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Take Two #3: Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) and The Big Chill (1983)

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Take Two #3: <em>Return of the Secaucus 7</em> (1980) and <em>The Big Chill</em> (1983)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus 7 may not have invented American independent film as we know it (many of its supposed innovations had been previously seen in films by John Cassevetes, Eagle Pennell, and Charles Burnett), but it certainly gave shape, for better and for worse, to a subgenre that’s proven particularly lucrative ever since. Talky, character-driven, emotionally cathartic rather than firmly plotted, Return of the Secaucus 7’s descendants seem to trickle out by the dozen from Sundance and the major studios’ art divisions every year. We tend to think of these movies, where groups of comfortable/quirky white people just sit around talking, as cookie-cutter “indie” fare nowadays, but in 1983, that exact scenario was written and filmed by no less than the writer of The Empire Strikes Back, with help from a half-dozen major movie stars, and grossed many millions of dollars on top of multiplatinum soundtrack sales.

The Big Chill is a master class in Hollywood co-option of fundamentally noncommercial material. Wikipedia tells me that director and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan had never seen Sayles’s movie when he made his own, and obviously Wikipedia’s never wrong. But if, say, Kasdan read a review of Return of the Secaucus 7 and gleaned its essential plot points (a group of ex-radical friends, now in their 30s, descend upon a rural house and perform triage on their lives and ideals since the 1960s), he could have easily written The Big Chill as-is and not technically lied. This one’s more ripoff than remake, and one need not actually see a movie to rip it off successfully.

And let me repeat, the ripping is performed impeccably: From Sayles’s foundation of deferred love, uneasy maturity, and calcified idealism, Kasdan ramps up the tragedy (the Chillers gather for the funeral of their most beloved friend), adds a few genuine narrative arcs and appropriately tidy resolutions, and of course, piles on the Top 40. These being movies about aging baby boomers, it’s only fitting that their respective soundtracks are the best way to understand their relative merits. Sayles—one assumes for budgetary as much as aesthetic reasons—includes only music performed by his characters’ ne’er-do-well singer-songwriter friend J.T. (Adam LeFevre), while needless to say, The Big Chill’s soundtrack suffices as a one-stop shop of classic rock and Motown hits. When it was released, Return of the Secaucus 7 was primarily renowned for its characters’ authenticity; Sayles was credited with an honest, unromanticized portrait of his age group and their concerns. But if Return of the Secaucus 7 is a secret handshake, The Big Chill is a self-satisfied slap on the ass, one where the filmmakers exploit their audiences’ nostalgia for “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” as if it were a countercultural samizdat rather than one of the most famous songs of all time. All these devoted music fans talking about the good old days, and not one apparently owned anything other than greatest hits albums?

The Big ChillHowever, if you’re looking for yet another child of the ’80s to decry The Big Chill’s smug self-congratulation, look elsewhere. For all its flaws, the film is terrifically acted, intermittently beautiful-looking, and never boring. Kasdan’s characters are almost all too privileged for us to fully sympathize with them (typical line of dialogue: “Whoever thought we’d make so much bread—two revolutionaries?”), but he gives them each just enough backstory and interpersonal drama to hold our concerned interest. And he’s blessed with a group of actors—notably Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, William Hurt, Jeff Goldblum, and Tom Berenger, playing a TV actor whose most famous role just happens to be named J.T.—that seem so sympathetic to their characters that they rarely seem to be acting at all. The Big Chill is slick and unrepentantly manipulative, but it also contains a few moments of genuine emotional rawness, usually when the pithy dialogue subsides. There’s a short shot where Sarah (Close)—the group’s unofficial matriarch who once had an affair with the suicide, Alex—sits naked, crying in the bathtub while her friends all catch up and smoke grass downstairs. Kasdan often seems unable to build his characters without forcing them to bloviate, but this quick glimpse at Sarah’s suffering is powerful precisely because it’s one of the few examples in The Big Chill of feeling that transcends words.

Still, the equivalent gesture in Return of the Secaucus 7 is a relative model of understatement. It occurs near the end of the film, when the male half of a longstanding and recently ended relationship between two of “the 7” chops wood. Frustrated by his growing role as the bad guy, implicitly hemmed in by his friends’ expectations and shared history, and desperate for escape from their ostensible vacation together, he splits the logs with unnecessary and shocking violence. Sayles edits the scene unlike any other in the film, cutting rapidly between strikes and highlighting his character’s repetitive, grunting labor. Return of the Secaucus 7’s actors are asked to do and speak slightly less than those in The Big Chill, but Sayles wrings as much emotion out of them through small gestures and effective cinematic technique.

I find it fascinating that both Sayles and Kasdan wrote and directed these introspective, human-scale films in between unapologetic genre pieces (the former wrote Joe Dante’s Piranha and The Howling, the latter wrote and directed Body Heat and Silverado). No one would watch those four movies and suspect that their authors secretly yearned to tell the story of their generation’s simmering guilt and abandoned principles. But the differences between the movies say everything that needs to be said about the directors’ respective styles. Sayles would go on to direct Matewan, Honeydripper, Eight Men Out, and the tragically underrated Lone Star, and Return of the Secaucus 7 often feels as much like a historical drama as any of them. The characters contend with stymied careers and hopes in an era without a proper, grand title, after having gone through one that positively burst with professed importance. Kasdan’s crew, meanwhile, are people who have grabbed their piece of the pie but still feel pangs of remorse when they sift through old clippings from The Michigan Daily. You can watch Return of the Secaucus 7 and feel you’re getting an unvarnished look at how actual people lived during an actual point in time, but The Big Chill, despite all its ’60s trappings, is really a monument to another, less exciting occasion: The Day the Yuppies Took Over Hollywood.

John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.