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In 'The Big Chill', Cynicism is the Illusion

Never heavy-handed in its response to Reagan's "Morning in America", The Big Chill shows loss, defeat and grief while still being funny.

The Big Chill

Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Cast: Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams, Mary Kay Place, Tom Berenger, William Hurt
Distributor: Criterion
Us DVD Release Date: 2014-07-29

In his classic memoir The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) leader Todd Gitlin describes the decade as having quickly “receded into haze and myth.”

He was right. Except for perhaps its evil twin, the '50s, no decade of American history has been borrowed from, re-remembered, mythologized and bowdlerized as the decade when everyone went to Woodstock, everyone was in Vietnam, everyone smoked pot and dropped acid, and everyone marched with Dr. King—apparently, all at the same time.

The telling of tales of dubious provenance proved essential for the baby boomers, especially those who received the benefit of higher education. What you did with yourself in the '60s mapped the geography of your soul and provided you with a sense of historical meaning. Controversies concerning the avoidance of service in Vietnam swirled around Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In 2001, the media caught prominent historian Joseph Ellis with his biographical pants down after he falsely claimed he had both served in Vietnam and been active in the anti-war movement. John Kerry actually did fight in the war and also came home to protest it and look what became of his presidential hopes.

The decade haunts us like a ghost, sometimes a vengeful one. In 1983, the release of the The Big Chill helped explain why the haunting continues to linger. The new anniversary release by Criterion, furthermore, gives us a chance to explore America’s historical hangover again through the inner lives of the film’s characters.

The Big Chill brings together a group of friends around the funeral of their dead friend Alex. They all went to the University of Michigan and all dreamed tie-dyed dreams of growing up to become writers, activists, civil rights lawyers and artists. Instead, they became venture capitalists, hacks, and drug dealers. Now they have to spend a weekend together and try to convince each another to remember them as they used to be.

The film became known for two things that are in some sense related: first, its extraordinarily evocative soundtrack; and second, how it successfully diagnosed what had thus far been a vague sense of cultural unease. The title referred as much to a cultural syndrome as to the mid-life crisis of the characters.

Ronald Reagan’s famous 1980 campaign commercial promised “Morning in America”. The Big Chill is something of a response to this nationalistic optimism, a signal that America had entered its midlife crisis and might wreck a sports car or fuck an age-inappropriate partner. Never heavy-handed, it manages to show loss and defeat and grief all the while still being funny.

The Big Chill's place in cultural history aside, the film achieved much on its own terms. It’s a perfect ensemble piece—and what an ensemble it is. Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt and Kevin Kline make this is an actor’s movie. Although there are scenes that titter on the precipice of sentimentality, the performances ensure that they never quite go over the edge. The film is brilliantly written, with a screenplay by director Lawrence Kasdan, who also wrote the script for The Empire Strikes Back and the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VII. Kasdan's role in the film makes a certain kind of sense: after all, who better to record the cultural chills and fever that got us from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Easy Rider to Jaws and Star Wars?

Supplementary materials include a detailed interview with Lawrence Kasdan, with emphasis on his influences and experience with the business of Hollywood. The interview is revealing in part because he talks about how he’s been able to make the films that he wanted “within the system”. It’s worth noting that his very positive experience, as he himself admits, began with a significant amount of work in behemoth blockbusters. This later allowed him to spend more than two decades making “personal” films, like The Big Chill, that in his words explore “how people deal with the chaos.” He also explains that part of his desire to create what we could think of as the ultimate ensemble film came from the almost claustrophobic feeling of directing 1981's Body Heat (also, of course, with William Hurt).

The deletes scenes included in the Criterion version draw on material from early in the film and provide an extended introduction to the characters at Alex’s burial. Scenes between Goldblum and Berenger, Mary Kay Place, JoBeth Williams and Glenn Close are extraordinary. Because of the quality of these scenes, one would be pressed to imagine the reasons why they never made it into the theatrical version, particularly an extended sequence in which each character drops a shovelful of dirt in the grave with Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” playing behind the ponderous sound of earth falling on the coffin lid.

Criterion also included a real treat in the form of a 2013 Q&A at the Toronto Film Festival, which features Kasdan and his wife Meg Kasdan (who is responsible for curating the hugely popular soundtrack). Most of the cast is present, including Tom Berenger, JoBethWilliams, Meg Tilley, Mary Kay Place, Glenn Close and Kevin Kline. And yes, Goldblum and Hurt are missed, but it is an extraordinary discussion that runs 45 minutes. The talk includes more of Kasdan talking about his original vision and the actors, in a very interesting exercise, reflecting on what the trajectory of their characters lives might have been after the credits rolled.

Criterion included a booklet of essays on The Big Chill that will get some attention because of a very personal essay by Lena Dunham. Dunham essentially attempts to make a connection between a film about baby boomer disillusion and the millennials. Sadly, it suffers from an immense generational narcissism that seems fairly uninterested in taking the film on its own terms and ends up saying “hey, you should maybe (only maybe) watch this because you are going to end up disillusioned as well.”

A 1983 essay by Harlan Jacobsen, originally published in Film Comment, managed to capture something more meaningful about The Big Chill. Jacobsen understands that it’s a film about people adrift in the vicissitudes of history, experienced in small but vital moments of their lives. He’s able to show that even this time capsule of a movie has a certain universal appeal that goes beyond generational angst.

Other features are the original trailer and a 1998 documentary. The soundtrack, so essential to this film that the characters are really interacting with it in many of the movies key scenes, has been remastered for the Blu-ray transfer.

The superb acting, direction and dialogue of The Big Chill will continue to draw in serious film lovers in the same way that Philadelphia Story continues to do, with all its dated assumptions about gender and wealth and manhood. Kasdan's film is a historical artifact and its appeal is precisely in reenacting a syndrome of disillusion of the boomer generation, much more real than Reagan’s “Vietnam Syndrome”.

Dunham’s essay aside (which does not mention the film itself a single time, by the way), The Big Chill is not a counsel of despair. If anything, it suggests that cynicism represents just one more illusion, one more narcissism far worse than former radicals turned yuppie American dreamers.

The world changed in the '60s and '70s. The Big Chill does it work by showing us the interior sadness of those washed up on the shore of middle class culture in the wake of that revolution. And yet, it’s a sadness that doesn’t keep them from dancing to the Temptations “Ain’t to Proud to Beg” as they make dinner and fall in love with each other, and their generation, all over again.


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