Lost in the Movies: Side by Side: The Big Chill vs. Return of the Secaucus Seven (video)

Side by Side: The Big Chill vs. Return of the Secaucus Seven (video)

This narrated video essay, a resumption of my Side by Side series, has been a long time in the making - and what an appropriate time this is for its debut. More on that shortly. Comparing two similar stories and then picking them apart to see what they reveal about different writer-directors, different classes, and different eras (the Carter seventies and the Reagan eighties), this video essay looks at the films in three particular contexts: cultural, philosophical, and political. In each case, we have the characters' sixties pasts, alluded to directly and indirectly, as guideposts to their present orientation. For me at least, it was fascinating to examine these films not just in relation to each other but in relation to those historical mythologies they evoke - as well as the then-unknown future evolution to follow: both the boomers' (from stereotypes of hippies to stereotypes of Trumpsters), and the generations, particularly millennials, who would live in their shadow. I try to address the latter very briefly at video's end but I'll also discuss it further here because I can't help myself. While I like to keep these cross-posts short (after all, the video is the point), this case - especially given this moment - calls for more.


In 2012, partly in preparation for my own "generational reflection" film Class of 2002, I watched and reviewed two movies about a baby boomer reunion. John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill use this similar premise to travel in different directions; in particular the socioeconomic aspects of the two groups create a stark contrast between the works. My 2012 prose essay spent a long time exploring the history of both the terms and the broader concepts of "the sixties" and "the baby boomers"; it also ended with a contemplation on how millennials differed from or echoed their parents' generation. At the time there was no real political movement to speak of, although Occupy Wall Street had already emerged during the previous fall as a potential spark.

In 2016, when I published my last YouTube series entry for four years - a "3 1/2 Minute Review" of The Dark Crystal - it ended with a teaser for my next planned video: an audiovisual adaptation of that earlier essay, juxtaposing The Big Chill and Return of the Secaucus Seven. At the time I needed a break before I began the project - I didn't think it would last this long! - but it's interesting to consider the timing of that announcement as well. That spring, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign had ignited not just a new left among twenty and thirtysomethings (in a country that hadn't seen much beyond the weakened edge of Democratic Party liberalism since the era that Big Chill and Secaucus Seven commemorate), but a whole new culture surrounding this galvanizing force. My musings about how millennials (and now, an even younger cohort) might end up as politically engaged as - hopefully with more success than - their boomer parents seemed to be coming true.

This video was finally created in the winter of 2020, between my New Hampshire primary canvassing sessions for the second Sanders campaign. (I was even able to make use of last-minute podcast interview with Sayles conducted by Michael Moore.) The older millennials, including myself, are now well past the age of the characters in the Kasdan and Sayles films yet unlike them we appear to be late bloomers. Those films' early to mid-thirtysomethings were already looking back on long-past radicalism, settling into (especially in Big Chill's case) a comfortable if wistful security. Meanwhile current mid-to-late thirtysomethings seem to be headed in another direction entirely, after a frequently frustrated, chaotic youth. Of course many are now worried that millennials' own moment of challenging the system has already passed (and that the consolation prize will not be the ambivalent prosperity that many boomers experienced). When I finished editing this video in February, Sanders looked like the surprise favorite to win the Democratic nomination. As I write this description in mid-March, the dramatic reversal of Super Tuesday appears to have put this dream out of reach. When I finally publish this post a couple weeks after that, who knows where we will be?

Incidentally, both of the Democratic contenders are not boomers at all; both Sanders and Joe Biden actually belong to the silent generation, which has never won the presidency (boomers have won seven times, held the office for twenty-eight years, and provided four presidents - three born in 1946 alone). In some ways, current millennials don't resemble the boomers so much as the silent generation; many sixties activists, musicians, and other figures in the New Left and counterculture were actually, officially older than boomers (who rode the left-wing, countercultural wave rather than caused it). By my figuring, boomers and silents were even the exact same age range in 1969 as zoomers and millennials are in 2020. Make of that what you will. (If you want to dive deeper into the weeds of generations and the eras that shape/are shaped by them, I made a whole illustrated post about it a couple months ago.) Anyway, none of this directly relates to the content of this video essay, which is one of my longest outside of Journey Through Twin Peaks. After toying with the idea of including other footage - even from the present - I limited my analysis to what is onscreen in the two films. But I'm sure the rest of this context will be on your mind, as it was (and is) on mine.

Further reading/viewing on this subject: John Lingan's 2010 written essay (quoted in my 2012 piece) comparing the two films and Leigh Singer's 2018 video essay focused on The Big Chill and boomers - plus, for fun, this Doonesbury reunion cartoon a commentator linked up under my video.

Also available on Vimeo:

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