Seeing Lawrence Kasdan’s fine new film, The Big Chill, made me think of a book I hadn’t looked at in years. Perhaps I had thrown it away-but no, there it was, in a box under some yellowed newspaper clippings about Bobby Kennedy.
The book is called The Young Americans: Understanding the Upbeat Generation. Obviously aimed at anxious parents, this Time-Life special report tried to bridge the generation gap, a brand-new problem at the time. Lost touch with your kids? Find out “what they are really like.” The book promised to usher the cautious adult into “youth’s private world,” much as a Fodor’s would guide tourists through darkest Bulgaria.
On the cover, staring into the future, are two of these Youths, both about 17 years old. They don’t look dope-crazed, radical or even excessively thoughtful. The girl wears a pink dress and a slightly disheveled Lesley Gore bouffant; the boy’s hair is shorter than Danny White’s.
Hard to believe, but 17 years have vanished since 1966, when Time-Life undertook the arduous task of telling The Establishment about the largest generation ever born in America: the post-World War II baby boom. A new generation was coming of age, and its rites of passage would be sometimes brilliant and creative, often violent and nihilistic, but always loud, demanding that America sit up, by God, and listen. Never was youth-always an overpraised season-more overpraised, more reviled, more talked about.
Harvard’s Jerome Bruner, the educational psychologist, called the baby-boomers “the most competent generation we have ever reared in this country,” but many begged to differ. Conservative columnist William F. Buckley conducted a decade-long vendetta against those he sneeringly called The Kids; former Vice President Spiro Ag-new alliteratively attacked student demonstrators and made a career (shortened by his resignation after charges of income tax evasion) out of whipping up the passions of his Silent Majority against their children, those “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Closer to home, the sages of The Dallas Morning News’ editorial page dug in their heels against the politics, drugs, music and even the hairstyles of the new generation. In editorials and cartoons, the News inveighed against the shaggy hordes of barbarians protesting the war, tripping on acid or sitting in the dirt at the Lewisville Pop Festival, grooving on Janis Joplin.
But the younger generation always wins such struggles. As The Young Americans reminded its adult readers, time is on the side of youth: “If you can’t stand, or understand, a younger generation, there is no point in wishing it would just go away. You will go away first.” The generation of the Sixties became history and changed history, for better and worse. Consider the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where police and student demonstrators battled in the streets. (Later, the Walker Commission would call Chicago “a police riot.”) At one point, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff rose to denounce the police tactics, shouting that if Eugene McCarthy were president, “the police wouldn’t be beating our kids in the streets of Chicago,” and the camera zoomed in on the Illinois delegation for one of the decade’s most symbolic pictures: Chicago Mayor Daley and his henchmen flashing an obscene gesture at this defender of The Kids.
Paranoia strikes deep. Many “untrustable” over-30 voters took the ugly scenes of Chicago with them to the polls, apparently linking Hubert Humphrey’s Democrats with long hair, loud rock and social upheaval and Richard Nixon’s Republicans with Law ’n’ Order, the campaign theme of Agnew, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, John Dean and the rest who became the president’s men. And so, in one of history’s odd twists, the Chicago Seven helped elect the Watergate 500.
All generations think they are special; youth comes only once, and while the world is new it seems right to seize it and try to bend it closer to the heart’s designs. As William Wordsworth, a pre-Beatles lyricist, put it on the eve of another revolution:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.
Perhaps it always seems that way. But the greater the expectations, the greater the disillusionment when reality fails to live up to dreams. At this distance, it seems obvious that the apocalyptic, Utopian dreams of the Sixties have come and gone while leaving most of the national life unchanged. Yes, we pulled out of Vietnam, but did the armies of the night make the world safer or saner, in any lasting sense, than it was when My Lai and Haiphong were on every broadcaster’s lips? The bombers have not turned into butterflies above our nation as Crosby, Stills and Nash had hoped.
But the dreams of the Sixties were more than political. It’s a paradoxical fact that much of the energy of that intensely political decade was aimed at transcending and ending politics, at least in its classical sense of opposing groups battling each other for rights and resources. What came briefly to be known as Woodstock Nation was born of a quixotic, perhaps impossible dream of brotherhood. Sounds quaint and corny, but that was it. Some think this frail dream broke up on the rocks of capitalism; that was a common lament among Sixties gurus as diverse as Herbert Marcuse, the Marxist philosopher, and Wavy Gravy, the Hog Farm commune-ist. It may be that the capitalist system does substitute the cash-nexus for other, more-okay-more meaningful types of relationships. It may be that, as novelist Gore Vidal believes, the nation is under the control of the Chase Manhattan Bank and that neither the Republican nor the Democratic but only the “Property” Party has any real power. Dark visions, indeed.
Another question, of course, is why that generation’s hopes were so high. Why should so many of its members feel such a burden of duty, be so reluctant to sigh, flick on the TV and accept life as a slow process of gaining weight and losing ideals? Why could Looking Out for Number One not have been written in the Sixties? But those are other stories.
ALL OF WHICH brings us, by a long and winding road, to The Big Chill. Had Arthur Miller not used the title, The Big Chill might have been called After the Fall-and I don’t mean autumn. After Berkeley, Chicago and Woodstock, after acid and napalm and hair, after Bobby and Abbie and Lennon, comes the fall. Welcome to the middle-age of Aquarius.
The Big Chill begins with the reunion of seven old friends who were housemates at the University of Michigan during the late Sixties. (The ensemble consists of Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place and Jobeth Williams.) They have drifted apart over the years, but come together after the suicide of Alex Marshall, another housemate. Alex is never shown in the movie (wisely, Kasdan omitted a long flashback to his characters’ younger selves), but we learn that he was a brilliant physics student who rejected a prestigious fellowship because of the foundation’s ties to “the military-industrial complex.” For 14 years, Alex drifted through a series of jobs and relationships before committing suicide. At the time of his death, he was living in the summer house of Harold and Sarah.
Alex was the conscience of the group in college: “Alex drew us together from the start,” Harold says in a eulogy, “and now he brings us together again. There was always something about Alex that was too good for this world.”
But The Big Chill is only somber by turns; more often, it is funny, human and free of lengthy ideological hassling. Nobody makes speeches or shouts about power to the people. In fact, the most eloquent statement at Alex’s funeral is made not by Harold or the ineffectual minister but by Karen, when she sits at the organ to play the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want. The old friends spend the weekend at the home of Harold and Sarah, where they eat, drink, watch TV and get high; there is love without sex (Meg and Nick), sex without love (Sam and Karen) and plenty of talk about what the years have done.
The characters of The Big Chill are not wilting flower children peddling bean sprouts in health food stores; most of them are wealthy and successful by society’s standards. Michael, whose campus editorial praised Alex for his stand on principle, is now a writer for People, on his way to Dallas to interview a blind baton twirler. He remembers a plan the housemates had to buy some acreage near Saginaw and get back to the land.
“What happened with that?” Michael asks.
“None of us had any money,” replies Harold, now owner of an athletic-shoes chain (called, in an echo of the Sixties, “Running Dogs”).
“Oh, yeah,” Michael says. “That’s when property was a crime.”
Harold and Michael have money now. So does Sam, the macho star of a Magnum-esque private eye show called J.T. Lancer. So do Sarah, a doctor; and Meg, a lawyer. In fact, their success is precisely what nags at some of the characters: They set out to do good but have only done well. Meg worked as a public defender until she found that her clients were “the scum of the earth, really extreme repulsivos,” not urban guerrillas battling the System. (“Who did you think your clients were going to be?” Michael asks. “Grumpy and Sneezy?” “No,” Sam answers for her, “Huey and Bobby”) Disillusioned, Meg signed on with a real estate law firm in Atlanta, where “the clients were raping only the land.”
As for Sam, a charismatic radical leader in college, he misses his ex-wife and their child, sacrificed to the demands of his career. He’s uncomfortable with his role as superstud J.T. Lancer: “At least once every show I try to put in something of value,” he says. Karen, the wife of a pompous businessman, is rich and bored. Michael, who taught school in Harlem and dreamed of writing a novel, now confines his skills to the pages of People, where the only editorial rule is, “You can’t write anything longer than the average person can read during the average crap.”
Only Harold and Sarah seem relatively satisfied with their choices in life. The rest of the film’s characters (especially Nick, a drug dealer whose Vietnam injuries left him impotent) live with a sense of having squandered large opportunities, fallen from grace. Like Peter Fonda’s Captain America in Easy Rider, they seem to be saying, “We blew it.”
Indeed, The Big Chill bears an interesting relationship to that 1969 film and to its comic counterpart, Alice’s Restaurant, released the same year. Those were the best of the “counterculture” films, the cinematic equivalents of the Monterey and Woodstock music festivals. Popular when students were taking over at Columbia and Cornell and being shot down at Kent State, these films have as their protagonists young people clearly outside of The Establishment and not eager to come inside. (The characters of Easy Rider were, in fact, preying on society, since their dream was to buy their freedom with a million-dollar heroin deal-a fact that blurred that film’s moral focus.)
In a sense, these films look across a gulf of 15 years to The Big Chill, the first (but certainly not the last) cinematic attempt of this generation to cope with “growing up,” growing old and dying-the biggest chill of all, in the movie’s terms.
As the mourners in The Big Chill make their way through the South Carolina countryside to the cemetery, winding past ancient oaks hung with Spanish moss, it’s hard not to think of the murderous South of Easy Rider, where Captain America and Billy were blown away by red-necks. But these are the Eighties, not the Sixties. Harold and Sarah own a striking Ital-ianate-style house large enough to comfortably sleep eight for the weekend. They are part of the life of the community and are quite at ease in the South. When Nick is stopped by a policeman in front of Harold’s house (in the inevitable confrontation-with-authority scene), we find no beer-bellied sadist chomping Red Man; the cop is younger than Nick and is armed with a wry sense of humor. He and Harold are good friends, and he tears up Nick’s traffic ticket when Sam agrees to show him the famed leap into the sports car that is the J.T. Lancer trademark. The angry exchange between Nick and Harold reminds us that Chicago happened a long time ago.
“Since when did you get so friendly with cops?” Nick asks.
“What is it with you?” Harold snaps back.”Is jail another experience you want to try-see what that’s like? You know, I live here. Thisplace means something to me. I’m dug in. I don’t need this.”
Property is not a crime when you own the property. As Harold explains, the young policeman had twice saved him from being robbed. We have met The Establishment, and it is us.
But youthful solidarity does survive in The Big Chill, through the characters’ love of rock music and a general immersion in pop culture. A cynic might say that time has changed the characters’ political beliefs while leaving the important things untouched. We can argue about pulling out of Vietnam or cutting aid to dependent children, but not about the TV pro-grams and movies and popular songs that permeate our society too deeply to allow a detached perspective.
Nick, Sam, Meg and the others are college graduates, but (except for joking mentions of Freud and Dostoevsky) their cultural references are always to pop culture-kitsch, if you will. They hum the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark and accuse someone of living like John Beresford Tipton (remember?). At bottom, what makes a generation is not the passage of a certain number of years, but a set of shared reference points that need no explanation. Hence the wisdom of the late Jim Morrison (the lead singer of the Doors, the Los Angeles-based rock group that gained fame with such hits as Light My Fire and Touch Me), who commented that a generation only lasts a few years these days. How true; at least four pop-music subgenerations have come and gone since the Beatles hit these shores in 1964. Those who can name three hits by Gerry and the Pacemakers (and know that the name had nothing to do with heart trouble) are not likely to know even the spelling of Def Lepperd- or is it Leppard?
The soundtrack of The Big Chill is a work of art in itself, though aficionados are sure to argue its merits. (Why, for openers, the slant toward Atlantic/Motown artists? Why no Beatles or Dylan, and why the omission of Sixties protest classics like Ohio and Buffalo Spring-field’s For What it’s Worth?) But such quibbles aside, songs such as Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine and the Beach Boys’ Wouldn’t it Be Nice blend perfectly with the changing moods of the characters during the weekend. And Kasdan avoids the fatal error of “music” movies: tying the song to a specific scene so that the characters seem to act out the lyrics.
The movie’s mix of social statement and entertainment is most compelling when the characters create their own talk show using Harold’s videotape equipment. Some of Chill’s most poignant and revealing moments come as Nick tells all in a schizoid self-interview:
Nick (as interviewer): So you came back from Vietnam a changed man . . . But you just couldn’t seem to finish that dissertation.
Nick (as guest): What are you getting at? I was evolving. I’m still evolving.
Interviewer: What are you doing now-or I should say, what have you evolved into now?
Guest: Oh . . . I’m in sales.
Later, other characters join in. For a generation raised on Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, what is more natural than spilling one’s guts on the screen? Television is the nation’s confessional.
SO THE BIG CHILL is not an ideological film, a tracts-of-my-tears wallow in the politics of nostalgia. The characters do not mourn for dead candidates and abandoned causes, but for lost innocence and elusive integrity. In a hilarious juxtaposition of values, Michael begs his People editor to let him stay the weekend and write about the experience.
“I’m telling you I’ve got something good right here. It’s about everything-suicide, despair. Where did our hope go?”
But his editor does not see lost hope and despair as People topics, and he tells him so. “You think everything’s boring,” Michael says. “You wouldn’t say that if it was the Lost Hope Diet.”
By avoiding stale political rhetoric, The Big Chill achieves verisimilitude, illustrating that its characters have made the same uncertain withdrawal from political activism that so many made after the defeat of McGovern, the treachery of Nixon, the incompetence of Carter and the triumph of Reagan. Though it shows some signs of resurgence in the nuclear freeze movement, the New Left has lain dormant for a decade. For whatever reasons, many people in their 20s and 30s lack faith in political solutions to our problems. So do the characters of The Big Chill, who don’t need the Weathermen to know which way the wind blows. No contemporary political figure or issue is mentioned by these bright, articulate men and women. They talk about their personal lives, about their dead friend, about their children or the children they hope to have. (Meg wants a child, but not necessarily a husband; after much soul-searching, Sarah talks Harold into volunteering as father.)
“Perhaps that is the small resolution we can take from here today,” the minister intones at Alex’s funeral, “to try and regain that hope which must have eluded Alex.” But hope has not been chic for quite some time. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” wrote Emily Dickinson, prompting Woody Allen, perhaps the trendiest filmmaker going, to call one of his books Without Feathers. Several of this film’s characters are without feathers: “I feel like I was at my best when I was with you people,” Sarah says. “Everybody feels that way about that time,” Sam says. “When I lost touch with this group, I lost my idea of what I should be. Maybe that’s what happened to Alex. At least we expected something of each other.”
It is Nick, the most cynical of the group, who has abandoned hope almost completely and who seems to resent the rekindling of hope in anyone else. When Sam laments the group’s drifting apart, Nick retorts: “What do you think-if you’d been in touch with him [Alex] you could have saved his life? You have that kind of effect on the people in your life? Wise up, folks. We’re all alone out there. And tomorrow we’re going out there again.”
However, Nick’s cynicism is softened by the events of the weekend, and he stays on in the summer house where Alex had lived. “There’s a certain symmetry to that,” says Karen, since Nick was closest to Alex in college. Michael may give up his superficial work at People and write a novel about the weekend; Meg may be pregnant. Sam and Karen, it appears, will go back to their wealthy but empty lives.
The ads for The Big Chill say that “in a coldworld, you need your friends to keep youwarm.” The fires of idealism cool and die,banked by the desire for cold cash. That is the way-has always been the way-of the world.But The Big Chill speaks for a generation thatset out to change the ways of the world, andthen got lost along the way. At the movie’s end,they are going back “out there.” Little seemsto have changed, though they take with themthe phone numbers and addresses of their oldfriends and the renewed belief that someonecares. Easy to mock such naked sentiment, butwhat is the alternative? The cold world of thecash connection? The big chill?
AN INTERVIEW WITH KASDAN
AT 35, Lawrence Kasdan has already written three of the most popular films in motion picture history: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi. He also wrote Continental Divide and wrote and directed the highly acclaimed Body Heat, which starred William Hurt. Kasdan, writer and director of The Big Chill, talked about the film recently in New York City.
CT.: The Big Chill is an unusual title in that it doesn’t lead us very far into the film. How did the title come to you?
Kasdan: It was something that was happening to me repeatedly. I’ve always been looking for friends that would equal those I had in college. I’d meet new people and think that we were on a similar wavelength, but then they would say or do something that was so out of touch with my ethical views that I would actually feel a chill-a physical chill-go through my body. Also, I feel the title is perfect to encompass the characters’ growing sense of their own mortality. They’re people who, like so many of us, have always thought of themselves as kids. Now they’re older and facing life’s problems. A lot of people will have misapprehensions about the title-for a while. But once a movie’s out, there’s a kind of gestalt about it; it doesn’t matter a damn what the title is.
CT.: You seem to be saying that the baby-boom generation is having trouble making the transition to adulthood. Why? Some congenital weakness?
Kasdan: I think we had unreasonably high expectations. There was this feeling that we were always going to get what we wanted. In college, it seemed we could control the foreign policy of the country. We thought our lives were perfectible. So if a marriage is not going right, you junk it; if you don’t like your work, you change jobs. But there’s a cost to that: You don’t build anything. People of previous generations had illusions. but they didn’t have such high expectations that they would be happy all the time. In the movie, the character of Richard speaks to that idea.
C.T.: Given this material, with the reunion brought about by a suicide, were you ever tempted to take a more serious approach?
Kasdan: No, I always saw it as a comedy of values. What I was seeing around me was funny, and I don’t mean that in a condescending way. People were going through endless contortions to justify their behavior, coming up with all these reasons to justify not sticking with something and working harder at it. Anyway, you can deal with serious issues in a humorous way better than in a somber way. You don’t preach to the audience.
C.T.: The tension between Nick (William Hurt] and Harold [Kevin Kline] seems very important to the film’s affirmative ending.
Kasdan: Very. They represent different ways of growing up and being in the world. Part of what the movie is about is being able to shed your old belief systems when they are no longer appropriate. Nick is stuck with his old beliefs.
CT.: It struck me at one point that the movie did not really earn that happy ending, that it was tacked on…
Kasdan: Maybe the impression of the ending is more upbeat than it really is. It’s really more bittersweet. There’s a good feeling about the effect the friends have on each other, but no feeling that anything has finally been redeemed in any way.
C. T.: But there is that impression, especial -ly with Michael [Jeff Goldblum] saying that they’re never leaving and with Joy to the World wrapping things up.
Kasdan: The use of that song is ironic. The only one who believes that’s possible is the baby in the bathtub. Only children can believe that you can really do away with the bars and the cars and the wars. I think people should feel good at the end of the movie because that’s the effect that seeing my old friends has on me. It’s a kind of balm. But that doesn’t mean there will be lasting effects. And as for Michael’s statement, there’s something sad in that fantasy. That’s just what they’d like to do-stay where it’s safe and not have to deal with reality.
C T.: So you agree with Nick’s line about the cold world out there?
Kasdan: Yes, I do, but I think that the big gesture that Sarah makes and the small gestures the others make are positive things. They’re trying to help each other.
C. T.: The music is almost a character in this film. What were you trying to do with the soundtrack?
Kasdan: The music is intended to be keyed to certain things in the movie, but the line I was trying to walk was this: Can you comment musically on the action without being obvious and slugging people with it? You try to find great songs that have some oblique reference to what’s going on and are emotionally correct.
C.T.: Some people are saying that The Big Chill will appeal to a fairly narrow age group.
Kasdan: I don’t think so. The only people who ever mention that to me are people around my age, who see the movie as being very specifically about them. They worry for me and say that nobody will get it. But the 18-year-olds and 45-year-olds have responded very well.