Instances of popular culture are not merely reflections or expressions of the societies which produce them. They function, too, as modes of understanding, offering us terms by which we make, and avoid making, our experiences -- ourselves -- intelligible.
Take the history of American gangster movies as an example. Philosopher and film critic Robert Warshow, in his incisive 1948 essay "The Gangster as Tragic Hero," argues that the gangster movie, in its first incarnations in the 1930s, offered audiences something close to a modern version of classical Greek tragedy. This can be difficult to see if we picture classical Greek dramas as tragic because the person at the center of the story has a character flaw (often thought to be hubris, or pride) which, tragically, leads to bad ends. Instead Warshow, like Nietzsche, understands the tragic ending, not as somehow brought on by some aspect of the person's character, but as stemming more fundamentally from the fact the character is doomed to act at all.
With the initial appearance of gangster movies as a vibrant genre in the early years of sound movies, we are presented with a central figure whose demise stems from his drive to act, to accomplish, and to succeed. In these pictures, the gangster -- often played by Jimmy Cagney -- offers a vision of acting as nothing more than pure aggression. In these movies, the audience does not so much identify with the central gangster as remain transfixed by him, collapsing with an exhausted relief as the gangster is finally brought low, typically, in a fusillade of bullets. The gangster's success is nothing more than aggression, its costs are perspicuous in the accomplishment.
Warshow puts the point this way: "At bottom, the gangster is doomed because he is under the obligation to succeed, not because the means he employs are unlawful ... every attempt to succeed is an act of aggression, leaving one alone and guilty and defenseless among enemies: one is punished for success." As audience, then, we are reassured by the gangster's inevitable death; our reluctance to act aggressively, our fear that in acting we must cause harm, is confirmed.
When American gangster movies reemerged more than 30 years later, the central figure is no longer straightforwardly an abstraction of the actor as aggressor. Instead in these more recent instances, the central gangster is often presented as not choosing to be a gangster, as more a man of thought than of action.
For example, Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies continually presents himself as attempting to escape the gangster life: "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in." Or, as in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, we are presented with multiple gangsters, one reluctant, as Harvey Keitel's Charlie is, the other aggressive, as Robert DeNiro's Johnny Boy is. In these cases, the aggressive gangster is not the audience's sole focus, as he was in the early gangster cycle. Instead, the audience's understanding of this more aggressive character tends to be mediated through the eyes of the thoughtful or reluctant gangster, one whose presence of mind throws into relief the out-of-control nature of his aggressive compatriot.
This reemergence of American gangster movies in the early 1970s, then, marks a shift in effect, no longer fixating the audience on an abstract figure of aggression but rather cultivating its identification with an apparently much more reluctant figure, complicit but regretful in murderous aggression. The central gangster no longer says, as Tony Camonte, in the original 1932 version of Scarface, does before he opens fire with his new Tommy gun, "Outta my way! I gotta spit!" Rather, he's more likely to offer, with Michael Corleone, an excuse for his actions: "It?s only business."
This shift of focus from an aggressive gangster to a reluctant one is accompanied, most prominently, by a temporal shift as well. The movie gangster of the 1930s is more or less a contemporary figure, an image of our modern lives; the figure who reemerges in the 1970s is often a vision of our recent past, his story offering us our own secret history. One of the accomplishments of The Sopranos, the most recent, elaborate, and sustained meditation on the figure of the American gangster to date, is thus precisely to fix the apparently reluctant gangster firmly as our contemporary, as one who shares with us the ways we live now.
In placing the gangster on the couch and making him available, if problematically, for therapy, The Sopranos is able to make explicit the disconnect between the rationalizations and excuses the reluctant gangster offers and the activities in which he participates. The gangster, in the figure of Tony Soprano, is the only movie type so far to become available for sustained therapy. Thus, what is originally, in those early gangster movies, an abstract expression of action for its own sake has become a meditation on the relations between acting on the one hand and thinking, speaking, justifying, and explaining action on the other.
For, of course, Tony reveals himself, more or less, as a psychotic attempting to convince himself that he is a neurotic, his explanations nothing more than excuses, his therapy most notable for what he is unable, or refuses, to say. And whether one chooses to understand the fade to black in the final episode as the moment of death Tony never hears coming or rather as Tony having fated himself to live perpetually paranoid and isolated in a hostile world of his own making, the audience remains uncomfortably aligned with him. He's our contemporary, our neighbor in suburbia, whose gangster activities reveal themselves simultaneously as a form of death in life and somehow complicit with and revelatory of our own activities. In recognizing or refusing to recognize ourselves in the movie gangster, we understand ourselves in his light.