This all begins with The Sopranos. I keep saying that I’m currently ‘revisiting’ the series, but that’s because I’m too embarrassed to admit that I’d only seen maybe half an episode prior to this current marathon — I started with the pilot two weeks ago and am steadily working my way forward. By now I am so swayed by the brilliance of everything about this show, from the writing to the directing to the performances, that catching up on it occupies my every free moment. The two books I was enjoying prior to the start of this are shivering from neglect on the bedside table; I’m probably a month out from turning their pages again.
The question is why any serious screenwriter would ignore until now what the AFI has crowned as the number one best-written TV series of all time. There are two primary reasons and a secondary; the primaries relate to influence, the secondary to rebellion against influence.
The first primary reason was interpersonal. I was deeply in love with a man I will call Derek because that’s the name he led me to believe was his, but it turned out later really wasn’t. We were dating around the time The Sopranos was picking up steam, when it was starting to kick ass and transforming HBO and all of cable TV forever after. Derek believed that the show glorified thugs and justified sociopathic behavior by making the hero identifiable, a common misgiving. Because I was so infatuated with this guy, I allowed his judgment to influence mine and I developed an aversion to the show that I would never have had if I’d watched just a few episodes.
I was allowing my opinions to be led by his because in the early days of dating Derek I was still asking myself what the catch was with this guy, he was seemingly so perfect: as handsome as Superman; so masculine you would question his gayness; the sex was off the hook, to this day the best I’ve ever had; he was an environmental engineer with a steady job; he went to Amherst, whereas I went to the Wesleyan, and the two schools have a long relationship; he was a former rugby player, and I can only watch that sport in private or I’ll embarrass myself — it’s like soft porn for me.
The catch turned out to be huge, life-changing, in itself an influencer. The first sign that something was well askew with him was when I found out four months into the relationship that Derek wasn’t his real name. Soon afterwards we had our first fight, about religion — I made a disparaging (but true) comment about the papacy, and Derek was devoutly religious with his own particular relationship with God (but he leaned Catholic). It was a silly fight, but his rage was out of proportion to the silliness. He didn’t speak to me for days. Finally he responded to an email of mine with a short litany of behavior modifications that I would have to undertake if we were to continue forward as a couple. The alarming thing about his email was it was literally a litany written in Biblical verse. Apparently God had personally spoken to Derek on the 101 Freeway and had delivered these commandments unto him, his chosen prophet, to convey to me.
I immediately called my own God expert, one of the more advanced dervishes in my Sufi order in London. “What is our policy about hearing God’s voice?” I asked.
“He doesn’t speak in a human voice,” my friend replied, the implication being that God doesn’t exist as the supernatural puppeteer envisioned by most exoteric religions. “It sounds like a symptom of schizophrenia to me.” She also happened to be a psychologist, a preferred profession for the Sufis of my particular order.
Up until then I’d never given much thought to psychology or mental illness. So I turned to Lord Google the Omniscient and looked up the symptoms of schizophrenia. Verily, the Lord declared that Derek was a textbook case: having had a major psychotic break prior to twenty-two, which led to a complete break with his family, he often had hallucinations (for example, he saw the Devil in the flesh); he was both paranoid and delusional; he was overly religious with a special relationship with God that I couldn’t possibly fathom; and on and on.
The relationship ended badly, and it was devastating for me — it took a good three years to get over. Try as I might, and I even joined support groups for friends and family of schizophrenics, I couldn’t love him unconditionally (that’s a dog’s attribute, frankly, not for humans) and was worn down by the insanity that was so artfully masked by his social conformity. Nothing he told me about himself was true, not even the rugby playing at Amherst, as I found out later when I persuaded an alum to check the records.
However, the experience launched a passionate interest in psychology that guided the course of my work for the better part of thirteen years. Prior to that, it had been India whose influence held complete dominion over my writing and other projects. A British producer once said, “James, if I read another script of yours that begins with ‘EXT. INDIA – DAY’ I’m going to kill myself.” That obsession switched with Derek. I abandoned the superficial emotionality of an exotic Asian culture and dove into the deep end of insanity and its affect on relationships.
The other primary reason The Sopranos repelled me at first is a gross act of snobbery, again the influence of a culture outside my native one. As a New Yorker raised in Italy, and not in the south of the country where most immigrants are from, I have an aversion to Italo-American culture, from the bastardization of the food — it all tastes like Chef Boyardee, frankly, with that tart tomato-paste base… blech — to the nasal whining of their mock Italian accents inflected with anglicized words from the southern dialects. As it is, I can read Dante in the original, but I have to read the subtitles on movies in Neapolitan and Sicilian. However, had I actually watched The Sopranos, I would have understood that any issues that I have with Italo-American culture are examined in detail, and I would have found it more than enough to hold my interest.
The secondary influence on my aversion to the show is that unlike most people I have an instinctive dislike of conformity. I don’t know where it comes from. What the majority love I tend to look at skeptically, or it makes me downright uncomfortable. The mere fact the show was being showered with such accolades meant that it was too normal for me, to be avoided in favor of what wasn’t so popular.
I was also still influenced by the disdain filmmakers of my generation had for TV, an attitude that The Sopranos ended up changing forever. Now not only am I in awe of shows like that, but I have joined the chorus that is sounding the death knell of theatrically released dramas and ringing the celebratory bells for the rise of them on cable TV. Yes, the diehard nonconformist has joined a chorus, but in fairness to me TV needed to prove itself before it could change my mind.
This flip-flopping is worthy of a politician. As cool and level headed as Obama is on many issues, on others he’s as seemingly flaky and inconsistent as a stoner surfer dude from Malibu. I’m specifically referring to his ‘evolved’ stance on gay equality. As the Christian leader Ralph Reed noted on Meet the Press yesterday, fourteen months ago Obama supported discrimination against gay people. I am inclined to doubt he discriminated personally, just as I don’t think he really believes in God, but as a politician who is forced to support the consensus of the majority he was obliged to adopt an opposing stance to our equality in public.
The truth is most people in the gay community didn’t fully understand the point of marriage equality — why would we want to conform to that most heteronormative of institutions? Once it was explained that we were unequal and being discriminated against, the consensus changed nationally for both Gheys and Str8s. Even children could understand what was going on, at times with more clarity than adults who were more set in their ways. Discussions at the dinner table, fueled by the rhetoric of the recent elections, set fire to the grassroots and brought us to where we are today: a President with a changed mind and DOMA and Prop 8 dead.
A huge part of what influenced this shift in consensus was a shift in the voice that argued the case for change. As is often the case with influence, the right spokesperson is crucial. The voice of equality moved away from the strident tenor of militant gay men like Andrew Sullivan — who, while articulate and knowledgeable, is not a likable character — and assumed the more dulcet contralto of amiable Lesbotrons like Ellen Degeneres and Rachel Maddow. The guys strategically stepped aside for the gals, with good reason: two dads are kind of unsettling and maybe threatening (one is often more than enough in straight families), but two moms appeal to the inner child of most people. And then the adorable, elegantly coiffed Edith Windsor — the archetypal, almost aspirational modern American mother — stepped forward and slew the dragon of institutionalized bigotry once and for all.
Influence has a lot to do with respect, and nobody knows better than a Ghey what it’s like to live without it. When you’re born into the lowest stratum of the pecking order no matter what your family’s social standing, it’s hard to have respect for yourself much less others in your adopted ‘family.’ And if you can’t even respect yourself, you can’t expect to wield influence over others.
The tribe is naturally fearful of the outsider. It abhors the fringe because outsiders threaten the defense mechanisms that assist the tribe’s survival. It can be unpleasant for most to live in that fringe — not for weirdos like me who, for the most part, actually enjoy it— which is why many Gheys and Lesbotrons who could fake it found it easier to stay in the closet. There is safety within the influence of conformity.
What is toughest for a nonconformist like me is the impact being an outsider has on my career. Most people are naturally influenced by status over merit, and unless the outsider is accorded the status of wealth and fame his merit counts for little. Let’s take as an example that producer who despaired that all of my projects were set in India. His fear was based on the fact the country was nowhere on the entertainment map from a Western perspective, despite being the largest film industry in the world in terms of volume of product. Only oddities like Merchant-Ivory and Mira Nair had the rare breakout. However, the producer, a Brit who worked many years to get my Hamlet-in-Rajasthan project made, also once said, “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I think it works better than the original Shakespeare.” But merit always loses to status, and as long as India remains so fringe, that Hamlet piece will get no love.
Like marriage equality, the Western attitude toward India is changing, as are the attitudes towards other more socially subversive elements of my work, specifically the non-Indian-themed projects that deal with insanity. At this juncture, I have learned to wait, to take the hit because my role is manifestly not one of the conformist; on the contrary, it seems to be one that questions social influence. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to paint myself as some visionary revolutionist; as often as not, my ideas are whacky and impractical, and I junk them accordingly.
And I readily admit to being influenced by outside factors both social and interpersonal — there is some comfort in the occasional embrace from the tribe and majority opinion as long as it’s right, as is the case with marriage equality. Still, I regard being an iconoclast as clearly progressive, and it gives a certain clear purpose to a life that is, existentially speaking, seemingly purposeless.