Michael: Harold, don't you have any other music , you know, from this century?
Harold: There is no other music, not in my house.
Michael: There's been a lot of terrific music in the last ten years.
Harold: Like what?
Television is a drag when you work nights – there is rarely anything on when you stumble in after 11pm. But Friday I came home to find a treat of sorts: New York 55 was running The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan, 1983). I had not seen it in many years, and I cannot for the life of me remember screening it the first time, which is unusual. I know that I was in Charleston SC, a senior in high school, and deep into movies.
What I do remember is immediately accepting every character in the warmest way – all of them youngish, rich and interesting, but not teenagers. Nine characters gather at a funeral to say goodbye to Alex, a bright light from college. We know he was special because they are all morose as they attend, and we know their heyday from the soundtrack, a highly effective Top 20 playlist from the mid to late 60s. As Jobeth Williams plays The Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the organ while the casket is being removed, we know they are edgy and kooky, too.
The scene is a beautiful coastal town in the South. Alex is gone (a famously cut Kevin Costner), so we have a weekend sleepover with resident yuppies Harold and Sarah (Kevin Kline and Glenn Close), Nick the drug dealer/washout (a very seminal William Hurt), lawyer and potential inseminate Meg (a memorable Mary Kay Place), cynic, opportunist and “People” writer Michael (a pre-pumped Jeff Goldblum), Chloe, the young girlfriend Alex left behind (the odd and wonderful Meg Tilly), and finally the triangular set Karen, husband Richard and hot TV actor Sam (the very good JoBeth Williams, straight-laced Don Galloway, and superhunk Tom Berenger, in very fine form). Karen and Richard are rich suburbanites, Richard leaves early in the film but has important scenes, and Sam holds a flame for Karen. Our nine characters are left to put together the pieces of their lives and relationships in one short weekend.
The film still had a magic for me as I watched them all play set pieces with one another. This is a very canny product – deliberately written and cut, all of the jokes judiciously placed, and the vibe set to both the 60s (soundtrack) and the 80s (aging hipsters making dough). What is remarkable to consider was that as a young man in my teens and as an older man in my 40s my reaction was the same: the movie has a perfectly evoked sense of nostalgia, comfort food, and good jokes. Yes some of the lines read as if right off of a page (before he leaves lawyer Richard has a particularly wooden scene where he questions the whole hippy-dippy group and the dead friend Alex while he makes a midnight snack). What I slowly realized re-watching the movie was that the crucial ingredient here is the most obvious: these aren’t Yuppies, they’re Boomers. I had never even connected the two because I am a Gen X’er. The slick comfort the movie effuses is from one of the most coddled, loved, free and protected group of souls that America has ever produced. Their problems aren’t problems, they are developments, and their trysts are movie perfect because they are all as safe as houses, well, just like the big mansion they cavort in. Our poorest character, the drug addled Nick, drives a Porsche! Many scenes are set around eating, sleeping or shopping. This is the Baby Boom edition of America: beautiful, safe and white. No wonder it was and is so easy to plug into: these are very easy lives.
The rub is that it is still so interesting to watch. It cannot help its roots (our writer/director Kasdan and all of the main actors involved here were born from 1947-1950, excluding Meg Tilly) and it doesn’t try. In many ways the picture plays out like a therapy session, yet there is an edge to the scenarios - I think there is a deeper questioning in the film. What sells The Big Chill is the Boomer soft soap opera that unspools; what saves it is a deeper question of the world these people live in. Our cynic and “People” writer Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is “tired of his best work being read in the can”, Nick (Hurt) questions every character’s glib and easy life, Meg (Mary Kay Place) wonders how she ended up as the wrong kind of lawyer, Karen (Jobeth Williams) rages for a fully passionate sex life, Sam (Berenger) knows television is hollow (as he drinks his way to the funeral), and Sarah and Harold (Close and Kline) have a perfectly safe marriage. We know this because Sarah can only let loose her feelings in the shower, and Harold can only make jokes. Then there is Chloe, and she is the astringent for the whole film. Young and in her 20s, with none of the established ties and sureties of our main group, her very presence questions and undermines every scene. Whether she stares serenely out at the camera or misses every easy reference to the past her presence questions the very ground upon which they all tread. Our group is in 'therapy' trying to find Alex, absorb the meaning of his failed life, and modify their own lives in the process. Meanwhile Chloe (Tilly) is nearly in her own movie, laughing at all of the wrong spots, and never relating. She surely adds a contrast and depth to the film that it would not have had otherwise.
One of the surest arguments for the relevance of The Big Chill is the use of the video camera as a device. Years before Sex, Lies and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) there are many scenes where the camera is actually a character. Nick (Hurt) picks up a video camera and films a mock self-interview (and Chloe first connects to him listening close by), and soon they are all filming one another. (Michael the cynic has a wonderful moment where instead of simply picking the thing up he studies the manual.) There are scenes where the characters are simply watching their own characters. This is very subtly woven into the movie, and I would suggest that it takes naval gazing into something like prescience: before we were watching The Kardashians (and ourselves) do everything on camera, The Big Chill was slyly watching itself. I think Kasdan knew where these people were going, which was exactly nowhere. Karen sleeps with Sam, but goes right back to boring Richard. No one changes a scintilla. What actually happens is that time has become frozen for these aging Boomers just as it is still frozen today. We have plenty of technology but we still live the Boomtown dream: watching ourselves do what we do, asking questions that don’t require answers, and risking very little. The salient question The Big Chill seemed to ask was where do we go from here? I don’t believe it could answer that question, and I believe we are asking it still. What is revelatory (and satisfying) is that these are adults trying to connect to their young selves, not adults trying to be their young selves. Imagine that.
But whatever dude. Pass me the doobie. I wanna watch it again!
For an addendum to this blog read Kurt Anderson’s interesting article You Say You Want a Devolution about cultural stagnation in last month’s issue of Vanity Fair.