Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Formula Film with a Human Face: The Criterion Collection Release of Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill

When Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill came out back in 1983, it was understandable (especially if you were a political activist in the Sixties) if you found yourself appalled at just how glib and superficial the whole treatment of the period was. In it, a group of former college radicals gather for a weekend when one of their former comrades, Alex, who has lost his way, commits suicide. As they bury him, they dredge up the good ol' days and reflect on what has happened to each of them since. This would have been perfectly compelling if The Big Chill had believably suggested that any one of these people were ever once radical, let alone political activists. The level of ease they reach together in that South Carolina home, even when they rub each other the wrong way, doesn't take into consideration the uneasy course the country has taken since they last took up sides against it. The group seems more caught up in what middle-age and their choice of occupation has done to them rather than what has happened to the United States by 1983.

For a movie supposedly about the politics of a turbulent period, there is little to find that's political in it. With no sense of what happened in the land between their time as committed activists and now, there's not even a comprehension of how some of the counter-culture (especially the Weathermen) began turning criminal, even psychopathic, like the political revolutionaries in Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, or the bombers in Jean-Luc Godard's prescient La Chinoise (1967), as the decade drew to a close. The shootings at Kent State and Jackson State in the early Seventies are never alluded to on this mournful weekend, and the picture never once mentions a President. The country itself is what ends up missing-in-action in The Big Chill. For all their former activism, and their engagement in the world, the collective gathered here are only interested in their state of mind and their own well-being rather than the state of the country. You're never convinced that this group was ever made up of idealists who, by the Eighties, turned into narcissists. They suggest instead refugees from one of Werner Erhard's human potential encounter groups rather than anyone who did time in the SDS. Despite the death of one of their own, which provides the very title of the picture, there is little in the way of a chill in the air considering where America actually was when the film came out.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan had been President for three years. His claim of a new Morning in America had taken hold, but it actually amounted to nothing more than a cultural air-brushing of the Sixties (which The Big Chill avoids considering). According to Reagan, the Sixties aftermath of Watergate, Nixon's resignation from office, the hangover from the Vietnam War, and the collapse of the counter-culture, was just an illusion. Never mind that we had just come out of a period in the Seventies where American film-making, in addressing this national crisis, had radically changed the course of Hollywood, the very venue where Ronald Reagan had once plied his trade. But that cultural revolution, like the political one, was also coming to an end as he took power. By the Eighties, movies were turning hugely formulaic and political discourse was becoming cheerfully acquiescent.

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.

The big movies of the late Seventies, too, the ones that tried valiantly to confront the troubled era about to change – like Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate – ended up collapsing from the weight of their own hubris. In trying to adapt Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, a novella that uncorked the unconscious fears lurking within the colonist in the age of 19th Century colonialism, to the era of Vietnam, Coppola got lost up a river of muddled metaphysics and self-loathing. In Heaven's Gate, Cimino's attempt to examine the transcendental nature of American ideals, where the cultivated minds of Harvard in the 1800s attempt to enrich the uncultivated minds of immigrants coming to the new land, ended up becoming an inchoate downer about American futility and corruption. By embellishing the small tragedy of the Johnson County War (where Montana landowners took the law into their own hands and shot a handful of immigrants trespassing on their land and stealing cattle), Heaven's Gate turned that isolated event into a full-blown holocaust where hundreds were slaughtered under the sanction of the President of the United States. Cimino's agit-prop Western tried to stir the indignation of those Americans alienated in the post-Vietnam period, but he ended up – for close to four hours – adrift in an amorphous haze of passivity and dust.

Kris Kristofferson in Heaven's Gate.

The failure of Heaven's Gate (on top of the success a couple of years earlier of Star Wars) helped turn American movies on their retrograde course. But that wasn't all. The hangover from the Seventies was also followed by the murder of John Lennon just after Reagan's election. Lennon's shooting seemed like a sick form of penance for promises that could no longer now be fulfilled, and we came into the Eighties with clearly diminished expectations for the future. So into this emotional and political stasis drops The Big Chill, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, a former ad writer from Detroit, who had already made his chops writing two of George Lucas's Star Wars pictures (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi), as well as Lucas and Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kasdan would later direct (just prior to The Big Chill) a slick, impersonal film noir, Body Heat (1981), that turned the genre's enduring temptation into darkness, something film noir had always assured, into a pastiche of malice. Is it any wonder that some us watching The Big Chill in 1983 might have afterwards considered going the way of Alex?

But time has a funny way of changing your response to a picture when the context for it no longer applies. The Big Chill, which the Criterion Collection has recently re-released in a gorgeous Blu-ray print, still remains slick and self-centred, but the picture's solipsism is undercut by its comedy, where parody and farce happily commingle, and we can now see some clue as to what entertained audiences at the time and made the picture a hit. The Big Chill is an ensemble piece which requires actors to rely less on scene-stealing and more on collective bargaining. If political collectivism is in short supply here, the commercial skills of ensemble comedy make up the distance left by lack of depth. The impersonal aspects of Kasdan's gifts, which were sometimes made distinctly vivid by his directors (Irvin Kershner in The Empire Strikes Back and Steven Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark), are brought to life in The Big Chill by the actors. The movie opens with Harold (Kevin Kline), a jogging-shoe entrepreneur, bathing his young son while having a sing-a-long to Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World," as his wife, Sarah (Glenn Close), a doctor, answers a phone call where she is informed that Alex has been found dead. Before long, the disparate group of friends, who haven't seen each other for some time, arrive at the church. Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is now a celebrity writer for People magazine. Sam (Tom Berenger) is a TV action star who bears a strong resemblance to Tom Sellack. Karen (JoBeth Williams) has become an unhappy ad-executive's wife. Meg (Mary Kay Place), who once dreamed of "defending Huey and Bobby," is now a corporate lawyer. Nick (William Hurt) has inherited the cynicism that finished off Alex as he has become a drug dealer who dips into his own supplies. The other member of the group, although not of their generation, is Chloe (Meg Tilly), who was Alex's young girlfriend.

Lawrence Kasdan.
If the group is perhaps too neatly defined by their pedigree, the actors help flesh out the particulars. Kevin Kline gives an infinitely more relaxed and grounded performance than he had in his previous picture Sophie's Choice. Harold is secure in his life choices, but watching his former comrades squirm with theirs, makes him comically protective. At one point, Nick does something foolish which brings the police to Harold and Sarah's home. There's a sharp irony in having Harold tell Nick that he's "dug in" and that he doesn't appreciate Nick bringing the cops on his ass when he has spent his adult life cultivating their favour to protect his home from vandalism. (The scene would have been funnier – and better – if instead of taking Harold's point of view, Kasdan had shown how Harold's retreat into domestic bliss had also made him indifferent to Nick's distress, the same kind of emotional flailing that led to Alex's suicide.) As Sarah, Glenn Close, with her characteristic Mother Earth maternalism, shows warmth and understanding, but also with an appealing and ticklish sense of naughtiness that's sprinkled around the edges. After recently watching Close's formal demeanour turned into gargoyle mannerisms caricatured to numbing extremes in the ludicrous TV legal drama Damages, Close (like Kline) creates various shades of nuance in her character and has an anchored presence of sanity in The Big Chill. Jeff Goldblum's Michael could have been (with a few false steps) turned into the picture's convenient punching-bag for selling out, but Goldblum's lively eccentricity (which he also used to great effect in Phil Kaufman's 1979 Invasion of the Body Snatchers) justifies his life choices. We come to recognize that he was always a superficial guy, only now he's coming to realize it. While Kasdan (and co-writer Barbara Benedek) don't flesh out Karen's reasons for marrying an ad executive, when she still has the hots for Tom Berenger's Sam, JoBeth Williams still gives a convincingly brittle and bitter performance as a woman who projects her unhappiness onto others so as not to be accountable for her own choices. Tom Berenger maybe has his most likeable screen role in The Big Chill because he brings humility to Sam's quiet machismo. (Sam knows that he can't live up to his TV role, but he also doesn't mind milking it when he needs to, as in the film's opening scenes when he charms a stewardess on the flight in order to get another little bottle of alcohol to sooth his grief over Alex.)

But the two most interesting roles, in retrospect, are William Hurt's Nick and Meg Tilly's Chloe. Nick carries the discomfiting elements of disillusionment that The Big Chill continually backs away from. Unlike the others, Nick has turned his early rebellion into masochism where drugs are no longer part of what opens your mind, but are now what instead freezes your soul. While Alex himself never appears on the screen (except as a body being dressed for his funeral in a clever gag that opens the movie), he still persists in Nick. It's a shame that Kasdan and Benedek make Nick – literally – impotent because they didn't need to. He already feels as impotent as those who failed to change the country. Considering Hurt's horribly baroque turns in more recent pictures like A History of Violence, it's refreshing to see some of the quiet desperation he provides within Nick's self-destructive behaviour. That desperation attunes itself perfectly to Alex's suicide, but it also makes him a perfect soul mate for the young Chloe. Meg Tilly doesn't have a lot of screen time, but she holds her ground against all those others growing nostalgic over their lost possibilities. "I don't like talking about the past as much as you guys do," she says. And it's not held against her that she has a firm grip on the present with no air of pretension, or any need to retreat. Unlike Harold, who's "dug in," Chloe just digs what she does without a whisper of self-doubt or hypocrisy. Which is why it makes perfect sense that her and Nick would connect.

Some of the ensemble of The Big Chill.

Although much has been made about the baby-boomer nostalgia of the soundtrack to the movie, I think people have short-changed how smartly Kasdan employs the songs. As the movie opens, and the group gradually hears the news about Alex's death, we hear Marvin Gaye's 1968 version of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." While many Motown artists had covered the song, from Smokey Robinson & the Miracles to Gladys Knight & the Pips, until Gaye, the track was always a pleasantly teasing and knowing tune about romantic betrayal where the singer gets the upper hand by calling out the heel who has cheated. But Marvin Gaye brought a whole new reading to the song where that betrayal becomes a tale of unrelenting paranoia, and the singer gets surrounded by snake rattles and foreboding chords played on an electric piano that stalk him like the jealous thoughts brewing in his head towards the woman who has taken up with another man. It's a harrowing song that offers the listener, and the singer, no comfort in what gets revealed. Gaye's version also came out in October 1968. It was just months after the horrors of that year that would find Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy dead from assassins' bullets, the Prague Spring of liberal reform in Czechoslovakia turned suddenly into the summer of disenchantment with invading Soviet tanks, and a Democratic Convention in Chicago where the police would riot in the streets with the protesters. It came out one month before Richard Nixon would become President of the United States, too, and turn the Seventies into a travesty. If The Big Chill avoided in its story and characters the political consequences that led to that frost, the music came to reflect some of it instead. (There's another sharp bit that Kasdan includes when Karen plays The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" at Alex's funeral. Besides the obvious irony in the choice of song, the irony is compounded by the fact that the song is about the end of the Sixties, as well as being played by Karen, for whom it serves as also a perfect commentary on her marriage in the movie.) Sometimes the songs become the glue that binds the group in their tastes, as they weather out the weekend while listening to the stereo, but they are never used to bury the film in instant nostalgia (as the selected tracks did in American Graffiti).

William Hurt and Meg Tilly.

There's times when we want things from movies that can't always be provided – especially at times when we feel we need them most.Watched today, The Big Chill doesn't address any real needs, or come close to calling up the era it eulogizes (but then again, neither does John Sayles's The Return of the Secaucas 7, an earlier 1980 picture that deals with the same issues, because it lacks the power to stay in the memory. Despite the depth, intelligence and political awareness of the director, Sayles lacks the filmmaking skills and dramatic imagination to put that intelligence across). If one wanted a movie that seemed a more accurate picture of a reunion of Sixties activists, you could maybe turn to Sam Peckinpah's last film, The Osterman Weekend, an adaptation of a Robert Ludlam novel that came out the same year as The Big Chill. This timely get-together doesn't bring out wistful memories of lost innocence, but instead (as the late film critic John Harkness rightly pointed out) the unresolved rage and suspicion that the former radicals once projected on their own country. But Peckinpah's characters are conceived as calculatingly as Kasdan's so the period politics still don't seep through. If you had a need for comprehension, a sense of why we went from the new frontier of JFK to the sleepwalking of Ronald Reagan, Brian De Palma's unjustly ignored thriller Blow Out (1981) gave you that before the sleepwalking even truly got in motion. (For that matter, five years before Ronald Reagan, Robert Altman's epic Nashville not only saw it all coming, but showed us how we got there and where we've been going since.) The Big Chill is nothing more than a reasonably entertaining formula film, but one with a human face, where the old values of Hollywood ensemble farce intersect with the new realities of contemporary drama. As William Hurt's Nick cares to remind us, while he watches a mindless drama on television, "Sometimes you have to let art flow over you." Which is sometimes true – even when it isn't exactly art.

Criterion presents the new, restored 4K digital film transfer of The Big Chill, supervised by director of photography John Bailey and approved by director Lawrence Kasdan, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. There's a new and informative interview with Kasdan, plus a reunion of cast and crew from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, including Kasdan and actors Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, and JoBeth Williams. There is a documentary from 1998 on the making of the film plus deleted scenes from the picture. (Kasdan doesn't provide the flashback scene showing Kevin Costner in the role of Alex.) There's the trailer, plus a booklet featuring an essay by writer and filmmaker Lena Dunham and a 1983 piece by critic Harlan Jacobson. 

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.        

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