Perhaps in anticipation of an incipient midlife crisis, I recently watched John Sayles’s 1980 film Return of the Secaucus 7 and then The Big Chill (1983), one of the “what happened to us, we used to be so cool!” movies that came in its wake. Though the films are similarly structured—they both focus on a weekend-long reunion of baby-boomer friends during which they drink a lot, play sports, hookup illicitly and indulge in nostalgic reveries—they are entirely different in tone.
Sayles’s film is loose and subtle, populated with nonactors and aiming for a kind of organic naturalism, whereas The Big Chill is full of histrionic Hollywood stars and ham-fisted thematic exposition. (Early on, Jeff Goldblum has a phone conversation in which he basically explains what the movie is supposed to be about. Very meta.) The acting in Secaucus 7 is not particularly convincing in a conventional sense, but the stiltedness starts to connote authenticity and becomes a kind of transparency. In The Big Chill the acting is anything but transparent, and its badness can’t be ignored, especially since they seem to be trying so hard. (What is with Kevin Kline’s Southern accent? And when Jobeth Williams makes a pass at Tom Berenger, is she supposed to come across as campy? And is there anything more contrived than the “dance” sequence in the kitchen?)
Secaucus 7 has a timeless indie-ness about it, but it also comes very distinctly from a pre-mediated age. (One telling scene has characters stuck on the highway, wrangling with an actual paper roadmap—hard to conceive in the iPhone era.) It’s shot on location in a nondescript town in New Hampshire. The characters (who have come together in what seems to be an annual ritual) play board games, listen to live music at a town bar, hang out by the river, play basketball at the neighborhood playground, and that sort of thing. The film is saturated in small-town pleasures and pursuits; the only hint of any “glamour industries” is in the characters who work for a senator in D.C., whom they disparage. No one seems to have much money. The emotional significance of everything is muted: One of the visiting couples has just split up and their pain is palpable without being overwrought, sending out ripples through the relations of everyone else. The looming possibility of love’s entropic decay serves as a background for the other implicit tensions: a character played by Sayles drunkenly runs through the pros and cons of parenting, a woman in med school sleeps with a local Lothario (played by a young and goofy David Strathairn), a drifter wannabe musician bums money off his friends and considers really trying to “make it.” You have a sense that it has just dawned on all of them that life might possibly having turning points and that adulthood inevitably involves a reckoning with the adolescent dreams that may or may not have propelled you to where you are and which may still be malingering in the back of one’s mind. It’s all meant to ultimately disconcert viewers; the surface mellowness can no longer defer having to deal with life. For people who love one another and have become embedded in one another’s lives to continue to get along, they have to embrace conflict. Social being takes inescapable effort.
In The Big Chill, everything has been Reaganized. The film is set at a mansion on the South Carolina coast, and there are Porsches, power suits, cocaine, branded running shoes, VCRs, home video cameras, hideously furnished family rooms with home entertainment centers, and so on. The small town we see briefly appears to already be a gutted relic rather than a living place with its own palpable rhythms. Several of the characters work in media: a TV star, a writer for People magazine, a radio call-in psychologist, and their melodramatic posturing sometimes seems as though it is a consequence of their proximity to the media. It’s not clear if this is by design or of it was simply an expression of the zeitgeist, but all the characters exude a smug self-awareness that makes their emotional difficulties seem maudlin and extra contrived. (I think the moral center of the film is Jobeth Williams’ square husband, who views all the other characters with contempt, seeing them as the childish narcissists that they are, and simply leaves the scene after basically telling them to get over themselves.) The occasion for their reunion is the suicide of one of their friends, which prompts lots of overwrought and glib soul searching. William Hurt narrates his pain to a video camera, setting the template for Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and while there is no live music in the diegesis, all the characters experience poignant moments scored to 1960s hits, proto-Wes Anderson style. And eventually the rightness of nesting and checking out politically is affirmed, as Kevin Kline praises the cops for protecting his property, Mary Kay Place gets impregnated, and William Hurt hooks up with Meg Tilly to fix up an old house. Conflicts have been discharged for viewers, who can flatter themselves that they have been living right all along. The question of social being becomes irrelevant; there is only private life.
My point is that Secaucus 7 dramatizes how friends help one another get through life, positing a bond that transcends life’s phases and stages. The friends as group transcends the ebb and flow in the individuals’ lives and gives those individuals a point of orientation, a reason to resist moral drift. The Big Chill shows us the opposite: the evaporation of the concept of collectivity or collective identity and the self-dramatization for friends-as-audience that replaces it. The friend group in The Big Chill has degraded into a social network: the bonds connecting them are wholly nostalgic. They get together to serially justify themselves to one anther but mainly to themselves. They give each other no resources on which to draw to resist rationalizing their lives into hollowness. That’s why Jeff Goldblum’s blunt and repellant reporter character, who tries too hard to sleep with the deceased’s girlfriend and who eagerly exploits the details of his friends’ lives for work product, is covertly normative in The Big Chill; though he is tepidly demonized, his character’s true function is to authorize the sort of calculating behavior he pursues, represent it as honesty, against which the other characters’ hypocrisies can appear. His tactless self-promotion seems like the truth about how people really are. I wonder if the mediatization that becomes so palpable in The Big Chill has something to do with this shift in values. Media form audiences but dissolve communities.
ADDENDUM: I came across a passage from Hakim Bey’s The Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) that lays out the contrast I see in the two films.
The nuclear family is the base unit of consensus society, but not of the TAZ. (“Families!—how I hate them! the misers of love!”—Gide) The nuclear family, with its attendant “oedipal miseries,” appears to have been a Neolithic invention, a response to the “agricultural revolution” with its imposed scarcity and its imposed hierarchy. The Paleolithic model is at once more primal and more radical: the band. The typical hunter/gatherer nomadic or semi-nomadic band consists of about 50 people. Within larger tribal societies the band-structure is fulfilled by clans within the tribe, or by sodalities such as initiatic or secret societies, hunt or war societies, gender societies, “children’s republics,” and so on. If the nuclear family is produced by scarcity (and results in miserliness), the band is produced by abundance—and results in prodigality. The family is closed, by genetics, by the male’s possession of women and children, by the hierarchic totality of agricultural/industrial society. The band is open—not to everyone, of course, but to the affinity group, the initiates sworn to a bond of love. The band is not part of a larger hierarchy, but rather part of a horizontal pattern of custom, extended kinship, contract and alliance, spiritual affinities, etc. (American Indian society preserves certain aspects of this structure even now.)Obviously the Secaucus 7 doesn’t constitute a full-on nomadic “band,” but I think the film is gesturing toward a collective identity, something open to a kind of intersubjectivity that assimilation to adult life in capitalist society certainly suppresses. The film is about preserving something like tribal loyalty to one’s friends in the absence of concrete external enemies—or rather when the enemies turn out to be ourselves. Whereas The Big Chill is all about the restitution of the nuclear family, augmented by a certain selfish individualist myopia that epitomized the moral outlook of the Reagan years, and likewise epitomizes neoliberalism in general.