restricted access The Sopranos, Film Noir, and Nihilism
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THE SOPRANOS, FILM NOIR, AND NIHILISM Kevin L. Stoehr Nihilism and Film Noir The immensely popular and award-winning HBO series The Sopranos is rooted in a nihilistic vision that reflects a general moral decline in contemporary American culture.1 Nihilism is most generally denned as the belief in nothing at all, the conviction that nothing matters, not even oneself. It is an overall attitude toward the value of life, one evidenced by the words and actions of many of the characters in the series but most especially by those of its morally ambiguous protagonist, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfmi). Such a bleak worldview fuels the style and content of most episodes and also echoes the dark atmosphere and themes of film noir and neo-noir classics. These earlier films have had a heavy influence on the aesthetic and thematic framework of David Chase's series, making his episodic creation a primary example of TV noir. Chase has given us the child of Martin Scorseses Goodfellas (1990), the grandchild of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather saga, and the descendant of those film noir classics that trail back to the earliest crime dramas. Tony Soprano reveals his passion for film noir classics when he is shown enjoying screenings of Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931) and White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949). His mafia colleagues, especially Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico) and Big Pussy (Vincent Pastore), conjure images of neo-noir movies by frequently comparing their experiences to those of characters in the Godfather trilogy. Photographs of traditional film noir actors Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, captured in gangster pose, flash briefly across the screen in the very first episode of the series, during a killing by Tony's nephew Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). 143 144 Kevin L. Stoehr Tony's character is morally ambiguous, like many film noir antiheroes, because he still clings to certain conventional values, despite his frequent failure to live up to them and despite his tendency to reject them when dilemmas arise. Nihilism often results from the disintegration of faith in traditional values, and Tony eventually comes to see his world collapsing all around him. He is the example of an individual who struggles at times to be good but whose basic lack of conviction in his own intrinsic goodness becomes a chief obstacle in this endeavor. From the very beginning of the series, Tony is presented to us as an individual who does not view himself as fitting neatly into the contours of the world around him. The lives ofthe main characters in most works offilmnoir are saturated by the nihilistic condition ofalienation, a sense of not-belonging or incompleteness that is often occasioned by the collapse of a stable value system. Such a condition is articulated crudely but clearly by Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) in season 4: "Each of us is alone in the fuckin' universe" ("Pie-O-My"). Characters in film noir and neo-noir typically express this feeling of solitary dislocation that results from an underlying relativism concerning ethical truths and values. There are no universal standards or absolute truths in their lives, other than the principle that they must survive in a world gone wrong. Film noir is typically (though certainly not universally) anchored in a nihilistic—that is, values-negating and life-denying—vision that has cast its shadow on modern Western culture since the nineteenth century, and most especially during, between, and after the two world wars of the last century.2 Film noir tends to express the psychological, moral, and existential consequences of the collapse of the conventional rules and values of society.3 These consequences are especially pronounced when primal, irrational instincts have exploded through the repressive facades of civilized life and overwhelmed our feeble trust in some traditional, human-created order. The emergence of such instincts typically drowns any hope of future salvation or redemption. Film noir tends to revel in the shadowy alleys of a passive or pathological nihilism that, as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) defines it, results in lost opportunities for attaining authenticity, creative individuality, and genuine self-knowledge.4 Nihilism involves experiences of negativity, contingency, estrangement, despair, dread, and hopelessness. These experiences are expressed in crystallized form by one of the more famous quotations from Nietzsche, taken from his epic fable and morality tale Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "God is dead." The Sopranos, Film Noir, and Nihilism 145 This statement refers directly to the decline of Christianity in particular and organized religion in general...


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Subject Headings

  • Detective and mystery television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Fantasy television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Film noir -- United States -- History and criticism.
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