Lost in the Movies: August 2012

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

In 2020, I adapted and updated part of this piece as a video essay.

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.

Silence is Golden: the two versions of The Gold Rush

In the famed Kuleshov experiment, conducted in the Soviet Union immediately after the Russian Revolution, it was demonstrated that audiences would react differently to the same exact shot depending on what shots followed or preceded it. The actor in close-up was interpreted as mourning, for example, when intercut with the image of a corpse, or hungry when alternated with food, or even happy when juxtaposed with a child laughing. There were obvious implications for the theory of montage, but it isn't only editing that alters viewers perception this way: camera position, movement of camera, and movement of actors within the frame can all subtly alter an audience's impression of the same scene, while the more circumstantial elements of a film - like art direction, lighting, or color scheme - can ironically have an even stronger effect.

And then there's the soundtrack, one of the subtlest yet most effective ways to manipulate a viewer. It's an especially problematic element in the case of silent films, whose musical scores were often up for grabs - dependent on what the house organist felt like playing, in later years reliant on whatever generic recordings the video distributor was able to use. That's just music - what of an actual narration, imposed upon the material that orginally "spoke visually"; is such an imposition blasphemy or merely a logical, technological update?

When he re-released The Gold Rush in 1942, Charlie Chaplin nervously cut down his 1925 box-office smash, eliminated the intertitles, composed a new score, and added a playful (self-recorded) voiceover. Mindful that audiences used to talkies might grow restless, Chaplin had taken a sharp turn from his earlier position; for years he had been Hollywood's most (ironically) eloquent voice on the lost art of pantomime, resisting the onset of sound so stubbornly that he waited a dozen years after The Jazz Singer before allowing himself to speak onscreen. Yet apparently Chaplin (along with audiences and critics) was pleased with the results, labelling this cut "definitive" and allowing the original version to disappear from circulation.

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