• The Big Chill: These Are Your Parents

    By Lena Dunham

    These are your parents.

    You are not yet born, or you are very young, and they are gathered for a weekend far away from you, in a house by the water.

    If you don’t yet exist, they are considering you—you’re an inevitability they are not quite ready to accept. And if you’re already alive—chubby, dressed in patterned leggings and Velcro sneakers and a headband with knit fruits adorning it—they are trying to forget about you. Just for the weekend.

    They are gathered with the people who knew them before—when they were younger, some would say just plain young, and fancied themselves revolutionaries. They came together, all seven of them, just as they crested into adulthood, and they fell in love: not one on one but as a group, fell in love with the puzzle they made, with every perfect piece.

    The men loved the men, and they showed it—by jogging together, by playing tennis in impractical shoes, by hugging tightly after too many drinks, maybe even saying it: “I love you, you know.”

    The women loved the women, and they showed it too: by sharing sweaters, by inventing nicknames, checking in by phone every morning.

    And the men loved the women, and the women loved the men, in different patterns and variations, some passionate and some accidental. And everyone could forgive, because sex is just sex but friendship is something greater. Everyone loved everyone just right, and that love could save, and for a moment it was bliss.

    They had big ideas: About politics and philosophy. About capitalism and sex. About late-night TV and translations of French poetry and whether smoking was actually bad for you and whether you could drive after a vodka (yes, you could). About who their parents had been and who they would never become.

    They knew they would never work just for a paycheck, your parents. They would never stay put when they wanted to leave. They would never stop listening to music while they cleaned the house or start worrying about what people in town thought. They wouldn’t just be. They’d be happy.

    They weren’t the craziest kids on campus. No, that honor was reserved for the true topless radicals, the free-loving fleabags. But they weren’t squares, either. They found a rhythm, a style, that let them feel at home anywhere. In physics class or at a love-in. At a Bible Belt gas station on a cross-country road trip or walking through San Francisco, sunglasses on. They had the armor of their convictions and power in their number: seven. They had one another.

    But things change. Graduation comes. One moves home to care for her dad. Another has asthma and needs health insurance (“An office job, man—it’s not as bad as you’d think”). And one falls in love with the kind of guy her dad would adore, despite her best efforts not to. Space and time do their dirty work, and suddenly “group” is just a mind-set, not a reality, and after a little while no one can delude themselves any longer.

    So now these are your parents, their bodies starting to change, little paunches visible under their dress shirts, asses widening, sleepy when they used to be awake, sad when they used to be horny. These are your parents, older now but not yet old. And they have lost a friend.

    They are young enough that no one expected this, that death is not yet inevitable. This is an affront to their security, an impossible occurrence. This is unthinkable. This is a shock, and, worst of all, this is the only reason they have found in ages to gather.

    Someday, in the car on the way to school, your mother will mention her friend who died. She’ll laugh thinking of a joke he used to tell, or remember a cake that his mother taught her to bake. And you will know, intellectually, that she had a friend who isn’t here anymore. But you won’t grok the reality of it: That she loved him and he’s gone. That he was real to her, with a face she knew just as well as you know the Saturday morning cartoons. That he was a constant for her and that constant was removed, and now she knows what life can do. None of that is real to you; none of that can be real. She doesn’t seem sad, and so you cannot imagine that she ever was.

    There is so much you can’t imagine. You can’t imagine your parents on this weekend, dancing around the kitchen to Motown as they cook a big meal, moving their butts jauntily and leading with their shoulders. Many years later, at your bat mitzvah or your cousin Stephanie’s wedding, the way they dance will make you want to kill yourself. But if you could see them over this weekend, all together, if you trained a camera on them and let them dance back and forth, you would understand: they were young once too, and this is how they learned to dance, and now every time they dance that way they feel young again, even if you’re scowling at them from across the room and wishing they would explode.

    What if someone found a way to show you? To show you that your father’s friend with the glasses and the nasal voice, someone found him sexy once, held his hand furtively, thought he was the wit of the century. And your mother’s friend with the bouclé jacket who calls a thousand times to ask if you got her email about her son’s wedding invitations? Someone once wanted her badly enough that he chased her into the freezing yard and gnawed on her neck like a lamb shank. And that big lazy drunk who sends money at Christmas, who gets food stuck in his mustache and dates social workers? Well, he did the gnawing. And your aunt who isn’t really technically your aunt, she did want kids of her own. She tried.

    Your mother and father have had moments when they couldn’t stand to look at each other, and moments when they couldn’t believe they had found each other. They’ve touched other people, then touched each other again, and been surprised that it still felt the same. They’ve been in screaming fights with people besides you. They’ve been hurt by people besides you, been scared for people besides you, been something other than your parents. Been too drunk to get up the stairs and too coked up to sleep.

    You will grow up with certain friends who have been chosen for you purely because your parents don’t mind sitting in lawn chairs next to their parents, can find something to talk about. Sometimes your mother will even see the other mothers socially, put on a bunch of gold rings and spray perfume in her henna-red hair and head out the door to meet them at ten past seven for a glass of wine. But you will know the difference between those friends and these old friends, these primal friends, these friends as entrenched as bone. You will know the difference even though you can’t articulate it. You will just know that when they get together, whenever that is, the cadence of their speech changes, their laughs go up a register, they throw their heads back and shake their hair and that laughter comes unbidden, and at surprising times, and about things you don’t think are funny. The laughter is catching, and soon the guys are laughing too, outside by the grill, ignoring their kids and letting the laughter move them. Their eyes soften and their foreheads smooth. They look like old photos.

    You will have seen those photos, of your parents and their friends on this weekend, in sweaters so baggy and slacks so olive drab that you won’t be able to tell whether they were hip or Hasidic, or what they might have thought when they looked at one another. But what if you could know? Know them right now, on this weekend, which is still happening for them and tells you all that they are: They are beautiful and they are hideous. They are young and they are ancient. They are laughing and they are angry. They are trying to remember who they were and become who they will be. It has nothing to do with you. It is the reason for you. It is just a weekend, the weather changing minute by minute, minutes slipping away.

    And someday, even further down the line, you will be standing in the bedroom, looking out at the slice of the river that is your view, your lover flipping through the mail in the kitchen, and you’ll realize that at some point, without knowing it, you missed the deadline: You’re not going to graduate school for ceramics. You’re not moving to Sweden for a year. You’re not going to become a cop. You’ll probably never shave your head or launch a campaign to save one single redwood tree. You aren’t vegan anymore. Your contribution is your tax dollars, your good moral center, your respect for your building’s recycling rules. You wear sunglasses when it’s sunny, a raincoat when it’s not. You keep almonds in your purse, and you charge your electric toothbrush. You trim your hair. You aren’t where you thought you’d be. You are just where they found you. So you pick up the phone, and you dial someone who remembers you as you want to remember yourself.

    Lena Dunham is a writer and filmmaker from New York City.

73 comments

  • By Charlotte Vale
    July 31, 2014
    08:08 PM

    Has it become impossible to escape Lena Dunham? I never thought she would also be solicited by Criterion! Her essay confirms the mediocrity of her so-called talent and the banality of her writing style and thoughts. But she has a great publicist, no question about it.
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    • By JH
      September 28, 2014
      08:58 PM

      I thought her essay was quite astute, especially for someone still in her 20s.
  • By Jesse
    August 01, 2014
    11:37 AM

    I like Lena Dunham but when I saw that she'd written an essay on The Big Chill, I thought, "oh god, she's too young, this is going to be full of self important navel gazing, she can't possible get this film." Boy was I wrong, she really captured the essence of it, and yes there are other ways to read the movie - narcissistic, unrealistic - and that may be right too - but Lena captured exactly what it is that people that like the movie plug into - that bittersweet knowledge that everything changes, and that life if full of disappointments and unrealized expectations, and that we struggle between wondering what is real and what is just a memory. And I like the way that she found a way to explain why the movie is relevant to todays viewer, to someone in their 20's like herself - why this is a movie that doesn't just resonate with baby boomers. So sorry Lena for doubting you haha - great job!
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    • By Chelle Stephens
      August 16, 2014
      12:14 AM

      I'm on the upper edge of the baby boomers and this movie definitely resonates with me. This essay is right on. I especially love her emphasis on the fact that our parents had lives, fun, dates, joy and tears, etc. before we existed. This movie remains one of my very favorites for all the reasons she has put into this essay and for other reasons as well.
  • By EOTW
    August 01, 2014
    12:15 PM

    Christ, this was as odious and wrongheaded as her dumb TV show. Been a while since Criterion dropped the ball like this.
    Reply
  • By aristophanes
    August 01, 2014
    01:48 PM

    No offense, but this should be retitled Crap on Crap.
    Reply
  • By TheDirector
    August 01, 2014
    02:17 PM

    Criterion surely is talented! I never suspected a company could both provide an insightful and entertaining literary piece on a film, /and/ expose that they, too, have trolls, and ignorant snobs among their ranks. You'd hope that in the process of watching the most mature cinematic masterpieces of world culture, you'd grow up a little, but a large amount of comments to this essay demonstrate otherwise.
    Reply
  • By Don Hardy
    August 01, 2014
    03:05 PM

    That was one of the best things I've read in years. It resonates with my life from both sides of the equation, from both generations. Thank you
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    • By Jeanne Marie Wallace
      August 16, 2014
      08:57 PM

      Yes I agree and I loved it all the essay and the movie I love the sound track and just every thing yes I too am a baby boomer also,,thank you,,,and more,,,Jeanne Marie W.
  • By NAME
    August 01, 2014
    05:43 PM

    I read this tripe on the insert itself a couple of days ago. I couldn't believe it. It was like someone talking to his or her generation in 1914 about their parents' lives from 1868 to 1883 of which they wouldn't have known much but are there really people Dunham's age out there who are so dumb, so shallow, not to know what the world was like from 1968 to 1983?
    Reply
  • By Royb0t
    August 01, 2014
    06:46 PM

    A lovely essay. A wonderful film.
    Reply
  • By JayBryant
    August 01, 2014
    08:34 PM

    Why do I have the feeling that if this essay were anonymous or under a pseudonym it would have been much more palatable to the nay-sayers?
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    • By Doug
      September 07, 2014
      12:21 AM

      So, Right On, Jay!
  • By Julie
    August 02, 2014
    10:58 AM

    LOVED this. Totally resonated with me and how I think/feel about the film.
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  • By Paul Reese
    August 02, 2014
    05:07 PM

    Because, JayBrant, it's true. There's such a hate for Dunham - and anyone with a brain would look at this article regardless of her name being at the top and see it's some of the best film criticism in a long-ass time.
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  • By theschu
    August 04, 2014
    03:40 PM

    What a lot of these comments prove is that just because Criterion is committed to a high standard of quality doesn't mean you have to be.
    Reply
  • By Sidney
    August 04, 2014
    11:54 PM

    Anyone who has a strong dislike for Dunham needs to leave their ruthless opinions at the door and take a deeper look at what she was trying to tell us, in which she depicted in brilliant detail of how our parents were like and how they're like now, and definitely how we'll eventually end growing up to be like, whether we like it or not. So, in my opinion, she nailed it and it was an really great read. I can't wait to read more of her essays.
    Reply
  • By David C Mahler
    August 07, 2014
    12:15 AM

    I don't understand. This was a very insightful piece. It presented and explored some considered ideas...is the Dunham hate an American thing? (An Aussie asking, queue hate) Like, is there a group of people who just spend their time writing verbose, spiteful comments to feel better about something? The irony is they're just contributing to the 'under appreciated in her lifetime' cliche that at this point seems inevitable. Criterion, excellent essay. Don't let the ungrounded, inarticulate haters deter you from supporting young talent. You guys rock.
    Reply
  • By BoppaKrandall
    August 16, 2014
    05:28 AM

    Being a member of the generation depicted in the film, I have no idea who Lena Dunham is; I just wonder whether my daughters would identify with her. Her essay isn't terrible, nor is it terribly profound. It's simply one younger person's perspective on a cinematic story which struck a proverbial chord with an earlier generation, an interesting perspective, but not earth-shaking in its insights. On a purely minor point, it intrigues me whenever I see younger people using the word "grok"; I can't help wondering if they even know who coined the word and in what novel it first appeared - a novel which was first published about 20 years before "The Big Chill" was released, and which also 'struck a chord' (albeit a somewhat different one) with that same generation. Do they even really know what the word is supposed to mean? I'm sure that some probably do, and oddly enough it fits well in Ms. Dunham's essay, but I find myself dubious about whether its meaning is as significant, in some contexts, as it should be to the people that use it off-handedly. As I said, it's really just a minor point - something that I simply wonder about as I consider the gaps between generations.
    Reply
  • By AG
    August 16, 2014
    08:11 PM

    This essay is excellent. What is the highest efficacy of art but that which makes people imagine what it's like to be someone other than themselves? I think the essay captures that capacity in a creative and moving way. It intrigued me and made me want to see the film. Certain peoples' vitriol towards Lena Dunham is equal parts comical and disturbing. Very weird and reeks of an insecure discomfort with a young, female perspective.
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    • By Marilyn
      August 17, 2014
      08:33 PM

      Well said.
  • By Lexie
    August 18, 2014
    08:13 AM

    How very true. Hit the nail right on the head. Thanks, Jennifer Belknap!
    Reply
  • By jen
    August 19, 2014
    12:48 AM

    The women loved the women: they let each other borrow their husbands! (my favorite scene)
    Reply
  • By Lisa Mercado-Fernandez
    August 21, 2014
    09:34 AM

    Although I'm 48 and was born in 65 I fell in love with the movie in the early 80's and it became on of my all time favorites. I thought this essay was wonderful and so true. Just because you didn't live through this era doesn't mean you can't totally relate to the feelings and conflicts and dynamics of the infamous group of friends. I am a writer and recently published for my novel The Shoebox but my second book is a modern take on The Big Chill called The 8th Summer. Still seeking an agen'ts representation. I self published my first. (Never do that again!) Anyway, I believe the theme of the Big Chill is part of every era and every intimate group of friends can relate. Every group has a Karen, and a Sam, a Nick and a Harold. They are just named differently. Loved this, love the dvd collection love the movie. IF anyone interested in The Shoebox you can find it on Amazon.com or B&N.com under The Shoebox by Lisa Mercado-Fernandez. Thanks. Can't wait until the 8th Summer is published for the Big Chill fans out there. I think you'd say I did it justice.
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  • By Kevin
    August 24, 2014
    10:08 PM

    I find this essay excruciatingly dull, and so general (generic, even) that the reader would be hard-pressed to specifically associate it with The Big Chill had it appeared anywhere else. In fact, one of the things that has caused me to hesitate purchasing a copy of this edition is that it means I’d actually be paying for this essay as part of the package. (This has nothing to do with Lena Dunham, as I’ve never seen any of her work, or any other TV appearances she may have made.) They’re “your parents” only if you were born some time in the mid-1980s or later, apparently—as if nobody else has ever reached points in their lives when they begin to question how and why they are where they are, and/or wondered if maybe they’d “sold out”. When I saw The Big Chill in theaters on several occasions in late 1983 and early 1984, the 20-year-old me appreciated the film for its clever dialogue, its pop culture references, and its themes of loss, redemption, and the struggles of making one’s way in a world where things don’t necessarily happen the way we want or expect them to. So I hope there’s more enlightening essays in the booklet as well.
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