Reeling in the Years

It's dj vu all over again with the rerelease of The Big Chill.

As a requiem for the Sixties, The Big Chill didn't quite hit the mark the first time around, in 1983 (the film is scheduled for recycling November 6). Its greatest-hits soundtrack was soul-stirring, for sure; it's hard to top the Stones, Marvin Gaye, or Aretha Franklin in any decade. But the shameless way in which director Lawrence Kasdan idealized the ideals of his generation unwittingly exposed more vices than virtues, including self-righteousness, sentimental self-absorption, and the inability to shut up. By 1983 many of us middle-class white kids who came of age in the furnace of the antiwar movement--and on the outskirts of Black Power--had indeed asked ourselves some burning questions, just like the characters in the movie. Who's teaching in the barrio now? How did I wind up in this suit? Where did our love go? Got any grass?

But unlike the cynics, sellouts, and burnouts who inhabit The Big Chill, most of us, by the time we reached our mid-thirties, could acknowledge that we had been pretty stagy revolutionists, less-than-perfect utopians, and our parents' children after all. We could look back, learn a lesson, and move on without feeling devastated about it. That proved much harder for Kasdan's bunch: Reunited for the funeral of their old University of Michigan classmate Alex, who embodied their best hopes and dreams but who has just killed himself, Harold and Sarah and Meg and Nick and Sam and the other marathon bickerers and blatherers had evidently concluded that, once the peace and justice era went up in a puff of hash, you had no choice but to become a guilty corporate lackey, a coke dealer, or a suicide.

Oh, really?
There was plenty of glib, ironic sniping in the movie, but it took itself very, very seriously about the lost ideals of a lost generation. Have another look at Glenn Close's Sarah, close to tears, wondering if her political fervor had even been real: "I hate to think it was all just ... fashion," she laments.

Seen anew from the promontory (all right, the molehill) of 1998, The Big Chill will strike some as a kind of gaudy antique, others as a social sham. Reactions would be similar, I suspect, to John Sayles's 1980 movie Return of the Secaucus Seven, which is less well known but almost creepily similar. Viewers in their twenties will most likely regard Chill with contempt, as another load of self-indulgence from the geezers who are going to leech away their Social Security benefits. On the other hand, if you're still living in your VW bus while burning the lava lamp for Huey P. Newton, Norman Mailer's Armies of the Night, and the collected works of Moby Grape, then this will be Paradise Lost all over again. In any event, Kasdan's tuneful lament now takes on a second encrustation of nostalgia--like a creaky old ship getting a new coat of barnacles.

Consider what's happened since 1983. The generation that meant to change the world (By Any Means Necessary!) in 1968 has inherited the whole untidy mess. We have even installed one of our own--gray now, but still bent on instant gratification--in the little bathroom next to the Oval Office. In the past fifteen years, left-leaning politics has mutated into vanilla centrism or dreamy New Age self-realization. Countless thousands of stubborn antimaterialists have been magically reborn as greedy bull marketeers. And Alex, the idealized dead classmate who failed to make an actual appearance in The Big Chill, turns out to have been played by Kevin Costner--left on the cutting-room floor back then, bankable as all get-out today. Oh, the ironies.

For his own part, director Kasdan has since taken on, among other projects, Wyatt Earp (1994), The Accidental Tourist (1988), and another great gob of soul searching in the manner of The Big Chill, but this time for the Nineties: Well-meaning but hopelessly solemn, all 134 minutes of his Grand Canyon slipped quickly into oblivion back in 1991.

Watching Chill again last week, I was most struck, as always, by the music. Whether you're a nostalgiaphile or a curmudgeon, just try to resist the Temptations as they sail through "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," or Aretha belting out "A Natural Woman," or the Band doing "The Weight." It's impossible. Otherwise, I found the movie's little quirks--its vast collection of trivia--far more interesting this time around than its leaden message of disillusionment. If the devil's in the details, so is salvation of a sort.

To wit: Remember Kevin Kline's Harold, the well-heeled host of the funeral reunion? The guy married to Glenn Close's Sarah? It had slipped my mind that Harold's athletic shoe company is called Running Dog, presumably a riff on the phrase "imperialist running dog" conjured up by a guilt-ridden hip capitalist. Do you recall that Kline, in the name of friendship, agrees to provide stud service for single lawyer Meg (Mary Kay Place), who wants desperately to bear a child? Probably. But do you remember what Meg says to him? "I feel like I got a great break on a used car."

Over the years I had forgotten that Nick, William Hurt's cynical drug dealer, drives a ratty black Porsche with a dent in the side--or that he'd managed to get his penis shot off in Vietnam. It had drifted into the mists of time that the music at Costner's--er, Alex's--funeral amounts to a major-league symbolism alert: the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" pumped out as a lugubrious organ dirge meant to encompass a generation. I didn't remember that in the first sequence Kline tugs his well-starched white shirt, then his expensive suit jacket, over an expanse of nasty-looking black tattoos. Thus does the former counterculturalist obscure his past.

Upon further rummaging through Kasdan's dusty attic, we rediscover some other little gems. You'll recall that Tom Berenger's Sam, the political firebrand of old, now captivates millions as the Tom Selleck-esque star of a macho TV series--but do you remember that when he tries to leap into his convertible, as he does every week on the boob tube, he sprains an ankle? There's that comic irony thing again, ladled on like double fudge.

Perfection: Jeff Goldblum's insufferable Michael, a failed novelist relegated to the staff of People magazine, now finds himself about to interview a fourteen-year-old blind baton twirler. "Good investigative journalism," he quips, then tries to pitch his editor on a self-serving story about the funeral reunion itself: "Lost hope. That's it. Lost hope," Michael burbles into the phone. When the boss demurs, Goldblum has this to say: "Boring? You think everything is boring. You wouldn't say that if it was the Lost Hope Diet."

Enduring this festival of neurotic self-flagellation again after fifteen years is not always such a picnic. But for my money there's at least one other brilliant, enduring thing in The Big Chill amid all the weeping and dancing and drinking and grieving and re-bonding and talking and jogging and analyzing and whining and eating and carping and screwing and existentializing and smoking of pot. It is not the moment when Nick, giving voice to his old classmates' common fears, describes the "big chill" itself with rather too much ceremony in his voice: "Wise up. We're all alone out there, and tomorrow we're going out there again." It's not the famous conversation comparing suicide and masturbation, which we would do well to ignore this time around. And it's certainly not Harold's sticky lament for his dead friend, and for the squandered chances of the past: "Alex drew us together from the beginning--he was too good for this world."

Instead, here's a vote for Meg Tilly. And for one of the smallest but most telling details in an overrated movie that, for better or worse, has become an anthem for many Americans of a certain age and a certain political stripe who are afflicted with a certain kind of false memory. As Chloe, Alex's last girlfriend, Tilly is the outsider of the piece--younger than the others, a stranger to their hand wringing, vaguely put off by their incessant talk, and turned off by oily Michael while drawn to embittered Nick.

Mid-Chill, most of the principals find themselves lounging on chairs and couches to watch a football game on television. Their alma mater, Michigan, is playing archrival Michigan State, and it's no time for people who aren't very emotionally flexible to give up their illusions. When a big-deal Michigan pass completion is called back, Nick and Harold and Michael and the other people in the room protest loud and long, as if Dow Chemical were back on campus, recruiting. It takes Chloe, the sister from another planet, to see the obvious: "Clipping," she observes. "There was clipping on the play."

In a fog of wistful disillusionment and disappointment, no one else can make a call against their school, their deflated values, or the junk heap of their past. In that, we just might find the essence of the thing.

The Big Chill.
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan. Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek. Starring William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Jeff Goldblum, and Meg Tilly.

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