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The family ties that bind: Tony runs from shared memories on "The Sopranos," while Cinemax doc "51 Birch Street" unravels the perfect marriage.


Heather Havrilesky
April 29, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

When I was a kid, my brother and sister and I made up an alternative version of Clue that we called "Cousins." Instead of trying to solve a murder, players would draw cards to receive their murder assignments: Kill Colonel Mustard, in the Billiard Room, with the candlestick, for example. This meant that you had to retrieve the candlestick, kidnap Colonel Mustard wherever he was on the board (sometimes he was another player), overpower him (by rolling dice, "Risk"-style) and drag him into the Billiard Room to be killed. Afterward, you had to escape without being apprehended by the police, and you had to make sure there weren't any witnesses.

This is where the cousins came in. A herd of faceless nobodies pilfered from Sorry, cousins would migrate together through the rooms and hallways of the Clue board, based on a roll of the dice and a spin of a compass lifted from our Bermuda Triangle game. If a cousin was in the room when you committed your murder, you'd have to track him down and kill him, too.

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While it was endlessly engrossing to formulate and debate the parameters and rules ("Colonel Mustard should be able to grab a weapon to fight you, and if he does, he should also get another die to roll."), the game itself was sort of tedious. It turned out to be exceedingly difficult to murder someone and escape without notice. Plus, thanks to the herdlike movement of the cousins, cousins would eventually become lodged in the hallways and doorways, trapping players in the Ballroom or the Lounge with no way of exiting. Even when you eventually did end up in the right place with the right weapon, there could be four or five cousins in the room with you, and once you murdered someone, the cousins would disobey their Northeasterly lemming-like movements and just move away from you as quickly as possible.

Looking back, the notion of a game of murder doesn't bother me. But why were they called "cousins"? Why not "witnesses" or "bystanders" or "strangers"? Apparently it seemed perfectly natural to my brother and sister and me that the pesky mob that would sooner or later be our downfall would be made up of blood relatives.

Darkness in the sunshine state
Like long trips in the car with the family, "Cousins" taught us an important lesson about the purgatorial nature of commitment and blood ties and sticking with your kin, no matter what. Even when things are good, there will always be lots of cousins around, gumming up the works and just generally making life difficult. You can be on top of the world, personally, but it doesn't pay to get too cocky, because chances are a cousin is about to wander in and ruin everything.

That's where Tony finds himself in the final season of "The Sopranos" (9 p.m. Sundays on HBO). Everything's finally good in his life. Business is solid, he and Carmela are getting along reasonably well, Meadow is close by and isn't about to take off to California, A.J. is still annoying but at least he doesn't seem anxious to do something stupid and get himself killed for once. Tony could finally relax and enjoy himself if not for all of those damn cousins.

Tony's life is filthy with cousins: Business associates who are either blood relatives (like Christopher) or who were chosen by his father and who've been around long enough to demand the same level of loyalty (like Paulie Walnuts). As always, Tony is straining under the weight of his commitments, but these days, those commitments transcend the mundane demands of providing for his family and putting up with their crap. The feds are on his trail thanks to some unknown informant, and Tony is discovering that, even if he dodges the law, he's still got cousins to contend with.

(Don't read this if you haven't seen the third episode of the season, which aired last week.) When the FBI digs up some old bones from a murder that Tony and Paulie committed more than 20 years earlier, the two are forced to take off and lie low for a while, so they pack up their bags and drive down to Florida. Tony seems cheered by Paulie's company at first, making small talk about old times.

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But then the old resentments and miscommunications of family rise to the surface. Tony is still bothered by the notion that Paulie was disloyal in the past, suspecting that he was the one who told Johnny Sack the cruel jokes about his wife that led to so much trouble for Tony. Tony is also bothered that, despite his constant warnings against talking too much, Paulie can't shut up, blathering to complete strangers about where they're from and where they're going. A grim look settles into Tony's features: If Paulie can't keep his trap shut right after Tony admonishes him, how will he not eventually become a liability, blabbing the wrong thing to the wrong person down the road? And how in the world will he stay quiet if the law gets its claws into him?

The paranoia and dread that start to unnerve Tony would be enough, but the beauty of David Chase's writing is that he builds layers of meaning around the first, most obvious one, and toys with our sense of Tony and Paulie as blood relatives. As Tony and Paulie spend a night out with Beansie and some very young hookers, Paulie prattles on endlessly about old memories they've shared, including loose talk about a "mysterious" death (wink, wink), until Tony gets a sick look on his face. His discomfort is so obvious that Beansie asks him if he's feeling OK. Tony says yeah, but Paulie presses him. "You sure, T? Because you're being kinda quiet."

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"That's because 'Remember when' is the lowest form of conversation," Tony responds, and gets up from the table. But is Tony only worried that Paulie can't keep quiet and that will eventually get them in trouble? Or is he experiencing the claustrophobic angst of someone who realizes that he's tied to someone he finds deeply irritating, for better or worse, for the rest of his life? There's something sad about the fact that, to Paulie, those old memories are something to be treasured and replayed over and over again, while to Tony, they're just a nuisance, a reminder of how old he is and how few decisions in his life were actually his own. Tony has always felt that he was cornered into this fate, that he's never actively chosen this existence, even if he hasn't actively resisted it either.

Ending the episode with Tony and Paulie renting a boat to go deep-sea fishing was a particularly torturous maneuver. Haunted by the memories of how Big Pussy met his end on a similar boat, Paulie becomes fearful and stiff -- and so do we. Tony glances at an ax mounted to the side of the boat as Paulie fidgets. Later, Tony gazes at a knife for cleaning the fish. Is he really going to murder Paulie, a man who's been like an uncle to him (albeit a pesky one) for most of his life?

Even with all of the other times Tony has been forced to murder someone close to him because it was best for the business or best for his own family, even compared to cousin Tony Blundetto and Big Pussy, this situation seems different than the others. Tony B. was a total wreck, Ralphie and Richie (whom Tony only considered murdering -- Janice took care of that one for him) were downright awful human beings, and Big Pussy was an informant. If Tony chose to murder Paulie (or Sil or Christopher, for that matter) out of the blue, it would trump all of his other brutal maneuvers to date. We recognize this in Tony's eyes when he looks at Paulie. Although Beansie reassures Tony that Paulie is loyal and doesn't have his own family to fill out his life, we know from experience that Paulie can be as disloyal as the next guy.

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Paulie may just be another self-centered schmuck and it may make the most sense to get rid of him, but that doesn't mean Tony is capable of doing it. And even if Tony does do it eventually, it won't just haunt him -- it could undo him completely.

And that, my friend, is the glory of cousins. Just when you think you've beat a hasty retreat, there's another cousin, yammering on and bringing up memories you'd rather forget and driving you out of your mind. As long as you have a family, you're never truly alone. But sometimes that's not quite as wonderful as it sounds.

Hello, mother; hello, father
Just ask filmmaker Doug Block, whose bewildering discoveries about his parents form the enthralling plot of the upcoming documentary "51 Birch Street" (premieres 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 8 on Cinemax ). Block starts with a concept of family ties and commitment that's similar to most of ours, a mix of idealism, comfort, long-standing and seemingly immutable roles, and an uneasy acceptance of the various personalities involved. He begins filming his parents and chronicling their lives for no real reason, other than to have a record of them. While he admires and adores his mother -- the strength of their rapport comes through in all of his interviews with her -- he professes a notable indifference toward his father. Eventually Block admits that, to him, his father exists in his mother's shadow, a faceless presence taking up space in the room while his mother's big pronouncements and observations and witty asides fill up every second of dead air.

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Then life takes an unforeseen turn when Block uncovers some major secrets about both of his parents (I don't want to reveal too much, because the odd discoveries and surprises are part of what make this very personal film so fascinating). Through interviews and intimate footage and photographs and ruminations, we learn how Block and his two sisters are forced to reevaluate their feelings for their parents, and to make peace with a family history that wasn't remotely as it seemed.

As you'd expect with a film this personal, the storytelling is at once fascinating and slightly uneven. Even though Block is at the center of his story, when he shows up on camera, his presence feels oddly unwelcome, in part because he's off-screen most of the time and we actually relate to his experiences more when he's playing the role of protagonist and narrator. Also, Block seems far less comfortable in front of the camera than his parents are. Where his parents are charismatic and honest and alarmingly good storytellers, Block is self-conscious and elusive. Even though he's the one doing the truth-seeking, his own words don't always sound all that honest.

"Is there anything that you've ever wanted to ask me that you've never asked me before?" he asks his dad at the end of the film.

"Are you happy with your life?" his father asks him.

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"It's a hard question," Block replies. He eventually tells his dad that he feels very lucky, but he sounds distant, and his words are forming around ideas of what he has to be grateful for, rather than feelings. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the same way his mother sounded when she spoke about the solidity of her marriage earlier in the film, comments we later learned we couldn't trust.

Fortunately, the central mystery of the film (which I've taken pains not to reveal here because I want you to watch it for yourselves) is compelling and provocative enough to more than make up for the film's shortcomings. As Block discovers, being committed to your family doesn't always mean simply playing along with the same roles that you always have. Real commitment demands the flexibility to make room for loved ones who change and assert themselves in ways that can be both unexpected and frightening.

But rather than cringing in the face of such unexpected developments, you might as well just accept them. Because, as Tony Soprano and Doug Block both recognize, there is no escape. The beauty -- and the nightmare -- of family is how well they know you after so long, and how deeply you belong to each other. There is no easy exit. There are witnesses, and they remember everything.


Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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