Film Crit Hulk Smash: HULK SMASHES THE PUNY PARADIGMS OF FILM CRITICISM WITH HULK-SIZED SEMIOTICAL ESSAYS ON STORYTELLING, CINEMATIC PRINCIPLES, AND MEDIA THEORY! HULK EVEN MAKE PRACTICAL HOW-TO GUIDES! See More...

Film Crit Hulk Smash: WHY JAMES GANDOLFINI MATTERS

Hulk says goodbye to a legend.

Film Crit Hulk Smash: WHY JAMES GANDOLFINI MATTERS

JAMES GANDOLFINI IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ACTORS IN HISTORY.

THAT STATEMENT MAY SEEM HYPERBOLIC, BUT IN THE QUALITY DELUGE OF WHAT HAS FOLLOWED THE SOPRRANOS IT HAS BECOME RATHER EASY TO FORGET JUST HOW MUCH THAT SHOW TRULY REVOLUTIONIZED TELEVISION. THERE WAS SIMPLY NOTHING LIKE IT BEFOREHAND. CREATOR DAVID CHASE, THANKS IN LARGE PART TO THE COURAGE OF HBO, WAS ABLE TO TURN TV INTO SOMETHING THAT WAS NOT ONLY ADULT-ORIENTED AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY NUANCED, BUT HYPER-CINEMATIC, RIGHT DOWN TO THE CHOICE OF ASPECT RATIO. AND THE SHOCKING USE OF A 13-EPISODE SHORTENED SEASON ALLOWED FOR THE KIND OF CONCENTRATED STORYTELLING THAT NETWORKS COULDN'T AFFORD TO UTILIZE. AND EVEN IF COUNTLESS OTHER SERIES TOOK "THE SOPRANOS MODEL" AND RAN WITH IT, THE DEPTH AND THEMATIC ELEMENTS OF THE SHOW STILL REPRESENT THE PINNACLE OF ARTISTIC ACHIEVEMENT.

AND AT THE CENTER OF IT ALL WAS TONY SOPRANO.

CALL IT AN OPINION, BUT HE IS PROBABLY THE MOST FULLY-REALIZED (AND THUS GREATEST?) CHARACTER OF ALL TIME. WE CHALK THIS UP TO FEELING THE CONSEQUENCES. EVERYTHING MATTERED WITH TONY SOPRANO, FOR HE SEEMED TO CARRY THE WEIGHT OF EVERY STORY MOMENT WITH HIM INTO THE NEXT MOMENT. IT WAS ALL GROUNDED IN THE IMPECCABLE WRITING OF COURSE, BUT YOU COULDN'T HELP BUT FEEL LIKE THIS WAS ALL GANDOLFINI. HE JUST HAD THIS SEEMINGLY IMPOSSIBLE DEXTERITY. AT TIMES WARM. AT TIMES FULL OF WRATH. HE COULD COMBINE LUST AND REPULSION INTO A SINGLE GESTURE. HE COULD CHANGE HIS PERSONALITY WITHOUT CHANGING HIS CHARACTER. FROM AN ACTOR STANDPOINT IT CAN ALL BE FUNCTIONALLY EXPLAINED, AS HE WAS A FELLOW ACTOR'S DREAM: IN A SINGLE SECOND GANDOLFINI COULD LISTEN TO YOUR LINE, MAKE IT REGISTER, SHOW HOW IT AFFECTED HIM AND REACT WITH ANY GIVEN NUMBER OF POSSIBLE RESULTS. THAT'S THE REAL MEASURE OF ACTING ON A FUNCTIONAL LEVEL. IT'S ABOUT THE ABILITY TO CONVEY INFORMATION AND MEANING WITH SIMPLE BEHAVIORS AND HE WAS A TRUE MASTER AT IT. AND FOR A SHOW THAT COULD BE SOMEWHAT EVASIVE AT TIMES, THAT MEANS THAT IT COMPLETELY THRIVED ON HIS ATLASIAN SHOULDERS. AND SINCE THE SHOW WAS SO GROUNDED IN HIS PERFORMANCE, HULK FEELS RATHER COMFORTABLE SAYING THAT GANDOLFINI WHOLLY EMBODIES THE AFOREMENTIONED CHANGE IN TELEVISION. LIKE BRANDO AND DE NIRO BEFORE HIM, HE EMBODIES THE SHIFT. HE EFFECTIVELY CHANGED A MEDIUM. HE MADE IT NOT TELEVISION.

HE ALSO HAD A HELL OF A CAREER.

SOME FOLKS HAVE A TENDENCY TO THINK OF HIM AS "JUST" TONY SOPRANO AND HULK WOULD HONESTLY ADMIT THAT IS... SOMEWHAT FAIR. IF ONLY BECAUSE THE SHOW WAS SUCH A POPULAR CULTURAL CAMPFIRE AND BECAUSE HE SIMPLY ENDEARED HIMSELF TO US, BUT IT IS ALSO PAINFULLY NOT FAIR BECAUSE THERE WAS SO MUCH MORE TO HIS RANGE.

FIRST THOUGHTS DRIFT TO IN THE LOOP, A.K.A. ONE OF THE FUNNIEST, MOST QUOTABLE MOVIES EVER. HIS GENERAL MILLER WAS A VIBRANT MIX OF BURLY, PLAYFUL CHARM, OAFISH JUVENILITY AND SOBERING WIT. HECK, JUST WATCH THIS CLIP:

GANDOLFINI ALSO HAD THIS FUNNY BUT UNDERSTANDABLE STREAK OF TURNING UP IN MOVIES AS THE HITMAN / BRUISER TYPE. FROM THE HAPLESS FORMER STUNTMAN TURNED THUG IN GET SHORTY, TO HIS ALTERNATELY PLAYFUL AND TERRIFYING HITMAN IN TRUE ROMANCE (COMPLETE WITH STONER BRAD PITT INTERACTION!), TO HIS DECIDEDLY COMIC YET HUMANE TURN IN THE EARLY VERBINSKI FILM THE MEXICAN, TO EVEN HIS MOST RECENT FORAY IN KILLING THEM SOFTLY (YOU MAY NOTICE THAT HE AND BRAD PITT ARE BUDS). BUT MANY OF HIS OTHER FILM ROLES SEEMED TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF HIS QUIET, BROODING BUT SOMEHOW LARGER-THAN-LIFE PERSONA. THE PHYSICALITY PLAYED AND COULD ALWAYS GIVE HIM THIS AUTHORITATIVE BENT. YOU CAN SEE IT IN APPEARANCES LIKE THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, THE LAST CASTLE, THE PELHAM REMAKE, AND MOST RECENTLY AS THE CIA DIRECTOR IN ZERO DARK THIRTY. THE LAST OF WHICH PERFECTLY ENCAPSULATES THIS EFFECT. THINK ABOUT THE CAFETERIA SCENE, WHERE HE IS AT ONCE IMPOSING AS HE IS CRAVING HONESTY, THEN YOU CAN FULLY SEE THE WAY SHE EARNS HIS TRUST WITH HER CERTAINTY. GANDOLFINII JUST HAD THAT SHORTHAND OF INSTANTLY CREATING IMPACT, CONVEYING A SIMULTANEOUS SENSE OF STERN EXTERIOR AND BUBBLING HUMANITY UNDERNEATH.

SOMETIMES THE EXTERIOR COULD GIVE TREMENDOUS WARMTH IN FILMS LIKE VIOLET AND DAISY. BUT PERHAPS MOST INTERESTING WAS HIS ROLE IN WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, A MOVIE WHICH IS NOT ONLY ONE OF THE BEST SEMIOTICS MOVIES ABOUT CHILDHOOD PSYCHOLOGY EVER, BUT IS WHOLLY EXEMPLARY OF THE WOUNDED, CHILDLIKE SIDE OF HIS PERSONALITY. HIS CAROL, SYMBOLIC IN SO MANY WAYS OF THE THE RAGING ID AND COGNITIVE DISSONANCE WITHIN MAX, WRESTLES SO CLEARLY WITH SCARY EXISTENTIAL IDEAS THAT HE CAN DEFLECT OUT OF THAT SAME TERROR. WATCH THIS AMAZING CLIP TO SEE PRECISELY HOW GANDOLFINI INFLECTS HIS WORDS AND MAKES THAT TRUE...

PERHAPS WE LOVE HIM BECAUSE GANDOLFINI EXEMPLIFIED THE WORKING CLASS ACTOR. THE SON OF A LUNCH LADY AND A BRICKLAYER, HE SEEMED COMPLETELY SEPARATE FROM THE NOTIONS OF CELEBRITY AND THE MACHINATIONS OF HOLLYWOOD. YES, HE WAS AN ACTOR, BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY HE JUST SEEMED LIKE A GOOD FAMILY MAN. LIKE A GUY WHO RAISED AN EYEBROW TO ANY REAL HINT OF PRETENSION. EVERYONE WHO KNEW HIM HAD THE MOST AMAZING STORIES OF HIS KINDNESS, HUMILITY AND GOOD HUMOR.

... AND BECAUSE OF EVERYTHING HULK HAS JUST DESCRIBED, TODAY WE GOT THE KIND OF NEWS THAT HITS YOU RIGHT IN THE DAMN STOMACH.

JAMES GANDOLFINI HAS DIED.

IT HITS US THAT HARD BECAUSE HE DID SEEM TRULY GOOD. BECAUSE HE WAS SO GRUFFLY CHARMING AND RELATABLE. AND BECAUSE HE WAS AN ACTOR WHO WAS COMPLETELY INGRAINED IN OUR PSYCHE. FOR THE CHARACTER OF TONY SOPRANO WAS AT ONCE COMPLETELY BELOVED, YET STILL HAD ALL THESE BROAD FACETS OF INESCAPABLE FLAWS, WHICH MEANS WE FELT LIKE WE TRULY KNEW HIM. IT SOUND RIDICULOUS, BUT HE FEELS ALMOST LIKE A FAMILY MEMBER, DOESN'T HE? AND WHEN YOU COUPLE THAT WITH THE FACT THAT HE WAS STILL YOUNG ENOUGH THAT YOU WOULD JUST NEVER, EVER THINK ABOUT SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENING, THEN THE NEWS COMPLETELY CATCHES YOU OFF GUARD. IT MAKES YOUR STOMACH FALL INTO YOUR FEET. AND THE PROBLEM WITH THIS BRIGHT START CUTTING TO BLACK TOO SOON IS THAT ALL HULK KEEPS THINKING ABOUT IS WHAT WE'LL NEVER HAVE. FOR HE STILL SURELY HAD A FEW MASTER PERFORMANCES LEFT IN HIM. WE'RE LEFT TO THINK ABOUT THAT PROMISE AND POSSIBILITY... BUT THERE WILL ALWAYS BE THE GIFTS HE HAS GIVEN US.

PERHAPS IT'S FITTING THAT THE FINAL PERFORMANCE HULK SAW HIM IN IS NOT FADE AWAY. NOT ONLY WAS GANDOLFINI QUITE REMARKABLE IN IT, BUT THERE IS SOMETHING SO APT ABOUT HIS REUNITING WITH CHASE FOR ONE OF THE MOST SUBTLY COMPLEX AMERICAN MOVIES IN RECENT MEMORY. IN TYPICAL CHASE FASHION, THE FILM IS ABOUT MANY THINGS, BUT HANGING OVER EVERYTHING IS THE CONSTANT, SUBCONSCIOUS QUEST FOR PERMANENCE. FOR THE KIND OF IMMORTALITIES WE TREASURE IN YOUTH, AS TO MAKE THE CLAWING INEVITABILITY OF DEATH HAUNT US. OR EVEN WORSE THAN DEATH SEEMS TO BE THE IDEA OF SOMEHOW NOT MATTERING. THESE CONCEPTS SUBCONSCIOUSLY WREAK HAVOC ON THE FILM'S YOUTH, AND WE IN TURN WATCH THEM FUMBLE WITH THESE CONCEPTS AS THEY PISS IT AWAY INTO ABSTRACTION. THE TRAGEDY IS MOST FELT BY GANDOLIFINI OF ALL PEOPLE, WHO WATCHES IT ALL UNFOLD WITH KNOWING EYES.

WHICH IS BOTH FITTING AND YET IRONIC, BECAUSE HULK CAN THINK OF NO OTHER ACTOR WHO LESS SOUGHT THE FRIVOLITIES OF FAME AND YET WHOSE WORK CAN ABSOLUTELY BE RECOGNIZED AS PERMANENT. HE TRULY CHANGED ACTING. BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, GANDOLFINI CONNECTED SO DEEPLY WITH US. AND SO WE WILL TAKE THAT WITH US... HE WILL NOT FADE AWAY.

NEVER FADE AWAY.

<3 HULK

Film Crit Hulk's photo About the Author: FILM CRIT HULK WAS CREATED IN A CHAOTIC LAB EXPERIMENT INVOLVING GAMMA RADIATION, TELEPODS, AND THE GHOST OF PAULINE KAEL. NOW HULK HAVE DEEP AND ABIDING LOVE CINEMA.
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