Saturday, October 12, 2013

You Can't Always Get What You Want, Can You David Chase?

Regrettably, David Chase did such a thorough job plumbing the psyche of his own youthful self in writing and directing Not Fade Away (2012), that the result is not merely a misfire, but a peculiarly adolescent one.

It is sort-of embarrasing to see a man in his 60s, a few years older than me, with such a stunningly successful body of work behind him such as creating and guiding The Sopranos through seven seasons, to succumb to his own undigested influences in this flailing, unfocused, imitative film.

Chase blows the gaffe halfway through when hereo Doug's college-educated girlfriend Grace takes him to Blow-Up, which he professes to be confused by, given the lack of narrative or underscore music  ("I think the trees are the music," says Grace, acting as ventroliquist dummy for writer-director Chase), despite the fact that Doug is supposed to be interested in filmmaking. But it is all a cover for the fact that Chase is himself attempting to make an Antonioni movie set in 1960s New Jersey, made most apparent in the brief final sequence in Hollywood, when Doug makes a desultory attempt to hitchhike at Hollywood and Vine and then his teenage sister pops up onscreen to narrate a thematic conclusion and then do some unmotivated and unsolicited go-go dancing (I wish I could find a video online to show you).  Chase's art-house ambitions couldn't be plainer by these theatrical affectations.

Some of the narrative failures couldn't be more basic.  One can almost hear young Chase whining to his screenplay professor, "But I want to make an ENSEMBLE story...that's why there are all these random, incomplete storylines."  Despite good intentions, the film clearly takes sides, telling Doug's story from beginning to end.  So the rambling and unrewarding thread about his girlfriend's hippy sister rebellions against father Chris MacDonald (and is there anything more cliched than being opposed to Chris MacDonald?  They even do it on network television) and the emotional thrashings of confused erstwhile lead singer Wells lead nowhere.  Even Gandolfini's gruff grumblings, as Doug's working class father seems a pointless warming over of familiar tropes, both of working-class dads with college sons, not to mention Gandolfini's own grouchy turns on The Sopranos.  Not even his contracting cancer can lead significance or originality to his story.

A sympathetic producer or story-editor could have helped Chase realize what his real story was, and stop trying to represent the entirety of the 1960s as seen from the suburbs of Essex County.  But them he or someone would have realized that what they had was a standard-issue bildungsroman adorned by some good old tunes and at least one good new one, heard in this clip in which they audition for a Bigtime Record Producer.

To its credit, the bands always sound like real bands playing at a realistic level of skill in real rooms for real people.  But other filmmakers have crashed on the same rocks, trying to avoid the cliche of show biz story crowned with success by having the hero crash through to the middle, or to nowhere, as this hero does.  We know the sequel -- our hero quits music and goes into TV, writing fine shows like The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure and still covering himself in the self-loathing that hovers every frame of this movie like the odorous haze over the Jersey Meadowlands, and prevents the audience from taking pleasure in even the most triumphant of scenes.

I understand that Mr. Chase is a fairly prickly and difficult fellow.  God knows, if he had any friends, they might have looked at this film and helped him to make something genuinely original and rewarding from it, instead of the desultory, self-indulgent thing it is.

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