I recently watched The Big Chill and Return of the Secaucus 7 one after the other–two films with startlingly similar setups and character notes, but which differ sharply in tone and theme. The Big Chill is this famous awfulfest with Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum and more, as former radicals reunited by the suicide of a member of their friendship group. But really by the suicide of The Sixties! They spend a weekend at the home of the married couple; various drugs are smoked and swallowed and spilled, everybody plays musical bedrooms, and the characters wonder if their friend died because The Sixties are over and nobody stayed true to their ideals.
The Big Chill‘s radicals are now lumpily married, or insider-trading, or drifting and divorcing. It is full of nostalgia pop music. It takes its characters’ angst seriously, which is sort of weird since it’s also really contemptuous of them. The funniest bits are playing “Alex’s favorite song” on the church organ and Sam trying to jump into the car after his excruciatingly embarrassing rebel-without-a-clue confrontation with the cop. And those are both laughs at the expense of the characters’ radical poses. Meanwhile, I think we’re supposed to laugh wryly but sadly when the ex-public defender says she quit because all her clients turned out to be scum. (The PD’s friend asks her, “Who did you think your clients would be–Grumpy and Sneezy?” And another character replies for her, wryly-but-sadly, “No–Huey and Bobby!”) So the film wants us to feel sad about the characters’ compromises and cynicism, but it doesn’t even disagree with their choices. It’s self-justification disguised as self-laceration.
Which isn’t even to say it’s a bad movie. It’s heavy and frustrating, but it is trying to be both of those things. It’s a movie about how The Sixties are a real thing and a tragically-unfulfilled promise. It also makes Sixties people seem really terrible: untutored children at best, writing endless Christmas lists of things they think will make them happy.
Meanwhile Secaucus, made three years earlier, is a vastly more pleasant movie to watch. John Sayles’s debut is casual, intimate, comfortable with its mediocrity. It’s consistently funny, and the bar scene (“Mean to Me”) is a lovely, bittersweet sequence with layers of cruel irony, self-deception, knuckling under, and nostalgia.
The setup is a kinder and less heavily-symbolic version of Chill‘s: A group of ex-radical friends reunites at the home of the married couple among them, although this time it’s really just a reunion for no reason (unless I’m forgetting something). There’s the one who’s dating a square, who also provides a natural way to introduce us to these people’s histories and their dodecahedron sexual relationships. There’s the one who hasn’t grown up, and is kind of sad, really, and not actually idealistic. There’s the ones who just broke up. As in Chill, children are both a longed-for source of purpose and a threat that eternal adolescence must someday end. As in Chill, the helping professionals’ good intentions have curdled over the years: The drug counselor is slowly talking himself into using heroin; the teachers complain about how students nowadays are disrespectful and irresponsible. (It’s a universal truth that anti-authoritarian types who end up in positions of power demand even greater obeisance than the defenders of traditional authority whom they displaced.) As in Chill, the characters’ radicalism never added up to much in the way of global change.
But to the extent that the film has a thesis about the ’60s vs. the ’80s, it comes across as suggesting that maybe The Sixties weren’t really a thing. Its characters feel normal, not warped into generational symbols. They are normal idealistic youth who grew up and got grubby, and take what comfort they can from small victories and only slightly larger hopes. They make their own music, and even if it is mostly not very good, it adds to the film’s timeless aura, nothing new under the sun.
What if you want a movie about how The Sixties really were a thing, and not an unmitigated good thing? I did recently watch Cotton Comes to Harlem, which is arguably a ’60s aftermath or at least duringmath flick. Cotton is fantastic. Its central symbolic object is ridiculously blatant: a bale of cotton, symbol of the Southern slave past, stuffed with money stolen from poor black people by a preacher who claims to be the next Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X. This wandering bale of cotton becomes more resonant with each twist and turn of its pilgrimage through every stratum of Harlem society. But it’s not about the same ’60s as Chill & Secaucus. (There were a lot of ’60ses–cf. the discussion of “1968” in Rock’n’Roll, the only Tom Stoppard play I genuinely and unreservedly love.) I’m willing to say the white radical ’60s were a real thing, and the black ’60s were an overlapping but distinct thing.
But there is another genre flick which is a better foil for these two movies. There is a trashy, heartfelt, angry movie about genuine idealists whose ideals are genuinely shattered by the youth of a violent era. There’s a movie that’s semiridiculous (that flagpole scene!), heartbreaking (Roddie McDowell), and skeevy (…that gang rape), which doesn’t try to make any of its characters likeable and so makes them deeply pitiable. It doesn’t dissolve all the objects of left-wing sympathy into a faceless, never-seen lump of the ungrateful disadvantaged. It’s a movie as much fun as a drunken game of mumblety-peg; it’s nasty and flashy and bitterly disappointed. At no point do its characters care about being happy.
If you ask me to pick whether The Big Chill or Return of the Secaucus 7 is the best portrayal of ’60s-to-’80s angst, I pick Class of 1984.