Corrado has a very special talent, but he must keep it secret. Meadow’s soccer coach has a secret of his own.
EPISODE 9 - ORIGINALLY AIRED MARCH 7, 1999 WRITTEN BY JASON CAHILL, ROBIN GREEN & MITCHELL BURGESS DIRECTED BY ANDY WOLK
The one-word title “Boca” is my favorite episode title of the first season. It refers, obviously, to Boca Raton, the place where Corrado takes his lady-friend for some rest and relaxation. But boca is also the Spanish word for “mouth,” and this is where the pun gets fun. The things that Corrado and Tony do with their mouths are potentially very risky – it may even cost them their lives.
If it gets out that Corrado is skilled at pleasing women with his mouth, his position as Boss—and perhaps his life—could be in jeopardy. To be so orally talented is a professional liability in the hyper-macho world of the Mafia. Likewise, the thing that Tony does with his mouth—speak to a therapist—could lead to his ruination or death. In the profoundly unenlightened culture of the Mob, these oral acts potentially mark the men as weak and effeminate, possibly even homosexual.
The other thing that people do with their mouths is tell secrets. This episode is crisscrossed with secrets (and their revealing). Bobbi tells her stylist about Corrado’s oral ability. This juicy morsel makes its way to Carmela, who can’t help but share it with Tony, who in turn uses it to assert power over his uncle. Corrado reveals that Tony is receiving psychotherapy to Mikey Palmice. Tensions over these revealed secrets set up the major confrontation of the season: the attempt on Tony’s life by Corrado in “Isabella” (1.12).
Another major secret that gets spilled, by Meadow, is Coach Hauser’s relationship with Ally. Hauser’s predilection for adolescent girls is hinted at early, with an edit. Chase cuts from soccer-dad Tony cheering “Good job, girls!” at Meadow’s game to a Bada Bing dancer:
The juxtaposition plants the idea of the sexualization of teenage girls. Bing-manager Silvio “offers” the dancer, Brandy, to Hauser but the coach declines. Hauser may have declined Brandy because his taste in girls runs younger, but we cannot know this so early in the episode. We assume he declines because he is an upright family man. Much like Artie Bucco is. Artie rushes away from the pleasure-palace Bada Bing as soon as wife Charmaine phones and beckons him to come help her paint the house. (Watching the scene now, it seems strange that she would call a strip joint to talk to her husband, but I guess these were the days before everyone had a cellphone so it kinda makes sense.) I’m sure Chase included this phone call between Artie and Charmaine to emphasize how upright Artie is, how different he can be from guys like Tony Soprano. At this point in the hour, we believe that Coach Hauser is one of the good guys like Artie. Note how they wear pastel colors in comparison to the darker duds of the mobsters. Artie and Hauser live according to a higher standard. They’ve set a higher bar for themselves. As the two good men take leave back to their homes and wives, unsullied by the Bing’s temptations, we see that a “bar” literally and metaphorically separates them from Tony and Silvio:
Artie is the fulcrum of this episode, the man who courageously places himself between the Mob and Don Hauser after the coach’s misdeeds come to light. Artie is straight and upstanding, refusing even to “put money on the street” as Tony advises him to do – something even little old ladies like aunts Quintana and Jemma do. He is a far piece from Tony Soprano.
Tony lives beyond the law, and pictures himself as a kind of vigilante. He rights the wrongs that others cannot address. At an upscale restaurant, it is Tony who takes it upon himself to coax a cheeky young man to take off his baseball cap. In this scene, the camera expresses Tony’s strength and power by shooting him from a low angle, magnifying his menace. The reverse shot of the young man is from a high angle, diminishing him.
The young man is intimidated into removing his hat. When the maitre d’ thanks Tony for stepping in, it only reinforces Tony’s belief that he has an acceptable role in society as the vigilante.
Hauser’s crime is so great that a part of me wants Tony to mete out vigilante justice. But a part of me recognizes that this would not be morally justifiable. Dr. Melfi asks Tony, “I’m interested in knowing why you feel punishing this man falls upon you…Why do you think you, Anthony Soprano, always has to set things right?”
Artie answers this question in the very next scene: he essentially tells Tony that his need to “set things right” is not actually right, it is simply a selfish desire for vengeance that we all share (but he actually has the capability to act upon).
When Tony ponders whether or not to let Hauser live, A3’s “Woke Up This Morning (Urban Takeover Mix)” plays. Hmmm, it’s an interesting musical choice. The original version of the song is used over the opening credits, a sequence which manages to portray Tony as a man who seems sure of himself, tough, shrewd, and in control. The “remixed” version now plays as Tony’s conception of the world—and his role in the world as a vigilante—gets all mixed up:
(I love how the sound of the shattering cup is timed to perfectly coincide with an echoing element in the song. And how the uneaten sandwich on the table manages to emphasize how lost Tony feels – he’s too confused to eat!)
“Boca” follows on the heels of “The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti” and continues that episode’s criticism of absolutist notions of identity and morality. In “Tennessee,” we saw Chase effectively demonstrate that Tony is not evil, at least not in the simplistic, black-and-white way that Richard LaPenna (and the show’s detractors) would claim. Here, it is Tony’s black-and-white conception of the coach that is challenged. Although everyone, including the viewer, is revolted by Hauser’s grotesque and illegal actions, the coach is not necessarily evil. Chase throws in a wrinkle to make it harder for us to see him as evil: he and Ally were in a consensual relationship, and she even believes herself to be in love with the man. When she engages in “small cuttings,” it is not a suicide attempt, but a manifestation of grief – and a behavior that adolescent girls display all too often in the face of heartache.
Tony finally reaches a more relativist position about the coach, but it is a difficult epiphany for him. After calling off the killing, he stumbles into his house piss-drunk. He has accepted, at least temporarily, that there are notions—Truth, Justice, the Social Contract—higher and more important than his own selfish need for satisfaction and vengeance. The high camera angle, in direct contrast to the low camera angle used earlier at the restaurant, reflects his submission to these higher notions:
Throughout the early part of the episode, Tony feels stable and secure in his black-and-white view of the world. He is King of his world. But now he’s become drunkasaurus Rex. Tony’s absolutist worldview has been challenged, and he drunkenly teeters in the unstable and difficult realm of relativism.
The prior episode made an outright visual reference to GoodFellas when Chris Moltisanti/Michael Imperiori shot a man in the foot. The current episode makes another overt visual reference to another gangster film: Wellman’s 1931 classic The Public Enemy. In the film, Tom Powers (James Cagney) squashes a tart grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face in a moment of anger. Here, Corrado smashes a lemon meringue pie (also a tart, citrusy food) into his girlfriend’s face.
Chase’s handheld camera moves in close to capture the intensity and brutality of the moment. Corrado spits ugly words at her: “You stupid fuckin’ blabbermouth cunt!” Corrado is not naturally a cruel or harsh man; his anger here comes out of the profound emasculation he feels after his secret was revealed, as well as his having to consequently end his 14-year relationship with Bobbi. When he steps out of the office, the Spanish song “Frente a Frente,” which was heard while he and Bobby were in Boca Raton, begins to play again. He stands still for a moment, torn over what he has just done, but according to the rules of the world he lives in, he had no other choice. The overhead camera catches a sad and lonely man who will no longer be able to enjoy the annual trips to Florida with a woman he genuinely cared for. This overhead shot reminded me a lot of Edward Hopper’s etching Night Shadows:
It is possible that Edward Hopper’s work may have been a stylistic influence on David Chase. Hopper’s solitary figures and desolate cityscapes comment upon the crisis of modern man, and Chase’s series makes a similar existential commentary. There are other visual mirrorings of Hopper’s work in The Sopranos, and I will try to point out the more notable examples as they appear.
Corrado and Tony are conspicuously connected by the use of a high camera angle. Both men are shot from an overhead angle after making very difficult decisions: Tony allows Coach Hauser to live, and Corrado breaks up with Bobbi Sanfilippo.
While the extreme camera angles are dynamic and interesting, it’s not what we’re used to on this series – and it all feels a bit heavyhanded. Even more obtrusive are the editing flourishes in the Boca Raton scene where Corrado and Bobbi dance together. The scene ends with a freeze-frame and slow dissolve, but more surprisingly, opens with an actual iris transition. (I believe it’s the only time this type of transition occurs in the entire series.) I suppose these editing gimmicks are meant to lend an air of fantasy to the scene, giving Boca Raton a sort of fairytale quality – which makes Corrado’s slamming a lemon meringue in Bobbi’s face later even more dramatic and brutal. But the iris transition irks me, it is so incongruous to the series. I don’t know if it was the handiwork of the editor or David Chase or director Andy Wolk. Perhaps one of them simply liked the roundness of this type of edit:
This may be the simple explanation, especially when we consider the match-cut that appears later in the episode: Chase cuts from a round golf ball getting thwacked to a round tomato in the matching part of the next frame:
I know that no one but the most devoted film wonk would question the presence of an iris transition so much. I raise the issue mainly because the cuts from one scene to the next in The Sopranos are rarely gimmicky, despite being loaded oftentimes with humor or innuendo or a sight-gag. Inscrutable cuts such as this iris transition are such an anomaly on this series.
Andy Wolk did not direct any other episodes of The Sopranos. (This is not a criticism of his work here – in fact, I think this is an excellent episode.) He is one among several directors to have made a one-time-only contribution to the series. As the seasons progressed, David Chase relied on a smaller and smaller cadre of talented, kindred directors. They primarily included Allen Coulter, John Patterson, Alan Taylor and Tim Van Patten. The second tier, in terms of utilization by Chase, included Henry Bronchtein, Dan Attias and Steve Buscemi and a few others. By limiting the number of directors, Chase was better able to give a uniformity of style to The Sopranos episodes.
Looking back on the entire run of The Sopranos, we can see that David Chase loved to tinker with commonly held notions of what a season’s arc should look like. With “Boca,” it seems that Season 1 is going to conform to the traditional notion: this hour strongly amplifies the tension between Tony and Corrado as we enter into the final third—the endgame—of Season 1. Corrado’s distrust of his nephew is being fed by both his sister-in-law Livia and his henchman Mikey Palmice. A mirror shot underscores just how “doubled” Mikey really is: he plays golf with Tony like everything is fine and dandy but Mikey actually harbors a murderous suspicion of him.
But Chase plays with the swelling tension of this storyline, completely loping away from it in the next episode, and then bringing it to a climactic head—surprisingly—in the penultimate, rather than ultimate, hour of the season. (Interestingly, the current tension between Corrado and Tony is specifically precipitated by Corrado’s criticism of Tony’s athletic blunders as a young man, a criticism we first saw him make in the Pilot episode.) With typical unconventionality, Chase strongly sets up the primary tension of the Season 1 endgame now, but then spends the next two episodes exploring, respectively, the unrelated stories of Adriana’s foray into the music business and Big Pussy’s aching back.
- “Aarthuuw!” Charmaine is pretty much the only person in SopranoWorld who calls Artie by his given name. She is the one who gets Artie to see that any act of vengeance against the coach would be more an act of selfishness than of justice – and Artie in turn gets Tony to see it. In a real sense, Coach Hauser owes his life to Charmaine Bucco.
- The “Escovedo brothers or whoever” that Corrado refers to must be the Menendez brothers, who were famously turned in by their psychiatrist. It’s a nice touch of verisimilitude, the way that characters get their cultural references wrong or mixed up.
Satin Dolls, the actual strip club that doubles as the Bada Bing for the series, is a tiny, one-story place. In my screengrab of Brandy above, one can see how the club’s mirrors are utilized to effectively enlargen its space. For scenes that ostensibly take place on its second floor, rigging or a studio set is used. All of the “backroom” scenes are shot in studio.
- Corrado is worried that if word of his skills going down gets out, he’ll be labeled a finook, and this is why he overreacts so cruelly towards Bobbi. “Gay panic” within the mob becomes a larger theme in Season 6 when Vito Spatafore is outed.
- “Can’t You Feel the Fire” by Little Stevie (aka Steven Van Zandt aka Silvio Dante) plays during a scene at the Bing. HBO’s episode-synopsis pages list the music that appears in each hour, but the lists are not very comprehensive. A better resource is found here.
- The name of the Spanish-language song “Frente a Frente” can be translated as “face-to-face.” Fittingly, the song first plays when Corrado and Bobbi dance face-to-face in Boca Raton, and then again just after Corrado has a vicious face-to-face confrontation with her. The song adds more Latin flavor to this episode with the Spanish title “Boca.”
- More musical Latin flavor: Meadow and Ally watch Morphine’s video for “Buena” (Spanish for “Good”) and this song plays again over the end credits. It has lyrics about a devil, interestingly, named Buena. Perhaps Chase uses it for this reason – the song might be seen as a challenge to simplistic notions about good and evil.
- I don’t think the series ever makes it clear exactly why Tony and some of the other guys despise Mikey Palmice so much. Sure, he is Corrado’s servile yes-man and he can be obnoxious (two of the symptoms of fuckface-itis). But I can also picture Chase coming up with some specific backstory—maybe Mikey and Tony’s tensions began as they pursued the same girl in high school or something—but then decide not to supply the backstory to viewers.
- At first, I was a little surprised to hear the subtle musical scoring over that scene where drunk Tony bounces around his living room, because such scoring (other than over the opening credits and end credits) is so rare in this series. A general principle of The Sopranos is to allow the song chosen for the end credits to begin to play a bit before the credits actually begin to roll. This principle is not exactly violated here as I had first thought it was: the subtle music is actually the short instrumental, “Dawna,” the first track on Morphine’s album Cure for Pain, which segues into the next track on the album, “Buena,” just as the credits begin.
- All this close analysis of iris transitions and musical scoring probably makes some readers think that I should be on OCD meds. Maybe so, but I’m just trying to get this thing right.