Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chillin' With the Gang

Michael (Jeff Goldblum): Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come.

It's a funny thing about "The Big Chill" — which made its theatrical debut 30 years ago today.

I can't remember seeing it at a theater, although I am certain that is where I first saw it. And I can't remember watching it when it came to cable about a year later, although I know I did — several times.

What I remember about "The Big Chill" is not an occasion when I saw it. It is an occasion when I thought about it a great deal.

It was sometime in the spring of 1991, about 7½ years after the movie made its theatrical debut. The occasion was a phone conversation I had with someone back in my home state of Arkansas. Funny, but I can't remember with whom I had the conversation. I can only remember the subject — a mutual friend had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

My thoughts were drawn to "The Big Chill" and its tale of friends who came together for the funeral of a mutual friend from college, the most talented of the bunch, who had committed suicide.

I didn't go to college with my friend, but I did meet him through friends I made in college in that way that friendship networks often evolve. And I don't know if he would have been considered the most talented member of our group.

He certainly didn't commit suicide.

But there were so many moments in "The Big Chill" that seemed to fit our situation. I guess it had to do with the fact that we were young, like the group of friends in "The Big Chill," and we were dealing with the premature loss of a member of our group.

After my phone conversation was over, I remember sitting in silence in my apartment — for how long, I do not know — thinking about "The Big Chill." I thought of other things, too — memories of happier times — but I did think about "The Big Chill" quite a lot.

The next day, in the newsroom where I worked, I was telling a couple of co–workers about my phone conversation. The managing editor was standing nearby and listening. When I finished telling the story of the phone conversation, the M.E. said, "Did you think about 'The Big Chill?' "

I didn't answer. I didn't know what to say.

But it was on my mind.

My circle of friends was never as prosperous as the ones in "The Big Chill," but when we gathered for our friend's funeral, it was a lot like the movie. That was what struck me about it.

The surroundings weren't the same. The movie took place in a kind of rambling, antebellum Southern home; our gathering was in an apartment. It was in the South, but that was the only surface similarity.

The emotions were certainly the same for us, though, and we sought some meaning in what had happened.

The folks in "The Big Chill" watched a football game to renew their bonds. We watched a movie.

We even had our equivalent of Meg Tilly's character — younger than the rest of us, a bit naive and really unacquainted with the person for whom we were grieving.

(Tilly's character actually was acquainted with the deceased — played in an obviously nonspeaking role by Kevin Costner. Our tangential character never met our friend and constantly sought to cheer us up — as if we had all taken the same chemistry test and done poorly on it.

(Tilly wasn't quite that removed. She had been the deceased's girlfriend prior to his suicide — but some of the similarities were, well, spooky.)

"The Big Chill" managed to walk a fine line between humor and drama, and Tilly's character was a perfect blend of both. Sometimes, admittedly, it was hard to take her seriously, but then she would say something that would knock you off your feet.

Like when she and the other characters were talking about happiness and happy people, and the group looked to her for some insight.

"I don't know very many happy people," she protested.

That was the conundrum that the baby boomers — played by Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams, Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place and William Hurt — faced. Their futures didn't seem to be living up to the expectations of their pasts — even if, on the surface, everything seemed to be on track.

That isn't unique to the baby boomer generation, of course, but it still seems to come as something of a shock to every generation.

They hadn't been together in quite awhile so there was a lot of catching up to do — and, apparently, some unresolved issues and unrequited loves that made for interesting, and sometimes poignant, subplots. My group hadn't been apart nearly as long, and there wasn't nearly as much drama, but there was a similar longing to recapture the past in some way — or at least rewrite some of the episodes.

It's been my experience that most people, at some point in their lives, attempt to relive the past or evaluate it in some way, and "The Big Chill" was an excellent study of characters of the baby boom generation staring into the abyss of middle age — and, for the most part, not caring for what they saw.