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.


Monday 11 November 2013

Barbarism and Civilisation

I went to a moving service for Remembrance Day on Sunday in London.  The minister gave a good homily about war and, by implication, peace… during which he said “barbarism and civilisation are as far from each other as a varnished sword is from rust”.  He suggested evil and goodness, virtue and human-failing, operate on a delicately poised scale and ready-to-swing pendulum.

His message was that to preserve our humanity, moreover to grow and improve, individually and collectively, we need to remain aware of our vulnerability to corruption and indifference.  And one doesn’t have to be religious to know that his observations of human nature and society are apt. 

At the more trivial end of the spectrum, do we push and shove and behave aggressively in peak hour?   For a few moments I had the moral high-ground on Victoria Station on Friday night when a guy with a bicycle pushed it through the crowd and slammed it into my leg.  I asked him to stop moving as my leg and jacket were hooked on his pedal, but he continued to push forward violently, dragging the metal deeper across my calf.  The expletive I called after him added unhelpfully to the agro of the commuter mosh-pit, not to mention fell on deaf ears.  What was the point of it all?  He didn’t get to his train any quicker than I got to the pub.

There are many moments when we have to choose between kindness and selfishness – regularly when living in a city surrounded by extremes of wealth and poverty – and even at the water-cooler we may not realise we are being asked to choose between judgementalism and gossip, and the opportunity to give people we encounter in our professional and personal lives the benefit of the doubt.

War and peace are extreme examples – strong juxtaposition aiding our ability to identify good from bad, courage from weakness.  It is right on so many levels that we ‘celebrate’ November 11th.  This consciousness is as important for the living as it is for the dead – even ninety-five years after the end of World War One.

And that brings me to my reason for writing: if barbarism and civilisation lie, at times, a mere knife-edge apart… how close is enrichment from loss, comfort from abandonment, and life from death?  Destruction in the Philippines in recent days is so deeply tragic… so widespread… it makes for a painfully vivid reminder that life (and what equates with civilised living) can be wiped out brutally and on masse if you simply happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

It is different to the suffering in Syria only because a typhoon is not of man’s making.  Similarly, George Orwell describes a slippery-slope from affluence to poverty and marginalisation eloquently in Down and Out in Paris and London – a small book everyone who can really ought to read – but that journey is a slow and inexorable one.  In the Philippines, it is the suddenness of the typhoon which shocks and overwhelms.  We feel numb and powerless in the face of such a large-scale ‘natural’ disaster.

Many tens, even hundreds of thousands, of people are dead and/or suffering in the torrential wake.  We don’t yet know the half of it.  Like the Boxing Day Tsunami it is too much to take in, and will surely take years to remedy their physical lives, let alone heal emotional scars. So I don’t mean to minimise the catastrophe by shifting focus from the whole to the particular, but I have lost a friend in this tragedy; in circumstances which are complicated and sad. 

Since I got the news I keep thinking of my friend.  I see him body-surfing happily in the ocean; laughing over a bottle of red; exploring the churches and monuments of Rome and Assisi; passing round beers while I rough up some dinner; listen to him comment on (or argue about) the rugby league, the news, the latest item of political interest; riding his motor-bike; surprising me with a bottle of lemon-cello because he knows I’m missing Italy; encouraging me to play the piano while he competes with his good friend, Ray, to win at billiards; eagerly talking to bunches of school children who look up at him with fascination; standing fervently on the Altar celebrating Mass, during the dedicated years he gave his life to the church; celebrating Mass in whatever intimate place he found himself with a few friends or parishioners; starting every sermon with a joke; raising money to build a new church or support an orphanage; sharing his Faith and compassion with all he encountered; praying often and long for people who were sick, troubled or deceased; caring about people; and only a very short time ago making decisions which were to separate him from many he loved, from a vocation he loved, and, most sadly, lead him to the place where he would lose his life in massive tides. 

Technically, the distance from life to death is a breath.  Whatever the prelude, ultimately the change occurs in a moment.  Our challenge is to fill our breaths, however difficult at times, with as much richness as we possibly can… so when that last breath comes we have as few regrets as possible.  Whatever else he did, this friend gave out an abundance of love and kindness.  He spent the majority of his life in the service of others.  His life has been cut tragically short, but it was a full life; a life which did not shirk many difficult questions.  He was not always right.  Not always prudent.  He stuck his neck out rather than sit on a fence.  But the majority of the time Kevin had available, he fought the good fight.  The fight to ensure forgiveness and love rises above the attitudes which take us closer to barbarism, to coldness and isolation.  Knowing that, knowing him, the nature of his passing - alone on the tropical island where he hoped to find a new kind of fulfilment - seems all the crueller. 

I’m certain many lives lost in the Philippines deserve their own story and reflection.  Yet in the end it is only the sincerity of one’s heart and conscience, and what we leave behind in the hearts and minds of those who knew us, which counts.  And this friend deserves to be remembered and prayed for, for the life in his life, the spirit in his Faith, his passion for social justice, his love of God and humanity, and his certain belief that, whatever our mistakes, ultimately we each earn the right to be reunited with and welcomed by our Maker.  He has left a lot behind.  He made a valuable contribution – perhaps most when he was least aware of it.  Many will miss him and feel the pain of his absence and loss.

Nevertheless, despite our tears, all we can do is follow his example and trust the best of what he told us.  So for Father Kevin and all those lost in the Philippines: 

Eternal rest grant to them oh Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon them. 
            May they rest in peace and rise in glory.  Amen.