Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Big Chill (1983)

Dir. Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt 

The Big Chill is not a Philip Marlow film noir (that’s The Big Sleep). It is not a music festival (well, it is, but that’s a different Bill Chill). This Big Chill is a 1983 film by Lawrence Kasdan with a cast destined for big things that looks at the inevitable pains of growing up and the loss of youthful idealism. It should be enjoyed with a side-order of tunes by The Jam in my opinion, particularly Scrape Away (“What makes once-young minds get in this state? Is it age or just a social comment?”) or Burning Sky (“We’ve all grown up and we’ve got our own lives And the values that we had once upon a time Are so simple now ‘cos the rent must be paid, And some bonds severed and others made”). Instead the sound-track is chock-full of up-tempo ‘60s stompers like You Can’t Always Get What You Want and Wouldn’t it be Nice that cast a rueful ironic shadow over the action.

In The Big Chill a group of former friends who met at the University of Michigan in the ‘60s are brought back together by the suicide of one of their number. After the funeral of Alex (an individual of whom we only see the wrists and ankles… but those wrists and ankles belong to none other than Kevin Costner, who was distraught to be cut from the final edit) they all stay for the weekend at the house of married couple Harold and Sarah (Kevin Kline and Glenn Close). For a number of them there is an element of trying to pick up their relationships from a long time ago despite now being different people with different problems and attitudes. By conventional standards they have all done ‘well’, and yet they are unsatisfied. Harold and Sarah have two nice homes; she is a doctor and he a businessman who is about to sell his chain of 26 stores to a larger rival. The spectre of Sarah’s affair with Alex haunts them however. Michael (Jeff Goldblum) writes for People magazine but chafes under the magazine’s dumbed-down editorial policy. Sam (Tom Berenger) is the star of the TV series J.T. Lancer (which appears to be a cross between T.J. Hooker and Magnum, P.I.) but worries that he is not taken seriously. Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a former defence lawyer who now earns the big bucks as a real estate attorney but who is unhappily single and desperate for a child. Karen (JoBeth Williams) has married well and has two children but is bored by her stuffed-shirt husband. Nick (William Hurt) used to be a successful radio psychiatrist, but has now dropped out; he is a regular drug-taker who suffers from impotence as a result of his experiences in Vietnam. In the ‘60s they were a rebellious generation. They have now become exactly the sort of people that they used to rebel against (I’m not sure whether it is a deliberate irony that Harold’s sports-shoe company is called Running Dog (as in the Maoist phrase ‘capitalist running dog’). The ‘chill’ of the title is what has happened to them. As Meg says, “It’s a cold world out there. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting a little frosty myself.” The one person who does not harbour all this existential angst is Alex’s young girlfriend Chloe (Meg Tilly) who is very much the odd one out in this circle.  
"Well I'm sorry, I thought you said you turned yourself into a pie..."
Which leads on to the mystery of why Alex killed himself. His friends rationalise that he was unhappy with the way his life had gone. He drifted from job to job. They told him that he was wasting his life, they hypothesise that he purposefully cut himself off from them all because he was so unhappy about where he was. These are just some of the protective rationalisations that Michael claims everybody needs to use to help them get through the day. More likely is that they lost contact because they were so busy playing The Game of Life. “A long time ago”, Nick tells Sam, “we knew each other for a short period of time… 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 out there in the real world that it gets tough.” Alex saw what they had become and decided that the last thing in the world he wanted to be was like them. Notably the forthcoming sale of Harold’s business would have left him, as a shareholder, rich. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, Mo’ Money, Mo Problems. He was happy being an underachiever.

Probably the most honest and truthful overview of the situation comes from Karen’s husband Richard (Don Galloway). He is painted as a bit of a buffoon and a stuffed-shirt but he views the situation with open eyes. He is prepared to put up with a boat-load of crap to be able to provide as well as he can for his kids: “You set your priorities… But the thing is, no one ever said it would be fun. At least, no one said it to me.” His philosophy is a simple one. Maybe that comes from him being dull and not particularly insightful or deep. His wife and her friends believed that they could have it all, that they could make a better world. And now that they have betrayed their youthful idealism they feel rotten. 

The Big Chill is a good exploration of the mindset of a certain group of people from a certain background at a certain stage in their lives. It is not an infallible film. It is remarkable that so many of the same friendship group have gone on to be so successful in their later lives. Looking at the people I was friends with at university 13 years ago and who are now entering their mid-thirties there is a degree of success but nothing quite so comparable across the board. There is that same distance, that sensation of having drifted apart, followed by everybody dropping back into the same roles and the same conversations that were had at university. But we were never as open about feelings for one another or about personal problems (such as Nick’s impotence). There are one or two unlikely and unnecessary elements that have been thrown in. Nick is a troubled Vietnam veteran in true Deer Hunter style and there is a quite implausible suggestion from Sarah to resolves Meg’s problems. That being said, the characters are believable and well-played, the premise is good, and the direction allows the narrative to unfold at the perfect pace. The Big Chill is not a film of which I had previously heard, but I can understand its importance in being one of the first pieces to address thirtysomething angst. This is a new spin on the famous H.L. Mencken definition of Puritanism (‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy’). Why aren’t they happy too?

What have I learnt about South Carolina?
The landscape of South Carolina seems pretty bleak – or maybe that was just the storyline. We see low dun-coloured marshland coated with tussock grass, intercut with tidal creeks. And it seems to rain. A lot. Despite this there are some grand nineteenth century plantation-style houses. Harold and Sarah must be doing well to own one as just a holiday home while they have their main house in Richmond, Virginia. 

Can we go there?
The Big Chill was filmed in location in the coastal town of Beaufort (pronounced Bew-Furt), down in the south-western portion of the state. Harold and Sarah’s house is actually the Tidalholm Mansion on Laurens Street, and is a film star in its own right: it was also the main location of 1979’s The Great Santini. Nick and Harold jog down Bay Street in the middle of town. Sand Hill Baptist Church, just west of Varnville, was the scene of the funeral service. After the service the funeral procession motors down Bay Street. The tall humped bridge they cross is the Cat Island Bridge, which links Beaufort and Port Royal.

Overall rating: 4/5

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