Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Sixties Reunion: The Big Chill & Return of the Secaucus Seven

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sixties Reunion: The Big Chill & Return of the Secaucus Seven


You can take the baby boomer out of the sixties, but can you take the sixties out of the baby boomer? What's more significant - that sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll became staples of the mainstream pop culture by the early eighties? Or that political commitment to improving society and challenging social structures grew more marginalized in those same years, occupying niches in the arts and the academy but elsewhere drowned out by the chorus of Reaganism? Is the lasting image of the boomer the middle-aged (now nearly senior citizen) professional striving to balance practical concerns with idealistic commitments, familial responsibility with a looser lifestyle? Or is it the narcissistic yuppie, giving lip service (and sometimes not even that) to a diluted liberalism which only proves that the original revolutionary rhetoric was a better measure of fashion than commitment?

Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (1983) and John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979) are early entries in this debate, their differences as telling as their similarities. Both revolve around reunions of college buddies, a decade or more after the events, politically charged, that made their youth so vivid. Both play on the disparities within the group despite the bonds that hold them together against a misunderstanding outside world ("it's so nice not to have to explain your jokes to everyone," one character in Secaucus remarks when her friends arrive). Both take place in idyllic, sequestered communities, away from the demands of the "real world" where the characters can pause and assess their lives. Both see characters struggling to figure out how much they should compromise between professionalism and idealism, both set up intricate romantic engagements as characters swap lovers and recall ancient picadillos, both use drugs to reawaken excitement and nostalgia.

Yet in one similarity there is a notable difference: both films begin with a settled, relatively secure couple anticipating their weekend guests, but The Big Chill ends with hearty laughter and a rock-scored group shot, while The Return of the Secaucus Seven sees everyone leave town, most in a glum mood, and concludes as the hostess sighs, "What are we going to do with all those eggs?" The Big Chill seems to think it has all the answers (or many of them anyway), while Secaucus Seven knows that there are only more questions. Some of this is explained by differences in filmmaker backgrounds (both were experienced screenwriters, but Kasdan was embraced by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, while Sayles - initially - labored on the margins with Roger Corman) and circumstances of shooting (Big Chill was a studio production, hesitantly approved by executives, while Secaucus Seven was shot on a shoestring by Sayles and a cast out of summerstock, and has been credited with unintentionally spawning America's independent film movement). And yet the most important distinction may be when the films were released; between 1979 and 1983, the national culture and a generation's self-identity had shifted dramatically, in a way we are still feeling the ramifications of today.

To understand how, first we have to take a long look back at the era in question, dimly reflected in the rear-view mirrors of these two films, all the more evocative for being offscreen. Be warned, this is a very long piece, maybe my longest ever. If you don't share my enthusiasm for extensively analyzing the sixties zeitgeist, I'd recommend jumping just to the sections labelled with the movie titles.




"By any other name..."

The funny thing about my opening questions is that they have less to do with the sixties than with the eighties (with an important prologue in the seventies). First off, trivially but interestingly, the term "sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," now ubiquitous in titles of sixties books, documentaries, and TV shows arose in a completely different, even antithetical context, to sixties radicalism. "Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll" was the title of an Ian Dury single in 1977, and was originally associated with the punk rock movement, a rebellion against the bombast and pathos associated with the legacy of sixties rock (meanwhile it embraced other, more forgotten, legacies of the era). Conveniently catchy, the phrase came to retroactively characterize an earlier era, and to sum up the spirit of a generation. Yet the real sixties slogan would have been "sex, drugs, and revolution." Of course, rock is now more socially acceptable than political radicalism, which is probably why, in tailoring its message to as broad a demographic as possible, advertisers and other media figures have tried to make the sixties legacy more about VWs and electric guitars than burning draft cards.

More important than that etymological distinction, nobody called anybody a "boomer" in the actual sixties, or the seventies for that matter. The term "baby boomer" wasn't even coined until 1980, when Landon Y. Jones wrote Great Expectations: America & the Baby Boom Generation, described as "the story of 75 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, a baby boom so extraordinary that it has affected every aspect of our society, from fads, fashions and music, to education, crime rates and Social Security. From the first, the post-World War II baby boomers were endowed with great expectations: they would be the biggest, richest, best educated generation America has ever known. They made the '50s a child-oriented society, the '60s a period of stormy adolescence, and now their adult concerns have become national obsessions." Since then, the terms "baby boomers" and "sixties generation" have been used interchangably.

Let's examine this assumption for a moment. Hardly any mover and shaker of that era was a baby boomer, whether we're dealing with older figures like Timothy Leary, thirtysomething late-bloomers like Abbie Hoffman, or younger avatars like Bob Dylan or the Beatles, who just missed the cut. Undoubtedly, "the sixties" as we think of them today did not even begin until the late sixties - indeed, "sixties" is another term I'll re-examine in a moment - and since by 1968 all undergraduates were boomers, their importance can't be pushed aside. Yet they were important as audience and enabler. In an era which proclaimed "power to the people" this is a key role (indeed, the significance of sixties movements vs. those that came later is the extent to which they reached critical mass), yet it is also, in some ways, a more passive role than it appears. Boomers did not make movements, they staffed, motivated, and grew them. Since they did not make movements they could not unmake them, and hence a lot of the guilt (as well as self-congratulation) of later years seems excessive.

But isn't this precisely the point of the boomer mythology, whether conscious or unconscious - to overlook the unique, larger-than-life circumstances, as well as the actions of earlier, older figures, which spawned the sixties, and thus turn it into a pop carnival which is either a natural, repeatable extension of youthful energy, or  merely, in Jones' words, "a period of stormy adolesence"? For those who celebrate the sixties, the era becomes something "we" created, an achievement that could be repeated if the misguided, misbegotten youth of today (or yesterday, or the day before that - by this point, anyone under 60 has been subjected to this critique) would only get up off of their asses. For those who criticize the sixties (either as too irresponsible or too limited a commitment), "they" get the blame, those narcissistic boomers whose objections to the Vietnam War can be reduced to cowardice, whose experiments with different lifestyles can be summarized as spoiled hedonism, whose shifting consciousness can be blamed on bad drugs or bad parenting.

"The sixties" - there's the final term we need to re-examine, though I'll continue to use it for its ubiquity and (despite the misleading implications) appealing suggestiveness. It's a fairly commonplace observation that what we call "the sixties" did not begin precisely on Jan. 1, 1960 (although the first sit-ins followed the turn-of-the-decade with remarkable speed) or end on Dec. 31, 1969 (despite the symbolic apocalypse of Altamont only a few weeks prior). In fact, while not wishing to brush aside the importance of Kennedy's rhetorical break with the past or the significance of the civil rights generation for later activists (Kennedy and civil rights are really the only direct connection the late sixties have to the early), nor the cultural revolution in fashion and pop music whose seeds were planted in the British Invasion of the mid-sixties (contemporaneous with the escalation of the Vietnam War and the first dawn of sexual and narcotic experimentation), we can safely say that "the sixties" as we know and stereotype them are based almost entirely on events and images gleaned from 1967 to 1970 (and especially the period beginning with the Columbia rebellion of April '68 and ending with the student boycott following the Kent State shootings in May '70).

This is important for several, somewhat contradictory reasons. On the one hand, using "the sixties" to suggest a coherent, extended era stretching for about ten years, suggests a sustainability to the times which simply wasn't there. There's a joke saying that "if you remember the sixties then you weren't there" but aside from the freaked-out winkiness implied, it seems to have more general implications. The times were so exciting, so transformative, that fictional accounts often forget how quickly it all happened and turn it into one long blur of love beads, acid rock, joints by a fireside, picket signs with defiant slogans, and sex acts performed in grassy fields. In fact, long hair wasn't de rigeur until the decade was almost over; meanwhile the hippie movement's golden moment had already peaked. It may have been fast-paced, but developments were not simultaneous and there was a definite chronology. On the other hand, this doesn't mean that the era - however short-lived - was insignificant. That's the other trick of using "the sixties" as a shorthand; it reduces all the developments of that era to fads, fashion, and childish whimsy. The fifties had hula-hoops and coonskin caps, the seventies introduced leisure suits and disco; in between we had fringe jackets and Peter Max posters. Such notions make for easy nostalgia, a pleasing tidiness, and an overall impression of triviality. Yet the fact that "the sixties" transcends its position in time, that it continues to haunt and define later eras, should give us pause before reducing it to cultural artifacts equal in importance to those of any other era.

How did it all happen? The "Summer of Love" in '67 gave birth to the countercultural imagery of the era, still capitalized on in insurance, credit card, and automobile ads, but it was the following summer that married this alternative lifestyle to a political commitment, left-wing but only tangentially related to radical activism of the past. There were deep historical roots for this - for over a century, the twin impulses of bohemianism and political radicalism had intertwined and separated, dancing back and forth between the demands of the former's libertarian, individualist nature and the social concerns of the latter. Yet never before had the two come to seem so conjoined; as Carol Hanisch noted in a feminist manifesto of 1970 (as a year, the mirror image of '67, since now the political cart was leading the countercultural horse) "the personal is political." The legacy of this sentiment (co-opted, if not coined by the boomers - Hanisch, like the others listed above, was born before 1946) has been the culture wars of the eighties and nineties, which still flicker up every now and then.

Yet these were two separate strands, however wound together they came to seem. Due to the power inherent in that moment of union, personal liberation and social good have been confused ever since. The inherent differences between "doing your own thing" and "doing the right thing" (as well as the differences between each of those and "do the safe thing") is one of the major, and surprisingly unacknowledged, paradoxes haunting the so-called sixties and the generation that thinks it wagged that dog.

The Birth of the Boomer

I've noted previously, in a piece on Field of Dreams, how the late eighties saw a renaissance of sixties nostalgia and boomer self-definition, due in large part to the boomers' ascension to positions of pop cultural (and eventually political) power. The early eighties paved the way, although there was still a tendency to see the sixties narrowly as "our" (that is, the boomer's) property rather than as "all of our" property (see how later films or TV shows, like Field of Dreams or "The Wonder Years", recontextualize the era in terms of familiar, all-American tropes like baseball or coming-of-age in suburbia). As Reagan took power, while fashion and entertainment shifted directions from sixties trends (which the seventies had largely continued), there was a measure of both defiance and defensiveness in the self-appointed custodians of sixties culture. The seventies saw less of this tendency (in part because, for a while at least, people weren't even really sure if "the sixties" had ended), turning instead to the fifties for readymade nostalgia and treating the sixties as something still unresolved.

Some of the first few films about the sixties (Four Friends and A Small Circle of Friends come to mind) looked back from a more conventional era - Small Circle opens with a reunion of college buddies, one a lawyer and the other a jogger (!) literally running into one another. Yet they largely took place within the era itself, unafraid to represent it directly, even if already several stereotypes had infiltrated first-hand memories. Significantly, both films relish the slow transformations that occur, as well as acknowledging the extent to which outside society remained unaffected by the revolts and crises of the young - Small Circle in particular has extended sequences in which you don't even know what year it is (could already be the seventies, or still the pre-counterculture sixties) until an event pops up to remind you. The films have a sense of humility about the era as well as a respect for its larger-than-life yet still grounded actualities. It will take nostalgia/reunion films or shows, taking place in the present but recalling the past, to mythologize the era - to turn it into the "Mr. Wu" of Orson Welles' theatrical anecdote (in which a mysterious Mr. Wu is alluded to throughout a play, only entering the stage space as the curtain closes; on leaving the theater, the audience compliments the remarkable performance of Mr. Wu).

Just as the self-perceived "dangerous" seventies sought comfort in a supposedly "safe" era (the fifties celebrated in "Happy Days" and Grease), so the eighties, more "secure" - at least for the upper middle class which manufactures pop culture - dredged up a desire for something more unsettled and exciting, albeit perceived from a distance that airbrushed some of the elements that were too unsettling. In the process, the politics of the sixties becomes vague and rather mushy; undoubtedly it was for many participants (hence the aw-shucks acquiescence of most viewers to this strategy), but to see the activism of the era as all about making the peace sign and maybe breaking a few windows is to miss the fact that, for many people, a real awakening about the state of the world took place in those years (even if that awakening sometimes took ugly shape or went in wrongheaded directions). To obfuscate the political tenor of the sixties is a particularly American tendency - you don't see this same impulse in, say, French or Italian or German films in which cultural transitions are decidedly second-fiddle to political consciousness (or rather, are seen as one and the same but the second definitely defining the first).

This is partly due to the class dynamics of the American Sixties, which differ somewhat from the situation elsewhere. In Europe as well as the United States, the most vocal and eventually violent of the activists tended to be the offspring of bourgeois families - but in Europe they consciously threw their lot in with a preexisting class struggle highlighted for years by active Communist Parties and other socialist or anarchist groups. There was a stronger continuity between young and older radicals in Europe than in America. In May '68, when the students rebelled, the workers joined them in the streets of Paris. Eventually, the groups drew apart - the unions accepted De Gaulle's compromise, and average workers had never shared the middle-class students' fondness for drugs, apocalyptic violence, or sexual frankness (which went further in France than other countries; in the seventies, many on the French left even dabbled with accepting pedophilia). Yet European leftists continued to operate in the framework provided by Marxism, a framework unbroken by the Cold War and legitimized despite the conservative blowback of the seventies and eighties.

In America, revolutionary rhetoric more often took a "don't-tread-on-me" tone. New Left activists like David Gilbert argued that the working-class had sold out and become petit-bourgeois, and that students were the true "proleteriat." Most American activists (either casual or deeply committed) did not accept this logic, at least not in those ideological terms, but they did tend to see the conflict more in generational, cultural terms than economic. The central crisis was the Vietnam War - unlike European youth, American radicals faced the anxiety of being drafted into the enemy's cause - and when it petered out so did protest. Since the terms were less abstract and theoretical for Americans than for Europeans, the change in practical conditions also saw a shift in political priorities. Meanwhile, the Nixon-supporting "hardhats" who belligerently attacked antiwar protests made it difficult for students to connect their personal dissatisfaction with the struggles of a wider community, and heightened the extent to which rebellion seemed more truly personal than political. The American radical community was also more initially divided than the Europeans - divided right down the middle by race in an era when "Black Power" came to mean a new form of separatism.

In short, I posit (at the risk of over-simplifying and falling back upon generalizations similar to those I'm overturning) that from the beginning, the American New Left was more embattled, the odds against it greater than for the Western Europeans. It was confronted more openly with its inadequacies (since European students did not have to confront their racially privileged position in the same direct fashion) and it faced a more hostile society than in France or Germany or Scandinavia. Its cultural roots lay in individualistic creeds and sensibilities rather than the collective action or systematic analysis of Marxism and so it was more vulnerable to self-doubt. Hence, in retrospect, many members of the sixties generation didn't know which compromises mattered, and ran the risk of confusing growing up with selling out. The term "baby-boomer," with its somewhat infantalizing tone and its over-explanatory context, came into fashion right at the moment that many members of the sixties generation were most doubtful about their future and their place for history. It provided both an excuse and a reprimand, and it's been in fashion ever since.

The Return of the Secaucus Seven

When John Sayles shot The Return of the Secaucus Seven in the fall of 1978, there was no such thing as a "baby boomer." And it shows. The characters in the film are products of a specific era yet they are not imprisoned by it. Most notably, the tide of history has faded to leave them, not representative of a new epoch (unlike the characters in The Big Chill, whose jobs - entrepreneur selling out to corporation, writer for People Magazine, TV action star - scream "eighties"), but rather embedded in a web of normalcy. A few have distinctively post-sixties traits - the teacher politicizes his classroom, the country singer has the wanderlust romantically associated with the counterculture, the drug counselor dabbles with drugs himself. Yet we also see how tightly they fit in with their local communities, with the working-class drinkers, and young housewives, and high school athletes-turned-gas-pumpers; they had some unique experiences but they are not especially unique people.

Furthermore, the gathering is casual, not spurred by any huge event (The Big Chill reunites its group at a funeral for one of its members). The low-key dramatic stakes, plus the casual ambling style of the filmmaking, makes for a scenario that truly feels like a slice of real-life. Mike and Katie (Bruce MacDonald and Maggie Renzi) are two teachers living together in North Conway, New Hampshire, where they've invited newly 30-year-old JT (Adam LeFevre), newly broken-up Jeff (Mark Arnott) and Maura (Karen Trott), doctor-in-training and love-seeking Frances (Maggie Cousineau), and Senatorial aides (thus potential sell-outs) Irene (Jean Passanante) and Chip (Gordon Clapp). Chip is the odd man out, as straight-edged as his name suggests (well, apparently - it's actually his weed that gets everyone high) and nervous about the impression he'll make on Irene's old pals.

At one point Mike explains the group's interlocking dynamics and history to Chip, and (humorously) the explanation is just as confusing for the audience as for the bewildered straight man. But we don't need to keep track of the individual details to understand the general impression: they met through a variety of college experiences, sexual relationships, and volunteer programs (VISTA, specifically) which suggest a social concern, an adventurous spirit, and a healthy American libido. The characters still have their libido - eight of the nine (including pump jockey and snowmobile enthusiast Ron, played by David Strathairn) will get laid over the course of the film. Only Jeff, who at film's beginning is still living with Maura, is sexually unlucky - perhaps that's why he attacks those logs with such gusto in the film's poignant conclusion. Meanwhile, conversations touching on sexual history, birth control, and abortion establish the characters' wariness toward conventional marriage and child-rearing (unlike in Big Chill, none of these characters are parents).

The adventurousness of their spirit is a trickier matter. Jeff is still unsettled (ostensibly occupied with getting addicts off drugs, he eagerly shows a vial of heroin to Mike, who seems uncomfortable with it), but it's JT who most pointedly represents that still flickering flame of their youthful excitement. And he's quite aware, and uncomfortable, with this fact. Whereas the others are settling into careers and communities, JT continues to drift - he's planning a big trip to L.A. to crash the music business, and throughout the film we can't help but shake the feeling that he isn't going to make it. His more well-off friends want to help him out but JT moralistically declines. Observing that every bar has that one loud, drunken, live-for-today guy who can't support himself, but whose friends fund his irresponsible lifestyle out of guilt for assuming their own commitments, JT shakes his head: "That guy always gives me the creeps."

As for that first trait of the group's youth, the social concern, this is clearly their most depleted, and most vulnerable, feature. After all, the title of the film Return of the Secaucus Seven both references their former activism and manages to poke some fun at it. The opening credits unfold over mug shots of the group circa 1970, with longer hair and more defiant expressions. It's an effective way to ever-so-slightly give us visual evidence of who these people were once (something The Big Chill never attempts - heck, it doesn't even let us see the departed member, a JT-like drifter, who was played by Kevin Costner in deleted scenes). We don't find out how the title relates to the mug shots until near the end of the film, when a slightly different group of seven (Chip vs. Frances, who's off sleeping with Ron) winds up in a police station due to a misunderstanding, and Mike explains "the Secaucus Seven" to Chip.

Seems that nearly a decade ago, the seven friends were on their way down to a Washington, D.C. demonstration against the war - "one of the last," Mike says - when they were pulled over in Secaucus, N.J. in their borrowed car with, unbeknownst to them, a rifle and some marijuana in the back. Since this was just after the notorious trial of the "Chicago Seven" (Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and five others prosecuted for "inciting a riot" by planning the notorious demonstrations at the Democratic Convention of 1968), the seven nobodies kid one another with jokey references to countercultural pop heroes and gangster films they saw on TV as a kid, doing impressions of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. The anecdote is both down-to-earth and evocative; despite the self-mocking wisecracks, the group obviously cherished their willingness to act and cause trouble as young students.

Their present sojourn in the slammer ends before it began, when a local drunkard (a former ref at Mike's school, and an out-of-work veteran of factories - in other words, a member of the working class whose struggles did not end when campus activism went out of fashion) takes the fall for the seven thirtysomethings, admitting that he killed the deer they were accused of jacking. It's hard not to see some larger significance in this: even this farcical round-up ends with a retreat into personal problems. Soon after everyone is departing, leaving on their separate ways, and Jeff is in the backyard angrily taking out his frustrations on the chopping block, a helpful chore turned in to a failed attempt at catharsis.

Jeff is the one who seems most attached to the group's former political identity; he argues extensively with Chip about whether the Democratic Senator he works for is a sellout (it seems telling that, pre-Reagan, the most right-wing character is a soft-spoken liberal establishment type). And when they're held at the police station, as Mike kids around and the other characters look bored or concerned, Jeff proudly proclaims his long rap sheet including a serious-sounding prosecution for destruction of federal property. In almost all cases, however, the charges were dropped (as tonight's will be) and we get the sense that he regrets this escape hatch; he'd rather it be all or nothing. Here, in a nutshell, we have the conflicted identity of many radical activists: committed to complete rebellion in their youth, they escaped the consequences of their commitments, and hence feel guilty (others, from less privileged backgrounds, were not so lucky) and confused by their luck.

When Maura is asked for her record she notes that it's the same as Jeff, with one exception - "we got separated" she notes of one occasion where Jeff was arrested and she wasn't. Another layer is suggested in the breakup between her and Jeff: it's the final and fatal crack in the facade of their political commitment. For the most part, the friends don't discuss politics, particularly outside of what might be called bourgeois social issues (the only exception is Mike's spiel about teaching the Boston Police Strike in high school, and again the intent is mostly self-deprecating). There's an enticing ambiguity to their sense of grief - what exactly are they mourning? Their former dedication to justice? Or, more broadly, the pride and confidence that were the result (and perhaps the cause) of this commitment? The identification with a larger culture and society, a feeling of membership in a huge mass? Or their membership in a very visible, very personal community, a community of seven with connections and acquaintances shooting off in all directions, connecting them to a larger sense of what was going on? Do they miss, specifically, the charged atmosphere of the late sixties? Or do they miss their youth in the same way all generations do?

The fact that these questions seem so hard to separate from one another sums up the ambivalence of a generation (that blurb from Landon's book notes this very uncertainty on the cusp of the eighties), and the fact that they remain mostly unvocalized is a sign of the time, a time which would end quite soon.

Whatever the issues of the characters in The Big Chill, vocalizing their problems isn't one of them.


The Big Chill


Context is everything. Seen in relation to the small-scale humility of The Return of the Secaucus Seven, The Big Chill appears almost vulgar in its slickness. Its iconic status assured by its wall-to-wall rock soundtrack (complete with a dancing-in-the-kitchen sequence that inspired numerous cliches), its big-name stars (most, admittedly, on the cusp of fame rather than already established), its swanky Virginia plantation setting, its clever dialogue and stylized filmmaking, and especially its almost entirely upwardly mobile cast of characters, all suggest a Hollywoodization of the Boomer experience. Yet at the time the film was very difficult to get off the ground, at least according to writer/director Lawrence Kasdan; it was only the success of his debut, Body Heat, combined with prodding from the huge names he'd worked for as a writer on The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, that convinced Columbia to cautiously greenlight the movie.

The film belongs neither to the quirky, realistic indie world Sayles helped birth nor to the mega-blockbuster environment in which Kasdan made his name, but to an older type of film which once defined what people meant by "the movies." From the thirties to the seventies, mainstream movies were made for adults, centered around dramatic themes (usually adapted from "serious" plays or novels) or comedic ensembles (also often adapted from plays) which, for all their rooting in the real world, remained decidedly romanticized, stylized, and glamorized. The Big Chill was not assembled loosely, strung together like Sayles' debut effort (which often has the raw homemade quality of a student film) but handled with an extensive professional cast and crew, with industry money, and with a screenplay diagrammed with an almost obsessive-compulsive concern for structure. Kasdan's writing partner, Barbara Benedek, notes that Kasdan's screenplay was the most meticulously prepared and charted-out story she'd ever worked on, and it shows.

The film begins, like Secaucus Seven, in the bathroom. But there's a big difference: in Sayles' film we watch Mike plunge his dingy toilet, while Kasdan introduces us to Harold (Kevin Kline), as he's bathing his son in a spacious bathtub, handing him toys and singing "Joy to the World (Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog)." This comfortably yuppie moment is interrupted by a call from the past: Sarah (Glenn Close) picks up the phone, and then approaches Harold with horror in her eyes. We don't find out what's happened until after the sly opening credits, laid over "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," in which various characters reacting to the bad news are intercut with shots of someone getting dressed: a corpse as it turns out. Alex, an old friend (significantly, never seen by us) has killed himself in the country home where Harold and Sarah were letting him stay.

The ambitious cross-cutting, fusing dramatic development, character revelation, and musical evocation, continues at the funeral where, over the strains of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (played in full) we meet narcissistic tabloid writer Michael (Jeff Goldblum), drug-fueled impotent Vietnam vet Nick (William Hurt), shallow but well-meaning television actor Sam (Tom Berenger), biologically-ticking corporate lawyer Meg (Mary Kate Place), and bored bourgeois housewife Karen (JoBeth Williams). Karen's husband Richard (Don Galloway) stays one night before heading home, and from then on, we're left with the seven friends, plus Chloe (Meg Tilly), Alex's very young and very unself-conscious girlfriend.

The similarity, even numerical, to Sayles' film is duly noted, and it should be observed that there's even a Chip here, or rather two Chips. That character's squareness is captured (less compassionately) by Karen's Richard, whose observations would sound pretty sensible if they weren't presented in such a self-satisfied way ("Nobody ever said life would be fun. At least they never said it to me."). Meanwhile, Chloe demonstrates Chip's goofy, innocent outsider status; unlike Chip, she becomes a kind of Greek chorus, giving voice to the self-critical tendency of boomer mythology which had not cropped up yet in '78 (she stifles a laugh when one character notes that Alex would tell them all to "shut up" about their neurotic self-analysis). Meanwhile, the other seven characters sleep together, recall old times, and ponder their future, in similar terms to the Secaucus Seven.

But there's a big difference on display in The Big Chill: these characters have far more money, success, and security. One of them is famous, another writes about famous people, at least four are quite wealthy, and the hosts of the whole party are living in a mansion before he's even sold out his company (he's also a jogger and, natch, inside trader). As a result, they're quite a bit farther along the path to sacrificing the ideals of their youth than were the outlaws of the Secaucus gang - only Alex clung to his ideals at all, and apparently it killed him. Nick's and Michael's views of sixties idealism are retrospectively jaundiced and cynical, while Harold doesn't bother to disguise his exasperation at "bleeding heart" critiques of materialism and law and order (interestingly and probably accurately, he's also the most attached to sixties rock and pop music). Where do these folks stand in those three central features which also marked the values systems of the Secaucus characters - sexual freedom, individual adventure, and political commitment?

Well, if anything, they're even hornier than the characters in Sayles' movie. Both films share a fondness for their characters' complicated and intertwined sex lives but Big Chill seems far more sanguine about the emotional fallout, cheerfully endorsing guilt-free adultery and even wifeswapping. In this film it's only Michael who gets left out (of course, since he pursues sex like a predator instead of a liberated spirit); even the unable-to-perform Nick gets a romantic interlude of sorts with Chloe. The characters still have relatively relaxed lifestyle values, despite their social responsibilities (Sarah tells her kids over the phone to do something because she says so, and then sighs to Meg, "I can't believe the things I hear myself saying sometimes.") They get high - not just pot, but pills and coke make an appearance (Nick, a drug dealer, arrived for the weekend fully stocked) - and act like swingers, albeit with an appropriate conscience, since Sarah offers Harold to Meg not for kinky thrills, but so she can have a baby: even sexually, these are liberals rather radicals.

In terms of individual adventurism, The Big Chill's book seems far more closed on the matter than Secaucus Seven. There is no JT, ready to hit the road in pursuit of his dreams (Michael speaks of opening a nightclub and eventually writing a novel, but we're pretty sure he'll stay wherever the money's good). Alex died for refusing to anchor himself down (his principled objection to a scientific fellowship is much lamented throughout the movie), and Nick - the character closest to Jeff in Secaucus Seven - is invited to stay with Harold and Sarah at the film's end, in the hope that he will be domesticated, not just with the help of their money, but also by the companionship of Chloe (who listened to his disingenuous radio-shrink routine when she was a teenager in the seventies). Nick will have a long way to go before he jettisons the bitterness which adds much-needed bite to the film's sometimes smug camaraderie, but it's suggested that he won't end up like Alex after all. Since the characters here are a bit older than those in Secaucus Seven, and since the decade was more materialist and upwardly mobile than the previous, it's unsurprising that Big Chill has its characters settling down and even seems, despite some reservations, to endorse the process.

As for the political commitment, this is the most fascinatingly chimerical aspect of The Big Chill. The characters in this film talk far more about the previous political activities than did the characters in Secaucus Seven, despite its title. They're also all alumnus of Ann Arbor, a hotbed of activism and the birth (undoubtedly before their time) of the Port Huron Statement, so it can be assumed they all came to political consciousness together (rather than assembling themselves from disparate crossing paths like the Secaucus crowd, which called to mind that now politically incorrect saying of the early New Left, that "the movement is held together by the tip of a penis.") We're told that Sam, before using his performance skills to hop into a convertible and bed two chicks on network television, gave rabble-rousing speeches on campus, while Michael wrote radical columns with "just the right amount of ideological fanaticism," and hooked up with Meg at the '67 March on the Pentagon. Harold was also a natural student leader in his day, a fact that now earns mixed admiration and embarrassment from him.

Yet somehow all these anecdotes remain slightly unconvincing. They shouldn't; plenty of boomers made the journey from fashionably radical in the sixties to simply fashionable in the eighties. Yet the stridency with which these yuppies proclaim their past commitments seems slightly canned, much like Kevin Costner's character in Field of Dreams sandwiching "I marched" in between "I smoked a lot of grass" and "I tried to like sitar music," or the character in "thirtysomething" who loudly proclaimed "Gee, it's so weird to be in a park without the smell of teargas!" as if she was a female Rip Van Winkle who hadn't been out in public for two decades. The characters' radical pasts seem conveniently imagined from a present vantage point, perhaps because Kasdan assumed his audience could fill in the dots, and signifiers would suffice to suggest a political history. At any rate, I never really found myself believing that these characters belonged to SDS or that they seriously humored the prospect of "revolution."

Part of the reason is that social concern seems to play such a small part in their present lives, even in its absence. Apparently Meg and Alex were the only ones to carry their principles into the working world, for a while at least - we're told Alex left a social-service job in '78, and Meg admits that she gave up being a public defendant in disgust at who her clients actually were - (her delicacy is playfully mocked by Michael; when asked who she thought they'd be, Nick remarks in a serious tone, "Huey and Bobby"). Otherwise, few of the characters have consciously given up on their ideals; instead, their commitment has been diluted into vague generalities. When Sam says, "I thought because people looked and talked like us, they'd share our values," or Meg and Sarah affirm that they still believe in or care about "people" to Nick, the idealism takes on a personalized tone, more about relating within previously existing circles than expanding these circles. The characters have passed through the "Me Decade" and seem to be looking back on the sixties through that prism.

Naturally, given its period and background, Big Chill heads towards a happy ending. After a night of sexual re-acquaintance, the gang gathers around the breakfast table, make plans to head home (Kathy, having bedded Sam, is now returning to Richard, infidelity having made her more bourgeois than ever), and Michael jokes, "Actually, we've discussed this already. We're not going home. We're never going home." The characters break into laughter and the cheerfully nonsensical refrain "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog" picks up where it left off in the first scene, when it was interrupted by the bad news. Only now, we sense, a few days after the official funeral, has Alex truly been buried. The film ends with the characters paused before their final departure, together forever like Butch and Sundance. In The Return of the Secaucus Seven, everyone's already left and the lonely hosts are left with a derelict volleyball net, a backyard full of decimated wood fragments, and a kitchen full of uneaten eggs.

The End of an Era

"But if Return of the Secaucus 7 is a secret handshake, The Big Chill is a self-satisfied slap on the ass, one where the filmmakers exploit their audiences' nostalgia for 'Ain't Too Proud to Beg' as if it were a countercultural samizdat rather than one of the most famous songs of all time. All these devoted music fans talking about the good old days, and not one apparently owned anything other than greatest hits albums?" - John Lingan, "Take Two #3: Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) and The Big Chill (1983)"

In his astute, clever (and, ahem, economical) piece comparing the two films, Lingan closes with this observation: "The characters [in Secaucus Seven] contend with stymied careers and hopes in an era without a proper, grand title, after having gone through one that positively burst with professed importance...The Big Chill, despite all its '60s trappings, is really a monument to another, less exciting occasion: The Day the Yuppies Took Over Hollywood." Indeed, the big difference between the two films is that one is a post-sixties film, and the other is an eighties movie. The Big Chill has crossed over to the other side (Lingan again: "people who have grabbed their piece of the pie but still feel pangs of remorse when they sift through old clippings from The Michigan Daily"). The Return of the Secaucus Seven exists, unceremoniously suspended between past and future. Even if we can now look back and pinpoint the era Secaucus Seven belongs to, with its Carteresque malaise and timid but insecure stabs at domesticity, the film is about people no longer conscious of living in history. Most of the past forty years have been like that for Americans, which is what made the sixties so unique.

Like many viewers, torn between enjoyment of The Big Chill's slick charms and a kind of empty feeling left by that same style, I can be a bit tough on the film. It fascinates me and is compulsively watchable, yet ultimately does not really satisfy - like a meal that's more presentation than substance. I want more. In a way, this is a good thing; Kasdan has penned characters interesting enough that I want to know what they were really like as sixties activists. I want to meet Alex, and I want to track the experiences of Nick. (Nick is by far the most interesting character to me, partly because he's edgier and darker than the rest - his Vietnam experience, unlike the others' campus activism, has no "reset" button - and partly because William Hurt nails that edgy darkness so well. The moment when Chloe takes his hand, he asks if she knows he can't do anything, and she nods, is one of the few sequences in the film I find genuinely moving, conveying not just a facsimile of emotion but the real deal). Yet, notably, I'm not really particularly interested in what happens next to these characters. I could leave them laughing at that kitchen table and never look back. Everything interesting about them seems to be in their past; Kasdan has done to good a job winding up all his meticulously plotted storylines and there remains little left to explore.

Return of the Secaucus Seven is a different story. Yes, I'm interested in the characters' pasts. I would like to travel along with them on their interlocking paths, watch them meet for the first time and savor their intoxication with the zeitgeist as well as their increasingly solitary paths as they dispersed into the seventies. But I'd settle for hearing about these memories; what I really want to see is where they go next. Does JT make it in L.A.? Will Jeff remain a wounded soul, will he get hooked on the very stuff he's trying to get others off of? Will Irene launch her own political career, or maybe support Chip's (that boyish awkwardness has a way of seeming natural in a politician)? Will Mike and Katie stay together? Get married? Form a conventional family, or their own version thereof? These are characters I've ended up caring about and what beckons is not their storied past, but their uncertain future. That, I think, is the sign of great characterization.

Of course, both Big Chill and Secaucus Seven are relatable in some sense, and they present us with characters and situations which are universal, despite being anchored in a very particular era (there's a fantastic IMDb thread on this very subject). This is art, not sociology, however easier it is to write about the latter. Nonetheless, I remain fascinated by how these two films, in their focused ways, reflect history, both that of their own time and that of later. Like all works of history, they have a tripartite function: to record events passed, reflect present attitudes, and shape future perceptions. As a child of the nineties (when history supposedly ended), born of boomer parents in the very year The Big Chill was released, I obviously did not experience the sixties firsthand, and I have long been fascinated not only by the era itself, but by how it was interpreted by later eras. Together these films provide pieces of the puzzle from a time that birthed the subsequently dominant mythology of the boomer-created "sex, drugs and rock & roll" decade.

In this we see the transformation of three major aspects of the sixties, aspects which not only affected those born after World War II (however disproportionately they were affected) and certainly were not led or created by that age group, but which later were claimed by the pop culture as belonging to them. The first, social experimentation, experienced some reaction and rollback, but ultimately (as the films suggest) revealed itself as the sturdiest pillar of the counterculture. Sex and drugs are now staples of pop culture. While hard drugs are generally frowned upon and monogamy was never truly smashed (although it was serialized), pot is now a rite of passage and premarital sex is quite openly the norm. When advertisers or greeting-card writers want to signify the sixties, they go for these easy punchlines, as if those years were just one long, groovy party. Undoubtedly, they were, yet the sixties was more than just the Roaring Twenties on acid.

The "personal liberation" and "expanded consciousness" meme has a bit more substance to it. It undoubtedly gets to the fundamentally inner nature of what made the period so significant. This is what sixties veterans probably mean when they say "You had to be there" while sixties artifacts - books, movies, especially music - seem to offer those of us who missed out a "contact high." Perhaps it's just our imagination but we feel at times we can taste the flavor that our parents took for granted in their youth. Then again, maybe it's not imagination - after all, a mystical awareness is not the prisoner of any chronology; in this sense that ineffable "sixties spirit" is actually one of the period's most universal, timeless qualities. The individual quests to drink from these waters connect the sixties with a rich stream of American inner and outer lives: the country has always been a nation of dreamers. This is one reason the American sixties has proven both more elusive and more pervasive than its European counterparts: it is rooted in the American soil yet its quality is so hard to pin down that when you don't feel it, it's as if it never existed.

Oddly enough, neither film bothers to dwell on the sixties' mystical, transcendent side, except allusively (as in JT's westward journey or Alex's mysterious pain and eventual death). There are no eastern meditations or acid trips (I can recall only one reference to "hallucinations" between the two movies, and it's in a party context). The characters hardly ever refer openly to quests for self-realization even though that's implicitly what most of them are either seeking or running away from, or trying to dimly remember.

Finally, there's the political commitment, the elephant in the room. If the mainstream culture knows what to do with the pleasure-seeking hedonism of the teen and college rebels, and has a kind of understanding with the personal quests of the hippies, it seems utterly bewildered by the radical revolutionaries. Too ubiquitous to ignore (though usually debates about the "political legacy of the sixties" get diverted into personal-life "social issues"), pop representations nonetheless reduce this element to broad slogans or symbols, the peace symbol, the marches and singing, a Black Panther shouting "off the pig", a mad bomber or two. Both films in question acknowledge the political tenor of the sixties, but in a fashion so casual and indirect that past radicalism is simply taken for granted.

It should be noted that sixties activism, while certainly left-wing, also transcended conventional definitions of left and right, one reason its legacy has been so tangled. Sixties radicalism combined a strong sense of liberterian individualism with a powerful social commitment, a pronounced concern for the underdog and disenfranchised with a deep-seated suspicion of big government and mainstream liberalism. One reason conservatism has been so powerful for the past forty years is that it has managed to re-orient its rhetoric from defending the status quo to defying "elites" and liberating the (entrepreneurial) individual; in doing so, it peeled some of those countercultural values away from the others, managing to confuse opponents whose attachment to the sixties creed had been mostly instinctive; suddenly they were caught off-guard.

One can sense this confusion in both The Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Big Chill. The tide has gone out, and the characters are stranded; they remember what they once felt like, but can't recapture the memory. Yes, part of it has to do with getting older (hormones have an awful lot to do with a romantic attitude towards life) and certainly economic and social decisions have eliminated that old feeling of liberation. Possibly, however, what truly haunted sixties veterans - and the whole notion of "the boomer" that grew up around them - was the loss of power, or worse, the realization that it never really existed, at least not in the quantity originally believed. For a group of people who defined themselves as "activists," the realization that they were actually passive riders of one of Tolstoy's historical waves, rather than active generators of these waves, must have been very sobering indeed - the biggest chill of them all. Disappointment came early to those who later considered themselves baby-boomers (and we all know that bust follows boom) but it didn't come early enough. It allowed them too much time to enjoy their seeming freedom before swooping in to take it away. This is a generalization, and a mythologizing one at that, yet films like the two I've discussed here are testament enough to its (perhaps self-fulfilling) truth.

If there's a silver lining here, it may be not for the boomers, but for their children, the kids the Secaucus Seven finally decided to give birth to: my generation, which perhaps needs a myth of its own. We were at once raised in and mystified by the attitudes our parents took for granted. Widely reared in a comfort and idealism similar to our own parents' childhood, it wasn't until young adulthood that our historical paths parted. Confronted by hidden wars rather than nightly broadcasts from the battlefield, dealt an increasingly failing economy rather than taken-for-granted prosperity, immobilized by awareness of our impotence rather than motivated by delusions of collective grandeur, we never had a chance to partake in giddy illusions of everlasting community or thrilling revolutionary fervor.

Any illusions we might have had were nipped in the bud by the inability to face 9/11. There were moments of optimism - the age of terror was also an age of exploding technology, whose full creative potential has yet to be tapped, and the election of Obama provided many a much-needed outburst of positive energy. But by and large the outlook has been grim, which means if the boomers had nowhere to go but down, we've nowhere to go but up. This could mean a future activism (in a broader sense that the term usually takes these days) based not on the illusory and fleeting bravado of youth, nor the false comforts of economic "security," but rather on a deeper understanding of life's challenges and our own humble status. From this standpoint, it's easier to relate to the weary, struggling, yet somehow still defiant Secaucus Seven than the comfortable, navel-gazing Big Chillsters. Chopping up endless logs may be a futile gesture, but hey...at least it's a gesture.

This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.

2 comments:

Michael said...

This is an amazing piece of writing.

Joel Bocko said...

Thank you, Michael. When I initially wrote it I was embarrassed by its length and long-windedness, but when I returned to it later I felt it actually made some strong points and was proud of it (hence its inclusion in the Top Posts series). God knows the sixties and cinema are two topics I absolutely love talking/writing about, so I'm glad these films gave me the opportunity to do both in one place.