As Much As I’d Like to Stay

The Big Chill (1983)

illustration by Tom Ralston

As I recall, each day in college felt like the last time together. By the Spring before actual departure required plans for a life, I convinced myself that I might have the right combination of delirium and affection to collapse time. So we threw a party asking everyone to come dressed as what we imagined a designated friend would look like in ten years. If it didn’t work, we could always blame the liberal arts degrees we were about to receive. But our group—our open circle of ragged, beaming extended benefits of the doubt—was into it.

We danced together in the cramped living room of a campus house to 70s funk despite our 90s earnestness, drinking and smoking and wearing our mock aspirations for one another in the next millennium. We got a little warmer. The mirrored hope and the hormones covered a premonition that the evening would be almost immediately, and then for a slow adult while, longed for. Some of the forecasted doctors, parents, and stars finally had their arms around each other; others were on the verge of breaking up for good.

“If I can have a word…” my first-ever roommate yanked me aside to plead, “this is so not where I am.” He was referring to my Unitarian minister get-up, intended to be him in a decade. I shrugged like there could be a lesson to learn yet, even if we already knew I’d never see him in any other profession besides brother and keeper.

Outside, a storm kicked up, but we only noticed when someone else waved to the party from the flooded sidewalk, playacting as a lost soul. The inside crowd opened the windows to beckon him back from the downpour. The hollering would continue as the night sailed away.

* * *

“Oh, we’re telling the truth?” This is how one college friend responds when her old crush confesses that things in his adult life aren’t so great. 

They are at a wake for Alex, who has killed himself. We have just seen this adult, Karen (JoBeth Williams), at the funeral service, where she played an organ dirge version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” leading into the slow-build jangle of the original song that needle-drops the tone of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983). We feel the gathering’s collective warmth and know what the connection spells for Karen, her old friend Sam (Tom Berenger), and the five others acting as grown-ups, a task one click harder now that a member of their group has given up trying.   

After this jolt of mortality, Karen and Sam won’t contain their tenderness for one another. Nor will Meg (Mary Kay Place) who considers these “best guys I know”—Sam, Nick (William Hurt), and Michael (Jeff Goldblum)— as potential fathers for the child she wants, until Sarah (Glenn Close) offers her husband Harold (Kevin Kline). 

In between, the old friends joke and commiserate over the world while crashing at Harold and Sarah’s country home. They perform for their own camera—the then-new technology of a video camcorder—and are shown watching this just-captured footage together like they might be modern plausible characters themselves. In the spaces created by awkward pauses, they feel the absence of Alex (one of the most famous no-show roles in movies; it seems like common knowledge that the dead guy was played in a cut flashback by Kevin Costner). But the group never actually comes to any new conclusions, because they already know the answer to all their existential questions is one another. They found what they wanted early on, and by that premature grace they may never grow up. 

These characters that writer/director Kasdan clearly adores—who he’s said were gleaned from his own dear University of Michigan co-eds—may never undergo any changes. The only one among them who’s no longer the same—Nick, wounded in Vietnam and now dealing drugs—is portrayed as changed for the worse. The others have lucrative careers (a doctor, lawyer, journalist, television actor, and sneaker company owner) but their personal lives spin in an existential void, which Alex tragically took to heart. They only need each other now; they only need to hang out together again, even—and especially—when circumstances are awful. They just want the reassurance that, as Nick reminds Meg when she finds herself self-consciously stoned, “You don’t have to handle yourself with us.”   

So we, as viewers, can drop our guard, too. From there, the question to contend with is: can we feel sentimental about these people? Many have concluded: not as much as these Boomers want us to. 

We get plenty of privilege and navel-gazing, and not a lot of diversity, from these archetypes of the 20th century’s most conspicuous generation. The Big Chill’s lucky upper-middle class alumni are floored that life turned out to be hard, and that a sense of hope was lost with age. They haven’t changed because they were meant to change the world, predicated on the notion that it appeared to revolve around them. On a narrative level, their lack of growth means the respective plotlines of identity crises and moral compromises are never resolved. We’re not meant to dwell on moments of, for instance, casual insider stock trading, narcotics shared like candy, or the questions Meg’s child will have about Dad at the next reunion.

The film doesn’t quite hold up to a full unpacking, nor to the various tests of time, though part of the more recent critical reaction might spring from the next generation’s rejection of their parents’ ideals. The first sound we hear in the film is of Harold and Sarah’s little boy taking a bath and singing Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World.” This kid was my Gen X contemporary and could have been one of my eventual, if slightly younger, classmates. So I can easily envision him growing into a sarcastic 90s teen calling bullshit on all this wistfulness. Or complaining that we don’t want to see our parents mopey and horny. (Those were supposed to be our lanes.)

One of these detractors actually appears in the film’s ensemble. Alex’s younger girlfriend, Chloe (Meg Tilly), stays the weekend at the house, too. She is the curious outlier grieving differently, by turns hit on and smirked at. Perhaps by design for this voice of what’s coming, her lines often come off now as less dated. She tells Nick, as they begin to fall for one another’s misfit heartache, “I don’t like talking about my past as much as you guys do.”

But from the generation who saw themselves as the protagonists, these fictional friends received a hefty benefit of the doubt. The film was an acclaimed success and a cultural moment, one that—ironically, for a story steeped in reminiscence—featured a cast of some of the biggest dramatic stars of the decades to follow. To track just two of the players in this 40th anniversary year of The Big Chill, Glenn Close sustained further Oscar buzz with her delayed turn as the golden-age diva in a new Sunset Boulevard; there was an entire reality series called The World According to Jeff Goldblum.

They weren’t celebrities back in the day, they only played them. Similarly, few members of this generation ever called themselves hippies during the 60s of their youth, or yuppies during the 80s of their onset adulthood, or Baby Boomers necessarily ever. The movie never employs those terms, either; it only offers these seven recognizable people. That number recurred with this age group. Real, possibly-related activists went to trial in 1969 as the Chicago 7; The Big Chill had a precursor and a shaggier counterpart in The Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980). 

But Kasdan’s seven captured the most bleeding hearts. I remember spotting The Big Chill VHS cassette, and the vinyl of the Motown-heavy soundtrack, on the shelf at multiple houses of the college friends of my parents whom we’d travel across state lines to reconnect with. When I finally watched the movie as a teenager, I conflated the characters’ stories with the real campus memories recounted during such visits. I missed the references and the context of early-life crises, in the movie and in my parents’ friends’ exchanges. But I could understand wanting to sit with them for a while. I wanted to find out why the world felt chilly

Reaffirmed by my parents’ extended college family, the film left a placeholder of longing, as though imparting a message: one day all this nostalgia could be yours. It prompted me to seek out my own devoted circle. I could look forward to memory.  

All of which is to say: I liked the movie’s hopeless group. I found a place among the connections of these grown-ups, despite themselves and despite the fact that I was meant to identify with the oblivious boy in the tub. I was there to hang out with the big people. I could belong. 

I felt part of this in-crowd enough to catch the humor in the line from Karen’s husband (Don Galloway), the older outlier, when he says to his wife, “I can’t believe these are the same people you’ve been talking about all these years.”

* * *

I entered my college reunion weekend like I was resuming a movie left on pause for a quarter of a century. The small-town Ohio campus clicked back into motion. Like the setting, the characters returning with me hadn’t changed so much. Some of the reveal was tempered by social media, an undreamed-of world before we took our analog bridge to the 21st century. So our re-entry together involved matching online posts with reality, as well as the present with 25 years ago.

None of this, however, prevented the recognition of the reciprocal soft spots we’d brought all this way.

We stayed at a house blocks from where we’d thrown the future costume party and now many years ahead of that projected point in time. One of my generous friends was a church minister, just not the one I’d predicted, who had become an architect. But no one was interested in fulfilled life goals beyond whether or not these humans still made us laugh and vice versa, and if they could meet our ageless, bewildered expression with a sincere hug. We also arrived, almost to a person, without spouses or kids, whom we cared enough about to not subject to our regression.  

We were collapsing time now in the opposite direction. I felt tiny, sugary stabs of sentiment where this past and present joined. The sensation was similar to what I’d nursed the summer after graduation, when nostalgia was fresh and almost too strong to bear. The leaving then seemed deathly permanent and too frivolous for grief.  

In the months prior to our reunion, we’d made idle jokes about The Big Chill, as the ensemble’s now much older Gen X children. Thankfully, comparisons vanished almost as soon as they were drawn. 

Not a single one of us carried a briefcase. We sported neither blazers, nor alarmingly short jogging shorts

No one consumed substances stronger than the booze purchased at our beloved drive-thru liquor store. And no one was sleeping with each other anymore. We weren’t interested in ruining absolutely everything with romance. The casual leaping into consequence-free sex was for the movies.

As were blanket pronouncements over what all this meant. Instead of articulating the absolutes that our formative moments had instilled, we approached the dorms and tree groves and archways with little prompts, “Okay, here we go…” and “Careful now…” We pieced together the memory from its various angles; the rest reverberated in subtext.

The current state of the world was lamented over, with the outlook for western civilization categorically worse than in 1983. But even in these freshly horrifying years, we held tiny candles of optimism. I realized that I wasn’t the only one who hoped we did. The generous friend, for one, talked about stepping through a threshold, passing into a new phase, rather than a big dead-end.

Despite individual losses or unjust personal burdens, we were all still here. As near as we could tell, we were all still alive. 

So it wasn’t a dream or an elvish woodland fable after all. It had all been true. As one response to Karen’s question at the wake, I was trying to tell the truth about how my current life measured up to these alleged glory days. I was trying to remember, and also be, myself. But there was no time to interrogate if we’d stayed true to our college selves or to one another—or if there was a difference.

Karen’s other question later in the film during an argument with Nick is accusatory: “What’s happened to you?” It represents the worst possible nightmare remark from a lifelong friend, and a question that no one can ever begin to answer.

All of life happens, and here we go continuing. Was nothing meant to transpire in the interim? Were we supposed to never change, or transform into something impressively actualized? It was all part of a self-assigned student evaluation. Regarding my own maturity, I wondered—not for the first time—if I’d sat coddling my memories for too long and, in the process, rearranged their original contents. Even if mainly corroborated, what did I do with them in the present? 

We were trying to be here now. Also, then. Wherever we stood, we had enough good sense to let the evening rediscover a familiar momentum, sailing away faster than last time.

* * *

Lawrence Kasdan made his cast hang out together for a month during production. They shared living quarters and played games after the day’s shoot. On one occasion, he asked them to stay in character, unscripted, as they made a meal together. Between his screenplays for two far away ensemble films, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983), he created a story that was topical and grounded.

The chemistry created by the cast living in their roles is evident on screen. Their glances and unforced smiles manage more heft than the insights in dialogue. The film succeeds in illuminating their invisible group connection. 

To ensure we haven’t missed it, their tenderness is given the ocular proof of physical intimacy. The Big Chill lets old friends believe wistfulness is the same as desire, indulging a cinematic fantasy of falling for one another again. Sam and Karen roll in the grass in the moonlight; Harold nervously welcomes Meg into bed.

The next morning Michael announces in the final scene, “We took a secret vote—we’re not leaving, we’re never leaving.”

In 2014, a new generation, Y (or the Millennials), responded in their own way to The Big Chill. Lena Dunham, chronicler of post-college youth in the 2010s, wrote that These Are Your Parents, which gives me the idea that one of the characters from Girls could be Harold and Meg’s friendship child. In that same year, the film About Alex took a shaky swing at the Boomer story with its own take on old college friends, the suicide of this Alex only attempted.

About Alex was far from a perfect depiction of old relationships, just as The Big Chill is far from a perfect encapsulation of any generation’s changes. Just as my own window onto my college crowd omits conflicts, regrets, resentments, and people who, for one, are less amused by the way I do or do not handle myself, along with other brisker realities my friends might be curious to read about.

But any attempt to capture the bonds we form out of the home, yet not out in the world, needs to place the ensemble as greater than the sum of its parts. To ring true, the waves of affection should rise through the years of absence.  

This better whole lifts Harold, Sarah, Sam, Karen, Meg, Michael, and Nick. Their connection is why The Big Chill endures, and why people are still contending with these friends 40 years later. Something larger exists beyond each individual and each expounded life crisis that the audience can become a part of. We can stumble through the never-ending house party that has retained a life of its own. We can be there to make fun of these people together. We can show up without the need to “handle” ourselves.

Perhaps I can trace my steps backward and forward, anticipating and restoring the nostalgia, with a little less trepidation thanks to my early time spent with their gathering. By the time I reached my own cold fronts, I had the reminder that others had passed this way before. The generation who named this particular adult feeling granted me the first sentimental attachment of its kind and the reassurance that these imaginary friends won’t leave, even if we do.

* * *

“Nothing…will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager.” This is what one psychology professor and author says of young people and the ‘pleasure center’ of the brain on resplendent full-tilt.

The first thought that occurs to most anyone older than twenty-two absorbing this fact is: shit.

Then we grasp at the hazy remembrance that, yep, the joy and the hysterics and the pleasure at that age were all intense. And so was that which makes us feel the most deeply alive as humans—our connections to one another.

I solidified most of my college friendships at nineteen. My own scientific research in the field confirms that the positive moments (with memory kind enough to bypass negative ones) did indeed sparkle. On a neural level, maybe nostalgia is just the forever futile chase of this shared electricity. Countless poems, songs, memoirs and movies stay hot on the trail.

My Boomer father-in-law tells me in his language, which I learned after I turned thirty, “Profite de maintenant, demain sera pire… enjoy now, tomorrow will be worse.” He then pours me a drink and urges me to sit with him on his lushly green terrace.

Soon after, I go to see the fifth Indiana Jones film with my nineteen-year-old daughter, who is home from college. The movie is its own nostalgic odyssey about recapturing bygone eras. I hope, maybe naïvely, that my daughter is getting a larger thrill out of it than I am. I’m simply grateful to have her time away from peers.

I think of Kevin Kline’s character in The Big Chill as he dashes up the stairs to face the bats in the attic, humming the score to Raiders of the Lost Ark, another cultural touchstone written by Kasdan. 

The theme music is the same, but the rush of adventure gets fainter. A certain exuberance fades; the world, our life, loses a kind of magic. There are more agonizing, more monotonous, more blistering, and much colder days ahead. We each have loss waiting in our imminent futures. We face, or have already faced, this moment with our parents, just as the cast of The Big Chill has begun to see its real-life R.I.Ps. 

We have more days ahead to drift in and out of our memories. 

I keep mine as small hapless bargains with time. I hold onto sugar-wounded soft spots strewn across the recollection of my intervening years.  

I time-travel through my own invention, writing a trajectory back to the hollering at the party where we dressed up as ourselves ten years down the road. 

I cast back to the moment I recorded a Beck CD onto a Memorex mixtape during an earnest debate over the lyric being either ‘derelict wind’ or ‘derelict man’ because the answer felt crucial to whether or not we’d make it in life.

I remember an Ani DiFranco concert, and how my contingent got more serious on the song “32 Flavors.” 

I repeat a quote from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life that a fellow English major shared with me while stepping out of class into fresh snow. Dillard compared writing to splitting firewood and advised, “Aim for the chopping block… aim through the wood.” 

I picture two swaying campus traffic lights, in two different shades of green, that an endearing person in my passenger seat pointed to, asking me which style I preferred. When I chose the bluish-green, she replied, ‘Eighties.’ 

I recall a bat in a campus house that I commented was like the scene in The Big Chill, a reference no one else cared about because, apparently, not everything is a movie and, in this version, the guys squealed more than the ladies.

I revisit the recent memory, by this flawed faithful revision, of the last night of my reunion weekend as we walked back through the empty lamplit campus in summer, knowing we’d come too soon again to the next departure, another farewell to this circle of extended benefits of the doubt, my fellow passengers over a precarious bridge born too late and somewhere out ahead of our time. 

I relive a new goodnight, the ending that has allowed for another story, and a way forward toward another return.