Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Not Fade Away: What Do You See in the Clouds?


By Thomas Puhr

*Spoilers Abound*

The Lives You Could Have Lived: Fame / Douglas and Pat

            Writer-director David Chase seems fascinated by the randomness of life’s fortunes and misfortunes. One life can take so many different paths, yet, ultimately, we are forced to choose one. Toward the beginning of Not Fade Away, Chase’s feature-film debut, Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), the film's narrator, makes it clear that her big brother Douglas' band, like most bands, will not make it big. In order to emphasize this point, Chase juxtaposes the genesis of The Rolling Stones (in a short, black-and-white sequence, he shows them discussing music as teenagers) with the genesis of Douglas’ band in front of a guitar shop in New Jersey. These scenes, which immediately follow one another, are very similar. The only obvious difference is that everyone knows The Rolling Stones, while no one will remember Douglas’ band. We are not shown the series of events that led to The Rolling Stones making it big. Chase instead opts for focusing on one of the many ‘60s-era garage bands that faded away.
            Although Not Fade Away seems to focus on Douglas and his band, the film’s emotional and thematic core is the relationship between Douglas (John Magaro) and his hard-edged father, Pat (James Gandolfini, who does a lot with a mostly-peripheral role). Chase draws a number of parallels between Douglas and Pat, making it clear that despite surface-level differences, the father and son are quite similar. Just as Pat grew up during the tumultuous time of World War II, Douglas is growing up during Vietnam. While Pat did not serve because his manufacturing job needed him, Douglas does not serve because he does not “believe” in the war.
            Most interestingly, Douglas and Pat are connected by their desires to escape their current lives and to find “better” lives in the West Coast, specifically in California. Douglas wants to go to California to make it big (naturally) and to tag along with his ethereal girlfriend, Grace (Bella Heathcote). In a touching dinner scene between Douglas and Pat, we find out that Pat also has dreams of the West Coast, having recently fallen in love with a woman he met in California while there for cancer treatment. Douglas, overwhelmed nearly to tears by his father’s frankness, assures his father that he could have stayed home with his mother so Pat could be with his dream woman in California. Pat brushes the idea aside; we get the sense that his time is up, that his life is, for better or worse, to remain in New Jersey. Douglas eventually does make it to California and Pat indicates his approval by secretly giving his son some money for the trip. Douglas drives off into the distance with his girlfriend and Chase leaves the camera on Pat for a moment as he stands on the corner, looking after his son. In this wordless, brief moment, watching Pat standing alone in the street, one gets the impression that Gandolfini’s tired and weary face tells more about his character than any line of dialogue possibly can.
            A wordless montage near the end of the film solidifies the parallels between Douglas and Pat. Alone on the couch, sitting next to his cold and distant wife, Pat watches the “Bali Hai” scene from South Pacific and wipes a tear away when he sees the Technicolor beach in the film, no doubt reminded of the life he could have lived in California. In this moment, we understand that Pat came back to New Jersey to stay with his wife so that Douglas would not have to, so that Douglas could pursue his dreams in the West Coast. Chase then cuts from the beach in the film to Douglas and Grace driving toward the beach in California. This short, wordless scene is probably one of the saddest and most affecting scenes of 2012 and is given extra resonance by the haunting lyrics of “Bali Hai”: "Most people live on a lonely island, / Lost in the middle of a foggy sea. / Most people long for another island, / One where they know they will like to be.” While Pat longs for “another island” in California, Douglas, at the end of the film, becomes a “lonely island” himself, separated from Grace and on the precipice of a new, uncertain life chapter. What is a reality for Douglas is merely a dream on television for Pat.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Rod Serling
            Similar to Chase’s groundbreaking series, The Sopranos, Not Fade Away is influenced by the mysteries of philosophy and spirituality. In one seemingly-throwaway scene, Wells (Will Brill), the band’s drummer, attempts to comfort the recently-ousted Eugene (Jack Huston) by paraphrasing the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “There is no past, no future either. Just the now.” Interestingly, this phrase is also the film’s tagline. Shortly after philosophizing with Eugene, Wells has a nearly-fatal motorcycle accident, further emphasizing the unpredictability and randomness of the present. Only Chase would cite the Book of the Dead in a coming-of-age rock film.
            In addition to referring to ancient-Eastern philosophy, Chase also repeatedly refers to one of the most influential and mystical of twentieth-century American personalities: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling. Early in the film, Douglas recites some of the show’s famous opening lines to himself. Here is Rod Serling’s entire monologue, which has some interesting parallels to Chase’s vision:

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone. (“The Twilight Zone (1959 TV Series)")

Instead of following a clear story arc, Chase is clearly more interested in sifting through a collection of memories and moments; a sort-of stream-of-consciousness style of filmmaking (Chase), where the viewer is led through his timeless, infinite imagination. This accounts for the supposed “randomness” of some scenes, such as a funny scene in which Douglas and some of his bandmates get high in a bathroom and one of them accidentally sucks a joint down his throat. Why is this scene in the film? It serves no immediate purpose to the story, and yet, somehow, it just feels right within the film’s progression of images and ideas. It feels like the sort of foggy memory that someone would fondly look back on and laugh at as an adult.
            Not Fade Away is comprised entirely of moments like this. Toward the end of the film, at a party in Los Angeles, Douglas again refers to The Twilight Zone when he asks two hippies if they know where Rod Serling lives. If it seems I am harping too much on the importance of The Twilight Zone, consider the fact that the film was originally entitled Twylight Zones (which is, as it turns out, the name of Douglas’ band). It is interesting to note that “twilight zone” may also refer to “twilight sleep,” that semiconscious moment between wakefulness and sleep (The Free Dictionary 2013). Indeed, Not Fade Away has, in many respects, the qualities of a dream: vaguely connected scenes, snippets of memories, and so forth. Through Not Fade Away, the audience enters Chase’s twilight zone.
            Instead of following the “story” from point A to point B, Chase seems more interested in looking at point A for a while and then making a bunch of pit-stops before eventually finding his way to point B, which turns out (through a recurring image) to sort of be point A again. This recurring image that brings the film full circle is that of a cloud formation that Douglas sees early in the film. He and his buddies argue over whether the cloud is in the shape of a “3” or an “S” and eventually decide that it represents both, meaning “success for the three of us.” At the end of the film, about to begin a new and more-independent life, Douglas sees another strange cloud formation. Instead of offering a tidy and comforting answer, Chase ends his film with a question: What does young Douglas see in the clouds this time?
Looking at Yourself: The Individual
            After spending the entire film searching for solidarity in a group (whether it is with his band or with Grace), Douglas finds himself utterly alone at the end of the film. However, this aloneness is not necessarily presented as a bad thing. In fact, Douglas is shown as finally accepting and embracing his aloneness. This acceptance can be seen when he refuses to get in the car of two suspicious-looking hippies when he is hitchhiking. Instead of getting in the car, he walks off, alone, while the opening chords of the Sex Pistols’ “Road Runner” ring out (a song choice that anticipates the approaching punk rock scene of the ‘70s). Chase himself has even said in interviews that one of the things he wants viewers to walk away with is the idea that sometimes it is okay to be alone (Chase).
            Throughout the film, Chase establishes a self-reflective tone regarding the Douglas character. In one scene, Douglas stumbles upon Grace’s sister, a painter. In an interesting and unsettling editing choice, Chase cuts from Douglas looking toward Grace’s sister (that is, toward the camera; the sister is off-screen) to Douglas and the sister standing together on the other end of the room, the direction in which Douglas was just staring. This juxtaposition of images gives the viewer the strange impression that Douglas is looking at himself standing with Grace’s sister. Chase used this exact same technique in the final scene of his unfairly-infamous finale to The Sopranos.
Final Thoughts
            Not Fade Away is by no means without its flaws. Evelyn’s narration is completely unnecessary and her extended dance at the end of the film is almost unbearable. But despite its faults, Chase’s first big-screen offering is a very interesting examination of the huge role popular music played to an entire generation in the ‘60s and to generations beyond. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the film boasts an incredible soundtrack that includes The Rolling Stones, James Brown, Bo Diddley, and even a few songs written for Douglas’ band by Steve Van Zandt. What sets the film apart from other coming-of-age stories, though, is Chase’s interest in the otherworldly, the metaphysical, the philosophical. Chase’s flights-of-fancy (i.e. Evelyn’s dance) can sometimes be maddening, but these inconsistencies are also part of the film’s allure and charm. Chase’s experiments sometimes blow up, but at least he is trying to do something new with an old story. It is certainly an unusual coming-of-age film (if you can even call it that), which makes it a breath of fresh air. I look forward to seeing which twilight zone Chase takes us through next.


“Bali Hai Lyrics.” ST Lyrics. ST Lyrics, 2002-2013. Web. 26 February 2013.
Chase, David. Interview by Callie Bundy. Star Watch Media. Star Watch Media, 2012. Web. 26 February 2013.

---. Interview by David Poland. The Hot Button. The Hot Button, 2012. Web. 27 February 2013.
“Not Fade Away.” IMDB. IMDB, 2012. Web. 26 February 2013.
“The Twilight Zone (1959 TV Series).” Wikipedia. MediaWiki, 2013. Web. 26 February 2013.
“Twilight Sleep.” The Free Dictionary. 2013.