#723 The Big Chill (1983)

The Big Chill is Lawrence Kasdan’s sharply anti-Hollywood ensemble piece that takes a bunch of 1960s baby boomer friends, shoots them into the world and displaces them only to reunite them for the funeral of their dear, unknown friend Alex. Teetering on the edge of reality show and soap-drama, this film was clearly an edgy addition to the films of its period as it dealt primarily with subtle, complicated interpersonal relationships arising from the distance of miles and decades. Battered throughout with a nostalgic soundtrack, The Big Chill delivers the complicated weaving of several tales into a piece that seems to be able to keep each characters plates effectively spinning for its hundred minutes. The final paragraph in Schneider’s book perfectly sums up the spirit of the film that “captures all the idealistic feelings and disappointments of a ’60s generation stuck in the far more materialistic ’80s, while The Big Chill‘s ensemble cast delivers just the right combination of sadness and humor, never lapsing into sentimentality.”

This was a stellar ensemble piece that featured impeccable performances by a cast that truly found working together second nature. I thought about this film quite a bit after seeing it. I posted that I was watching it on Facebook, and then heard from many people that it was their favorite film, that they owned the soundtrack, and that they were moved by it. For me, these responses shocked me a little, and I am going to go into this in what is likely an ill-informed commentary-criticism below…but I stand behind my thoughts on the film, because the more I thought about it, the more I began to think that maybe my perspective was a bit off in terms of watching it today and recognizing that this film was largely about our parents…and then again, maybe their perspective is off because of nostalgia for their own youth and not for what this film really portrays.

For some reason, I saw this film hovering around the portrait of several characters in the midst of a cloud of strange narcissism. They all converge on this funeral, and as they gear up for arriving each is in their own little world in their routines. Then, as they converge on the house where they stay, they have their own routines, read their own things, and all have to do their hair as evident by the hair dryers everyone has. But if you pay attention to what they are talking about, they are all talking about themselves the entire time. The movies, the club, the writing, the not writing. They slowly connect to one another, but it is all about what each individual person wants for themselves in terms of the connection – sex, a baby, a way out of a boring marriage. They are so self-absorbed that they rarely realize that they never circle back to occasionally remembering why they were there to begin with – Alex. The few times it happens, the characters are by themselves, and a gaping hole opens in them.It is evident in the baby talk, the filming of themselves, and a tremendous amount of self-involvement until there.

This narcissism is almost directly evident in the scene with Hurt is filming himself with a camcorder, and conducting an interview that is a quasi-therapy session. We never see the scene finish, though, except that he is momentarily interrupted. The same goes for a quick mention of Vietnam, and cut scene. My bad marriage, cut scene. What are we to do?, dance party. As a matter of fact, almost every gravitational and meaningful scene is interrupted by an “alligator over the transom,” that is, some deus ex machina to transfer the scene to some unimportant flitting surprise involvement that is out of their control – the bat, the football game, the Temptations, the police. And yet, the only emotion comes alone, in a crushing wave of tears and horror of knowing one’s time on earth is limited…and then, disappears again before anything can truly be discovered.

I know. I am redundant. But the impulsivity and lost wandering amidst those you spent your youth with, and then focusing primarily on impressing them or telling about some big upcoming project or investment (which was never actually going to happen by the way) is simply the characters holding a mirror up to themselves and trying to then turn it around for everyone to look at…but all they see is their own reflection since the mirror is completely opaque-reflective.

And what about Alex?

The Big Chill felt like The Breakfast Club before The Breakfast Club was The Breakfast Club…And it was about their parents instead. Which is funny because in both films the characters are facing this huge narcissistic existentialist crisis… If anything reinforces this horror movie of self-involvement, it is the completely artificial sitcom ending and the obsession with the video camera. If this film took place today, it would be with an anxiety-addled twentysomething whose youtube rants go unwatched in the vast scope of the millions of minutes uploaded every second, and who refuses to see their friends because our character has nothing to show for the last decade. Or they could lie. Or some other drastic choice. Regardless, Alex was completely forgotten in this film, and he was the centerpiece of the whole conflict, and our characters did everything they could to talk about themselves because they hadn’t seen one another in so long. Everyone’s conflict was within themselves, and they bounced off one another’s conflicts like multiball in a pinball machine. Pretty to look at, but it doesn’t really affect anything besides the arbitrary score on the machine.

Do I think it is a good film? I think it was an excellent film, but a tragedy more than anything. I think that it also really puts the culture of my parents into perspective. Where it might suggest something about myself, or should, it ultimately makes me look at these characters and feel no connection to them at all. I immediately saw baby boomers, their selfishness and indirection, and constant striving to…do what? Make money? Score cocaine? Only worry about what they want, immediately, now, with no regard for possible bystander consequences?

Thank god these people didn’t have children…Then again, that lucky bed…

I think that the actors in this film knew exactly what they were going for, and they were impeccably believable in these roles and working together. Perhaps that is what everyone loves about the film – that these people are so genuine, three-dimensional, and real. Perhaps that is what I think is so awful about their characters, and why the film is so accurate.

I watched The Big Chill on Criterion (#720.)


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