The title of this post is the title of the film I want to write a few words about. Why come up with a better post title if this one is so damn cool? The Big Chill is a movie made in 1983. Yeah, it’s a long time ago. Deal with it because this movie is something really special. It takes the viewer back to a time and place where relationships are real. Where everyone feels something. Where being together, as a unit, is the most important thing in the world. It is a film about life and second chances with the suicide death of a close friend as the main running theme of the movie.
The 80s were real, man. You can feel it. You can see it. Yes, this movie has it all. Stylish running shoes, weird dresses, tight shorts, multiple wigs, boots, sweaters, thick glasses. It’s a real throwback. We follow a group of old friends from college come together after the funeral of an old friend who died by his own hand. These guys, the main characters, they’re real. They are the real deal. Each one of them tries to escape the thought of expressing feelings regarding the death of Alex, the friend from college. They are clearly afraid of death, and maybe a bit selfish and self involved as well. That’s why they have each other, for support. They go way back and Lawrence Kasdan, writer and director, and his phenomenal cast know how to deliver this sense of familiarity and authentic friendship. Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Berenger, William Hurt. These are only some of the big names of this beautiful group of actors, who are in complete control of this story. You see, some movies are meant to be visual, and others are character driven. This one is the latter. Sometimes it’s not even about words but rather the looks these people give each other, the movements, the laughs they share. The past is the main actor. We don’t need to know anything. We only know that these friends have been there for each other for years. Some have grown up, others haven’t. Some have had terrible relationships, others have their loved ones right in their arms. It’s life. And it hits you right from the start.
A friend dies but life goes on. Death can spark another life. It can stimulate someone to catch another breath. It can make someone stronger. In this case, Alex’s death helps the remaining characters reflect on their own decisions, their own past and their own future. Start a family. Own a club. Write a book. Get married. Lay off the drugs. All of these characters have their own weaknesses, and their friend’s suicide helps mend and heal all the wounds they’ve suffered since the college days. Embrace death and look for the light. Kasdan writes honestly and directs it with a slight sense of melodrama. His protagonists don’t act as individuals but rather as a group. They reinforce each other and make each other better. That’s what friends are for.
That’s what The Big Chill does. It gives you strength and makes you believe in the power of movies.
”I haven’t met that many happy people in my life. How do they act?”
Today’s topic: Jim Jarmusch and his slow reality. When you think about ‘cool’, what comes to mind? For me, Jim Jarmusch. The grey haired sixty year old director, who enjoys smoking cigarettes, wearing sunglasses and making movies about people and their place in the world. This is a man who doesn’t rush; he takes his time, for each film he chooses the location carefully. His movies may not be the most aesthetically beautiful since all of them run on a tight budget (he hates studios and releases everything independently), his plots may not be the most dynamic and surprising ones, but there is something about his movies; something that elevates them from being simple short stories. It’s his take on the passing of each day, of the earth spinning, of the sun setting. In his movies everything starts and everything ends. Jarmusch goes from point A to point B in order to finally come to point C and it’s all planned out too – it’s his method of observation that strikes us. His patience. That’s it.
In his acclaimed second feature that put him on the map of independent film directors and made of him a walking paradox, Stranger Than Paradise from 1984, Jarmusch ties three people together and by the end of the movie, he cuts those ties leaving them separated, going different ways. The movie consists of slow fade-ins and fade-outs. Everything is quiet, peaceful, slow, aside from the repeated Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track – I Put a Spell on You – everything follows a certain rhythm. It’s a study of a quiet society, connected but at the same time more than disconnected. The characters are genuine assholes, loners and punks who drive around in search of something. This theme of the search of nothing (really) establishes who Jarmusch is as a director – more of a poet, a bird watcher who quietly sits in the bushes with his binoculars on, studying. For some it could be a painful, boring experience, and for others it may just be what they’ve been looking for all the time. That quiet roaming around, the slow laziness, the stressful silences.
Same thing happens in the next movie that won Jarmusch huge praise in the Cannes Festival, Down By Law from 1986. It’s a movie about innocence, escape, trouble and inner struggle. The story focuses on three prisoners in a New Orleans jail, who after being framed for crimes they did not commit (aside from the Italian prisoner), they escape into the Louisiana countryside. The three are – a pimp (John Lurie), a radio disk jockey (Tom Waits) and an Italian tourist (Roberto Begnini). This odd group of bozos are again, in search of something. They don’t know what it is. Jarmusch captures their anxiety, insecurity and anger by letting the actors improvise; what could have been a scripted piece of work turns into a quiet game of improvisation, lead by the skilled Begnini who makes the most out of his character. And that’s the point; Jarmusch dishes out these characters that seem on the outside to be empty, boring and silly but something carries them, something motivates them to move forward, not to give up. And right when we’re about to feel comfortable around these three, Jarmusch wraps up the whole thing; the three idiots go different ways. The tone of Down By Law is off-beat, a little unsettling, but isn’t that what makes life so fun? That’s Jarmusch for you.
After making the dizzy and sentimental Mystery Train in 1989, Jarmusch went back to subtle observation by directing Night on Earth (1991). For most people the idea of this particular project, that of following five taxi drivers in five different cities all over the world during the same night, may seem more than boring. What could happen? After all it’s simply a camera placed on the windshield and actors sitting and talking. Well, again with Jarmusch you never know. At first it looks like a school movie project, but then, the stories, the acting, the atmosphere all make it so much more. Here, the director studies people’s different behavior, backgrounds and attitude, connecting all five stories, painting a larger than life picture of humanity. We see acts of anger, happiness, betrayal, empathy and grief. Jarmusch makes us laugh until we cry. He presents us a society of beautifully ugly and disgustingly beautiful people sitting behind the steering wheel of a taxi.
In one of his most mature directing efforts, Dead Man starring a young Johnny Depp, Jarmusch challenges the Wild West. Don’t think of it as a guns blazing movie with tons of blood and action. Jarmusch, as I said, is a poet and here he pays tribute to such poetic directors like Tarkovsky, Ozu and Kaurismäki who prefer slow passing of time rather than fast paced action. It’s a psychedelic Western, twisted and surreal in every possible way, depicting man and nature as one single unit. It’s a postmodern take on the wilderness, on the savage land where men would square things off with the help of a duel. Everything ends in blood. Jarmusch knows it. We drift along William Blake, Johnny Depp’s character. He’s an accountant, a bizarre young man who’s always being stared at by others. He’s always picked on and laughed at. But is that his true self? His true nature? His true spirit? The camera pans slowly, as Blake, wounded, sits in a canoe drifting further away from land.
In my favorite movie of his, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch explores the gangster genre by creating a philosophical tale about the world of paradox. Who better than Jarmusch, right? It’s a study of the dirty streets of America, of the beautiful people we find, of the dangers we face every time we cross the street, of the stupid things we should never dare to think about. Ghost Dog, played by a great Forest Whitaker, is a paid assassin, a hitman working for the mafia. A black man raised in the streets of New Jersey. He kills for money but lives by a code. Everything follows a certain path, even a murderer. He’s a quiet, docile man, who like Jarmusch, observes others. The world that surrounds him defines him. A samurai. RZA’s soundtrack, Wu Tang’s gangster rap makes it even more poetic, more bizarre and strange. Everything seems like falling out of its assigned place and yet… everything is perfect.
And finally, Broken Flowers from 2005 is an exploration of love and loneliness. Bill Murray embarking on a cross-country journey to track down four of his former lovers after receiving an anonymous letter stating that he has a son. It is what it is. Jarmusch shapes a character so lonely, scarred by hypocrisy and grief that it seems as if we’re watching a documentary. Don Juan is looking for answers but he’s the last individual who would ever get them. Everything is hopeless, everything is broken. Nothing goes together. Don Juan roams around in his car, again, in search of what? Is he really looking for his son? Or is he really just trying to find a definition of himself?
Jarmusch is a quiet dog. An artist who always goes under the radar. There is no publicity for his movies. His trailers go unnoticed. His soundtracks make a couple of bucks and that’s it. But he doesn’t care. All his movies are arguments about who we are and the place we find ourselves in. Everything is slow. Because slow is beautiful.
Today’s topic: the death of the American Dream in O Brother Where Art Thou. There have been countless movies dedicated to the glorious understanding of the term “American Dream”, movies that won plenty of Oscars such as the legendary tale of a simple man who turns into an all star boxing champ in Rocky or even the story of greedy Wall Street businessmen in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The audiences clearly from the very beginning wanted to envision something so distant, so unreachable for the most part of the public: rise from nothing and either win everything or end up in the gutter. This concept was already born back in the early 1950s: the age of making business, living in suburbs, driving your own car, having preferably a four member family and breathing fresh air. So why isn’t Hollywood interested in showing that this “dream” is for the most part a simple illusion created by day-to-day advertisement, dirty politics and irrational thinking? Well, because Hollywood used to and still does up to this day produce what the public wants to see and believe. That’s why it takes a duo of brothers to abolish the idea that everyone loves. I’m talking about the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan.
The brothers from Minnesota are part of the last generation of writer-directors independent from the Hollywood way of filmmaking; they have their own style, their own set of rules and ideas, their own language and tone and something that is extremely rare in today’s movies – originality. Their voices resonate in a world where everything must obey someone or something. With the Coens the viewer never really knows what he’s about to watch – be it the story of a husband who plans to kidnap his wife for ransom money in Fargo orthe story of a pacifist stoner who investigates the disappearance of a millionaire’s wife in The Big Lebowski, the two writer-directors have never stayed on the same track. The same thing happens when we watch O Brother Where Art Thou, the tale of three prisoners trying to find their way to a hidden treasure in 1930s Mississippi. In this 2003 Oscar nominated picture, we’re given all the realities of the American South, and not only. The brothers intend to present us the main problems revolving around race, money, corruption, the musical scene and human intellect that are still relevant up to this day and age on a worldwide scale.
Labeled as a comedy, the film starts off with the sound of hammers beating on rocks, the voices of black prisoners chanting; we open up to a chain-gang. Hundreds of prisoners slamming their hammers against the dusty ground, guarded by armed deputies, under the heavy sunlight, dressed in plain striped uniforms, singing. The sepia cinematography by master Roger Deakins is used here to make us reflect on the whole situation right from the opening: prisoners, guards, in colour they’re all the same, it’s the politics that divide them. One holds a sledgehammer, the other a loaded rifle.
When the three protagonists – Everett, Delmar and Pete – escape the chain-gang and manage to find shelter at Pete’s cousin’s house we’re presented with another problem; poverty. The three feast on a tasty dinner made of delicious horse stew – only problem is Pete’s cousin couldn’t afford anything else than the corpse of his rotting dead horse. And when the law enforcement comes looking for the three ex-cons, Pete’s cousin rats them out. Poverty, in a world where only the supreme and powerful have a say, leads to betrayal. Anything for money, for a hot plate, a cup of coffee, anything. Even your own cousin’s life. But that’s not the end of it. The boys, after successfully escaping a wave of other mishappenings, stumble into Baby Face Nelson (one of the most ruthless gangsters of the 30s America). They witness the madman driving a fast running car, shooting whatever his eyes catch – be it police cars or cows. And yet, when the day comes to an end, and the four men find themselves around a bonfire, resting, Baby Face Nelson melts down; from a murderous criminal he turns into a frightened child. And like that, he says goodbye to the gang and walks away, looking down, almost crying. The Coens write their characters with the highest number of contradictions they can come up with, and yet they still manage to leave these characters with a sense of humanity, and make them as realistic as possible; because they know, unlike most directors and screenwriters today, that people are not one dimensional. Even a feared gangster can still be a man deep down his soul, since there is no such thing as a lost cause in the Coens’ book, anything’s possible.
When Delmar and Pete jump into the river to wash away their sins, we get a taste of human naivety and innocence. Hundreds of people, dressed in white, chanting “Oh brother let’s go down! Let’s go down to the river!” make their way through the thick bushes and twisted forest branches, finally stepping into the cold water of the Mississippi. It’s as if we’re witnessing a passage from the Holy Book, and indeed we witness a religious procession; salvation. Everett watches in disbelief as his two pals run to the priest, who helps them wash away their sins. The two prisoners believe it, the other hundred members believe it, a whole nation believes it. Or maybe they just wish they could believe it. The Coens want the audience to question the different point of views: who’s right? Everett for despising the religious act of salvation? Or Delmar and Pete for being so naive as to think that their criminal past could be forgotten with a simple splash of water? We even get to judge their choices when they’re confronted by a trio of beautiful sirens; like in Homer’s Odyssey, the gorgeous creatures lead the men to lose sight of their objective, slowing down the gang’s mission.
No worries. The Coen bros move when they know the territory. Who other than the Coens would have the guts and brains to write a State Governor candidate as the prime member of the local Ku Klux Klan? It’s a kick in the face to all those who think politics can be run honestly, all those who think that a good man can be a rich man. Fairy tales are for children. Here, the candidate running for Governor’s office organizes a private lynching of a black folk musician. The very man who wishes to run one of the largest states in the US hums to the drum roll’s rhythm, lights a crucifix and reaches out with a rope in his hand. If you think about it, the Coens’ crazy fantasy can be considered terrifying reality. Food for thought.
The music. The music is the movie. Be it swing, country, folk, jazz, work songs, the music in O Brother tells the journey of the characters. The songs contain countless stories of spoiled politicians, prisoners having to work all day long, struggling musicians, devoted believers and starving farmers. The Coen brothers use music as a flashlight for the viewer, for him to find his way out of this messy, bizarre tale of men seeking a fortune… that in the end is not the fortune they seek. Their music describes the pain and suffering of a whole world, which keeps on dreaming, believing fantasies and apparitions. There is no American Dream within this music, nor within this life. And like that, with a simple comedy we’re taught what we’ve been always ignoring.
Today’s topic: painful comedy. It’s a thing, I swear. How can I back it up? Billy Wilder’s best picture from 1960, The Apartment. Labeled as a comedy, the story of C.C. Baxter, an insurance worker who lends his apartment to his own superiors and their special ladies, in order to get a highly anticipated promotion became an instant hit at the box office and a classic of the genre. Wilder is known for being the ”nephew” of such comedic geniuses like Chaplin or Keaton, however the gags and awkward situations are not what he should be remembered for. The writer-director was much more than that. He had a lot to say and his voice resonated through such diverse works such as Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity and Sabrina.
All of his films were a social commentary, be it the story of a screenwriter trying to help out an aging silent film star or the story of a journalist taking advantage of a man trapped inside a mine for his own never ending fame. Some Like it Hot was met with a lot of insecurity, and the audiences weren’t sure if Wilder made that film just for comedic purposes or something deeper than that. Well, the answer could be found a year later, in the massive hit that was The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and at the time a fairly unknown Shirley MacLaine. That’s when Wilder hit the public with the unexpected: a comedy that is also a gut wrenching tragedy about the modern way of living and…loving. A tale so revolutionary and so complex that the viewers even to this day don’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the credits start to roll.
Wilder creates the character of C.C. Baxter (Charles Clifford Baxter), also known as Bud, as one of the most loveable yet pathetic characters in cinematic history. Yet why does he remain dear in our minds after the viewing of this picture? Because most of us can relate to Bud. He’s elegant, well mannered, kind and simple, but he’s also naive and ingenuous, used by the higher power, the greedy superiors who we all know exist. They use his apartment for extramarital affairs, promising the poor man a highly desired promotion. That’s one of Wilder’s main points: sometimes it’s not your work ethic and your effort that make you who you are. This was a whole new concept for the people used to the hardworking 40’s and conservative 50’s. The 60’s were considered a new era, a sudden explosion in the way people lived, thought and worked.
The idea of leading a double life, in this case cheating on your wife with your secretary or simply a girl you met in a bar, was met with great shock. How could a well respected insurance businessmen have a dirty affair and have no one notice it? Bud Baxter, in Wilder’s mind, was the typical, gentle, obedient worker, one of the most common characters in today’s world. Bud, in fact, represents the generation of people who don’t have anything valuable in their lives, no family, no lover, no memories; a new generation of people with nothing to lose. The best example is Baxter’s apartment: a few pieces of furniture, the television that airs only westerns and commercials, a record player and that’s about it. What does he eat? Pre-cooked chicken with no taste. That’s the new way of living. After hours and hours amongst his co-workers, typing figures on the computer, Bud comes to an empty apartment with only a comfortable bed waiting for him.
The only person he really cares about and falls for is Fran, or for him, the true gentleman he is, Miss Kubelik. She’s a sweet elevator girl, another example of a modern character: she found her way into a big insurance company, yet where does she end up? An elevator. The true American dream. “Oh, the irony!” screams Wilder’s screenplay. However, even an elevator girl can be the mistress of the main executive of the company, Jeff Sheldrake. The powerful meets the poor. And then again, Wilder underlines the new generation’s soft heart and innocence by forcing the character of Fran to take sleeping pills, in order to commit suicide because of her broken dreams. Feelings shouldn’t exist in the world we live in today. Everybody has a career. Everybody wants a career. Everybody runs after a career. There is no time for true love, sentimentality and empathy. What the hell is true love? A loving husband? A loving wife? In Wilder’s movie, a Christmas family photo is enough.
We laugh at Lemmon’s great sense of humour and ability to create something out of nothing, like his classic gestures and movements while using a nose spray in front of his boss. We also laugh at the crackling dialogue between Miss Kubelik and Bud in the elevator. However, we also feel for the both of them. We feel hurt because of their innocence and they way they are treated by the higher laws. In some way, they’re both lost on a foreign island.
But Wilder, known for getting to the point, says: “Shut up and deal”.