The Big Chill (1983)

Lawrence Kasdan | 1hr 45min

With an absolutely stacked cast featuring up-and-coming names including Jeff Goldblum, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, and Tom Berenger, there was no way The Big Chill wouldn’t leave a mark on its audiences, even just for the acting alone. Kasdan mixes and matches different combinations of these great screen talents from scene to scene, always finding fresh, vibrant character interactions within this group of former high school friends. It creates tension between some, and sparks of romance between others, but binding them all together is the reason for the gathering – the death of an old comrade, which in turn comes to represent the death of an entire era. Both joyful and painful memories of their shared pasts are brought back to the surface after years of dormancy, this familiarity revealing itself in their unexplained inside jokes, communal habits, and even just the way they groove along to the music of their adolescence while preparing food in the kitchen.

A brilliant 60s Motown soundtrack, being put to good use here as the friends dance to “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” by The Temptations.

Most of all though, these friends are all haunted by the grief felt for the suicide of a man they thought they knew so well. Kevin Costner was originally cast in the role of Alex, the deceased friend, and although all of his scenes were cut from the film, that feeling of emptiness remains, leaving a great deal of ambiguity in our minds around his character. What prompted this act to begin with? Did he realise some great, despairing truth about the hopelessness of living in modern America that hasn’t settled in for the others yet? Why didn’t he share his pain with them? Could it have even just been a freak accident?

Kasdan smartly playing the physical gag of Sam’s failed stunt in this terrific long shot.

While many of his friends are happy to distract themselves from the tough questions for a while, the lack of answers forces them to turn inwards to consider their own insecurities. Sam, a famous TV star, is the one to prompt this contemplation, as he in particular feels the great weight of a reputation that he can’t live up to pressing in on his life. All throughout The Big Chill, he finds that he is only ever celebrated and respected for the accomplishments of the character he plays on television, despite not even being able to smoothly leap into a convertible like he is so famous for. It is in this group of friends who have seen him at his most awkward and vulnerable, as a young adult, that he finds genuine acceptance. Though it is far from a permanent fix, this insular world that keeps alive the spirit of a bygone era is the one he, and the rest of his friends, wish to live in. Eventually the cynicism and meaningless of a nihilistic, contemporary American culture will creep back into their lives, but for now, this brief return to a hopeful past is all they have to cling onto.

The Big Chill is available to stream on the Criterion Channel and Binge, and available to rent or buy on YouTube.

The Outsiders (1983)

Francis Ford Coppola | 2hr 16min

It is hard not to attribute much of Francis Ford Coppola’s success with The Outsides to the source material, S.E. Hinton’s pivotal coming-of-age novel of the same name, which took a thoughtful interest in the male bonding and vulnerability of its characters. While Coppola’s adaptation is not without its beautiful directorial flourishes, perhaps one of the more impressive parts is its cast, stacked with famous faces at the start of their careers including Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon, as well as some core members of the Brat Pack. Most of them are up to the job of balancing the toughness and sensitivity of their characters, even as some patchy, awkward line deliveries from the younger actors stick out above the rest.

With Bob Dylan featuring heavily in the film’s soundtrack, The Outsiders is well-grounded in the cultural turmoil of 1960s America. When Coppola strays from needle drops and starts using original music to underscore scenes, the drama doesn’t mesh quite as well. The use of a pumping, rock ‘n’ roll guitar riff after Darry hits Ponyboy for the first time undercuts a moment of sincere sadness, and one can’t help think that dead silence would have better served this scene. The same goes for an upbeat rock track that plays during the ambush of Ponyboy and Johnny, which ends in an awful effect of red blood pouring down the screen.

A fantastic use of a split diopter lens at a crucial moment.
Another nice piece of blocking and composition here, fragmenting the frame to separate characters.

Still, Coppola’s eye for composition hasn’t completely disappeared since his golden years. There is a great use of a split diopter shot opening the attack scene with Ponyboy in the foreground and the Socs’ car rolling up in the background, and another similar shot that captures Johnny and the dead body behind him to end the sequence, both of which serve to separate him from the rest of the world. When the two boys escape to the church the narrative slows down, and Coppola matches the shift in tone with long dissolves and languid montages showing the bonding taking place. Coppola brings some nice touches to this novel adaptation, but even as it stands today as a cultural touchstone for a generation, the odd misstep marks it as the beginning of Coppola’s descent into less-than-outstanding filmmaking.

Male bonding and vulnerability set in a splintering American culture.

Grade: Recommend (Outside top 10 of the year quality but still worth study and appreciation)

The Outsiders is available to rent or buy on iTunes.