David Chase doesn’t have all the answers. Stop asking him.

31 Aug

The Sopranos is a legendary tv series. David Chase created it. And therefore he alone knows the deep meaning of the unusual, cut-to-black ending.

At least this seems to be the message we should draw from Vox‘s excited coverage of an off-the-cuff comment he made to one of their journalists. [1]  Or their abjectly precise republication of a slapdown reply from David Chase’s publicist. Instead of quoting the man in question about the Sopranos, we should apparently be busily thinking about whatever spiritual issues he – or his publicist – would like us to think about:

To simply quote David as saying, “Tony Soprano is not dead,” is inaccurate. There is a much larger context for that statement and as such, it is not true. As David Chase has said numerous times on the record, “Whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead is not the point.” To continue to search for this answer is fruitless. The final scene of the Sopranos raises a spiritual question that has no right or wrong answer. [2]

The ‘publicist’ has clearly not absorbed the long-fashionable critical idea of the ‘death of the author’. Stripped of pretension, bullshit, and exaggeration, this is pretty simple.  A writer, once they’ve written something, has no more authority over its meaning than anybody else.  What they ‘intended’ is irrelevant.

You might argue with this in many circumstances.  The author of a primary maths book, or of a tv channel guide, should perhaps be taken as a prime authority.  Then again, if we are able to misunderstand them, that demonstrates a severe lack of skill on their part.  In the case of awkward philosophical explorations, we can be more forgiving, but we still end up seeking for what the author meant and whether it makes sense.

In the case of serious fiction, however, the very ambiguity of the form means that a great deal of the pleasure or meaning we find in it derives directly from the death of the author. That person who put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) has enabled us to create a world for ourselves. The writer’s craft is to engineer profound reactions in the reader. But those reactions do not have to obey – or even relate to – the author’s intent. In great fiction, whether they like it or not, the author is already dead.

The case of The Sopranos is unfortunate for David. He appears unable to accept having a key role in a work of great fiction – one that ended in a very deliberate puzzle.  Perhaps for him it’s “not the point” whether Tony Soprano is alive or dead. For me – and clearly for many thousands of others – it is precisely the point.  And it is the point whatever the writer thinks about it.  Because The Sopranos is fiction, an invented world that now exists, within a piece of art, entirely independently of David Chase, he has no privileged role in dictating how we interpret it.  That is down to those who watch and think about it, and who seek the fussy clarity of the living analyst rather than the statuesque beauty of the dead author.

‘Master of Sopranos’ [3] has sought that clarity.  He deserves congratulations for his time and effort, and his attempt to relate his opinions to evidence from the series.  Matt Zoller Seitz [4] misrepresents him and avoids any accurate evidence associated with the piece of fiction he’s talking about – whilst still maintaining his right to any provocatively silly opinion he likes.  He’s also, quite oddly, employed the idea of the ‘death of the author’ in condescending tones alongside positive quotes about what Chase really ‘meant’.  Tut-tut.

But I don’t need to know what Chase meant.

I don’t need a scriptwriter to tell me what spiritual questions I should look at in my own life, or what to think whilst watching television.  These are issues for dedicated moral philosophers, mystics, critics and bloggers.  Chase has no status in these areas. He wrote (with many collaborators) a work of tv fiction that has attained – for now – the aura of great literature.  He is, if he’s lucky, a dead author.  If two-dimensional moving picture stories continue to exert their spell over human beings for more centuries to come, The Sopranos may be part of the canon.  Tony Soprano will join Don Quixote and Sherlock Holmes and God amongst the immortals humans have created to ask questions about.  And nobody will care what David Chase said once filming finished.


7 Responses to “David Chase doesn’t have all the answers. Stop asking him.”

  1. Sopranos Autopsy September 2, 2014 at 3:10 am #

    Hello. I largely agree with you that an author’s interpretation is no more significant than anyone else’s once they’ve written something. However, it seems strange to me that you would cite “MasterofSopranos” to support this claim. The tone and timbre of Master’s site suggests that he believes David Chase’s intentions/interpretation are in fact privileged, and that he has uncovered precisely what Chase’s intentions and interpretations really are. I think Matt Zoller Seitz (who was writing intelligently about The Sopranos for years even before the final episode aired) is taking issue with those who, like Master, reject–to use your words–“the very ambiguity of the form.” (I have nothing against Master. I hope he keeps his site up forever, and told him so a few days ago, as it articulates a viewpoint that is shared by millions of viewers.)

    I think Martha Nochimson, who wrote the infamous Vox article, doesn’t believe that Chase’s opinion is privileged over everyone else – she essentially argues this throughout the piece. (And the article is almost identical in its central thesis to the essay she wrote for “The Essential Sopranos Reader” years ago.) Vox played up its “scoop” with questionable drama and fanfare, and this may have drowned out Dr. Nochimson’s argument that there is no such thing as a “definitive” interpretation–even by the work’s author. I suspect David Chase also understands that his interpretation is not definitive, and this is why he refrained from making any truly definitive comments for years and years – but we should expect an occasional breakdown in his stoic silence when he is asked The Question over and over ad nauseum. Of all the players in last week’s drama that you reference in your post, MasterofSopranos (“Definitive Explanation of ‘The End'”) is probably the least likely to agree that what the author “intended” is irrelevant.

    • nosuchthingasthemarket September 2, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

      Hello. Thanks for your comment. Amusingly, I agree overwhelmingly with the criticisms you’ve made. It would have made my piece several times longer, and much less readable, if I’d foregrounded my caveats rather than the central thrust of the idea. But, as the problems have been highlighted, here’s some attempts at filling in the gaps and the problems:

      Master of Sopranos. His case lies in close reading of evidence from the series itself, and he has done enough of this to deserve applause. I chose not to highlight his repeated references to Chase’s ‘intentions’ because he presents these as supporting ideas that he has already drawn from shots and scenes within the series. And because (although I only found one instance of this) he seems to be genuinely critical in his use of Chase’s testimony – he is willing to state that Chase has got things wrong. Whilst I can see that MasterofSopranos might well believe in principle that the author’s intentions as important, in practice he has employed an evidential method which makes the author both secondary and questionable. Note he did not take the site down when Chase appeared to suggest Tony Soprano was not dead, which is partial (albeit very weak) support for this claim. If I’d addressed these issues in my first post, it would have looked more like rejection of MoS’s perspective than qualified support. So I didn’t.

      Matt Zoller Seitz. Please note I am not a Sopranos expert, and will never claim to be. I’m not therefore dissing Seitz’s earlier output -although I will reserve to right to, if it’s as bad as this. The reasons for my dismissive attitude to the single article I referenced are:

      1. Seitz goes beyond the ‘ambiguity of the form’ (nice turning of my phrase, btw) to a radical right to ignore evidence altogether. And whilst any good art is ambiguous, I’d say only interpretations commensurate with the evidence can ever qualify as worthwhile or ‘true’. If you ask (and I do) ‘Did Tony die?’, then MoS’s attitude to the evidence itself is the best one I have seen. Although that doesn’t mean it has to be the final answer. Maybe there’s a perspective that satisfies even more of the evidence in an even more convincing manner.
      2. He misrepresent MoS’s viewpoint (I think this is Seitz’s target) by alluding to the POV shot argument as if MoS had simply said ‘The entire final episode of the Sopranos was filmed from Tony’s POV’.
      3. He says this: “in my experience, it’s almost always men who need to “prove” that Tony died and won’t accept any other interpretation; make of that what you will.” This is, at best, irrelevant sexist shit. It is intended to belittle men who do not share his contempt for evidence within the artwork itself. The double get-outs of “my experience” and “almost” suggest he may be aware of being on dodgy ground. The rhetorical invitation to the reader to finish his sexist thinking is more unfortunate still. At worst, this may be a spurious claim to an allegedly superior ‘feminine’ intuition / knowledge / epistemology to avoid dealing point-by-point with people who enjoy, and are better at, arguments over tv minutiae.
      4. He is ‘angry’ and ‘depressed’ in a superior and condescending manner about people still asking whether Tony Soprano died. That’s not nice.

      Martha P. Nochimson, may – or may not – think that Chase’s opinion is more important than anyone else’s. From the Vox article, I’d say she seems to be in the unenviable logical bind of asking Chase questions about how the audience should construct their answers to questions that Chase doesn’t want to answer himself. But the article is rather heavier on lower-East Side coffee shop method than tv analysis, and her attempt at following Chase’s hints towards an evidence-based answer goes thus:

      “When I asked Chase about the cut to black, he said that it is about Poe’s poem “Dream Within a Dream.” “What more can I say?” he asks when I prod him to speak more, and I admire his silence. I am his audience too and he wants me to reach for his meaning. And here’s what I conclude. Though you wouldn’t know it from watching Hollywood movies, endings are by nature mysterious…” And so on and so on. We are in a world of unquotational theoretical flimflammery. Even though Chase, attempting to assume the guise of critic aiming to discuss artwork from an outside perspective, has happily offered a guide which may lead to relatively hard evidence, it hasn’t been followed or quoted. If it had been – ironically – I’d suggest it would have led to the same conclusion that MoS spelled out.

      Once again, her previous or other work may be extremely worthwhile and rigorous. But here she has chosen to ignore the parallel between a harrowing work on death and the meaninglessness of existence and the cut to black in the final scene of the Sopranos. By introducing another work as comparator, Chase has attempted to move into a role as critic rather than author. Nochimson (or her editor, as you rightly point out) either doesn’t notice or won’t have it. And because she (or Vox) insists on Chase giving an answer against his will, he responds with a gratuitous slap-down through his publicist.

      David Chase. He probably knows very well indeed that “his interpretation is not definitive”. He seems repeatedly to have attempted to get out of the way of evidence-based analysis of the series. Including the lovely quote used by MoS to open his analysis: “If you look at the final episode really carefully, it’s all there.”

      Unfortunately, until Chase has another hit series / film / whatever in the public eye, he faces the unfortunate professional choice of being regarded as ‘David Who?’ or ‘The Creator of The Sopranos, the series that redefined television, New Jersey, organised crime and America’s attitude to psychiatry’. I know which I’d rather be.

      • Sopranos Autopsy September 3, 2014 at 11:58 pm #

        I appreciate the thorough and thoughtful defense of your argument. Ross Douthat made a similar point to one of your own in the NY Times yesterday: MoS treats the evidence more compellingly than anyone else. This may be remedied soon. My hope is that you and Douthat and many others will find my own treatment of the evidence at least as thorough, cogent and compelling as Master’s – and I reach a different conclusion than does he. (But I’m still 6 months away from posting the final entry of my website.)

        Although I am slaving away at a 250,000 word website, trying to stay as close and as true to the text of The Sopranos as I can, culling evidence primarily from the 86 episodes themselves, I still shudder at Douthat’s words: “I want reasons to doubt the whacking reading [ie MoS], not lectures on the ineffable mysteriousness of art.” It’s completely understandable that we should want to congregate around the guy who explains that it is a chariot that pulls the sun across the sky, only to then run to the guy who explains that it is the earth that orbits the sun, and later run to the guy who says it’s all a multiverse (or whatever’s next). But I think we’re better served if we keep in mind that some things are first and foremost a mystery, regardless of how compelling their explanations may be.

  2. nosuchthingasthemarket September 4, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    I look forward to seeing your case, and I’m most happy that it will clearly be evidence-based.

    A supplementary point to the prime importance of evidence in the discussion of art is that critics who hide behind ‘theory’ (as a substitute for evidence, rather than in nuanced connection with the evidence, btw) are effectively setting themselves up as better than those who focus on facts. This may be the background to Douthat’s resentment of ‘lectures on the ineffable mysteriousness of art’ – I never yet read him, so I’ll reserve judgement.

    I don’t think you need worry about the loss of mystery. Mystery in art (or science, or philosophy or the analysis of lyric writing) always expands directly as knowledge expands. It is possible to say “why?” in response to any factual statement, no matter how apparently final it is.

    Good talking to you. Let me know when you publish.

  3. John Morton September 14, 2014 at 9:23 am #

    “A writer, once they’ve written something, has no more authority over its meaning than anybody else.” OK. But: “What they ‘intended’ is irrelevant.” Not OK. I hope that music I write will continue to affect people in the way intended after my own death, in which case it will be my death that becomes irrelevant. These discussions touch on difficult and complex areas as I believe you know, judging from the way you think and write. I have long argued for the notion of ‘objectivity’ in art. P.S. thanks for the “Like”.

    • nosuchthingasthemarket September 16, 2014 at 3:10 am #

      Thanks for the comment John. We are fairly close in our perspectives here, although we’re unlikely to meet entirely because we both like precision in language. Even when language isn’t quite precise enough to allow that to work out for us.

      That said, here’s an attempt… I’d suggest that you are aiming to compose in a way that’s good/right/whatever enough that people will feel exactly what you intended them to feel upon hearing it. And not in such a way that they respond by saying “What did John Morton want us to feel when we heard this? I must interview him and ask.” Hence my inverted commas around the word ‘intended’ in the comment which you replied to. If our intentions in creating art need to be questioned, then this may indicate a failure to realise them.

      Nice line about death becoming irrelevant, btw. I look forward to the unlikely prospect of becoming that philosophical about it.

      • John Morton September 16, 2014 at 8:51 am #

        I’m someone whose primary focus has always been playing and writing. I acknowledge the fact that others, such as the musicologists on here, are specialists but I can’t help attempting to understand something about a subject I’ve spent so much of my time involved with. Also, my approach to problems is to keep asking the right questions. After all, no theory can ever be proven. I tend to believe that music emulates physical conditions that existed before man arrived on this Earth and, by so doing, excites a similar response in the listener. In other words, it is an objective process. Of course, as with any field of endeavour, I will have varying degrees of success in the real world. Here’s a link to a previous blog in which I take part in a discussion on all this. Watch out, especially, for Jonathan L Friedman’s comments: http://composerarranger.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/points-of-view/

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