I was born almost a decade after The Big Chill came out. I watched it for the first time nearly two decades after that, while wasted off of my nineteen-year-old ass. My friend suggested we watch “a Glenn Close movie.” Like most of my generation, I have always associated Glenn Close with the live-action 101 Dalmatians movie or the previews for harsh-looking programs of legal intrigue that I’ll never watch, like Damages. So we watched it, and I watched it again sober, and I loved it.
Because of things like smartphones and Facebook, college is no longer the time in which you make your BEST FRIENDS. We are able to maintain our relationships because we can find out what the others are up to within seconds, without writing letters or paying to dial somebody up long distance. So it comes down to this: we don’t need to make friends in college, or in the work place, or anywhere, if we’ve made them earlier. We aren’t ever truly separate from them. Even though I have made some friends in college, I would still claim my best friend came from high school.
We met in seventh grade, at our mutually most awkward phases, and grew together for the next six years until heading off to rival universities. So automatically, even though I never had quite the social circle in high school, I am kept from developing a group of friends anywhere near to the one in The Big Chill. I could never have a weekend in my future in which I invited the group I considered my best friends where my friend from high school was not included. I know, I know, it’s a movie, friendships aren’t like that — but friendships were much nearer to being like that in the 1960s, when my favorite fictional Ann Arbor crew met in college, and in the 1980s when they reunited via lots of phone calls to the tune of Marvin Gaye.
Which brings me to my next point. Don’t fuck with me on this. The Big Chill soundtrack is absolutely tops. I’m sorry, part-time record store clerks of America, this needs to be played often and loudly. In High Fidelity, the dudes who know their music are discussing the most desperately upsetting songs about death. When one suggests The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the other responds: “Immediately disqualified for its association with The Big Chill.”
This point’s been explained to me: vinyl is cool again, and the record store mentality is one of progress. You shouldn’t play nostalgic soundtrack compilations when you’re trying to sell new bands instead. Even if the nostalgic soundtrack compilation is absolutely perfect. It’s not just that it’s good, classic music, though. It’s paired perfectly with its scenes. “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” during the awkwardly-third-party-induced adultery scene at the end is fucking spot-on. Harold finally gives Meg her chance at being a natural woman (even though the phrase “natural woman” has always seemed a little bit ambiguous to me) through motherhood.
Most filmmakers don’t seem to try to set movies down below the Mason-Dixon in which the region does not become its own character.
Beyond the jams, though, more subtly perfect, there’s the setting — the American South. Among other 1980s films set in the South, the most popular are The Color Purple, Driving Miss Daisy, Steel Magnolias, and The Big Easy. Most filmmakers don’t seem to try to set movies down below the Mason-Dixon in which the region does not become its own character. The Big Chill, however, takes on the Tidewater region of South Carolina because of its beauty and weekend-vacation sense of simplicity, not because of its hillbilly charm or the backdrop of high southern society. The closest thing to southern society in the movie is when Nick gets in trouble with the police for backtalking, and he snips “What, you got etiquette laws down here?” There’s also the police escort to the burial scene, a trope that Southerners don’t usually recognize as regional.
We see the Spanish moss hanging across the landscape on the way to Alex’s burial as well as his property out of town. We see the dredged-looking causeways and the dry tilled fields of what’s probably going to be tobacco or corn. We have the Southern-hospitality funeral reception. As Jeff Goldblum’s character Michael — the goofy attempt at a playboy figure — says: “Amazing tradition — they throw a great party for you on the one day you can’t come.”
The South is the right kind of setting: these seven friends (Chloe makes eight, but Chloe isn’t their friend) spend their hour-and-forty-five-minutes of screen time challenging what they have each become in light of the idealist goals they had in college. And here, in the warmth of community and the literal warmth of the Carolina coast, is the right kind of spot for thawing out.
In the tradition of the South, though, the film is obsessed with the past. You can practically hear Quentin Compson telling and retelling the story of what made him himself, Sutpen and all, and how his present is nothing if he can’t spend it dwelling on the past. Obviously the seven (again, Chloe makes eight) haven’t been together in quite a while, beyond Sarah and Harold, the married couple. The reunion is centered on Alex’s unexplained suicide. They enjoy the weekend together with a guilt complex, obviously, because they wish their eighth best friend were there too. Chloe, his girlfriend, takes his place, and she is the only counterpoint to the theme of the Glory Days, what they seem to look back on as their own Lost Cause.
But Harold, the host of the impromptu reunion and the only apparently Southern member of the gang, reinforces the Lost Cause mentality instead of helping everyone else move forward. He went to college in Ann Arbor and made a name for himself, yet he has returned to the South to live accordingly. Even the perfect soundtrack is an indicator of the nostalgia that haunts both his group of friends and his region. No matter how great it sounds, or how perfectly it meshes with the scene, the 1960s soundtrack is all that Harold will allow in his household—he sets the stage to allow himself to remain in the glorious, if unsuccessful, past.
So when the Ann Arbor gang talks about their pasts—and ultimately, how they haven’t lived up to the young people they were, in a way that reminds us of Southern plantation owners about a century before The Big Chill—it borders on conversation-based plot and nonevents. The classic dinner table lines:
Sarah: I just love you all so much. I know that sounds gross, doesn’t it? I feel like I was at my best when I was with you people.
Sam: I know what you mean, Sarah. When I lost touch with this group, I lost my idea of what I should be.
But what saves those lines from being so silly is about twenty minutes later, when Chloe gets to speak. Nick asks her in an intimate aside to talk about herself.
Nick: Say anything. Tell about your past.
Chloe: I used to live with Alex.
Nick: Before that.
Chloe: Before that … um … I don’t like talking about my past as much as you guys.
In this brief conversation, Chloe shows us what the real world can be when the members of the group each return to it. The IMDB tagline description of The Big Chill is: “The story of eight old friends searching for something they lost, and finding that all they needed was each other.” This is obviously not a very good idea of what the movie actually is, and that’s because of the setting. The South shows us what a separate world this is: Harold’s world, the world devoted to the past and its idealism, the world of manners and vintage records.
Sure, there are some things about the movie I don’t like. For instance, there’s that scene where Richard, Karen’s square of a husband, is apparently eating a mayonnaise sandwich. Then there’s Karen in general, I hate Karen, so maybe she deserves a square husband who eats mayonnaise sandwiches. But that’s all. I’ve probably watched this movie ten times in the past year. It gives me a context for my life at the age when things look most promising. The Big Chill is a celebration of what people hope for in youth, and how this hope can bring people together but, because of Chloe, it ultimately condemns nostalgia. It’s all about the reunion, the now — it’s not about the music of their younger years, or the dreams they never got around to. It’s about saying no to nostalgia and moving on to something better, symbolically as they each leave the South and head homeward, literally as they have new appreciations for the present.
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