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The Big Chill: Cold Comfort
Richard Maxwell

Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill, a film about a reunion among old college friends after the death of a classmate, has gotten a lot of attention recently. According to Gene Siskel in his recent interview with Kasdan, the movie affirms that "friends can heal and support and remind one of what one really wants out of life" (Chicago Tribune, 23 October 1983). The friends in question are from the class of 1969 at the Uni­versity of Michigan, but Siskel and Kasdan agree that neither the date nor the place really matter. Kasdan says that he "just used my experiences at Ann Arbor in the sixties. . . . You have to get very specific to have any hope of being universal."

The Big Chill is therefore a film about certain universal experiences — growing up, making compromises, seeking renewal . . . the list is familiar. We are not to judge the film by its faithfulness to an historical period. It is merely a fact of Kasdan's own biography that he happens to be writing about people who met in the Sixties and meet again in the Eighties.

Even those who haven't seen The Big Chill may find these disavowals somewhat disingenuous. I remember a high school teacher affirming that Shakespeare was "universal." Lines like this must have made thousands—or millions—of students doubt their mental capacities. If Shakespeare is universal, then why is there so much trouble in understanding his diction, his grammar, his allusions—let alone his cultural presuppositions? Universality is a peculiar standard by which to judge works of art from any period, Shakespeare's or ours.

Stranger yet is Kasdan's assertion that the specific contains the universal. This sounds like leftover Coleridgean hocus-pocus, a shifting compromise in which the Platonist pretends he's an Aristotelian. The universal exists on its own but must be perceived through accumulated details. Out of some such accumulation a work of art mystically appears. Supposedly.

Why quarrel with a movie director's casual cliché? In this case the cliché makes a difference. Kasdan's mixup about history and its relation to art pervades The Big Chill. However fine the performances and certain individual scenes—however clever the technical accomplishment—this is a film we must learn to mistrust, especially when it comes to "universality."

At the beginning of The Big Chill, everybody's old friend Alex has just committed suicide. A campus radical who refused a scientific fellowship only to drift through life, Alex didn't even leave a note explaining his death. In the opening scenes, his college cronies assemble for his funeral.

Despite Kasdan's pointed assemblage of bits and pieces—little self-revelations on the part of the major characters—a problem immediately arises. Alex is and will remain a cipher: not a mystery so much as a blank. It is easy enough to believe that William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Tom Berenger, and the others were friends at a big state university circa 1969. It is difficult to see how the group could have centered on Alex. Kasdan and his reviewers agree that these people had (and have) only vague political or intellectual commitments. Someone like Alex would not have been spending his time with them, nor they with him. The movie is thus sustained by a false premise. Alex can be understood only as the thinnest kind of allegory—he is the spirit of a time (something like Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Past, though considerably less lively). Despite the girlfriend and the memories he has left behind, he cannot be understood as a real person.

Let us allow Kasdan the premise of Alex's friendship with The Big Chill’s protagonists. Dubious in itself, this idea could still provide the starting-point of a good film. What we have is a collection of people who were in the Sixties but not of it. Once (perhaps) they struck fashionable leftwing poses; at the least they associated with a Sixties type. Nonetheless they remain dissociated from the period when they grew up. They are at ease neither with their past nor present selves. The situation could be presented in the form of a comedy about rootlessness, spirits trying to exist without any considered connection to a whole.

Several traces of such a film can be found in The Big Chill. Kasdan's characters are confused about many things. There are times when their disorientation seems to be observed rather exactly. After a dinner party, while washing dishes, these thirty-year-olds do disco-style dances (vintage 1979) to the music of The Band ("The Weight," mid-1968). "The Weight" is a grim, wonderful song: " 'Hey mister can you tell me/Where a man might find a bed?' He just grinned and shook his head/And 'no' was all he said." The song tells us that these characters are stranded. The mood of the dance is ludicrously at odds with it. Can these people hear "The Weight"? Did they ever grasp its point?'

The same sort of laughable—and genuinely comic—vagueness attends a running discussion on selling out, necessary or not-so-necessary compromise with worldly reality. One character sold out in that he founded and profited from a shoe company. He made a fortune from the jogging fad of the Seventies. Another character sold out in that she tired of being a public defender and so switched to corporation law.

I have no particular affection for shoe magnates or corporation lawyers as such, but I cannot believe that their vocations are intrinsically evil. Kasdan seems to emphasize that his people had only the silliest and most superficial ideals. Their agonizing over changes of mind and vocation can only be seen as ridiculous, misunderstandings of what in some other instance might have been a genuine ethical dilemma. Not for these people, however: you can only betray those commitments you had.

We can be amused by these characters. Their self-dramatizations, garbled memories, and so forth are wonderful material for a comic film. Yet something nags. In talking to Siskel, Kasdan dwells on how aware his characters are, how each is eminently capable of an ironic perspective on himself. The film treats this capacity for irony less positively. The most articulate character in Kasdan's film is a reporter for People magazine played by Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum gets the best lines throughout The Big Chill— at least he makes them seem the best. His comments and retorts are consistently witty; the result is that his friends put him down for cold-hearted intellectuality. Ultimately the movie (and therefore Kasdan) joins in this judgment. During the last fifteen minutes of The Big Chill, Kasdan crosscuts among three love trists, one lusty, one cute, one Platonic. Only the Goldblum character is left over and left out. Physical love—the great panacea—is withheld from the thinker. He says the next morning that he can smell sex all around him. He is right. By virtue of his awareness, he cannot participate. The ironist is punished for his irony.

If Goldblum is left out in the cold (or chill), then the others do find various methods of warming themselves. A bored housewife is ravished by a TV star. Alex's girlfriend pairs up with an emasculated Vietnamese veteran (Hemingway, read and weep). The corporation lawyer searches for a friend who will impregnate her, thus allowing her the fulfillment of becoming a mother. She cannot find a willing and able volunteer until the unfaithful wife of the shoe magnate volunteers him for the job.

This culminating rendezvous has possibilities. It could sum up the foolishness and pathos of these people, as well as their epic efforts to elevate friendship into a kind of self-contained value system. None of these possibilities are realized. The great impregnation is presented so cutely, so warmly, so joy-of-sexly, that any remotely sensitive viewer will sink down in his seat and com­mune with the candy wrappers.

I have a dark suspicion. Like his characters, Kasdan attended the University of Michigan. Like them, he is in his mid-thirties. Can it be that he is too much like them to understand their silliness? It would require a genuine lack of perspective to assume that these people are "universal" in any but the most trivial sense. Caught among rapidly shifting fashions—"lifestyles," in the irresistible freshman word—they act out their confusions for one another with the unbelievable abstraction Alex haunting them.

Maybe there's a movie here, but it's not this one. Kasdan has given us his personal version of the past: a specific story understood as though it were universal and thereby divested of irony, self-awareness, regret, and all the other qualities which might have made The Big Chill more than a sequence of exploitative skits.

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