The Big Chill: Surviving

On Film / Essays — Aug 4, 2014

The following originally appeared in the September–October 1983 issue of Film Comment.

There is a moment in every generation when there is a shared recognition of being the loose cannon on deck. Not only was there no place to hide in the sixties, no one seemed to want to. There were so many loose cannons on deck, rolling and shooting at the bridge, that everyone believed at long last they were being confronted by the guns of truth. And like the old man and the sea, the best of the rock priests questioned their own authority, and so increased it.

Forget the reasons for the sixties. Numbers were reason enough. The torch passed in every town the day in 1955 when Fess Parker materialized from a Cadillac and each six-year-old in a coonskin cap sensed the bemused indulgence on Dad’s face was really terror. Later, anyone who came of age in the sixties swore the only way they’d ever set foot in a Cadillac was feetfirst—on the way to the cemetery—the way Lawrence Kasdan’s metaphor for the sixties, named Alex, does in The Big Chill.

Now, here in 1983, the political and cultural “revolutionaries” of the middle class circa 1969, paying off at two points above prime, are not yet buying patriotism—but they are contemplating it, eyeing it warily, awaiting the next installment of Consumer Reports. To that extent, the people who inhabit The Big Chill have remained faithful to their younger selves. It’s just that the Cadillac has changed into a Mercedes.

Kasdan genuinely appreciates the seven people here who once prowled the University of Michigan together in the jagged years (as he did, 1966–72). From the shocking title sequence, he sets out the notion that the Ann Arbor 7 have come to mourn the passing of an eighth as something larger than a friend’s death. It’s as if Kasdan wrote in the character of “The Sixties,” then went back and penciled in “Alex,” whom we never see alive, and who never lived in the script except in an eight-minute flashback coda that Kasdan clipped under pressure.

In some measure, The Big Chill is Kasdan’s first ambitious screenplay and, though coauthored with Barbara Benedek, is perhaps the fulfillment of the flame that carried him from being an ad copywriter in Detroit through the scripts of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Continental Divide, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, where he was a waiter in somebody else’s cafe?, and even Body Heat, on which, as director, he searched for his own rhythms and style of delivery.

Though it represents Kasdan’s tackling larger, more personal themes, The Big Chill may be about nothing more or less than how to survive a weekend with friends who knew one another for
a short period long ago on someone else’s money and who have since abandoned one another’s lives and younger values faster than the U.S. military evacuated Saigon. The veterans of that children’s war have come here not only to praise the sixties but maybe to bury them, and certainly to stare at themselves, and blink.

They are their own ghosts, their romanticized pasts hovering around and behind them as auras, asking impolitic questions of the banalities they’ve become: Harold, the jogging-shoe entrepreneur (Kevin Kline); Sarah, the physician (Glenn Close); Karen, the ad executive’s wife (JoBeth Williams); Michael, the People writer (Jeff Goldblum); Sam, the TV star (Tom Berenger); Meg, the corporate lawyer (Mary Kay Place); and Nick, the part-time dropout-cum-drug-dealer-to-the-trade-only (William Hurt).

Only Chloe (Meg Tilly), ten years younger and Alex’s girlfriend, serves as the group’s foil: “I don’t like talking about the past as much as you guys do.” What happened back then? What has happened since?

*****

For anybody in his thirties, watching The Big Chill is a two-for-one sale: one movie with this synchromesh acting ensemble flickers by on-screen, cuing the second with your own youthful ghosts flashing by in your mind’s eye and transforming themselves into those hit-and-run Visigoths who fifteen years later come to visit wearing the scalps of their accomplishments. This is not Return of the Secaucus 7 (The Big Chill’s people are prettier than anyone’s friends), but because the graininess of John Sayles’s characters matched the flatness of his film emulsions, [that film] was misperceived as truth. We know by heart the argument that a Salvation Army couch is no less a couch than a Bloomingdale’s couch, but that doesn’t make it any more.

Most everyone in The Big Chill seems apologetic about money—with good reason, since it limned all the resentments in ’68, as it does now. In Kasdanland, ideals have necessarily mutated either into ambition or, more gently, into abilities fulfilled. That little alligators have grown up to be big Izods—should we have expected anything less? Does “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” (a line Kasdan applies to money, but he really means consumption) get everyone off the hook?

The mistake, perhaps, is to hold anyone hostage to their youth—certainly a value of The Big Chill, which is kinder to all us Molotov-insult hurlers of the sixties than we deserve.

The Big Chill smiles and forgives as it addresses the contradictions of a class that asked fundamental questions of authority even as it laid down its own tyranny. There are moments that crash down as clinkers, almost because the characters seem never to have grappled with the notion that maybe they were just plain wrong or self-righteous then, not merely frauds now. “Who did you think your clients were going to be? Grumpy and Sneezy?” the People reporter asks the lawyer lamenting the guilty psychopathology of her [former] “scum of the earth” Legal Aid clients. “No, Huey and Bobby,” interrupts another Kasdanite. Surprise!

People flop down on couches in The Big Chill, then report to the dinner table with systolic certainty and diastolic familiarity. (You can take the boys and girls out of the dorm . . .) Feet go on tables, where they’ve always gone, just as eyes glaze over in front of open refrigerator doors, and mythology is stolen from television. Asks Glenn Close of her husband, Kevin Kline, who has just illegally passed on to Hurt a piece of inside corporate information, “Who do you think you are, John Beresford Tipton?”

If there is an uncredited character in The Big Chill, it is the television set. The new, good life brings with it more than TVs that simply offer up old movies and bad abstractions; now they can record us talking back to ourselves on videotape. No more taking something away from the set into the backyard to try it out—now we can take ourselves out of the peanut gallery right down into the tube to decide if we are worthy of being our own heroes.

Kasdan handed William Hurt, his collaborator from Body Heat, the plum scene of the movie, in which he mocks a talk-show interview with himself that is at once hugely funny and a scintillating piece of exposition. Hurt’s face seems round and white like the Pillsbury Doughboy’s but comes off the screen with a gleefully ironic awareness of its own malleability. He is John Wayne with a brain and an earring, stealing any scene with a silent and sleepy power. His inner dissension from time’s march rises with an eyebrow above his Lava Lite eyes. An arrow of clarity on-screen, he deserves to step into the front ranks. The Big Chill establishes that it’s his turn.

Of course, the part was written for him, says Kasdan, and while Hurt gives the lie to the ensemble acting that is all that’s left here of sixties socialism, his role ultimately is the most unsatisfying. As Nick, Hurt is the one holdout from the tidal wave of careers and appetites that has swallowed up the sixties survivors. Enough that we have all come in from the cold, where we never gave much serious thought to remaining in the first place. Nick’s climactic capitulation is too symmetrical and unnecessary. One cannon on everyone’s deck should still be on the loose.

Reprinted courtesy of Harlan Jacobson.