This thing of ours

Some Italian-Americans say "The Sopranos" traffics in stereotypes. You got a problem with that?

By David Thomson
Published April 7, 2001 7:59PM (EDT)

You know what? They have a point. Take yesterday. There we were, the five of us, having a convivial lunch in one of San Franciscos better Italian restaurants. We arrived a little late so they gave us the round table in the front window -- its a great table, watching the people on the street and being seen by them.

So we get into our lunch -- broiled Arctic char, with a thin-crust pizza and a bowl of al dente pasta in garlic -- and the maitre d passes by and says, "Everything OK at the Godfather table?"

And we chuckle like made men: two of us Jewish from Chicago, one from New York, one Kentucky and me from London. Not an Italian in sight. Its just that if you get five guys together from the picture business everyone flatters them with this mob atmosphere. And we love it!

What were we talking about? Well, apart from business (most of the time was strictly business), we remarked on how the airplane incident in China showed that Americans wont even be tactfully polite to the Chinese. And we talked about how last week's episode of "The Sopranos" was the heaviest on sex and violence yet. It was as if the producers got the feeling the audience was turning soft with all this family and psychiatry stuff. Give 'em a taste of the real thing!

The real thing? The five of us eating char and pasta would run a mile to avoid the breath of violence. But how we love it on the screen. I dont know if "The Sopranos" is great art or not, but it has become essential viewing for the smart classes.

You hear people repeating the dialogue, getting into comic riffs on the situations, impersonating Tony. And the real Italians, like the restaurant people in San Francisco, they play up to it because, I suppose, its good for trade. But if you went into a Chinese restaurant and started acting out similar clichés about the Chinese, youd be thrown out -- and a good thing too!

"The Sopranos" has taken the living legend of "The Godfather," "GoodFellas" and so on and made it law. Its entirely proper that those decent Italian-American homes hoping that their children may be the next Enrico Fermi or Italo Calvino are horrified at the popularity of this lurid image. Its an outrage. Why, Im tempted to call up Tony Soprano and give the word to put an end to it.

Of course, in real life, theres no one you can call up so that things are smoothed out. Instead, theres disorder. And part of the dream of Corleones and Sopranos is that there might be order and calm and decency again. Fat chance. You have to live with the fact that, more and more, the people in life behave like the people in movies.

Hey, guys, are we perhaps up for another bottle of the chianti?

David Thomson

David Thomson is the author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" (new edition just published), "Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles" and "In Nevada."

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