Sunday, January 18, 2009

“A long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time. You don't know anything about me.”

A few nights ago I was about to go to bed when I saw that The Big Chill was starting on TCM. I remembered a conversation I had with a guy about The Big Chill four or five years ago. He was in his early-to-mid 40s, and was telling me though he loved it, he didn't think I'd like it. He had said that there is so much generational identity wrapped up in the movie that he didn't think that I'd be able to appreciate what it was saying (he also said all the characters were assholes). Actually, the conversation was probably more like, "You haven't seen it? Don't bother, you're too young. Oh, and all the characters are assholes…" So when I saw that it was on, I decided I could sacrifice a couple of hours of sleep to check it out. It's considered something of a classic, but mostly I wanted to see if that guy was right.

Following the suicide of their friend Alex, a group of old college friends reunite at his funeral, and subsequently turn it into a weekend-long reunion of sorts. There is Harold (Kevin Kline) and his wife Sarah (Glenn Close), with whom Alex had been living at the time of his death, who own a series of shoe stores that are about to be bought up by a large corporation, and who play host for the impromptu reunion. Michael (Jeff Goldblum), a reporter for "People" magazine, TV-star Sam Weber (Tom Berenger), public defender turned real-estate lawyer Meg (Mary Kay Place), drug dealer and Vietnam vet Nick (William Hurt), and finally Alex's young live-in girlfriend Chloe (Meg Tilly) round out the rest of the group. They spend the weekend talking, drinking, musing, smoking pot, listening to music, etc. (Oh, and watching Michigan football. Go Blue!)

The Big Chill is well acted and well written. Overall, it is a good movie, but I can't help but feel like that guy was right. A lot of what the movie explores is wrapped up in the Boomer generation coming to terms with growing up and abandoning the ideologies of their youth. The suicide of their friend Alex, who is talked about as the one with the most potential and the one who was always the most lost, makes for an easy introduction to serious "life" talks and an obvious metaphor for all that is lost in the transition from youth to adulthood. Their reunion forces them to stop and evaluate where they all ended up, years after their politically active and socially conscious college experience. They are all confronted with the realization that none of them have lived up to their youthful ideals. Meg abandoned her altruistic instincts to defend the poor when she realized how many of the criminals she was defending were "scum," and took up real-estate work. Michael never became an investigative journalist, nor a novelist, and instead writes pap for celebrity magazines. Everyone's relationships are struggling, unfulfilling, or have fallen apart.

And this leads into the second reason that I couldn't really connect with the movie. There are a lot of themes that are specific to the Boomer generation, but large portions of the movie are simply about looking back on life, regardless of generation. All the characters are in their mid-to-late 30s, and are dealing with how their lives have turned out. A lot of what the characters are dealing with doesn't necessarily have to do with loss of idealism, but simply disillusionment. Their careers have not turned out as they had hoped they would. They all, for the most part, hate their jobs, and still expound on pipe-dreams they all know they won't follow through on. They've realized that marriage is difficult, and even Harold and Sarah, who have the strongest marriage in the group, are obviously struggling.

And while this is all fertile ground for a movie, and done quite well here, I'm admittedly about ten years shy of having to deal with this kind of disillusionment myself. Now, most movies tackle issues and themes that I personally have never had to deal with but could still emotionally connect with, The Big Chill for some reason left me with the distinct feeling of being on the outside looking in. I could engage with the movie in cerebral ways, and occasionally in a deeper more emotional way, but overall I felt a bit like I was watching the movie from arm's distance. Which is not to say the movie is not good. I would say it was definitely good, but this feeling of detachment kept it from being great. I can't put my finger on why I struggled to connect with it. The generational gap could be it, but I feel like it was something else.

If it really is the generational issue, I am curious to see how the movie ages (the fact that it's already 26 years old, notwithstanding). As the Boomers retire and the torch of film history and film criticism is passed on to the younger generation, what will happen to a movie considered a classic among its target audience but keeps everyone else at arm's distance? Can revisiting a film not only turn critically reviled movies into classics (a la Peeping Tom) or flops into cult favorites (a la Harold and Maude), but also turn previously "great" movies into simply "good" movies? Just some food for thought.

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