The Big Chill

Because of an odd set of coincidences, I’ve discovered that there exists a movie called The Big Chill. Released in 1983, it stars Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, and Glenn Close. (I think that Tom Beringer might be equally famous but I just don’t know him.) In the words of Wikipedia, “the plot focuses on a group of baby boomers who attended the University of Michigan, reuniting after 15 years when their friend Alex commits suicide.”

The plot summary on Wikipedia is long but contains very little but angst, fornication, and adultery during several days while the old friends stay at the house of two of them for the funeral and a little after it. Without recapitulating the sordid details, this review by Richard Corliss in Time will suffice to get at why I find interesting the existence of this film that I never want to watch and you shouldn’t either:

These Americans are in their 30s today, but back then they were the Now Generation. Right Now: give me peace, give me justice, gimme good lovin’. For them, in the voluptuous bloom of youth, the ’60s was a banner you could carry aloft or wrap yourself inside. A verdant anarchy of politics, sex, drugs, and style carpeted the landscape. And each impulse was scored to the rollick of the new music: folk, rock, pop, R&B. The armies of the night marched to Washington, but they boogied to Liverpool and Motown. Now, in 1983, Harold & Sarah & Sam & Karen & Michael & Meg & Nick–classmates all from the University of Michigan at the end of our last interesting decade–have come to the funeral of a friend who has slashed his wrists. Alex was a charismatic prodigy of science and friendship and progressive hell raising who opted out of academe to try social work, then manual labor, then suicide. He is presented as a victim of terminal decompression from the orbital flight of his college years: a worst-case scenario his friends must ponder, probing themselves for symptoms of the disease.

I suppose what I find interesting is that the problem is immediately obvious but completely unacknowledged: these people have to purpose in life. Without a purpose one thing is as good as the next and suicide no worse an option than living. It takes exceedingly little thinking to recognize this and if it’s too hard on one’s own there’s always Nietzsche available for a few dollars at the local bookstore (back then, when there were local bookstores).

Yet, despite the problem they’re grappling with being exceedingly simple and the sort of thing any thirteen year old should be able to figure out in half an afternoon—the world is not enough—it’s presented as some sort of inexplicable mystery and they’re deep for confronting minor aspects of it.

Given that this movie seems to have been completely forgotten, I’m probably making too much of it. Still, in the early 1980s enough people watched it that it made $56M on an $8M budget. Not earth shattering but it tapped into something.

Also curious is that it reminds me a bit of The Breakfast Club (which came out in 1985). That movie was about teenagers. In some sense, I get the feeling that The Big Chill was, too. Hippies from the 1960s (a subset of baby boomers, it must be remembered) never really grew up. If you look at the people who used to be hippies, many of them still haven’t. (This is a whole topic unto itself, but I think it actually says far more about how “the greatest generation” raised the relevant baby boomers than it says about those baby boomers.)

3 thoughts on “The Big Chill

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Just a thought on the Hippies.

    For some time, rightly or wrongly I’ve imagine them as “rich kids” who never had to work for a living.

    IE Anything they wanted, Mommy and Daddy gave them.

    That relates to the “no purpose” in their lives.

    Working Class kids would be expected (by their parents) to get out and go to work,


    1. I think for a great many of them they weren’t rich kids so much as temporarily rich—sent by their families to college, they lived the life of the idle rich for a few years before reality set in. In some cases they were able to continue it by various means like temporary jobs, being musicians, mooching off of friends, etc. In some cases they did certainly come from well-off families that they mooched off of, though. It was not a very long-lived thing, which I think also has to be born in mind when explaining it.


    2. I should also mention that office work doesn’t seem to instill the same sense of accomplishment and purpose that manual labor (including the skilled trades) seems to. A lot of college kids would go on to office jobs of one kind or another, which might be related to this.

      Liked by 1 person

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