Failed Idealism: The Big Chill, Revisited

TheBigChillby Tim Jones5/18/16
“Was it all just a fad?” It is probably fairly well known by those that have seen The Big Chill, and for those that haven’t, the primary theme is the failure of the idealism of the Sixties and how for most who participated in the protests and rebellions succumbed to joining the “establishment” once the Vietnam Era came to an end.

It was released in 1983 and so when I watched it again recently it was even more interesting to discover some narratives and sub-narratives that made it such a creative movie that weren’t so evident during the first couple of viewings many years ago.

The movie centers around a group of close friends who attended the University of Michigan during the heyday of the 1960s counter-culture movement. It begins when they have reunion of sorts by gathering at the funeral of one of their close friends, Alex, who had committed suicide, years after they all had graduated. Alex was the only one of the group who apparently attempted to live out the values of the change they were trying to create in rebelling against the establishment. Following graduation he went into social work but for reasons that are not known to his surviving friends, he commits suicide. Many have written that he was a metaphor for the failure and ‘death’ of the idealism of the Sixties.

William Hurt, giving one of his many great performances, plays the role of Nick. Following graduation, he went to Vietnam and after that he tried his hand as a radio talk-show host in San Francisco. Nick appears to be somewhat like Alex in that he didn’t follow a particular career path that most college graduates are expected to do. Nick continues to ingest massive quantities of drugs as though he never left Michigan and still searching for what he would like to do with the rest of his life while at the same time trying to hold on to the idealism of their college years.

Tom Beringer plays a successful television star in a show called “J.T. Lancer”, a knock-off of the 80s crime drama “Magnum, P.I” that starred Tom Selleck. Kevin Kline is a highly successful owner of a chain of running shoe stores. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious in his portrayal as a writer for People magazine and nearly steals the movie with his role. Glenn Close is a doctor married to Kevin Kline and following the funeral the rest of the movie takes place in their home in Beaufort, South Carolina, where they decide to have an impromptu reunion over the weekend.

JoBeth Williams is married to an advertising executive Richard and living in Detroit with their children. The last two characters are played by Mary Kay Place and Meg Tilly. Meg’s character Chloe is the only one of the group who didn’t attend Michigan with the rest but was the girlfriend of Alex up until the time he committed suicide. Although her performance is understated compared to the rest, it stands out as possibly the most poignant with stark honesty and bluntness.

What may be the most defining line of the entire movie is when the group is sitting around the living room after dinner having a lively bull session. They’re talking about their time together at Michigan where like thousands of other students around the country at the time were rebelling and protesting against the conformity of their parents’ generation ignited by the Vietnam War. There was also the extreme racial unrest and multiple assassinations – John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. – that created probably the most turbulent decade in America’s history.  “I hate to think it was all just a fad” says Glenn Close’s character during the conversation. And so the movie really then becomes about coming to terms with what they acknowledge as selling out their ideals and becoming part of the mainstream establishment they were so vehemently rebelling against.

Indeed it did turn out to be a fad where even Woodstock turned rock and roll into big business and has become a huge multi-billion dollar industry ever since that seminal event officially turned the counter-culture into the mainstream.

Other notable scenes include one towards the end, where they were discussing Alex’s death and how they might have prevented it. Hurt’s character Nick takes on their conventional thinking that maybe if they had stayed in closer touch with him things might have been different. They ask rhetorically “why?” and Nick says that may be Alex asked himself “why not?’ and went through with killing himself. He goes on to say that it’s a cold world out there where we’re all alone, describing life as it really is in many ways, especially compared to the comfortable security of life in a college environment where it’s easy to protest life’s injustices knowing you always have a bed to sleep in every night and three meals a day.

Director Lawrence Kasdan portrays this cognitive dissonance throughout the movie. In another scene, Berenger’s character is talking about how they were all planning to buy a piece of Michigan wilderness property but they didn’t have the money. He ends by stating flatly, “but we didn’t believe in private property anyway.” And Richard, the advertising executive and husband of JoBeth Williams character, early in the movie chides Alex for killing himself: “no one said it was going to be fun” meaning life is hard and the partying idealistic students of the Sixties were looking to have their cake and eat it too. Chloe asks plaintively at one point, “I haven’t met that many happy people. What are they like?”

So in the end, the guilt, remorse and cognitive dissonance felt by the cast of characters in The Big Chill might be summed up best with the following quote: “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” (William Ralph Inge).

In other words, everything is temporal and therefore perishable, including identity. And should a revolution actually succeed in changing the status quo either peacefully or violently, it will always come to an end anyway by collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions or by being overturned by the next one. Time makes quicksand out of the visible and the material, and will always overrule the pretentions and illusions of permanence, especially in the pursuit of creating heaven on earth. • (531 views)

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5 Responses to Failed Idealism: The Big Chill, Revisited

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Pajama Boy was born in the sixties when cowardice and just plain being a bum was glamorized as “Make love, not war.” The hippies have not yet dealt with their cognitive dissonance. Like a junkie going for that next high, they’re still trying to push their ideals over the top, whether with their baby-boom look-alike, Bill Clinton, or the “transformative” magic negro of Barrack Hussein Obama. Their righteous cause was always just one tie-dye away.

    It’s easy to blame the parents who had a large hand in launching the Left in this country. And yet each generation in a country as free as ours can, and does, write its own story. And the story the hippie generation (and those following) have written is one of buffed-up ideals that never could stand the test of reality. So what happened was that fantasy itself was declared real.

    And we live out this unreality every day now. Facts don’t matter. Both presidential candidates are truth-deficient. If truth were like vitamin C, they’d both have scurvy. But that’s okay because the generation who invented “Make love, not war” also invented, or at least gave credence to, the idea that idealism itself was the lifeblood of mankind. If you don’t really BELIEVE something, then you’re not living.

    We see the Kabuki theatre of this bizarre unreality in ideological tokens such as the “Walk for this” or “Walk for that” events that are now ubiquitous. Live your life in the establishment. It’s okay as long as you buff up your image by showing you’re still with “the cause.”’ Pick a cause. Any cause.

    The idea of actually being adult — as we see from the tattooed yutes now infecting the culture — is passé. They got that from their parents who more than likely got that from their parents. Conservatism can never flourish in a roomful of adult children. But fantasy can, and has.

    Pardon me will I go use the man-who-thinks-he-is-a-schoolgirl-wanting-to-be-a-transgender-rock-star-who-has-a-foot-fetish-for-one-legged-lesbians bathroom. It’s the 46th door on the left.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    In other words, everything is temporal and therefore perishable, including identity. And should a revolution actually succeed in changing the status quo either peacefully or violently, it will always come to an end anyway by collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions or by being overturned by the next one. Time makes quicksand out of the visible and the material, and will always overrule the pretentions and illusions of permanence, especially in the pursuit of creating heaven on earth. 

    That’s pretty good, Tim. So much about culture is arbitrary. But a culture not self-consciously made to be perfect (chasing Utopia) is likely one which has beliefs and practices that reflect good and useful practices. Surely the bone in the nose of the tribesman is arbitrary, a mere affectation. But when he passes on the traditions of which foods are good to eat, and which are poisonous, this aspect of culture is extremely important.

    Our culture is this bizarre mix of the highly technical (our industries and city infrastructures) combined with a whole lot of bones in noses. Tattoos, homosexual marriage, transgender bathrooms, “social justice,” the list goes on and one regarding things that are arbitrary, at best, and often destructive, at worst.

    Over time, very very bad practices tend to get weeded out, if only by natural selection. A couple of hundred years are but a blink of an eye. We see Europe, for example, going extinct due to its Cultural Marxist beliefs (which include radical feminism, multiculturalism, relativism, atheism, and socialism). What WWI and WWII could not do they may do in a scant 75 years of Leftism.

    So I guess the lesson would be that although all cultures have large, especially outer, veneers of arbitrariness, only successful cultures have the inner core based on reality. Conservative culture is based on a solid core of reality. Leftist culture is not. The one can survive if it can survive the corruption of the latter, which is no fair bet.

    I think I’ve seen “The Big Chill” at least once. Nothing amuses me (now that I know the game) more than a bunch of liberals going on and on in volumes of pseudo-introspective psycho-babble as they analyze themselves and the world. This is funny to me because there is good reason to suspect that they have no intention of ever living up to their ideals, assuming they can words-mean-things understand them. Simply *having* ideals is the point. Their ideals are mere bobbles. Trinkets. And the ones who do live up to their Leftist ideals are appropriately the most self-destructive of all. But they’ll keep chasing the kind of never-ending therapeutic emotional satisfaction that I don’t believe even children expect out of life.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I saw The Big Chill back when it came out, but don’t remember much about it. Perhaps the characters were too different for me to care much about them. I was never part of the campus left crowd.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, Timothy. But I agree with Tim. Some of the acting was superb. As much as William Hurt is sort of a one-note actor, I like his style. He’s had some great roles through the years.

        But I O.D.’d on “coming of libtard” movies (a variant of “coming of age” movies) with the 2004 movie, Sideways. Something just snapped in me. I couldn’t take any more libtard navel gazing. “Oh, woe is me. We sure had fun when we were young. How did we screw things up so bad? And, by the way, I’m sleeping with your wife.”

        But for those kinds of movies, perhaps The Big Chill is deserving a place of honor. But I generally can’t watch this type of film anymore.

  3. David from Boston says:

    It was a stupid, accurate movie.
    I was on the military side of that confrontation then.
    I saw only their lack of discipline, general angst, and tendency to blame everyone else instead of staying involved and making what they saw better.
    Arm-chair quarterbacks – the lot of them.
    Got no use for them, or the movie – however the actors played the roles.

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