Virginia Tech, The Sopranos, and the fog of media violence

Scrutinizing culture.
May 4 2007 3:59 PM

Abu Ghraib, Virginia Tech, The Sopranos, Tarantino

Trapped in the fog of media violence.

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But then after Episode 4—when Christopher, speaking of the troubled son of the murdered gay mobster from last season, speculates the kid is "probably thinking about how to pull a Columbine"—I began to think that the meaningful synchronicity was not about Asians so much as about The Sopranos' self-consciousness about its own representation of and preoccupation with killing sprees. (Surely it's no coincidence that one of Uncle Junior's favorite illicit candies in Episode 3 is conspicuously called "Sprees.") The show's writers took care to establish that it's Chong's infatuation with a Soprano (Uncle Junior) that triggers his violent outburst.

And in my simulated Abu Ghraib cell, I began to elaborate on another theory about what was going on: I began to wonder whether The Sopranos as a series was acknowledging that its casual treatment of violence could be a source of the casual violence that seems to be an increasing part of American culture.

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True, Sopranos violence is not glamorized, a la The Godfather, or ironized and aestheticized a la Quentin Tarantino. It's more that it's trivialized, made quotidian and all the more accessible somehow to those like Carter Chong who see mobsters as celebrities. Not for nothing is Uncle Junior seen in the mental institution signing photos of himself for one of the orderlies to sell on eBay! Nice touch. It captures the show's complicity in commodifying violence.

Most telling is the fact that Carter Chong's subsequent violent flip-out is triggered when Uncle Junior fails to live up to his celebrity killer-mob-star status. Chong had wanted to become Uncle Junior's junior partner. When Uncle Junior agrees to numb himself out with meds, a disillusioned Chong violently attacks the Soprano mobster for this betrayal.

What that outburst suggests to me is that The Sopranos' creators are acknowledging that making violent goons whose whole lives are essentially one long killing spree—they don't kill 32 at a time, but they've probably killed a comparable number in their lifetime—seem so sympathetic, even in some ways admirable ("family" values, etc.), might have real-world consequences. As Chong's mother puts it, "You're becoming a bully," and it's because of "that gangster."

Almost as if in their final season they're engaging in what I would call laudable introspection, though some might see it as admitting to feeling guilt.

I don't want to come across as one of those anti-violence scolds. As Lisa Simpson put it (I'm doing this from memory): "If you won't let me watch violence on TV, how will I ever get desensitized to it?" So let me close with a voice from the other side of the debate. Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, no one's going to guilt trip him into disparaging violent images. He's not apologetic. Death Proof is proof of that.

You know, of course, it's his contribution to the "double feature" called Grindhouse that he made with Robert Rodriguez. I've only read the screenplay because I find I enjoy Tarantino as a writer more than as a filmmaker (aside from Pulp Fiction, which I still love). His scripts, this one published as a paperback with an entertaining introduction by Elvis Mitchell, make great reads, however violent the content. And Death Proof is—in at least one place—horrifically grim and sick. ("So ghoulish I hesitate to speak it out loud," one character observing the carnage says.) Maybe it's the fact that it's on the page that makes it feel more "made up" than on the screen, with real bodies and fake blood.

But Tarantino once said something fascinating in defense of violence on screen: "To me, violence is a totally aesthetic subject," he insisted.

If only that were true. If only "totally aesthetic" subjects had no deleterious consequences. If only violent culture never led to violence ... Tarantino went on to contend, "Saying you don't like violence in movies is like saying you don't like dance sequences in movies."

Well, he may have a point, but I'm one of those people who doesn't like dance sequences in movies.