Friday, March 13, 2009

Chill Strikes Out

In Blake Edwards' 10 (1979), a comedy of badly invested lust resulting in goofiness (which now serves as a good metaphor for a decade that was just about to unfold), Dudley Moore says to Brian Dennehy:

MOORE: We are, each of us, a product of an era. That music is my era: beautiful melody and a great lyric. If you were nineteen, and twenty years from now you were dancing with your wife, or girlfriend you knew in high-school, and you said to her: "Darling, they’re playing our song", you know what they’d be playing...? "Why Don't We Do it In the Road". Fucking what kind of era is that?
DENNEHY: To each his own.
MOORE: Now, that's a good song!

Now, 10 is not, strictly speaking, a 1980s movie according to its production certificate, but it is one judging from its spirit. I will come back to this at the end; it will suffice to say now that 1980s seem to be a strange mixture of excitement ("the Bo Derek factor") and dread (the dismay Dudley Moore is describing). No other movie portrays (and embodies) this fatal duality better than Lawrence Kasdan's The Big Chill (1983). It tells a story of a group of friends who studied and rallied together in 1960s (a time in which the distinction between those activities got blurrier than ever).

Their reunion is funny, painful, violent and anticlimactic (in turns). The reason for the meeting is a funeral of their friend Alex, who took his own life and never makes it to the screen even as a photograph. He’s a blank space that lets all the others form questions and avoid answers, much the same way “Moscow” did in Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters”. In the end, all characters seem transformed a bit, and one character may be pregnant, but there is no doubt that all real change eludes those people, or maybe they shrink from it as a matter of habit.

In an opening funeral speech, the minister asks: “Where did Alex’ hope go?”, and then orders the gathered group: “We must try to regain that hope that must have eluded Alex”. To tell someone to regain their hope is, of course, as effective as to tell someone “to relax”, or “to trust”. Nothing doing. But the characters try it, and so does Kasdan.

As I already mentioned, Alex serves as a convenient blank. Who was he? He had an affair with Sarah (Glenn Close), and his career is described in a funeral speech as a “seemingly random series of occupations”. Harold (Kevin Kline) adds that it was Alex who “drew [the group] together”, and then makes a big claim, according to which “there was something about Alex that was too good for this world”. His favorite song – as played by Karen (JoBeth Williams) during the funeral service – proves to be “You Can’t Always Get what You Want”, which is itself a statement directing us to something beyond possessions or achievements.

Now, was Alex a saint…? Medieval saints – those described in “The Golden Legend”, for example – do not have professions, or they get rid of them, and they wander their paths rather randomly, or so it seems. Saints transform the lives of people around them by questioning who they are and what they are ready to sacrifice – and for what. There’s an explosive potential in this concept, fully explored by Dostoyevsky in “The Idiot” and, to bring us closer to film universe, by Pasolini in Teorema (1968) – which might have inspired Kasdan to have Sarah actually betraying her husband with Alex in the past (sex was the operating mode of Terence Stamp’s saint in Pasolini’s movie, too).

The sequence following the funeral, with a cavalcade of expensive cars moving from the chapel to Harlod & Sarah’s place, plays to an actual “You Can’t Always Get what You Want”, which is kind of ironic, since what you see is a group of people not only possessing most of the things they always wanted, but actually defining themselves by them. “You look fit”, says Harold to Sam (Tom Berenger) – an apprehension made automatically, giving us an idea what set of expectations Harold uses when looking at his fellow men. (Later on Sam will object to using his cashmere sweater to scare off a bat flying in the attic.) On the road from the chapel to the house it’s cars, not people, that seem really speaking to one another (Chloe: “I always wanted to go in a limo”; Michael: “I do half of my work in limos”). Being a Polish viewer, I could not help myself but compare it to Jerzy Skolimowski’s brilliant Hands Up! (Ręce do góry!, 1967/81), in which a group of friends meet in a similar way Kasdan depicts – only they no longer have names, they actually refer to themselves (and to one another) by the brands of their cars.

It’s Willaim Hurt’s Nick who seems to be most sharply aware of how complacent everyone else’s life has become – or at least, he’s the only one who actively rebels against this complacency. He arrives at the funeral and parks his car askew; he’s impotent, and thus out of the game everyone is playing; what’s more – he’s a filmmaker. Not in the sense of being a part of movie industry (for that’s Sam’s role), but in the sense of actually taking a video camera and using it to make some sense out of the experience of his and all the others. Of course, one may wonder to what extent the series of on-camera interviews he holds with his friends inspired Steven Soderbergh, for in six years time he will use the same narrative device – complete with the character’s impotence – in his sex, lies and videotape (1989).

Sam complains about the movie industry: “In L.A., I don’t know who to trust”. He’s an earlier version of a character Steve Martin will play in Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (1991) – he’s a part of the movie industry that corrupts people’s taste, but at least he feels guilty about it (Martin will be a more extreme case: he will feel guilty only for a brief moment, after being almost killed in a robbery). It’s in this character that one finds Kasdan himself, I think – fresh from his massive success of co-scripting some of the most successful movies that defined mass entertainment for decades to come. As good as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Return of the Jedi (1983) were, Kasdan seems to be saying, they damaged people’s notion of what movies are. Michael (Jeff Goldblum) says: “I should write pieces only as long as for average person to be able to read them through taking an average crap”, and adds that this is no way of reading Dostoyevsky. One might add even more: it’s not a way of watching Bergman, either – and it’s highly doubtful if any of the people we see on screen actually went to see Fanny and Alexander (1982) the previous year. Indiana Jones they know – Harold is whistling John Williams score while hunting for a bat in the attic (thus becoming a living link between two iconic figures of the 1980s entertainment – one already around, and other to be filmed in 1989 by Tim Burton).

“All I want is a little warmth”, Meg’s whispered wish (whispered, it’s worthy of adding, into the ear of an impotent) may be the statement defining Kasdan’s way of moviemaking, as well as his cultural ambition (“[The movie] came from the best possible instincts in my filmmaking life”, as he says in a DVD making-of). The Big Chill, Grand Canyon – it’s precisely amidst all this bigness and grandness (if not of execution, than surely of attempted range) that his movies lose their healthy grip on randomness, and become “overly slick and calculated"* exercises in hope-regaining, to use a phrase discussed earlier. It’s quite telling that Kevin Kline describes Kasdan’s approach as “actively, aggressively humane”**.

Roger Ebert, in his original review of the movie, wrote:

(…) the 1960s [are – M.O.] big in the movies right now because the people who make the movies were students in the 1960s, and (…) the teenagers of 2001 would no doubt be sick and tired of [the current] generation's memories of the olden days of 1983 .

That never happened. We don’t know why. Maybe because 1980s seemed a parody already while happening? (No one felt it better than John Hughes.) It’s quite telling that the most successful plunge into the said decade came with No Country for Old Men (2007) – and then, almost no one noticed, that these were 1980s up there on the screen.

10 ended with Dudley Moore’s not having sex with Bo Derek: not because Derek wasn’t willing, but because she didn’t care for commitment – which is the last thing Moore seemed to lust after, when he indulged in his sultry fantasies of her water-sprinkled body. The big revelation of 10 was that the upcoming decade will probably be torn between eating the cake and keeping away from it. Any sex-fantasy of Bo Derek’s body that ends in maternal arms of Julie Andrews has to be treated as a beacon of a conservative turn, and thus 10 is a good introduction to the chilly 1980s, when fear of emptiness went hand in hand with the echo of the “Indiana Jones Theme".

* Stephen Prince's phrase.
** In the same making-of documentary I mentioned before.

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