Sunday, August 17, 2014

#720: The Big Chill

(Lawrence Kasdan, 1983)

I watched The Big Chill for the first time when I was a teenager, and there are few more depressing movies to watch at that stage of life. For people with limitless options ahead of them, this is a film about people who are dead inside, horrified with the decisions they have made, and desperate to regain their freedom. They are unlikable and self-absorbed. Like Kevin Kline's later film, The Ice Storm, it's an unpleasant and uncomfortable viewing because it's hard to wrap your head around the choices you watch.

Once you've grown up, started a family, waded deep enough into a career or whatever they call it these days, the film is oddly less depressing, more comforting. It's a reminder that no matter how bad things get, you can always go home. It's a reassurance of the interpersonal connections that don't go away when philosophies and priorities change.

Of course, while the fundamental conflict of The Big Chill, the struggle with getting older and wrestling with dreams and responsibilities, is timeless, the resolution is specific to the boomer generation the film claims to represent. If The Big Chill was made today - and seeing how difficult it is to have adult dramas get made in the Hollywood system, it wouldn't be - the moral of the story would be distinctly anti-nostalgia, a lesson about appreciating what you have in life instead of longing for the past. If the children are our future in The Big Chill, the future is a disembodied voice we police from a distance while we dance and screw away the blues to the safe pop rhythms of our youth. The Big Chill is drenched in a nostalgia that would be tossed aside immediately by my generation, even as we struggle to uphold our own truths from a bygone era.

At one point, a character complains that "even fortune cookies are getting cynical" - a cynical comment about too much cynicism. The group of friends in The Big Chill finds comfort in the idealism of their youth because they know how foolish and carefree they were; they've tasted the apple and wish they hadn't. This was a bitterness that was passed on to their children, a generation intent on avoiding the disappointment their parents endured, but destined to fight some other kind of disappointment that doesn't come from anything more specific than the realization that no one is exempted from losing their cool.

The Big Chill is far from a great movie, but it's lasted as long as it has not because of its impressive cast and almost unbelievably stacked soundtrack but because it speaks to a simple and quiet truth about a milestone in life that often goes unmentioned. These are the kind of moments the Hollywood of the 80s was best equipped to handle, and it's a reminder of what our current cinematic landscape is missing: movies that aren't for everyone, but might mean everything to you.

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