The big story in the media today (in the absence of the usual Al Qaida
assassination attempt) is the twentieth anniversary of the release of
the movie The Big Chill. And the media is actually
celebrating the movie. The Big Chill was supremely
exploitative and alienating even for a film industry totally
characterized by those traits. Historically it appears as a pathetic
attempt to scrape the “Me Decade” activities of the 1970s together into
a way of being, or a “life style” to use the degenerate terminology of
that earlier decade.
Who are the key figures in The Big Chill?
A businessman all boned up about manipulating the market.
A TV star who used to care about his work and now cares only about his
A woman so obsessed with wanting to have a child that she’ll even bed
down with a smarmy brat with the heart and mind of a ten-year-old in
pursuit of her goal.
Cannily, the filmwriters thus concretized the key actors in Reagan’s
society: the unscrupulous CEOs, the solipsistic media, and the
re-oppressed women. The fourth main character is the shadowy Alex, of
whom only one cut wrist is seen. Alex of course represents the
characters’ 1960s idealism, and his suicide is supposed to show the
folly of maintaining ideals. Those still living in the movie laugh at
each others’ excesses and occasionally their own, but the verdict is
in: there is no alternative. One has to give up one’s hope of changing
society, buy in to its corruption and temptations, and if possible get
rich off of the manipulation of the crowd.
It is a sign of how exhausted, battered, and hopeless the American
public felt, in the wake of the Reagan counter-revolution, that so
many people could claim The Big Chill “spoke to” them. Many
critics, to their credit, saw through it. Unfortunately, some failed
to go beyond the surface; I even heard The Big Chill compared
obscenely to John Sayles’s Return of the Secauscus Seven, a
truly sensitive, humane, meaningful (and low-budget!) film.
To the fortunate few, the 1960s was only a moment within a long chain
of activism. From the vantage point of 2003, it’s clear that 60s
activists underestimated–yes, underestimated–the venality
of society and the urgency of challenging its very precepts and
foundations. The goal we set for ourselves was to maintain our
idealism and get smart about it.
Who finds that The Big Chill “speaks to” them?