David Chase used his secret sharer James Gandolfini in a quietly devastating way in his feature film writing/directing debut last year, Not Fade Away. Gandolfini plays Pat, the disapproving dad of '60s Jersey teen and fledgling rocker Douglas (John Magaro), and in the early exchanges between the working-class father and the Beatle-boots sporting son the words and attitudes are conventionally gruff and bluff, standard get-a-haircut stuff goosed with racial and sexual epithets for extra added discomfort. The discomfort turns out to carry something beyond its initial shock value, which the viewer doesn't get right away. And it seems a little odd, at first; having cast Gandolfini in the first place, and knowing all of what the actor is capable of, why give him so seemingly little to do? Well, we might think, this is after all a coming of age story; the son's, not the dad's.
But Chase is an artist of expansive brilliance and exquisite sensitivity, perhaps even more sensitivity than the television critics who have built a kind of church on the rock of The Sopranos even know. Later on in the movie, after a particular family crisis, Pat dresses up and takes his college-age, still-rocking son to a "nice" local restaurant, a private, favorite place of his, a place where he can unwind like a man. Having long not understood his son, Pat having experienced a personal crisis that has left him at something of a loss, now thinks that his son can understand him. And he makes a confession to his son. The confession is written in the words that a simple man, or a man who takes pride in believing himself a simple man, would use; no one, really, is better at a certain working-class idiom right now than Chase is. And Gandolfini takes the words, and without any affectation or winking or any kind of actorly showing off, he launches them over an entire emotional spectrum; he's sheepish, he's prideful, he's confident, and most of all, he's free, he's free...because he thinks his son, who's maybe a member of what Otis Redding called "the love crowd," is a person who can comprehend the sense of yearning that Pat is finally allowing himself to fully feel, to feel despite the very real danger involved.
And the finally crushing thing about the scene is that Douglas doesn't get it. At all. He reacts like the kid he still is. He's embarassed, he's why-are-you-telling-me-this; the bluster of the ostensibly enlightened young generation can't stand up to genuine emotional revelation. (It's a tough scene for me personally, not least because my parents split up when I was in my teens, and there was more than one exchange I had with my old man that was rather like the one here.) And the look on Gandolfini's face as the scene ends is amazing. He never expected to be disappointed by his son in this way. But because Pat is a decent man, and perhaps not as simple as he believes himself to be, he does not let the rebuff stick. He begins to encourage Doug, albeit quietly, with magnanimous gestures, and an instruction he makes not with words but with a tilt of the head: If you can just get away from this (Jersey, stifling family. everything), you'll be all right.
Some critics have called Not Fade Away an exercise in nostalgia, and while it certainly does regard the fashions of its time with affection and avers that the music of its time was seminal in ways that go way beyond what we call mere "pop culture," it hardly trucks in the kind of triumphalism one normally associates with celebrations of good old days. The movie ends with its hero, lost and alone, on the streets of a Los Angeles that's past the summer of love and about to turn freakily ugly, his dreams unrealized, far from his friends, with failure behind him and failure likely in front of him. After he declines a ride from a car full of what look like future Mansonites, the night envelopes him like a shroud, and in that shroud is the shadow of his father, and his father's own sense of failure, and disappointment in himself. And without Gandolfini's presence, and acting genius, Chase could not have conjured precisely that shadow before bringing Douglas' sister back on screen to dance us out of the dark.