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7/23/16

the big chill

"The Big Chill thus demonstrates that the Arendtian effort to segregate a privileged realm of the authentically political is the ideologically presupposed obverse of liberalism’s definitive ruse."

Just let that sink in for a moment.

Is there an attempt being made to communicate here?

Every ten years or so, I watch The Big Chill. I let it come to me, rather than seeking it out. Ten years is long enough for me to forget all but the most general things about the movie- that it uses 60's R&B hits as the soundtrack, that one of the guys deals and drives a 911. When I watch it, I can't even be sure of how I felt about it the last time I saw it.

I've never been a part of a group as depicted in TBC. Not as intensely as that, anyway. As the outsider, part of me desires it, part of me seeks to destroy it.

Ah, but keep things light and breezy. Instead of the academic bullshit analysis referred to above, I will describe the experience of watching the movie. Isn't watching a movie a real experience? A movie is just like any other story- part of it is entertainment, part of it is the experience of imagining a different reality.

As a movie-watcher, I experience the movie through the filter of all other movies I have seen. My understanding about how movies work (this is a flash-back... this sort of cut between scenes represents the passage of time) form my own unique translation- no two people see the same movie in the same way, and no one person sees it the same way twice.

A lot of cultural stuff is like that. There’s the individual part that is your own experience of it, and there is the shared part that everyone more or less agrees is what the thing is about. Is it a great movie? A stinky movie? One thing that can’t be denied is that it was seen by nearly everyone of a certain age.

And that makes it a specific shared experience. Each of the survivors of the Titanic had a unique experience- some were below decks, some above, some were pulled from the water, some were already in boats- but everyone who sees TBC witnesses the same thing. This is important, because we can use that experience to gauge ourselves, both against others and ourselves.

Because I can’t remember my impressions from the last time I saw TBC, the idea here is to record them as a reference. So, none of that who’s in the movie, what’s the story line usual review stuff. This isn’t a review. It’s a description of an experience, the experience seeing the movie The Big Chill.

The beginning is perplexing. There are people talking but I can’t see them. I hear a child’s voice, and then a man’s voice, and they are doing something together. There is an image of a sock being pulled up on a guy’s leg, and a suit pant leg dropping over it. It’s a pinstripe suit.

A phone is ringing. The song “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” begins playing. A man is bathing a small boy, and I wondered why he doesn’t answer the phone- oh, wait, a famous woman is there, and now she answers it. She is in tears when she’s done, and I remember that the grapevine and the body being dressed are all about their friend who has died- ah yes, by suicide- there are stitches on his wrist. The movie shows the friends as they receive the news, and I try to gather up the clues we are being given about these people. One guy’s an actor, yeah. One woman has a glass wall office in a big city. I can’t say I remember her. There’s a girl doing yoga, I don’t remember how she fits in. But that's because there's eight different characters and it clips right along.

So I’m not getting everything about these people, and maybe I’m not expected to at this point, even if “this point” is the 5th or 6th time I’ve seen this movie. Next thing you know, they’re all going to this guy’s funeral. Now, how do I know that they’re all going? I have seen a character or two who got the news but who is not going to the funeral- the geek guy’s girlfriend, for instance. At this point, I don’t know who I am supposed to be tracking. I do get that the guy who was bathing the kid in the opening moments is heavily involved in the operations of the funeral, so he must be sort of a major character.

At the church they interact, and there’s a bit of storytelling here- the woman in the suit wants to sit by herself. The actor guy has warm feelings for the beautiful brunette, but she’s here with her (jealous) husband. The pill-popper who arrives late also has tender feelings for her, and she seems to like him better. The child-bather guy turns out to be good at the public speaking thing, and the brunette can play the organ.

A lot is spelled out at the funeral. The tone of sincere love that these friends had for the departed is reinforced, and some comic elements (the geeky guy’s immediate lust for the young “widow” for instance) are introduced. It’s all very movie and compressed- the cars, the things they wear, all keys to character. If you hadn’t been around in the early 80's you’d miss most of these clues. But the important clues, the ones that Shakespeare would understand, are not in the sets or costumes- they’re in the interplay between the actors.

What’s sort of funny about all of this is that it’s a funeral, and like all funerals, it’s long and feels leaden. Which is a hard way to start a movie. That mood is broken by the second major song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, which demonstrates the wise-cracking and iconoclastic attitude of the dead man, which these friends admire and support. It’s a spark of life midst the end of life.

And this moment feels wrong. It’s a fist pump, stick it to the man moment. Does the moment feel wrong because the movie-maker gets it wrong, or is it because the characters get it wrong? This is one of those moments where the movie is truly an experience. What did I think of this moment the first time I saw the movie? I probably went right with it and pumped my fist as well. Because, in 1983, to have played a Stones song at a funeral would have been sort of a big deal.

Now, having been through a few more funerals in real time, the meaning has changed significantly. I’ve been to the funeral of an Alex, and there was nothing redeeming about it- his death felt inevitable and somewhat senseless.

Part of the problem here is that the movie, any movie, is expected to “treat” a larger subject. This movie is said to be about the idealism of the 60’s and the realities that came later. Who decided that this is what it's "about"? Has the writer decided to create this story in order to share his thoughts and feelings about the 60’s and what followed? What can/will I accept at face value, and what must/should I be applying to some larger meaning? The decisions I make are based on my prior experiences of movies as well as on the skill of the movie-maker to communicate these things.

Everyone agrees that the movie is “about” these characters’ unfortunate compromises to make it in the real world. Everyone tries to draw conclusions about society from this. But I think it is about the personal experiences of the movie-maker/writer. It’s about his own response to the very real success he had as a writer and movie-maker. He expresses a big longing for familial intimacy, for children, for safety. The ideas expressed by the Nick character are very frightening, and are eventually subsumed into a different kind of familial intimacy, one that is “outsider” yet even older and more basic than middle class suburban security.

But I’m getting ahead. Before I managed to reach this conclusion, I had spent the 1:05 watching the movie, and then several hours searching for and reading reviews. I’ve decided that reviews are mostly useless. Reviewers talk about movies, they don’t talk about the experience of watching a movie. Most reviewers probably watch too many movies for their own good. Most reviewers can’t experience a movie the way regular people can. Reviewers won’t “get” a movie that way non-expert viewers get it.

I’m into the mise-en-scene as much as the next guy though. I like to follow the lighting, and the cuts, and the soundtrack, and all that. But I find that the story is communicated through the interactions of the actors. They make it live. I have never spent the weekend in a multi-million dollar mansion in South Carolina, or been in a battle, or any of that typical movie stuff. Those props and sets and scenarios are the McGuffin. They are there to move the story along, but they have no importance of themselves.

What did I experience in this movie? I hadn't remembered how it ends. It really has multiple endings. Some characters are OK with what they have, some re-commit to their ideals, some just bumble along. If, as I believe, the writer/movie-maker was expressing different sides of his own personality, then he’s decided to accept the rewards of success (of the “selling out”) as a way of supporting the more idealistic (and the more flaky) sides of himself. In the end The Big Chill isn’t about us, or about society, it’s about him.