Where White People Come Together With Other White People
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Lawrence Kasdan
The cinema of the the world we were born into holds a strange fascination, unless you were born the year American Beauty came out. When The Big Chill arrived in theaters in autumn of 1983, director John Sayles was made very angry, since the film seemed to be basically a revamp of his Return of the Secaucus 7. Why anyone would claim the idea of a reunion of college friends as their own invention is beyond me; and thanks to various technological vagaries, we are now never parted from those we supposed we loved.
Alex (Kevin Costner) is the kind of adult that was never around when I was a kid. Suicidal, angsty, even angry, and totally irresponsible. He took a hard-earned education/drug binge from the University of Michigan and did not turn it into very much – his scientific career flamed out, he tried manual labor, and he was eventually forced to depend on the kindness of his friend Harold (Kevin Kline). Harold did the opposite of Alex: he focused on a sporting goods business in South Carolina and purchased a lovely house for himself and his college sweetheart Sarah (Glenn Close). Five years before I was born, Sarah slept with Alex, probably as some sort of karmic punishment for her husband's success. He forgave her.
Still wanting to help the man who had fucked his wife, Harold let him in a company secret: he was about to sell his sporting goods company to a larger chain (say, Dick's, or the Sports Authority, if either existed in the early 80s). With the expectation of this money in hand, Alex and his girlfriend (Meg Tilly) purchased a cabin nearby his college friends, where he could try to be happy, since it is what they required of him. Not so graciously, he slit his wrists rather than succumb to this act of charity.
That is where The Big Chill begins, and its opening montage is the first of 16,000 in recorded history set to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Alex's friends across the country hear of his passing and come to mourn him, and have a party with their fellow Michigan alums at Kline and Close's mansion. The funeral itself is never the act of mourning, what follows is.
My college advisor went everywhere with her Alaskan malamute, whom I called Sandy. (For some reason she never told me the creature's name. This was probably wise, since it might have come when I called.) She blithely informed me that I would never believe what all the people I knew at school would become, and she was right, because I can't believe it. Neither can the graduates of the University of Michigan.
Student protests over some teensy tuition increases made waves across Europe recently. It was a laugh for Americans, because we cannot imagine anything as content as an American college student. The University of Michigan in the 1960s, according to Lawrence Kasdan, was a very hopeful and idealistic liberal sort of place, and everyone in The Big Chill is extremely upset about how jaded, adult, and in some cases, parental, they have become.
Meg (Mary Kay Place) thought she would use a degree in law to help the accused; instead she finds them as disgusting as her last twenty of years of unsuccessful dating. In a Tina Fey-esque take on middle age, she requires a child more than a successful career now that she is in possession of the latter. Michael (Jeff Goldblum) abandoned his ideals to become a reporter for People. His time spent teaching the youth of Harlem was so revolting he jumped into a more commercial life without a second thought.
None of the people I knew at college were like this. They were the children of the adults in The Big Chill, and they had to lay in the bed their parents made. Now AARP-age, the men and women Kasdan imagined are dedicated to ensuring that their grandchildren will have no bed to lay in at all. The cavalier attitude towards insider trading, the amorality, narcissism, and lack of concern for others is evidenced by that generation's love of entitlements. It may be the thing they really do love, because money is the only thing they feel they truly deserve.
As the never married singles in the group, Goldblum's Michael and William Hurt's Nick are particularly perfect representations of this sort of callousness, and they have the two most entertaining parts in the movie. (The Big Chill had the best casting of any comedy until Flirting With Disaster.) Karen (JoBeth Williams) is especially radiant as the only other married member of this clique. She married her husband Richard because she knew he wasn't the sort of man who would cheat on her, and despite three beautiful children, she is unhappy. Richard, meanwhile, is astounded by the entire group: "They're nothing like you described all these years!"
In the film's best scene, Richard – the only stranger at the party – tells Nick why their friend Alex killed himself. Not surprisingly, Dick is an advertising executive. He informs them that "there's some asshole at work you have to kowtow to, and you find yourself doing things you thought you'd never do. But you try and minimize that stuff; be the best person you can be. But you set your priorities. And that's the way life is. I wonder if your friend Alex knew that. One thing's for sure, he couldn't live with it. I know I shouldn't talk, you guys knew him. But the thing is... no one ever said it would be fun. At least... no one ever said it to me." Waaaaah.
William Hurt tries very hard to steal The Big Chill as Nick, a drug-addled psychologist who for some reason became impotent in Vietnam. Like Frasier, he hosted a psychology talk show on Pacific northwest radio and advised people on their problems until he became so overcome with guilt he absconded from the gig. When he is pulled over in his Porsche by a local South Carolina cop and abuses the cop verbally, Kline turns on his friend, telling him that the cop had prevented robberies at his store and was a good man. The implication is clear: they're on our side now.
Pauline Kael called The Big Chill shallow, overcontrolled and contrived. She saw the characters as spoiled and perhaps more than a little unlikeable, but my generation holds the opposite view. The attitudes of the characters of The Big Chill are perilously relevant, because they haven't really dated at all. They just grew older and became more self-righteous – they lecture us from op-ed pages, they lost their money to Bernard Madoff, they took out an ad complaining that the Grammys didn't pay enough attention to Justin Bieber. They inherited the world.
There is actually something quite wonderful about these people, of having friends who know you even after so many years have passed. It is not that this generation was full of those who didn't know how to do the right thing, or idealists who couldn't live up to the sacred cows of their youth. Kael said that The Big Chill would be "hated by anyone who believes himself to have been a revolutionary or a deeply committed radical during his student demonstration days." The entitled attitude that the men and women of The Big Chill demonstrate is a natural consequence of those days, not a contradiction of them. When we expect to receive something, and do not it receive it, we think of something else to expect.
What the people you know will turn into is the eternal open question. The world that the University of Michigan ejaculated these hopeful young people into does not resemble ours today. Then the fullness of America's service economy in no way foretold economic collapse, whereas we have paid for the sins of our predecessors. If a company is bankrupt, it can no longer compensate its employees; if a person is morally bankrupt, he might want to think of killing himself before depending on the kindness of others. It's the right thing to do.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the HBO series Big Love. You can find an archive of his writing here.
"You Can't Always Get What You Want (Soulwax remix)" - The Rolling Stones (mp3)
"You Can't Always Get What You Want" - Locomotives (mp3)
"Waiting for the Day" - George Michael (mp3)