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Monday, February 27, 2017

THE BIG CHILL

   "May you live in interesting times" is said to be a seminal Chinese curse. The time--though not the curse--has eluded us of late. I would place the demise to be May 1985, but whatever the specifics, more erudite minds than mine have pegged the end of our enlightened era at the mid-1980s. Two movies that featured actor Tom Cruise hammered in the nails. Top Gun was a Pepsi commercial intended as overt propaganda in support of a President looking for a war and The Color of Money, which was intended to be nearly everything it turned out not to be, was a cooptation and slap in the mouth of Hollywood talent of years gone by, as well as of the radical dreams they inspired.
    But if directors Tony Scott and (inadvertently, one assumes) Martin Scorsese pounded the nails, it was the unfortunate Lawrence Kasdan who shot movies in the frontal lobe with the abysmal film blanc The Big Chill (1983).  
   Former idealistic teenagers from the late 1960s get together in contemporary settings to mourn the loss of their best and brightest friend Alex. The friend had the most promise and consequently didn't amount to much, whereas all the others did quite well by themselves and spend the rest of the movie (the song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" plays at the funeral) bemoaning how they are having a hard time getting over being the sell-outs they happily became. Think of it as The Breakfast Club for thirtysomethings. 
   The cast cannot be faulted for the pathetic choice of subject matter. Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Kline and JoBeth Williams offer more than is expected of them by the Carson Company (as in Johnny Carson, who, whatever his skills at delighting late night TV viewers, was as square as a peg. Indeed, the entire film reeks of being exactly what the squares thought the people of the 1960s were all about). 
   Kasdan was completely in his element here. Before embalming the cast of this film, he had amassed a strong reputation among studios that loved blockbusters with his screenwriting of The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, and Continental Divide (the latter his apparent attempt to embalm John Belushi pre-mortem). Kasdan went on to exploit all he could get out of his Star Wars tie-ins despite having worked on both Silverado and I Love You to Death, two movies even more lacking in soul than The Big Chill. 
   Kasdan is all about the shine. When we glimpse a coffin, we are supposed to imbue the inhabitant with unearned grace because of the number of people who attend the funeral. When Scott Glenn saddles up, we are intended to admire him because of the revolver he polishes. When Han Solo remarks something glib, we are supposed to swoon in anticipation of the shared looks of the supporting actors. It's all shine and it adds nothing to the value of movies. It does save a writer from having to do the hard work of thinking up something original, or something to which the audience can feel by way of empathy or confusion, or something that has not been accomplished in quite the same way before. 
   The Big Chill is a cynical sellout to a Reagan-era pack of salivating sheep ready to slurp up any swill the master would sling together. For those of us who spent much of our formative years in movie houses with our eyes wide in wonder of the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, of Billy and Wyatt, of Alvy and Annie, Kasdan's movie was a below-the-belt blow that I for one still reel from thirty-four years later. 
   Thirty-four years? Seriously? 
   I watched Warren Beatty on the Oscars thing last night. Here is a man who has been more things to more people than almost anyone else in Hollywood history: actor, director, producer, stud, philosopher, historian, heartthrob and genuine talent. And yet some schmuck hands him the wrong envelope and he gets treated like garbage by a pack of ignorant loudmouths who have never seen a great movie in their rancid little lives, or if they had seen one, they wouldn't know what was so great about it. The whole idiotic affair completely overshadowed his onstage partner Faye Dunaway, who for her work in Network alone deserves to be not only worshiped but studied. Host Jimmy Kimmel (who otherwise did a fantastic job of making the four hour presentation about the show rather than himself--hint to Ellen DeGeneres) blew all the great work he had done by going for a cheap laugh at Beatty when what he should have done was to just shut up and let the actors work it out, which is what happened anyway. 
   So, yeah, thirty-four years and I'm still nursing the wounds to my presumably sturdy sensibilities. 
   What we watched last night on the Academy Awards was revelation unspoken. We saw, for one thing, people defying the present political administration in the most poetic of ways, rather than in the exploitative manner he reserves for his own enemies. We also saw black people getting nominated for their roles in contemporary films. Maybe films such as Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures will inspire a much-needed renaissance in the film industry. The edginess of the subject matter won't do it, just as the superior talent of the acting won't do it, just as the excellent scripts won't do it--though all three issues helped make these three movies the deserving successes that they are. What it will take is a sensibility among directors who are able to convince decision makers at studios that movies are more than merely mirrors of the times in which we live. Sometimes, when the right combination of elements coalesce, a movie can change the way we experience those interesting times in which we live. And that is not a curse at all.

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