“I Was At My Best When I Was With You People”: Scattered Thoughts on The Big Chill


• No one here is old, and in fact the actors are all right in the age range for the characters they’re supposed to be playing: by the end of 1983, the year of the The Big Chill’s release, the oldest members of the group (Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, and Mary Kay Place) were only 36. The youngest, Jeff Goldblum, was 31. JoBeth Williams was 35, Tom Berenger was 34, and William Hurt was 33. They were all physically true to the roles of people who knew each other in college at the tail end of the 1960s and awkwardly reunited years later.

But they seem older than their years, and they seem older than whoever would be cast in their roles if the movie were remade today, and I think that has a lot to do with the way Boomers aged into adulthood compared with Millennials. Basically, they act like adults. Twitter user @benheller tweeted pretty presciently a few weeks ago: “They could never remake BIG, since most 31-year-olds now act like 12-year-olds and nobody seems to give a shit.” Yes, there are all kinds of people in every generation, at every age, but the thirtysomethings in 1983 didn’t have Marvel movies or Comic-Con or TV recaps. They didn’t have Tumblrs with GIFs of their favorite Nickelodeon TV shows. There weren’t blockbusters devoted to smearing a patina of seriousness over their old cartoons. There was no industry dedicated to fetishizing their childhoods, so while they remembered their youth with fondness — what else is the movie, after all, but a gentle paean to nostalgia? — the characters here still look and feel like adults. Yes, they’re conflicted and confused like everyone everywhere, and yes, they’re dealing with the same tension between career and personality that haunts us all. But they feel like actual grown-ups in transition, not children who were rocketed into the future.

• Part of what makes them look older is the way stars have changed over time, and the evolving look of what filmmakers and audiences want to put onscreen. Kline, Berenger, and Hurt are solid men, and Close, Williams, and Place are all normal-looking women. Compare that with the 2014 riff on the film, About Alex, which starred a group of smaller and more slender men and women. I’m 32 right now, and the people in The Big Chill still feel a lot older than I am because I’m fighting a conditioning to see different things. Younger actors today like Chris Pratt (35), who’s 6’2″ and beefy, feel like the exception. The Big Chill, like its characters, is caught in a weird transitional period for Hollywood productions. It was still not long past the film brat 1970s, when men like Gene Hackman could be cast in star roles, but it was also in sight of the 1990s, when the increasingly overblown size of 1980s action stars would lead to a burnout and subsequent push for smaller bodies overall.

• The (rightfully) legendary soundtrack is packed with classic songs, but it’s also a reminder of how hard this concept would be to pull off now. (About Alex only briefly touched on music, and it was mostly to take a jab at a Springsteen record as “our parents’ music.”)1 The counterculture was a major unifying force, and you could believably sell a record to an entire generation and have it be remembered years later by the characters and the viewers. When Karen steps up to the organ to play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” it’s not just that all of Alex’s surviving friends smile in recognition; it’s that the audience does, too. What song could possibly work in that situation for the collegiate class of 2004? “The Scientist”? A stripped-down “Hey Ya”? Some lesser known track that only had special meaning for the characters? Pop music changed later, yes, but the audience fragmented, too.

• The music was deployed pretty well throughout the film, with Kasdan’s earnestness helping to sell the relatively on-the-nose cues. (The news of Alex’s death travels through the grapevine; his friends wish he were still around, but you can’t always get what you want; etc.) And the music is loud, too. Instead of opting for pure diegetic (originating from within the narrative space, like a character’s stereo) or non-diegetic sound (originating off screen and laid over the action to underscore the mood), Kasdan opts for a kind of hybrid. The organ version of the Stones turns into a bright soundtrack version, which is in turn heard on car stereos. The Temptations set the mood for cleaning the kitchen, but they’re also coming from the hi-fi. Music doesn’t fade down or out when characters talk, either, no matter the music’s source. It’s just a shimmering part of the landscape.

• The most awkward music cue, though, has to be blasting “When a Man Loves a Woman” as Sarah goes doe-eyed and decides she wants her husband to impregnate her best friend. There’s making the subtext text, and then there’s just screwing around. But more importantly, this is the least plausible development in the movie, and one where the characters involved stop acting like recognizable humans in any form. The lack of baggage or complication feels false, especially when Meg has either turned down or been rebuffed herself by her other male friends for similar baggage-related reasons. The Harold-Meg-Sarah thing is also weirdly calm given that Sarah cheated on Harold five years earlier with the now-departed Alex, so this whole setup almost feels like she’s trying to let him even things out. Even for a story about wistful former aspiring revolutionaries, this whole turn feels out of place.

• Most dated aspect of the narrative: lots of cigarettes being smoked, often indoors. The recreational drug use still plays normally (well, the pot more than the cocaine, which was a very 1980s touch), but the abundance of cigarettes was occasionally jarring. Partly it’s because smoking in movies has decreased (the ratings board will even hit you for it now), but also because generational preferences and health ideals have changed in three decades. The gang in About Alex tokes up a few times, but nobody ever reaches for a pack of Marlboros.

• Runner-up for most dated: an employed journalist.

• The film’s also great at allowing the characters to softly explore the way that technology has started to change their lives. Two of the men admit to unwinding by playing video games, and this was very early in the console era, with Atari at its peak. (The industry actually crashed in 1983, around the time of the film’s release.) But the most meaningful is the presence of the home video camera in Harold and Sarah’s home. The characters film themselves talking to it, or interviewing each other, and then play those tapes back later. Sometimes Kasdan will frame up the TV screen showing such tapes, and it’s not immediately clear if we’re watching the recording happen or watching the characters watch themselves. This was the generation that was going to change everything, but wound up (to paraphrase Meg’s disillusioned lawyer) defending scum instead of marching with Huey and Bobby. The revolution really wasn’t televised, but they can’t help but try to reenact their hopes that it would be. They’re also remarkably candid on camera, sometimes more than in person. The only time Alex’s girlfriend Chloe opens up is when she’s being filmed. They’ve lost the muscle memory of being honest with each other, so they pour that honesty into a void and hope someone will watch it later.

• The jagged structure is perfect, and it’s blessedly free of “answers” or easy endings. Harold has transitioned into a more driven businessman than he likely was in college, and he even refers to his friends as “bleeding hearts” in a gentle debate. Nick winds up in a slightly better place by the end — taken in by Howard, eyes weakly on the goal of getting clean or settling down — but most of the characters just keep ambling forward after being disabused of whatever fantasy they had going into the weekend. Michael doesn’t score; Karen and Sam sleep together but walk away; nobody is any closer to knowing what was happening in Alex’s life or mind. Sarah worries that their youthful talk of changing the world was “all just fashion,” realizing that it always is, on some level. College isn’t when you figure yourself out, but when you start to understand how to allow yourself to eventually figure out who you want to be. Maybe you never get there, but if you’re lucky, you have company for the walk.

  1. I know it was a character moment, and (probably) not a personal statement on the part of the filmmaker, but dude: Nebraska is music for everyone. Do not dismiss it. []
Aaron Sorkin, TV

Scattered Thoughts on The West Wing

I’ve been rewatching selected episodes of the third and fourth seasons of The West Wing recently. The show’s two strongest creative voices — Aaron Sorkin, creator and head writer, and Thomas Schlamme, executive producer and regular director — started discussing an exit strategy at the beginning of the third season, so you can almost see the air running out of the tires as the fourth season draws to a close. Sorkin, perhaps as an act of sheer will or spite, also set in motion a number of plots at the close of the fourth season that did as much as possible to knock the series off its track: the vice president resigned because of a sex scandal, the president’s youngest daughter was kidnapped, and the president temporarily renounced his office to focus on the manhunt and allowed the Republican Speaker of the House to assume the presidency. It was a giant mess of story, and it did as much as anything to set a new tone for the show: instead of creating drama by having smart people be outsmarted, the show had smart people make dumb decisions. They were in jams, but less interesting or engaging ones.

But one of the biggest changes to take root in the fourth season was the show’s new visual vocabulary. The series had started life with a warm look: buttery lights and rich reds ran throughout the West Wing, and camera placement and movement had emphasized action and relationships. The infamous walk-and-talks stood out the most, but the show’s look in its early years was smartly guided, and cinematography was always at the service of story. A random example: in one episode, Sam Seaborn is tasked with meeting with an unbalanced man who believes the government is hiding evidence of alien life at Fort Knox. Sam walks into the conference room, and we cut to a shot down the table, but no one’s there. Except someone actually is: the man is sitting at the end of the table, his face obscured by a lamp. He has to lean over for Sam to see him. It’s a visual joke that relies on space and image, but it also underscores the dynamic in the room: this guy is so timid that he’s invisible even when you’re looking at him.

In the show’s fourth year, though, as director Christopher Misiano helmed more episodes and Sorkin and Schlamme were getting closer to exit, the look and feel began to change. (Schlamme, who directed five episodes in the first season and four each in the second and third, only directed a single episode in the fourth season.) Lighting was often harsh and overhead, with bright pools in the middle of inky backgrounds. Performances that had been delivered at a normal speaking volume began instead, for some reason, to be fervently whispered. The show began to give off a bruised, unwelcoming vibe. Camera work suffered, too. The big trend of the year was to simply point the camera at a corner of the action — say, the edge of a door frame — and let the actors walk around it. Instead of following Donna into Josh’s office by cutting from the bullpen to the office interior, the camera pans to watch her walk into Josh’s office and stays pointed at Josh. He’s seated at his desk as Donna stands in front of him, sometimes walking in front of the camera. It feels like it’s meant to mimic voyeurism — as if you were actually standing there and had watched her walk into the office before deciding to hide outside and try to listen — but there’s no rhyme or reason here. It’s a new and grating attempt at “style” that doesn’t feel at home in a show that’s been building a visual language for three-plus years by this point. So many moments in the fourth season are staged like this: camera composing an ugly frame as the principles are mostly heard off screen.

Most pieces that talk about the show’s break between its first four seasons (the ones with Sorkin and Schlamme) and its last three (the ones without them) focus on the narrative and writing, and those are important. Sorkin’s wit and rhythms are hard to replicate without sounding robotic or mocking. But just as important was the way the show started to look grim and locked-down, the opposite of the look it had spent so long cultivating. It’s almost hard not to feel like the new look was a reflection of the show’s uncertainty about itself as its key storytellers made for the exit. It started to look forced and ordinary, when the show’s true essence was anything but.


What We Talk About When We Talk About TV


I’ve written tens of thousands of words of episodic TV reviews and recaps, and I think they’ve almost all been a waste.

It took me a while to arrive at this conclusion. Years ago, probably 2005-2006, I would occasionally check out Television Without Pity, and their multi-page, highly detailed episode recaps cast such a shadow that I aped the format (as others did elsewhere) when I started writing about Lost for Pajiba. I would talk about story and mysteries and theories, but I also recapped every bit of each episode. They took hours to write, but when it came time to write up the series finale, I pulled back and talked on a broader level about storytelling, production, what we want and expect from televised narratives, and more. It was a kind of awakening: I’d wasted what had to be a total of days of my life transcribing plot details for people who’d already seen that particular episode, when I should’ve been thinking more critically about what was happening and why.

As I moved onto other shows and outlets, I worked to write reviews, not recaps: to try and find a hook within each 22- or 44-minute episode of whatever was in front of me and write critically about it. Sometimes this was possible, like when I wrote about Community or Breaking Bad. Other times, it was fruitless, like when I wrote about American Idol or Dancing With the Stars. (For reality show write-ups, I was actually tasked with being extra snarky and sarcastic and “jokey,” which quickly grew exhausting. The tone of the final products veered between self-loathing and fatigue; they’re not even usable in my mind as clips, and I don’t send them out.) But I still felt like I was wasting everyone’s time. It’s impossible to break down the meaning or importance of a fragment of a story, and writing about a highly serialized drama like Breaking Bad only got harder to do as the seasons went on. Every episodic review’s through-line must, by necessity, be one of two things:

1. “That was neat, and I have no idea where things are going”; or
2. “That was confusing, and I have no idea where things are going.”

I tried to find a way out of the problem as I wrote about “Breaking Bad,” but I couldn’t do it. Most of my reviews circled back to “Well, that was good, and it underscored the same themes that have been developing for five years now, which I’ve discussed ad nauseam, so … yeah, see you next week.” Criticism can only function when you’re able to look at a work in toto, or at the very least on a more comprehensive level than an individual episode, which is why no one writes reviews of the middle 20 minutes of a movie or the first 12 chapters of a book. Writing about a particular episode of a TV series can be a great way to illuminate the show’s themes and execution, but those discussions are only possible when you can put the episode in the context of the show itself: when you can talk about how the show got to that episode and where it went after, or why that episode was such an anomaly, etc. I think I made some good points in some of those pieces, but usually only in the ones about the season premieres and finales.

This usually holds for comedies, too, even though they’re usually less serialized. It’s incredibly easy and tempting to dig into the meatier comedies — Girls, Louie, etc. — and pull each episode apart, but you also run the risk of missing the bigger stylistic picture. Girls follows a pretty regular season-long plot structure, with each year building on the one before it, while Louie, though more fragmented, also gains power from being viewed in the aggregate. What’s more, any attempt to review a series, whether drama or comedy, based on just the pilot or first few episodes will inevitably come up short. It takes more time to get a handle on a series because they grow and change in the telling. It’s not until a season’s over that you can really look back and see what’s happened, what mattered, and the skill with which it was done.

Additionally, many series, comedy or drama, often find themselves breaking down into season-long stories within longer ones that span a series. Some shows have been incredibly direct about this: Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced a new major villain and themes every season, while The Wire similarly moved to broader stories every year. In this way, it’s possible to perform valid criticism and analysis on the season level, even in the midst of a show’s run, because seasons are often intended to hang together as a package.

Part of the reason critics fall into the trap of blindered, weekly TV reviews has to do with the way TV disrupts the usual division between viewer and critic. A film is a single thing, and critics and regular viewers approach a film the same way: by watching it from start to finish and forming opinions about it. TV, though, spools out its story a little bit at a time, relying on weekly teases and shocks to keep viewers coming back for more. As critics, we often find ourselves defaulting to the viewer experience (ride the wave one episode at a time) when, to actually write engagingly or to properly address the show on a larger scale, we need to lean toward a more truly critical experience: examining the work as a whole, or as discrete seasonal chapters within that whole.

It makes sense, then, that it was the series finale of Lost that started pushing me in this direction. Finally, after six seasons and an almost innumerable amount of plot lines, the story proper had been brought to a close. It was possible to talk not just about that episode but about what the show was trying to do all along, and about how successfully it managed to do it. I’d spent years recapping while spinning my wheels, because there was nothing else to do. Here, though, I could actually think about the meaning of televised story and what it looked like in the specific context of this sci-fi/mystery show. It was the beginning of a more challenging but more rewarding way of doing things. When I watched True Detective earlier this year, I found myself excited at the end of each episode to see where the next one would lead. But I also didn’t want to write anything about the show before the season ended. It would’ve been too easy to jump down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and miss what turned out to be a somber, compelling story about two self-destructive obsessives coupled by fate. Similarly, when I found myself exploring The Newsroom a few years ago, specifically within the context of creator Aaron Sorkin’s broader body of work, I knew I wouldn’t be able to begin making any kind of argument without at least seeing the entire first season.

In their own way, though, those old recaps weren’t a total waste: I had to write them to realize I didn’t want to write any more of them. One of the great things about being a critic is pushing yourself to constantly check and shape your worldview, and I never would have arrived at this particular belief without walking the long road to get here. But I’ve had to turn my back on them, and assignments like them, because I don’t think they’re good for the viewer or the critic. They teach us to pay attention to everything except what matters. And I want to hold the work in my hands and try to understand it; I don’t want to tear it apart and find nothing but bloody pieces.

Books, Passages

Passages: The Pale King

From David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously published novel. The rhythms catch my breath every time:

Past the flannel plains and the blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscatine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Comedy, TV

Leslie Knope and the Limits of Resistance

I’ve been rewatching bits and pieces of the fifth season of Parks and Recreation recently, mostly to pass the time while I eat breakfast, but also to try and figure out exactly when and where the show changed. Broadly, the show’s defining and greatest years — the second, third, and fourth seasons, which saw Leslie Knope rise from middle management to city council, all while finding the love of her life — are about resilience. The government of Pawnee is almost never able to do all it wants to do, and many of the show’s plots revolve around Knope and her team working to find a kind of compromise that pleases as many people as possible. Indeed, the arc at the beginning of the third season, where the gang oversees the Harvest Festival as a way to boost the town’s economy, is one of the most gratifying because the characters get to do the things they’re clearly born to do.

The fifth season, though, is when the show stops being about resilience and starts being about futility. After joining the city council, Leslie is almost immediately slammed by the greed and gridlock from the other council members, and by the increasingly difficult challenges presented by obstinate members of the town. The show had previously commented on real-world political circuses (Leslie finds out she was born in Eagleton, not Pawnee, leading to comments about birth certificates and places of origin), but by this point the show starts to feel infected by a sense of weariness at the prospect of one character, even a fictional one, fighting battles that can feel all too real to viewers. Leslie’s efforts to combat STDs at a retirement home by distributing condoms is rebuffed by a hyper-Christian husband and wife who are partly afraid of sexual intimacy because the husband is closeted and abstinent. A story about a failing video store becomes a prickly satire of “bailouts” in general. Personal stories get rougher, too: Leslie’s run-ins with Eagletonians, previously played for exasperated laughs, feel crueler as Leslie is openly mocked for being from Pawnee. (Additionally, her earlier fight with an Eagleton leader, played by Parker Posey, was contextualized as being the fallout of a former friendship that had gone south; here, things are just mean for the sake of it.) Leslie and Ben travel to Ben’s hometown, where he was briefly mayor at age 18, only for the entire town to make him the centerpiece of a celebration of his incompetency. One of Leslie’s council rivals, Jamm, actually crashes her impromptu wedding and instigates a fistfight. And the season ends with Leslie inexorably losing traction with the citizens of the town she’s spent years serving, her popularity tanking while other council members remain comfortably entrenched. Half a dozen episodes into the following season, she’ll be recalled from office and returned to her old job. Years of her life, and several seasons of the show’s plot, undone in a few hard twists.

Part of this can probably be chalked up to the show’s age: it’s now aired six seasons and more than 100 episodes, with its seventh and final season (consisting of 13 episodes) arriving midway through the 2014-2015 year. That’s a lot of story to tell, and more than most shows ever even dream of telling. And part of it can be attributed to the fact that this is a highly story-driven show, with multiple interlocking arcs over multiple seasons (the Harvest Festival, Leslie’s courtship of Ben, Leslie’s run for office), each joined by smaller, overlapping arcs (friendships and relationships in the supporting cast). Installing Leslie in office is effectively the moment the show said “It is finished.” But I also think that part of it has to do with the creative staff and showrunner Michael Schur trying to make a softly political comedy in an era of seemingly limitless bitterness and division and squabbling. You want to see Leslie Knope win office? OK, they say: then you will watch her suffer for her dreams. You want to see Ben become the prodigal son? You will watch him be laughed right back out of town. There’s a sadness, a sourness, to much of the fifth and sixth seasons. Leslie’s defeat and return feel like Schur’s own admission of his flagging spirit. In the sixth season finale, Leslie is given a dream job at the federal level and the show itself jumps forward by three years. It almost feels like it was meant to be a series finale in the event the show wasn’t renewed: Leslie riding off into the sunset, energized and recharged once more, crusading the way she’s always done. It’s the kind of Hail Mary that usually signifies an admission that everybody was out of ideas or just tired of the world they’d built, but it wasn’t jarring for the way it skipped through time: rather, it was for the way it attempted to inject a sense of optimism and wonder into a narrative world that had almost forgotten what that looked like. After years in the trenches, it was a surprise to see the sun.


Scattered Thoughts on The Paper Chase


I recently rewatched The Paper Chase, currently streaming on Netflix. This is one of the many movies my dad recommended to me when I was in my teens and starting to get interested in older and different types of movies, so it’s one I tend to associate pretty strongly with him. (When I imagine my dad in college, the image is partly informed by Timothy Bottoms in a mustache and corduroy.) Most of dad’s recommendations were from the 1970s, especially the middle of the decade, which makes sense now: he was then in his early 20s and paying attention to pop culture in a way he wouldn’t when he started a family. Among his other recommendations when I was young: The Conversation, The Sting, both Godfather movies, All the President’s Men, The French Connection.

The Paper Chase is still pretty good, and it holds up more than 40 years later thanks to the dynamic between Hart (Bottoms) and Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman). It’s a little loose around the edges, and it paradoxically feels a little less structured even as it works toward the final exam that provides the story’s main goal. But this kind of looseness also makes for a nice parallel with the inner lives of the students in the movie, who start out so bright and sharp and slowly lose their way as the first year of law school makes dull tools of them all. The relationship subplot between Hart and Susan (Lindsay Wagner), Kingsfield’s daughter, which seemed so impenetrable and adult the first time I saw the film, now feels thin and one-sided. Wagner gives a few great moments that provide some sad depth to her character, but the story doesn’t quite know what to do with her, and the film is weirdly silent on Hart’s apparent inability to recognize the perverse, possessive thrill he gets from intimately knowing the offspring of the teacher he will never figure out. To writer-director James Bridges’ credit, though, Hart’s pretty clearly a dick for most of his interactions with Susan, and he pays for it. He’s not made out as a hero or anything.

It’s a solid movie, though, with some good performances and a good story. It’s shot by Gordon Willis, so there are some gorgeous compositions you might not expect, from the dim, cool look of Hart’s room to the nice positioning and sizing of Hart and Kingsfield throughout the film as their relationship changes. (The score’s also vintage mid-1970s adult-contemporary, which is probably the most dated thing about it.) Definitely worth revisiting.