost everything, as he assumes his pseudo-intellectual and nihilist posturing, at one point even quoting W.B. Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming."  

But the sarcasm and black humor of these scenes do not prepare you for A.J.'s failed attempt at suicide, and the heartbreak of father Tony holding his soaked and bawling son at poolside. Here together, the outlaw and teen rebel will meet at last, perhaps steeped in pathos but still an emotionally moving moment. It is a moment when the outlaw can transgress his sins to reclaim humanity as Father; and the teen rebel passes from puerility to anguish, wrapped in the patriarch's arms and emitting the birthing cries of a Son.

Perhaps The Sopranos could have ended with that episode. However, the infamous "Made in America" episode would be the Final Curtain for the show. Controversial, frustrating and the subject of on-line debate, that culminating scene inside the diner does highlight some of my conjectures on the evolution of the outlaw and teen rebel images. The outlaw, now a Father, waits with his wife, 
Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), for his kids to arrive for a dinner together. Son A.J. arrives, whining a bit about his new job as a "go-fer" working on a low-budget film, and Mom reminds him that at least he's "making connections." Tony's daughter Meadow (Jamie Lyn-Sigler) comes in after badly parallel parking her car, and as Journey's “Don't Stop Believin'” plays, we are presented with a nostalgic family scene that finally links A.J., teen rebel and Son, now willing participant, if not practically then literally, in Father Tony's criminal world.    

IMAGE: Courtesy of

1. Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays, New York, 1968. 

2. My teaching background in film theory and popular culture includes part-time faculty posts at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena; I taught my self-designed courses there in 1989-1993, including The Dark Side of Post-War Cinema, Film Noir Canon 1941‑1959 and Post-Noir Film, plus Outlaw Culture, Rebellion and Post-War Pop Mayhem and Post-Modern Teenage Nervous Breakdown.

3. Jameson, Fredric. "Realism and Utopia in The Wire," Criticism 52, 2010, 371.

4. The Sopranos criminals' self-awareness extends also to recognizing their role in pop culture, as evidenced by scenes in which they quote famous movie lines from The Godfather, etc.


No comments: