Star Wars

The spiritual desolation of The Big Chill

It's weird to say it, but I'm spending a lot of time these days catching up on movies that came out when I was younger that I never got around to seeing.  In large part this is because the cheapest way to buy movies that I did see - and want to see again - is as part of a DVD collection.

So it was that I finally got around to seeing The Big Chill, which came out when I was 10.  A slice-of-life ensemble cast film about the approach of middle age and the loss of youthful idealism would have made little impression on me, so it's just as well that I skipped it.  Besides, 1983 was the year Return of the Jedi came out and that pretty much held my attention.

This is the kind of movie Hollywood used to make fairly often but it is now beyond the movie industry's creative capacity.  For one thing, there aren't sufficient actors to carry the parts.  When the film came out, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Meg Tilly still had their greatest work before them, but their talent was mature.

The plot line is pretty simple: a group of college friends stage an unplanned reunion when one of their number commits suicide.  It is now more than a decade since they were bright, young things living at a co-op at the University of Michigan and over the course of a long weekend they confront the challenges and disappointments the years have brought them.

It's basically a Boomer "coming of middle age" story, and as well all know, Boomers assumed that they were the first people in world history to have issues with getting older.

To some extent, however, that was true.  Previous generations valued maturity, responsibility and above all tradition.  The Boomers threw all of that away, instead mocking tradition, lauding youth over experience and placing personal freedom (by which they meant short-term pleasure) over responsibility.  The Big Chill is their first realization that things aren't working out the way they planned.

The story is based on events and characters writer/director Lawrence Kasdan encountered during his time at Michigan.  As a Michigan State grad, I have to admit I bristled a bit when I realized these were all Wolverine alumni, but as the film progressed I was entirely satisfied to see U-M grads portrayed as a bunch of self-centered, drug-using, adulterous whiners.

Kasdan of course had already written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and would go on to pen a few more hit films in that decade, but he hasn't had much success since.  He put his name on both the disappointing Episode VII as well as the unwatchable Solo movie, so his best days are clearly behind him.

Still, there's no denying that The Big Chill is an excellent film.  The acting is first rate and the while the characters are less than admirable, they absolutely feel real.  I can personally attest that Ann Arbor produces vast numbers of people such as these.

That actually counts for a lot.  Today's writing emphasizes specialness if not perfection, and heroes (particularly women) are super-strong, super-smart and know neither doubt nor regret.  This makes personal stories impossible to tell.

Talking with some of my friends, I can't think of any comparable movie that has come out in the last 20 years.  For one thing, who would play the parts?  Hollywood is entirely populated by super-hero actors in skinny jeans leavened with overweight minority women who supply moral authority. 

No one in The Big Chill is remotely like that.   One of the friends is a TV star, another a reporter for People magazine.  The rest are typical professionals -  doctor, lawyer, business owner.  The standout is William Hurt's character, who is a Vietnam veteran who (in a nod to Hemingway) was rendered impotent by a war wound and therefore cannot consummate a relationship.  Rounding out the cast is Meg Tilly's Chloe, the younger, sex kitten girlfriend of Alex, whose death brought them all together.

Alex is only briefly glimpsed, a corpse being prepared for the funeral service.  He was played by Kevin Costner in flashback, but these scenes were cut and have never since been released.  Kasdan decided it was better to leave Alex entirely to the cast's recollections, and he was right.

By universal acclaim, Alex was the most gifted of the lot, described as a brilliant physicist who nevertheless abandoned a career in science and worked menial jobs, hopping from place to place.  He finally landed with Kline and Close (the married couple of the group), who supported his latest endeavor up to the moment of his suicide.  Alex also carried on an affair with Close, but this was supposedly resolved and in the past, which of course it wasn't.

Thus, we have a complex web of relationships that need to be worked out as well as existential problems that are all played out over a weekend.  It's a fall weekend, and being Michigan grads, the movie takes time out for them to watch the Michigan-Michigan State game, which is a marvelous detail to include.

Another nice touch is to borrow from George Lucas in American Graffiti and use a soundtrack comprised entirely of vintage music.  By watching the characters' reactions, one gets a sense that they too are going back in time and recalling their fading youth.

It is an excellent film, but for all of the funny and tragic moments, there is a profound void in its structure, and that is its total lack of any kind of religious faith.  I do not think this was by design, rather it was simply a reflection of the world Kasdan experienced in college and subsequently lived in when he made the movie.

There are a couple of nods to faith, such as the funeral and a brief appearance of a crucifix, but it's otherwise absent, both in action and words.   Alex's funeral is at a local Baptist church, but no one goes to the Sunday service.  These are very much secular Hippies turned Yuppies.  They have their degrees, their jobs, marriages, children, houses and yet they feel hollow.  All that they thought they would do has vanished and what they have left is material comfort and spiritual desolation.

Just as Game of Thrones is an unintended apologetic for Christian culture, so The Big Chill is a cautionary tale for life without faith.  None of the marriages portrayed in this film are stable.  The great Boomer gift of no-fault divorce looms large, and adultery is explicitly described as a morally neutral act, to be condemned or condoned only by the conditions in which it takes place.

It would be interesting to extrapolate what happens to those families in the succeeding decades and the knowledge of the world we have now makes the film all the more poignant - and damning.

Normally, I'd condemn this movie as being something very similar to Carly Simon's early work, but there is something about it that transcends my moral outrage.  Instead, I feel nothing but sympathy for the broken, half-formed people portrayed in this story.

 

 

 

 

 


The surprise ending

Arguably the greatest challenge to contemporary writers is coming up with a way to make an ending both surprising and plausible.

Game of Thrones failed spectacularly in this respect, and Star Wars did the same.  I think the first big whiff was The Matrix, but plenty of shows start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Of course, sometimes life imitates art, and while this blog generally avoids the pointless churn of political commentary, certainly the last chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan was entirely unexpected.

On the other hand, historians tend to look at wars as wholly contained narratives.  War was declared on this date and ended on the other date, and anything beyond those bookends is beyond the scope of most conventional books.

Sometimes one has to look outside those confines, because in real life, the end of one story necessarily leads to another.  The characters change, the plot lines switch around, but the tale never ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien brought this up in Lord of the Rings, at one point having Sam Gamgee reflect that the stories told of the Elder Days in the Last Homely House had continued down to the present day and that he and Frodo were part of the same plot line that ran back to Beren and Luthien.

And so it is.  As Tolkien also noted in his timeless work, victories and defeats are at best transitory.   Time passes and new challenges emerge.

What is surprising to people at the time will likely seem a foregone conclusion to future generations.

All one can do in such circumstances is do what any solid character would do: muddle through and carry on as best as possible.  It may not be satisfying drama, but then again the story isn't finished and in real life, the actors rarely get to see the final result of their effort.

 

 


Seeing Star Wars in sadness, not in anger

In what may be a first time event, my article at Bleedingfool.com expanding on my split with Star Wars hasn't gotten a single negative reaction or comment.

That's a remarkable occurrence.   Normally with that many reactions someone's bound to be a hater, but that's not the case here.

Clearly my experience in not unique.

I find that a lot of our problems as a society come from people who turn every disappointment into incandescent rage.  The movie wasn't good AND IT'S YOUR FAULT!!!

I suppose hate-clicks count the same as any other, so why seek understanding when you can spout off for fun and profit?

That brings me to my other observation, which is that about half of the reactions were "sad," an emoji I've never seen anyone choose for my articles before.

Of course what happened is deeply sad, both from the perspective of ruining art to the self-destruction of the creative talent behind it.

One one of the things that gets me fired up is waste - wasted opportunity, wasted resources, wasted talent.  It's particularly galling when you see something that mostly good and could have been great but for that one stupid thing and the thing wasn't an oversight or accident, but a very deliberate and determined choice.

As I get older, I'm less like to rage against waste and more likely to mourn it.

 


The Fourth is not with me

I forgot that today is the designated Star Wars holiday - the anniversary of the first film's opening.  Hence the saying "May the Fourth be with you."

Ha.  Ha.

There was a time that I shared the joy and love of Star Wars, as readers of his site (or my works) know.  That time has long since passed.

Like many relationships, this one died gradually rather than all at once.  There wasn't a hateful renunciation and clean breakup so much as a growing sense of weariness and a desire to just get away.

There were fights along the way and we tried to hold it together, but Star Wars and I just got tired of each other.  As I've always said, love and hate are two sides of the same coin; the opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference.  I'm indifferent to Star Wars.

The only reason I'm writing this post is that well-meaning friends (who think I'm still on good terms with my ex) keep bringing it up.

I'm reminded of the way Evelyn Waugh describes this process in both Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy.

At first, there is passion and completion and contentment.  But gradually the excitement fades and is replaced by routine, and the desire slowly disappears.  He obviously knew a lot about failed relationships, but that's how it is with me and Star Wars.

Still, the memories of my first love sometimes come back, and I think back to all the good times we had together.  Ah, to be young and watching the original trilogy on the big screen in first release! 

Those were the days.

 


Some Thoughts About Prequels

I've written at great length about the many problems with the Star Wars prequels (including of course the Man of Destiny series), but one area I've neglected is the problem of creating tension within the story.

Yes, it's possible to keep an audience's interest in seeing how a character gets out of each scrape.  This is the foundation of the James Bond franchise.  No matter how bad things look, somehow Bond survives for yet another adventure.

I'm not particularly interested in those kinds of stories, however. 

I think the best way to pull off a prequel is to relegate the known main characters into supporting roles.

This allows other people (who don't have script immunity) to come forward and provide the proper dramatic tension.  It can be interesting to see how events formed a future hero, but for those who want actual suspense, you can have that with all the additional characters getting bumped off (or looking like they might get bumped off).

I will say that if you are going to make the future main characters take center stage, the demands for a very good story become that much greater.  And as noted above, that's hard to do when physical danger is categorically out of bounds.

In fact, emotional danger's also largely taken away because they have to come out reasonably intact.   I'm tempted to say that prequels are by nature locked into a static characters, but that's not entirely true.  You can take a beloved character and show him as a complete dope who will turn into something more familiar.

But even there, with the outcome known, it's critical to make that path of that progression really interesting.

I've been asked a couple of times to write a prequel to Man of Destiny and the natural thing to cover would be the Deimos War.  It's vague enough that I'm not giving anything away and any "crossover" characters from Man of Destiny would be children.

The thing that holds me back is not just the potential scope of the project, but the fear of giving in to "fan service" type call-backs.  If I were to do it, I think I'd have to write it as a standalone book, explaining everything anew.  I think only then would it be worthwhile.


No Love for the Luger at Bleedingfool

My 20th Geek Guns column is now live and it's interesting to see what draws interest and what doesn't.  Older movies don't get much commentary, nor do classic weapons - unless they have a contemporary tie-in, like Captain America.

Even something I figured would surely get interest given all the attention The Mandalorian has been getting - Boba Fett's Blaster - was largely ignored.

This isn't a particularly profound observation, but it does show something of a generational shift.  The demographics at Bleedingfool lean strongly to the newest hardware, so anything used by John Wick is likely to draw interest.

And since the first rule of being an author is knowing one's audience, that's probably the direction I need to go.

 

 


Geek Guns at Bleedingfool.com

Over the past couple of months I've been doing a new feature at Bleedingfood.com on firearms featured in various pop culture media like comics, movies and television.

Unlike the Internet Movie Firearms Database, I also provide a review of the firearm in question - what it's like to shoot as well as how much they run for people who want one of their own.

This post will be my ongoing archive of those articles and updated as they appear.

Geek Guns Part I: Han Solo’s Blaster

Geek Guns Part 2: El Mariachi’s Twin Ruger KP90s in Desperado

Geek Guns Part 3: The Desert Eagle

Geek Guns Part 4: Deckard’s Blaster from Blade Runner

Geek Guns Part 5: Hellboy’s Hand Cannon

Geek Guns Part 6: Sean Connery’s Guns – Walther PPK, Webley-Fosbery

Geek Guns Part 7: Battlestar Galactica’s Beretta CX4 Storm

Geek Guns Part 8: Army of Darkness – Ash’s Double-Barreled “Boomstick”

Geek Guns Part 9: “Welcome to the Party Pal!” John McClane’s Beretta 92F

Geek Guns Part 10: The Rollerball “Incinerator”

Geek Guns Part 11: Indiana Jones’ Revolvers

Geek Guns Part 12: Malcolm Reynolds’ Sidearm from Firefly

Geek Guns 13: DEATH WISH – Paul Kersey’s Colt Police Positive

Geek Guns Part 14: Rambo’s M-60 Machine Gun

Geek Guns Part 15: John Wick’s Glocks

Geek Guns Part 16: Kate Beckinsale’s Walther P99 from Underworld

Geek Guns Part 17: Boba Fett’s Blaster Carbine

Geek Guns Part 18: Captain America’s Colt 1911A1

Geek Guns Part 19: Burt Gummer’s Remington 870 from ‘Tremors’

Geek Guns Part 20: The Sleek and Sinister Luger P08

Geek Guns Part 21: John Wick’s Heckler and Koch P30L

Geek Guns Part 22: Rifles of ‘1917’ & ‘Enemy at the Gates’

Geek Guns Part 23: Deadpool’s Mark XIX Desert Eagle

Geek Guns Part 24: Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum

 

 


Music to write by

Last night I was bit by the writing bug, and cranked out 500 words on a new project, but I have no idea if it will go anywhere.

I seem to do a lot of that lately.  It isn't exactly writer's block, since I'm not under any obligation to write anything at the moment.

A big part of writing is mood.  With each book, I've had something of a soundtrack to facilitate creativity.

Battle Officer Wolf was written while listening to Enya's Amarantine album, over and over again.

For much of A Man of Destiny, I had a Star Wars mix of the darker ("imperial") pieces playing.

I had a special mix as well for Vampires of Michigan, which drew heavily from the Blood and Chocolate soundtrack.  (Yes, I know that movie was about werewolves, so sue me.)

Long Live Death didn't really have a soundtrack.  I just wrote it in a manic frenzy perhaps sensing the parallels between the faltering Second Spanish Republic and our own.

As for my other books, there was nothing specific, though Three Weeks with the Coasties sometimes caused me to look up the music that was popular at the time.

In any event, 2020 is winding down and so it will soon be time for me to start my 2021 book. 

Perhaps instead of thinking about topics, I need to think about music?


The difference between a movie and a genre movie

The other night I watched You Only Live Twice and followed it with For Your Eyes Only - sort of an oddball Bond-fest.

What struck me is that the former had already embraced the "Bond genre" while the latter differed from it considerably (which is why it is the best Roger Moore Bond film).

This reminded me of my occasional rants about Star Wars and how it's transitioned from a superb space fantasy epic to just another genre, replete with its own conventions, in-jokes and so on.

The thing is, genre movies are often diminished - they're judged on being faithful to the genre rather than simply being good in their own right.

To put it another way, it's a rare thing when a genre breaks out beyond its core audience.

For example, everyone agrees that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is by far the best film in the series, but does it make sense to anyone who doesn't know anything about the genre?  I don't think so.

This brings me back to the Bond films.  Originally they were just spy stories based on some racy books (which I keep meaning to read but haven't yet).

The whole conventional format of the title sequence, ritual visit with M and then Q to get gear - none of that was a given.  The early films are a little jarring in that sense.

By Goldfinger, however, the pattern was set.  It was reinforced in Thunderball and by You Only Live Twice the concrete had hardened.  Indeed, that's what struck me about You Only Live Twice - the series was already descending into something approaching parody.

The opening of For Your Eyes Only was also pretty bad, but the way the wheelchair bound Blofeld was dispatched was almost like a purification, as if the producers were saying "Okay, you're kind of expecting this stupidity, so let's get the yucks out of the way so we can be serious."

It's very different from the other Bond films - no supercar, no bunch of gadgets to be discarded, just Bond following a trail.  There are Bond girls of course, but the movie has some fun by having Bond put off by the young sex kitten and preferring the jaded countess, who is more his style.

Bond himself is also more serious and the tension more personal.  I'm not saying it's great drama, but it's quite different from the cartoonish exploits of Moore's earlier films.

At any rate, I see the same thing happening to Star Wars.  The prequels had a chance to broaden the story and fill in its gaps, but instead they simply recited the same tropes, providing Jedi-worshipping fan service and little else.  The sequels were even worse, and will age about as well as the AMC-sponsored car chase in The Man with the Golden Gun.

They'll be part of a growing list of films, but each one will be diluting the original formula.  The best of the lot will still be hemmed in by the need for potential viewers to know the back story in order to make any sense.