Friday, 29 November 2013

Bitter Sweet

Have you noticed that as you get older more moments have the potential to be bitter-sweet?  I don’t necessarily mean sad, but full, seasoned.  The history we bring with us can flavour occasions with memories, some of which are joyful, nostalgic or melancholy.  Maturity inevitably makes one more aware of complex resonances… and an aspect of this awareness is the knowledge that loss can shadow (even chase) many of life’s riches.  

The expression, ‘the big chill’, reminds me of this complexity.  For its two meanings are closely entwined: the first suggesting a relaxed and casual atmosphere… the second a frosty, hard-edged environment.  Strangely, they co-exist without dissonance, as if the contradiction were by design.  Such is life.

The use of this expression as a title for a film was especially clever, because the production managed to embody both meanings; the bitter and the sweet.

On some levels, what greatly moves me about The Big Chill is obvious.  People reunite after the suicide of an old friend.  They loved him.  They wish they’d known he’d lost hope and better understood his journey.  In coming together after many years, these friends are reminded of how much they have missed one-another, and how much they’ve left behind.  In a long-weekend of friendship, familiarity, regret and reflection they revisit shared joys and dreams, ideas of what their life was going to be, and in doing so grieve for a loss of innocence, for failings, and for the sense that choices have been which close other paths.  Their musings are particularly vivid because the background to their youth was America’s revolutionary, idealistic and hopeful 1960s.

Without hyperbole, The Big Chill is a great film – a resonant, surprisingly humorous, and insightful slice of life.  The sound-track is legendary, of course, but so too is the script, the direction and the performances.  The way themes and needs weave together is truly a work of art, a classic.

And to think that when I first saw the film – was invited, in fact, by a film critic to accompany him to a preview – I was bored and restless.  I complained after that the characters were indulgent and unsympathetic.  I also thought the humour abrasive.  Quite appalled, my friend looked down at me from a great height – and I mean literally because he was a rather slim, tall chap – no doubt realizing he was foolish to be attempting to court such a young and innocent girl.  For no matter how pretty, or promising as an actress, I clearly had bad taste.  Well, undeveloped.  The point was that I didn’t understand the film.  I was too young.  I was too innocent and sheltered.  Life was going to turn out as I expected.  If I did the right things and followed my passion I would end up exactly where I expected to be.  So I thought. 

In retrospect, I must have sounded like the character of Richard at the kitchen table: narrow and simplistic.  That evening he let my disappointing comments slide with a mere shake of his head, but he didn’t take me out again.  He imagined, I guess, that it would take some time before I could understand what was “wrong” with these people in The Big Chill, “swapping partners and taking drugs…”  Nor did I understand that levity, even flippancy, can be a necessary part of grief, as we struggle to normalise the shock; existentially torn between light and darkness, life and death.

Anyway it was nearly a decade before I saw The Big Chill again.  I don’t remember where I was or who I was with… but as every frame rolled I remembered that writer, Greg, and my own naivety and lack of perspective.  My teenage self stood so shamefully before me the poignancy of the film was enhanced.  At the time I was still younger than the characters in the movie and my life was going very well.  I was enjoying a long period of continual employment, quite a luxury for an actress, and in many ways felt I was just starting out.  Yet I’d experienced enough heartache – particularly the sudden death of my father - to empathise with the underlying pathos of the film.  This time too I got the film’s comic and ironic elements.  I also knew I was destined to see it again… that over time my appreciation for it would grow.  And so it did. 

X years later I watched it a couple more times; and again the other night when I was moved to the point of being choked up.  After each heart-tugging experience my appreciation for this film deepens like the lines on my forehead or the annoying grey hairs that do their best to poke through as I do my best to hide them.  Eerie is what this film is now… poignant and strikingly eerie...

But why?  What has Lawrence Kasdan captured which touches me so deeply?

Is it that these likeable characters can’t get the milk back in the bottle, and I identify with their feelings about “the road not taken”?  Is it the softening of revolutionary spirit that comes with age… the slide of pragmatism which accompanies if not middle-age then at least middle-class living?  Is it that Alex and Chloe’s charming hideaway reminded me of the wooden cottage in South Carolina which a dear boyfriend once presented to me with pride… and I’d been too young (again), and giddy with the love of show-biz, to consider serious commitment?  As the film was in fact set in South Carolina this would be an inevitable comparison.

It was some and all of those things but, in a constructive way, what the film illuminates through the palpable loss is that it is impossible to journey through life holding on to everything as much as we may wish we could.  The same is true of our idealism and the plans we may make.  Alteration and adaptation is not only crucial, it’s endless.  This does not make loss any less painful, but there is definitely something healthy and compelling about these friends coming back into a cocoon of sorts to support each other while processing the challenges they are facing.

I’ve had my share of death; too large a share lately.  So the scenes where the friends sit around remembering the person they desperately wish was still with them, are achingly familiar.  By contrast, the recriminations between them, the tensions unleashed in the tide of grief, seem comparatively modest.

I was also deeply touched by the respect and generosity of Sarah and Harold helping their friend Meg to become a mother.  The film predates the broader use of IVF so, looking back, the storyline was progressive.  If the morality of their ‘triangle’ strikes some as suspect, I can understand that.  If some think their choices too risky, I can understand that too.  But the gentleness and compassion shown here between them greatly warms the part of me which wishes more often we saw such unabashed compassion in action – compassion outside ‘accepted norms’, outside judgement. 

Nevertheless perhaps the big thing about The Big Chill is that it shows people in the prime of their life learning that personal growth and understanding is a grey business… a flawed and murky business… a journey far from black and white, or pure good and bad.  Living and love, wisdom and wonder, go on and on in waves of bitter-sweet experience.  Our job is to hang on for the upside, and to keep loving no-matter how grey or imperfect circumstances and people may be.

In this the friends in The Big Chill reinforce each other – eventually venturing back out into the world ready for another round.  That’s what true friends are for - for many better than family - and I think it’s this element which resonates with me most of all.  For in that warmth and comfort, frost and fear melt.  It’s ok to be less than perfect, less than all-knowing, for your friends will love you anyway.

That’s why The Big Chill, despite its plot, is like a warm hug.  As well as a celebration of the lives we are challenged to make the most out of while we can.



The Big Chill was released in 1983 and filmed entirely on location in Beaufort, South Carolina.  Principal Cast:
The director, Lawrence Kasdan, has made several splendid films, including another favourite, The Accidental Tourist, where he worked again with William Hurt.