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Product placement: The lives of 'The Sopranos'

family.jpg

An extended family moment: Blanca, Hector, AJ.

Never send a business reporter to do a critic's job.

I'm sometimes amused by the naïveté of my critical and academic colleagues when it comes to the business realities of how movies are made, and why they turn out the way they do. They tend to view movies as a purely creative medium, and dismiss the influences of marketing and commerce on the "end product." But, on the other hand, whenever I read reports about "the biz," I'm equally amazed at how they approach movies as if they were factory-tooled widgets, nothing more than the products of corporate and marketing deals and decisions. The truth is, of course, that most movies are creative compromises, the results of a vast and complex set of inter-related artistic, commercial and economic judgments.

You'd never know that from Jon Fine's series of posts at his Business Week Fine On Media blog about so-called "product placement" in this season's episodes of "The Sopranos." Fine thinks the proliferating brand-name mentions are "suck-uppy" and rates them on a "one-to-ten scale of egregiousness" -- although, he reports, "'The Sopranos,' a show I like very much, does not do product placement in the fee-for-sense. Nor does HBO, although at times they've played footsie with the idea."

Fine doesn't acknowledge that there may be a number of creative reasons why real products and brand names are used on the show -- aside from the usual deals that allow nearly all movies and TV shows to keep their budgets down by gaining access to free consumer goods, from cars to soft drinks, that are used on screen. "The Sopranos" happens to be about people for whom bling means just about everything, despite all their talk about maintaining old-fashioned "family values" (you know, like omerta). It's a show about people in a strictly hierarchical social structure (organized crime, the mob, La Cosa Nostra)who pursue crass, vulgar, conspicuous consumption as a signal to others that they're advancing their station in life. Their lives are all about "product placement."

A few things to keep in mind about "The Sopranos," which concluded its sixth season (beautifully) last night:

  • The moral dilemma at the heart of the show has always been the disturbing parallel it draws between the mafia and American business, organized crime as the ultimate expression of free-market capitalism and the "American Dream."
  • The characters have always defined themselves in terms of consumer products -- and pop-culture references. Money reflects and reinforces status. It's all bling -- the kind of car you drive, the domestic appliances you own, the caliber of nursing home you can put your mother in, the size of your TV... Is any of this sounding familiar -- like maybe an observation about American society in general? Money, or what it can buy, is seen as the answer to nearly every problem, the settlement for every argument, the rationale for every action. For these still-assimilating low-to-upper middle-class New Jersey Italian-Americans and their families, it's the passport to la dolce vita in the New World. (Or, at least, the New Jersey.) Oh, and they love to get free stuff -- meals, watches, designer sunglasses, suits, vitamins -- whether it "fell off the back of a truck" or taken as a "gift," with all due respect. (One episode this year had aspiring screenwriter/producer Christopher going berzerk with envy when he saw the Hollywood "gifting suites" where stars like Ben Kingsley and Lauren Bacall could help themselves to brand-name swag.)
  • It's a show about denial, and the sadness and darkness running through the series, and its characters, is that no matter how much they liken themselves to the Corleones, they know deep-down that they don't measure up to this romantic, larger-than-life ideal. And all the bling in the world isn't going to make them better, or more secure. Tony Soprano is no Don Corleone (Brando or Pacino). But, then, how could he aspire to that kind of movie-made mythical grandeur? He's just a schlub from Jersey (and, in case you didn't notice, all these "captains" and "soldiers" and "bosses" are small-time losers) whose back-room "offices" at Satriale's Pork Store and the Bada Bing strip club don't quite have the glamor of "The Godfather"'s mythologized New York or Vegas.
Expanding on that last point: The season six closer featured a parody of a "sit-down" from "The Godfather," the dialog riddled with the usual awkward and pretentious malapropisms, that played like a hilarious amateur production. Of course, it ended disastrously. (Little Carmine: "And for reasons I will discern in time, believe me, if there's one thing my father taught me it's this: A pint of blood costs more than a gallon of gold. My business -- all of our businesses -- this infighting's costing money." Tony: "I'm willing to move forward. Let the past be bygones.")

 

And the final tableau, of the Sopranos' suburban palace in all its finery, decorated for Christmas with the family gathered round the hearth, was presented as the most meticulously composed and fragile of images, one we know is phony, impossible to maintain, and destined to be shattered in the final season. It was heartbreaking, breathtaking. Bianca, AJ's new Puerto Rican girlfriend (sporting a bling-y necklace AJ's bought her, mainly to show off to his dad), and her son Hector, join the Soprano clan for a moment of (what looks like, to her) heartwarming, ritualized domestic bliss on Christmas Eve. The last words:

Blanca: You have a gorgeous home.

Carmella: Thank you.... We do.

And with that, the camera receded, "Silent Night" faded into the Stones' "Moonlight Mile" (which had been used brilliantly in the episode's opening minutes -- "With a head full of snow"), and we knew that we were seeing not only a carefully crafted, Christmas-card illusion, but the calm before the storm (i.e., the final eight episodes). All the Sopranos are just another a moonlight mile down the road from home. They sometimes feel "home" is close, but they can never quite get there. (And remember that this episode is named after a character who does not exist -- a multiple deception: Christopher, who's hiding the fact that his wife is pregnant, is cheating on her with Julianna, who Tony is hot for, but telling him he's seeing a black girl on the side named "Kaisha.")

"A gorgeous home." That's what the whole season led up to. (Carmella is literally trying to build a "gorgeous home" -- a spec house -- but she's had a few problems with the building inspectors.) Earlier in the episode, Tony has attempted to reassure a stressed-out Carm: "You raised two gorgeous kids, you gotta husband that loves you, you made us a beautiful home. Doesn't that count for something?" This scene began with a close-up of a packaged Murray's "All-Natural Turkey," intended for Thanksgiving dinner -- and followed scenes involving a human head in a freezer; "the Sheepshead Bay barbeque" bombing; Tony closing the deal to sell the building housing the family-run Cavulo's Live Poultry to Jamba Juice; Christopher and Kelly, his recently impregnated wife, discussing how to paint/brand the nursery (Kelly: "'Morning Sunshine,' Benjamin Moore. And we can do the border with the Disney characters") in their beautiful new McMansion home, and Christopher telling her: "Remember the penguin movie, how you cried? You sit on an egg for months, one little thing goes wrong, you're left with nothin'"; and Carmella visiting Ade's suicidal mother in the hospital, bearing a bouquet of florist-brand, plastic-wrapped flowers. You may see a few motifs running through here -- birth, death (in particular, the death of children), ice, corpses, birds, brands, the idea of raising children and creating a home... and they're all interwoven. (Oh, but I forgot: Movies are just about the story, right?)

So, is all this just "product placement"? If you think so, you're not paying much attention to what's going on.

Which brings me back to Fine's comments. I don't see how the series could have been more explicit about its view of consumerism than in the sequence that opened the first episode of this season -- a series of images of prominent brand logos, and the characters who associate themselves (and define themselves) with them, while William S. Burroughs reads about ancient Egyptian mythology from his "Seven Souls":

  • Two Federal agents in a black car. The driver says: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." The passenger nods, then gestures in distress. The car pulls over and the passenger vomits. (Not particularly subtle, but pretty funny.)
  • Vito poses for a photo shoot to advertise "ThinClub," the fad diet program on which he has recently lost weight.
  • Burroughs begins reciting: "The ancient Egyptians postulated seven souls. Top soul, and the first to leave at the moment of death, is Ren, the Secret Name. This corresponds to my Director, He directs the film of your life from conception to death. The Secret Name is the title of your film. When you die, that's where Ren came in..."
  • Janice's breast, with a Rolling Stones lips-and-tongue logo on it, feeding her baby. The mention of "death" is juxtaposed with a newborn baby, the idea of life as a movie, directed from "conception to death" by an unseen director is introduced, and a brand-name mouth is shown branded on a mother's breast while her infant is feeding.
  • Bobby plays with his model trains. The camera follows a box-car for Nestle's Nesquick -- a beverage that figured in an earlier argument between Janice and Bobby about feeding their kids. And, I think, a devastating reference to the heinous incident in the 1970s, when Nestle marketed baby formula to mothers in Africa as an alternative to breast feeding, and many children died because of lactose intolerance. (I can't imagine Nestle would appreciate that kind of "product placement.") So, we have, from the moment of birth, brand-name breasts and brand-name milk!
  • A couple opens a FedEx envelope. They are thrilled by what they find inside (we later find out that it's news of an inheritance) and they jump up in celebration, spilling coffee-and-milk on the kitchen table. Burroughs: "Second soul, and second one off the sinking ship, is Sekem: Energy, Power, Light The Director gives the orders, Sekem presses the right buttons." This extraordinary, propitious event will lead to the suicide of Eugene, the man in the kitchen. Not even $2 million can buy him a new life. He's in too deep.
  • Finn watches as Meadow dances in her underwear in front of a big-screen TV that's on (tuned to some kind of sporting event), but she's performing in front of the picture. Burroughs describes Number Three: "The Guardian Angel."
  • Another big-screen TV (a Philips) with George W. Bush in some photo op. The camera pans to one of Tony's guys, Ray Curto, on a LifeCycle treadmill. Burroughs: "Number four is Ba, the heart, often treacherous." Turns out, Ray is betraying Tony to the Feds. Later in the episode, handing over evidence while sitting in an agent's car, he will suddenly keel over and die... of a heart attack.
  • Anthony Jr., in class, making a grotesque face and taking a picture of it with his cell phone. Burroughs: "Number five is Ka, the Double, most closely associated with the subject. The Ka, which usually reaches adolescence at the time of bodily death, is the only reliable guide through the Land of the Dead to the western Lands."
  • Which leads us to Carmella's abandoned and unfinished spec house, a skeleton covered in shredded plastic tarps, looking like something from the Land of the Dead. Pella windows, still in their packages, lean against the interior studs. And Carmella is talking to Adriana, a dead woman:

    Ade: Who's gonna live here:

    Carmella: A family.

    Carmella confesses that she's worried all the time. She takes a cigarette (can't see the brand) from Ade, and Ade begins to vanish before our eyes. Burroughs: "Number six is Khaibit, the Shadow, Memory, your whole past conditioning from this and other lives." The memory of Ade, who has mysteriously disappeared, will haunt Carmella. We know she's dead. Carmella doesn't. Or, maybe, somewhere deep-down, she does...
  • Carmella in bed, eyes wide open, stares at the ceiling. Burroughs: "Number seven is Sekhu, the Remains."
  • A shovel slices into the earth on a plot of land full of holes. A graveyard? Turns out it's Tony with the shovel, and although we've seen quite a few scenes in which bodily remains have been buried or unearthed on this show, this time he's looking for some money Uncle Junior insists is buried in the back yard. But Junior's memory may be playing tricks on him...
In addition to offering what may be some tantalizing foreshadowing of the fates of these characters, all this is the set-up to an episode in which -- to cite just a few of examples -- Tony will buy off Carmella with a Porsche Cayenne; Angie, Carmella's friend (and Big Pussy's widow) gets a Corvette, to Carm's consternation; Eugene will attempt to buy off Tony with a bag of "18-carat gold, diamond center" David Yurman watches; Tony will help himself to Armani sunglasses at the shop of Johnny Sack's brother-in-law, as a way of demanding "respect"; Christopher offers to buy Johnny's Maserati, when Johnny needs to "get some liquidity out of it"; and so on....


All this stuff is essential to the show. It would only be distracting if they made up brand names. (Anybody recall how Stanley Kubrick used existing brands -- Pan Am, Hilton -- to lend credence to his vision of the future in "2001: A Space Odyssey"?) Whenever I see stupid stuff like this "product placement" tracking blog posts, showing no regard for how the show is using brand names, I'm reminded of those idiotic "gaffe squad" trivialists who spend their time looking for continuity errors rather than actually paying attention to the movie.

P.S. Early in the season, Tony articulated his mid-life crisis by saying: "I'm 46 years old. Who am I? Where am I going?" Reminds me of the great painting by Paul Gaugin, "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" -- the work that Gaugin saw as the culmination of his life and work, and after which he planned to commit suicide. Those are pretty much the eternal questions, no?

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