Late last night, while my younger daughter slept and my older daughter commandeered the computer, I turned on the television to span some time and bring on the sleepies. To my amusement, I found The Big Chill, that endearing ensemble piece from 1983 that presented the existential angst of a group of narcissistic 30-something boomers to a kick-ass classic rock soundtrack. I couldn’t resist, yet there was something very strange, very different about this particular viewing; though I’ve seen the movie many times in the past, as a now-50-something adult I am appalled that I ever thought these characters were cool.
When the movie was first released, I was a 20-something, in fact I was 20 on the dot. Born in 1963, I am considered a late-boomer, not the core part of the generation born in the immediate post-World War II era. I was in college at the time but when I first saw the movie I began looking forward to my 10-year reunion, when I would presumably have a past I could romanticize and ruminate on. Kind of like how Animal House came out when I was still in high school and it made me impatient to go to college, where food fights would be an everyday occurrence.
Though only six when Woodstock happened, I grew up idealizing the hippies and envied them their causes. How amazing to be able to protest war and segregation while having endless sex and drugs – and, again, all that great music. There were no hippies left when I became a teenager in 1976; the only thing my friends and I could reasonably protest was disco music. But my heart, I felt (and still do), was in the right place: war is bad, human rights are good, love is better than hate, tolerance trumps ignorance. And so I felt aligned with my elder boomers and initially was inspired by the pasts that the characters in The Big Chill had lived, and felt sympathy for the rude awakening they felt when a friend’s suicide brought them back together and in the reflective light of their peers saw how far from their ideals they had fallen.
Music and memories
As I missed the hippie years, by definition I also missed the yuppie years, which is where the Big Chill characters are in the movie. With their expensive cars, clothes, lifestyles, hairstyles, and habits, they don’t much resemble the people they remember themselves to be. In fact, beyond their endless self-pitying prattling, the only apparent connective tissue to the past is the music itself. The movie’s soundtrack was fairly revolutionary for the time, an album of rock and soul tunes from the ‘60s that became a hit in the New Wave ‘80s. Suddenly people were hearing it through the grapevine again, remembering what good lovin’ was like, feeling like a natural woman, not being too proud to beg, and turning a whiter shade of pale as they realized they (still) can’t always get what they want.
The music proved stronger than the characters, more faithful to its roots and ideals, and it sounded as fresh again in 1983 as it still does today. By contrast, the characters, recognizable then, seem downright reprehensible now. And, I guess, though I didn’t think so at the time, they were probably pretty unbearable then, too. The musicians of the ‘80s had no sympathy for the previous generation. Joe Jackson, on his 1986 album, Big World, sang:
And all the record stores
Are filled with pretty boys and their material girls
And even students vote for actors
Then they tell you it’s a safer world
And all the hippies work for IBM or take control
Of faster ways to sell you food that isn’t really whole
Of course, music and musicians aren’t immune to the changing times. I guess when Bob Dylan does Super Bowl commercials all bets are off. What doesn’t change, for me anyway, is that music is not just entertainment, it’s conscience, too. Many of the artists I like best have a worldview that I share and I look to them for inspiration. Others I appreciate simply for their artistry. Yet songs are also memory-markers, and the tunes featured on the soundtrack have a remarkable ability to take you back to places and people in your life that you haven’t seen in a while. But taking you back and getting stuck there are two different things, and the Big Chill characters seem to be trying to have it both ways.
The unusual suspects
If you need a reminder of who the characters are and what the source of their angst is, here’s a quick rundown:
Harold Cooper (Kevin Kline), a “revolutionary” who owns a successful running shoe company and is about to become very much richer once a big competitor acquires it, actually seems very comfortable with his wealth, enjoys his big, plantation-like property, and seems to be what his friend Meg calls the “perfect man” – except that his wife Sarah had an affair with Alex, the friend who killed himself on their big, plantation-like property.
Sarah Cooper (Glenn Close) is a mess through much of the movie, very morose about Alex’s death, even seen crying naked in the shower, though after dinner she shakes her ass for the camera as these people with housekeepers and maids have an inordinate amount of fun cleaning up. Sarah actually puts the existential angst into focus in the movie by wondering if their “commitment” (presumably to ending the war, removing Nixon, teaching ghetto kids, and caring for the environment) was just “fashion.” I physically gagged when she said that, as if they had all taken a vow of poverty and chastity back in the day.
Sam Weber (Tom Berenger) is a prime-time TV actor, the dashing J.T. Lancer. He seems a decent enough fellow but he’s upset about something throughout the movie and we never know quite what it is. Sure he’s sad about Alex and he seems to understand he’s a hollow caricature much like the character he plays on TV, but he has no issues with shtupping his married friend Karen, whose sole purpose in the movie, it seems, is to be shtupped by Sam.
Karen Bowens (JoBeth Williams) arrives at the funeral with her husband Dick, who, when all is said and done, emerges as the most reasonable and sympathetic character in the movie, though he is positioned as a square who leaves early so his wife, who tossed her diaphragm on top of a copy of Us magazine featuring Sam on the cover, can presumably finally experience a vaginal orgasm. She has little of her own past to share so I deduce that she spent her college years trying primarily to get laid.
Michael Gold (Jeff Goldblum) plays Jeff Goldblum, in that every character Jeff Goldblum plays is inherently Jeff Goldblum in different clothes and called by different names. But he has a Christopher Walken quality to him in that he seems to know he’s weird and even when he’s not playing a scene for laughs he gets them and so it’s always fun when he’s around. Michael is a writer for People magazine who wants to open a club. As he himself points out in the film, he had no morals or ideals to lose; if anything, he’s the very personification of what everyone else fears is happening to them.
Meg Jones (Mary Kay Place) is a chain-smoking former public defender now practicing real estate law. As if that isn’t boring enough, she wants to have a child on her own. And she wants one of her friends to impregnate her. We never know if she was successful (after Meg struck out with the other, more available men in the film, Sarah donated Harold, presumably helping to clear her conscience of her own adulterous affair with Alex), but if she was, I pity her child.
Finally, Nick Carlton (William Hurt) is the token Vietnam vet who came home from the war less than whole (it’s never explained in detail but it seems he may have had his dick shot off). What he was doing in the war in the first place, considering his peer group, is not explained either. He is now a drug dealer who generously samples from his own supply. He is both the least and most cynical character, not buying into the Lost Ideals narrative and yet seems to have lost the most faith. He does, however, have my favorite line; in an argument with a maudlin Sam (just before he goes outside to bang Karen standing up), Nick shoots a hole in the entire nostalgic bubble the group has erected around itself:
“Wrong, a long time ago we knew each for a short period of time; you don't know anything about me. It was easy back then. No one had a cushier berth than we did. It’s not surprising our friendship could survive that. It’s only there in the real world that it gets tough.”
I happen to find that a very true and powerful piece of dialogue.
A chilling effect
The rest of the writing, though, is pretty annoying, especially, as I say, in the ears of a 50-something. After all, these guys are so young to be so regretful. Some of these actors are favorites of mine but they were just starting out in 1983. Tom Berenger today looks like he really has had some hard years under his (somewhat larger) belt. Even the typically fresh-faced Kevin Kline is showing his age. Seeing these actors ruminate on the old days, when their own days were still preciously few, is almost laughable. Sure, among them there’s a divorce, a war injury, a dead friend. Those are serious things but for the most part, everyone is rich, successful, and attractive; and, just to point a finer point on it, everyone is very, very white. Did none of these revolutionaries have a commitment to having black friends?
There are perhaps as many as three separate references to teaching in Harlem (or “the ghetto”), as if there’s no higher calling for a white liberal than to bring the power of white privilege to bear for poor black kids. As if the problem of wealth distribution in this country was something they cared to do something about – other than becoming part of it, that is. Perhaps indicative of how their past commitment was as artificial as their current weepiness over it, we learn that Michael and Meg had sex during the March on Washington. It’s like how Marvin Gaye could do both “What’s Going On” and “Let’s Get It On,” except that Marvin was black and unencumbered by irony.
Of course, I necessarily am bringing my own experiences and biases to bear. I had a close group of friends growing up; there were additions and deletions in high school, and additions and deletions in college. Post-divorce, there were other additions and deletions. Today, my best friends are my oldest friends. Two are gone, both to illness, both way before their time. Both funerals afforded my friends and I opportunities to take stock of our lives and our bonds. But I don’t know that any of us subjected ourselves to the narcissistic caterwauling that the Big Chill characters went through.
Looking ahead, not backwards
The fact is, after all these years, we really haven’t changed that much. What made us laugh then makes us laugh now. What upset us then upsets us know. We’ve gotten older, gone through changes, we are certainly wiser. I’ll speak for myself that I have innumerable regrets of opportunities lost or nor taken through the years, but we also live in the real world and we don’t have time to wonder for whom the bells are tolling. I think we’re all trying to be the best friends, parents, and people we can be, period. And when we get together – and we do, as frequently as possible – it’s all about enjoying each other’s company, not wondering what the hell happened to us.
If I could meet my 30-something self or my teenage self, I could certainly impart advice. Study more. Grow a pair and ask her out. Save some money. Do an internship. Limit your salt intake, flavor ain’t worth kidney stones. But every mistake I made in my past made me who I am today and to question them is to cast doubt on my own value and stature. I’m not rich, I’m not married anymore, I’m not living in a big house, not driving a car from this century – all the things I hoped would happen for me when I reached my 50s. But, and this is a point the movie neatly leaves out, I’m not done yet.
When the Big Chill characters were in college, they believed you couldn’t trust anyone over 30. And that’s the age they are in the movie. So they don’t trust themselves and therefore have no compass for their futures. They just look in the mirror and see their own pretty faces, with a ghost image of their hippie selves hovering nearby. We can hope that when they left Harold and Sarah’s home at the end of the movie that they went back to their lives wiser and more committed – not to some artificial standard of self-righteous, feel-good service, but simply to living a life you can stand.
That’s what I can do. My life isn’t perfect, it may not even be great, but there are great parts to it, and most important, I can stand it. I won’t be like Alex. I won’t be like any of the characters. I don’t even like having sex standing up. I’m just going to keep on doing what I like to do, doing what I need to do, and being who I am, because that’s what I know, that’s what I’m good at. Whether or not I’m a success is not something I worry about; my two kids will decide that simply by how they live their lives. So it’s not in my hands. I guess that’s the one thing I would tell the Big Chill characters if they were with me right now: let it go. If it works for Frozen, it should work for The Big Chill, too.