Letter to the Editor:
re. Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong, by Martha P. Nochimson, reviewed by Lindsay Coleman in Senses of Cinema, issue no. 46, 2008
Lindsay Coleman should be the ideal reader for my book Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong (1). He has a combined knowledge of American and Hong Kong gangster movies that is unusual, in my experience, and a passion for the subject. This makes the surprisingly dogged pattern of reductive thinking that emerges in his review all the more regrettable. Pointing out that pattern is an unhappy chore, but I hope the following will ultimately serve a positive purpose.
Coleman’s persistent over-simplifications in the review are numerous, but one representative example will suggest the larger problem. I have chosen to discuss his attempt to read the fight between Carmela (Edie Falco) and her mother, Mary DeAngelis (Suzanne Shepherd), in the “Marco Polo” episode of the fifth season (2004) of The Sopranos, as a refutation of a point I make about ethnicity in my discussion of both The Sopranos in particular and the Hollywood gangster genre in general. In “Marco Polo”, at a 75th birthday party for her father, although Carmela and Tony (James Gandolfini) have separated, she and her mother exchange harsh words about her mother’s criticism of Tony’s crude behavior at the shindig, which Mary finds embarrassing in the presence of one Dr Russ Fegoli (Bruce Kirby), an assimilated Italian American. In response, Carmela heatedly scolds her mother for not respecting her Italian heritage and for her blind adoration of the pretentious Fegoli’s Ivy League PhD and his position with the American State Department. This is an excellent scene to call attention to; but not for Coleman’s expressed purposes.
It is symptomatic of the flaws in Coleman’s review that before I explicate his use of the “Marco Polo” example, I need to establish the way I treat ethnicity in my book. Spare writing is a virtue up to a point. But Coleman deprives his reader of a chance to evaluate either his comments or mine when he omits mention of the theme in my book that he is responding to. In Dying to Belong, I contend that, in two distinct stages, Hollywood gangster films characteristically associate ethnicity with a desperate form of performance that reveals an imperiled immigrant identity. In the first stage, the performative quality of immigrant gangster identity is assimilationist. We watch gangsters ruthlessly cut themselves off from their immigrant roots in a futile, sometimes darkly comic, eventually fatal attempt to achieve a sense of belonging in their new country. The second stage follows the release of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in 1972. In this stage, American gangster films begin to depict gangsters frantically attempting to establish identity by reconnecting with their ethnic roots, an effort as comic and futile as the earlier assimilationist gangster performance. (I also show a contrasting trend, until the end of the 20th century, in the Hong Kong gangster movie.)
Had Coleman summarised my arguments, Carmela’s defense of Tony could have been a part of a legitimate test of my theory. But even so, this scene would not have taken him very far in proving me wrong since his use of it depends on conclusions that disregard its contextualisation in the episode and the series as a whole. We need to take Carmela’s statement at face value, in order to see it as a repudiation of my thesis. But can we? I am not alone in noting that the characters in The Sopranos so often mean the opposite of what they say, are lying, or use words as codes for unexpressed meaning. (Series creator David Chase, all the writers, and some of the actors have been publicly clear on this point.) And, indeed, “Marco Polo” provides a roadmap (and a flashlight) to enable us to interpret the distance between the connotation and denotation of Carmela’s harangue of her mother. First of all, it is far from clear that Tony’s boisterous pranks at the party are an expression of his Italian heritage. But more important, the episode builds up to this interchange by establishing the ongoing irritation between Mary and Carmela, and how ready they are to pick at each other for real or imagined causes. It also establishes Carmela’s increasing interest in reuniting with Tony, and, to be sure, at the end of the episode, Carmela and Tony have sex. At the very least, the episode suggests that the heat of Carmela’s words and the words themselves are anything but substantive, but rather weapons in an ongoing mother-daughter skirmish and masks for the turmoil caused by her resurging feeling of connection to Tony.
Moreover, to take Carmela’s words at face value requires dismissal of what we have previously seen of her confused sense of identity. In the fourth season (2002), in an episode named “Christopher”, we see Carmela attend an Italian pride ladies’ luncheon given by her church, during which she conflates Italian heritage with mob loyalty when she feels insulted by the speaker whose purpose is to free Italian-Americans from the stereotypes that link them with the Mafia. A further complication in Carmela’s complex characterisation that works against Coleman’s use of his example is that in almost every episode we she how Carmela clings to the fantasy that a mob wife can be an assimilated upper-middle-class American matron. We see this in many of the details of her life, from the décor of her home, to her wish to create a tradition with daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) of having tea every year at the Plaza Hotel, the essence of WASP American splendour, under the painting of Eloise, one of the most WASP heroines of American children’s literature.
Apart from Carmela, almost from the get-go, the series virtually closes the door on any possibility that its characters might securely root their identity in Italy. In the second season episode titled “Commendatori” (2000), Tony and part of his crew visit Naples on mob business and what they expect to be a kind of homecoming turns out to be an unmasking of their movie-created fantasies of “Italianness”. The list of ways in which the series makes problematic the performance of ethnicity goes on and on. The “Christopher” episode mentioned above is a good case in point. In portraying the enmity between American Indians and American Italians on Columbus Day, it details a process in which each group unmasks the pretensions of the other. In one of the episode’s best moments, the one member of the gang who was born and raised in Italy, Furio Giunta (Federico Castelluccio), explodes the attempt of the Mafiosi to link Columbus with Italian pride, when he blurts out that he hates Columbus. Says Furio, the northerners in Italy always look down on the southerners, a real ethnic issue in the “old country”. Unable to cope with this moment of truth, the mobsters simply ignore it.
Coleman’s reading of Carmela’s speech in “Marco Polo” in defiance of the context established by the series is symptomatic of an overall discussion that is short on attention to the ideas in the book he is reviewing and long on spirited but questionable contentions. However, Coleman’s critical method does have its amusing moments. I am speaking of his recreation of me as a character of his own invention, when he refers in almost hilariously misguided detail to my supposed Cineaste-honed critical sensibility, of which he disapproves. Cineaste-honed? Really? Although I am proud to be on the editorial board of Cineaste, I have been an Associate Editor with that terrific magazine for only one year. I have also taught at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University for 11 years, spoken with David Lynch for over 16 years, directed my own Film Studies program for over five years, earned my doctorate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. I have even spoken with David Chase for four hours, been his guest for one day on the set of The Sopranos, and had the pleasure of continued contact with him after my book was published. I wonder which of these influences most accounts for my critical approach to my subject.
Martha P. Nochimson
Letter to the Editor:
Response to Martha P. Nochimson from Lindsay Coleman
Recently, I wrote a review of Martha P. Nochimson’s ambitious Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong (1). While my review could not be classified as positive, I feel that it contained various observations, both positive and negative, of Nochimson’s considerable scholarship in the book. The author has taken exception to my review and thanks to my editor’s encouragement of scholastic debate, she and I are now engaged in a discussion of the virtues of both her work and my criticism of said work. While I am personally bemused as to how this situation eventuated, I am excited by the opportunities it gives both myself and Ms Nochimson.
My intention with my review was to engage with Nochimson’s work while simultaneously utilising the context to briefly engage with several findings of my own (I will be presenting portions of my research at an academic conference on The Sopranos in New York this May). As a media author myself (2) and an associate of Intercultural Dynamics (3), I feel my opinions of Nochimson’s work merit discourse, written or otherwise.
First, I would like to clarify my observations of the magazine Cineaste. My observations of the influence the magazine had on Ms Nochimson were based on noting her presence as an Associate Editor for the publication. I was not personally aware of the duration she had held the position. I may have overstated her involvement or tenure with the magazine. I sincerely apologise for this. However, I maintain that the style of the publication seems a likely influence. I feel it is not necessarily a negative influence per se, but Cineaste as a publication evidences diversity and a studied dissonance in its cultural frameworks. In my view, the particular cross-cultural framework Ms Nochimson has created is delicate and involves myriad factors with which the book can only engage cursorily. The value system of contemporary academia must be incorporated into a divergent, interdisciplinary methodology. To argue from a media perspective that there is a singular, cogent morality evidenced in the Oriental and Occidental film and television texts of the gangster genre, there must be coherence in analogy to the point that parallel discourses of the social sciences might be inserted in Nochimson’s cross-cultural findings, or alternately that her findings might be inserted into such parallel discourses. These questions are utterly essential at this time and, in my view, merit the most stringent of methodologies.
Second, I would like to attempt to respond to Nochimson’s criticism of the episode I chose to support my own argument, “Marco Polo” (The Sopranos, Season 5, Episode 8, 2004). I certainly understand and respect her interpretation of the events of the evening the party occurs. And as David Chase famously said, the Sopranos are all liars. But, as I said in the review (perhaps not as clearly as I might), the subtext of the sophisticated Italian pedigree of the visiting Dr Fegoli (Bruce Kirby) versus Tony’s (James Gandolfini) recontextualised Italianate buffoonery points to a residual, entrenched cultural tension. Also, as I hopefully communicated, Meadow’s (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) grandmother’s shame at her dark complexion, and Carmela’s subsequent rebuke, speak to Italian influences being present within the minutiae of Soprano life. Even in the scene Ms Nochimson describes in “Christopher” (Season 4, Episode 3, 2002), Furio’s words may reveal the crew’s ignorance of their heritage or, alternately, within the unique intimacy of a car ride home, they represent a new level of openness and unmediated engagement with said heritage. As she indicates, my choice of scene was apt, yet my interpretation flawed. I counter that the richness of The Sopranos supports such varied interpretations. In my view, something as personal and biological as a baby’s complexion would merit an emotionally direct and honest confrontation, one surpassing artifice or manipulation. Yet that is simply my view. But really, how jaded does David Chase expect us to believe his characters are? Again, in my view, the emotional demands of The Sopranos’ narrative suggest some genuine engagement with an Italian heritage.
All in all, I must return to my initial statement that the book is ambitious, perhaps overly so. To engage with both Eastern and Western traditions, television and film, along with approximately eighty years of a genre’s history, seems excessive given the limitations of the book’s duration. Again, this is only my view. Certainly in my own academic work, I am attempting a similarly interdisciplinary approach, utilising television and literature, the literary traditions of the late 19th century and the media tropes of the early 21st. However, it is my belief that an argument structured on so many points of interdisciplinary discourse always runs the risk of a distorted message, the disciplinary prerequisites muddying one another in the limited space they occupy. I have given my feedback on the issue of Nochimson’s methodology. I have also given my interpretation of The Sopranos, such as it differs from her own. Regardless, I am more than happy to continue this debate, and hope to learn much from Nochimson’s noted experience. I hope that this letter has added some clarity to my initial review, and again I welcome any ongoing discussion.
- Martha P. Nochimson, Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hollywood and Hong Kong, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 2007.
- In addition to interviews and reviews for various print and online magazines in New Zealand, I have contributed to Taking South Park Seriously, edited by Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, SUNY Press, Albany, NY, September 2008 (forthcoming); The War Body on Screen, edited by Karen Randell and Sean Redmond, Continuum, London and New York, May 2008 (forthcoming); and Gilmore Girls and the Politics of Identity: Essays on Family and Feminism in the Television Series, edited by Ritch Calvin, McFarland, Jefferson, NC, 2008 (forthcoming).
- Intercultural Dynamics is a training and consultancy company that facilitates intercultural communication and collaboration in the workplace.