A fresh look at a familiar friend

9 March 2006
Categories: Film buff

I watched The Big Chill the other night, for the first time in quite a while. This was also the first time I’d ever watched it on a large screen in its proper aspect ratio, even though I’ve probably watched it well over a dozen times on much smaller screens in pan-and-scan mode. The difference in clarity and detail was obvious from the opening scene, where for the first time I noticed the tear streaming down Sarah’s cheek as she stands in the doorway of the bathroom.

Moreover, though, I finally caught on to several nuances and subtexts that I’d never noticed before. In discussing these with my wife, I found that she’d been aware of all of them, meaning of course that she’s much smarter than me and I’d been missing the real story for the laughs. Herewith, however, is a collection of those epiphanies, or profound revelations, I’d had while watching, once again and yet as if for the first time, one of my all-time favourite films.

(Note that all quotes are paraphrases until I can confirm them with a re-viewing.)

The location

The film was shot in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina. Kasdan does an excellent job of making the place seem like a sleepy little rural village. I can’t address how much the place has changed in the 20-plus years since the film was shot, but certain aspects of Beaufort cannot have changed: it includes a satellite campus of the University of South Carolina, is just down the road from a large U.S. Marine Corps base, and is no more than five miles away from the major resort of Hilton Head.

The house is an antebellum summer house known as Tidalholm, built by plantation owner Edgar Fripp in 1853, tucked away at the eastern edge of town. It was restored as a private residence in the 1970s, and was used in the film The Great Santini which was what prompted Kasdan to seek out the same locale. Satellite views show that the house’s dock faces, not a lake as it appears, but a broad estuary with sand bars dividing its reach. Across the way are myriad other docks and numerous other houses tucked under the trees. Much of this was surely in place at the time of filming, yet it does not show. And Kasdan rarely shoots from the house toward the road, thus concealing the other homes and city streets that would surely be in clear view.

The time frame

The story takes place over the course of four days in the fall of what one must presume is 1982. The funeral is on Thursday, and (nearly) everyone goes home on Sunday. This is easily inferred by the fact that each new morning is greeted with a shot of sunrise, and of course the football game occurs on Saturday.

We figure that the date is fall 1982, primarily because that was when the film was shot. When Harold gazes into the distance before the funeral, we can see several trees have begun to turn to their fall colours. The film was released in September 1983, so a filming schedule of the previous fall makes sense. Plus, the football game must be played in the fall.

The game, however, offers an interesting anachronism. The Michigan – Michigan State game is being played in Ann Arbor. Then as now, this means that the game is happening in an even-numbered year. Watching the footage closely and checking against a database of UM players (sadly, the rabidity of Michigan State fans is not as readily apparent online), I am reasonably certain that the game being watched is the 1980 game. It most certainly is not the 1982 game, which is probably a mere logistical fact of not having the latest game’s footage available at the time of shooting. By the way, although both of the plays we see are solidly pro-MSU—a clipping call against Michigan and an interception by Michigan State—UM went on to win that game, 27–23. Of course—there’s no way that Lawrence Kasdan would include in his movie a losing game of his beloved Wolverines.

One last note on this is that Sam speaks of having lost track of Alex about five years earlier, and that the last he’d heard of him was when he quit “that case worker job in 1978.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the date is not 1980. (For example, I “lost track” of a particular friend some dozen years ago, yet know some of what she was doing in 2003, thanks to published articles. Adding up those two figures does not necessarily mean that it is now 2015, because quite obviously it is not.) But it jibes well with the feel of the movie and the eras involved to assume that the year is 1982.

Meg’s history

Add up the following pieces:

  1. Meg says to Sarah, “I have only known one thing in my life, and that’s that I want to have a child.” Sarah gives her a look that’s somewhere between quizzical, ironic, and scolding, to which Meg replies, “I think—no, I know—that was the right thing to do at the time.”
  2. Michael, while pitching to Meg the notion of him fathering her child, says “remember the march on Washington?” and she says “I remember” in a way that implies far lesser fondness for the memory than Michael has.
  3. Meg, to Sarah: “Michael has offered himself as stud—a repeat performance.” Sarah, horrified, says “He didn’t use those words, did he?”
  4. Finally, Meg says: “I can’t go to Michael—too much history there.”

These oblique remarks, spaced across a couple of days, add up to a simple conclusion. Michael got Meg pregnant during the march on Washington, and Meg had it aborted. Moreover, I think it’s clear that Michael has no idea.

A neat bit of foreshadowing

On Saturday afternoon, while most everyone is watching the game, Karen and Sarah are out on the porch talking about Sarah’s affair with Alex. In the last shot of the scene, a slow zoom-in of Karen as she gazes toward Sarah while thinking about her words, Sarah says “so we finally acted on that long-standing, all-consuming passion, and all it did was put up a wall in our relationship.” After a brief pause, Karen’s eyes shift, apparently toward the house.

Of course, she’s almost certainly thinking about Sam, and the fact that the two of them have been flirting—nay, engaging in foreplay—ever since they first made eye contact at the funeral. So she’s wondering to herself whether their relationship might suffer the same fate if they act on their passions, which needless to say they do later that evening.

The foreshadowing is this: the next morning, it’s clear that the result she fears is exactly what happens. The last time we see Karen and Sam interacting, they’re having a perfunctory, matter-of-fact conversation. Karen: “If we come out to L.A., maybe you could get the boys in to see a studio.” Sam: “Sure.” Karen: “Richard would like that.” What she said on Saturday about leaving Richard will not come to pass. There’s a cold cordiality to the exchange that says “we won’t speak of this again.” They’ll never again have the sort of warm, close conversation that they shared over the weekend.


While we’re on the subject of Richard, I think that he exemplifies a theme that runs throughout the film.

Saturday night, as they’re clearing the tables after dinner, Sam says, “It took me a long time to realize that people who looked just like us and had the exact same backgrounds could be lying, cheating assholes. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt because I thought they felt the same as us.” (or some such)

In an inverse way, Sam could be talking about Richard—someone who doesn’t “look like us” and yet, underneath, feels the same. In college, Richard was probably one of the “straights.” I would not be surprised if he was in the ROTC, maybe even went to Vietnam for a tour of duty as a young second lieutenant in a rear echelon position. The whole group considers him stodgy, boring, and a bad fit for Karen—opinions surely shaped by Karen herself (q.v. her sidelong glance in the car when he says “None of those people are like I imagined them to be from your description—I only wonder how you described me to them”).

Yet Richard is quite unperturbed—one might almost say “cool”—when he witnesses Nick retrieving his drug stash from beneath his black Porsche 911T. And his sole monologue, at the kitchen table late Thursday night, reveals that he is quite clearly one of them, at least in the sense that he is (like the rest of them) perplexed by the life that he is leading, disappointed in some of the things he finds himself doing to make his way in the world and to keep his family safe and secure, but otherwise working to be the very best person that he can be.

Harold, alone, seems to understand that. He and Richard are much more alike than any of Harold’s friends would want to admit. Harold is a successful businessman (though the IMDb clued me in on a subtle, ironic joke that his athletic shoe store’s name is based on a quote from Mao: “The people’s revolution will bury the running dogs of capitalism”). He’s a pillar in his community, a father and family man. I think his sense of comity with Richard is revealed in something that I’d always taken as something of an anomaly, if not an outright continuity error: the fact that Harold includes Richard in his running shoe gift. Before this last viewing, I’d always thought, “wait a minute, Harold asks for everyone’s shoe sizes after Richard left, so why does the stack of shoe boxes on the kitchen table include one with Richard’s name on it?” Well, I think that’s the reason: despite Richard’s early departure and the predominant feelings about him from the rest of the group, Harold understands that Richard is definitely “one of us.”


On Friday night, Michael is overtly hitting on Chloe, much to the chagrin of all the other men there—particularly Nick, who has already been likened to Alex by Chloe, lately Alex’s girlfriend, and who despite his denial (“I ain’t him”) may have designs of his own. As Michael rolls a joint, Nick joins him and asks where Chloe is. Michael replies, “She’ll be right back,” in a tone that is anticipatory, verging on predatory. Nick then takes out a Quaalude, ponders taking it, decides against it, and is about to put it away when Michael asks about it, and Nick offers it to him.

I believe that Nick never has any intention of taking the ’lude, he feigns doing so solely for the purpose of drawing Michael’s attention to it. He then gently cajoles Michael into taking the whole thing, when Michael is considering splitting the pill in half. The next thing we know, Michael is passed out on the couch, not even having finished the glass of wine he used to wash down the ’lude, and Nick is free to converse with Chloe for the rest of the evening, which ultimately ends with her asleep with her head on his lap. (As an aside, it has been suggested that the inscrutable look he gives her as she’s lying there is a hint that perhaps her proximity has caused his long-damaged “equipment” to regain a modicum of functionality. I do not necessarily concur.)

What’s ironic about this is that earlier that same day, Michael and Sam are videotaped having a conversation wherein Michael says that being coldly manipulative may be a more honest way of getting what you want than being sincere, or earnest, or flattering. In espousing this view Michael casts himself as a cold manipulator, worldly and street-smart. Yet by the end of the day he has been wholly taken in by an act of cold manipulation.

Lines I still don’t get

There are two bits that still leave me confused.

One is an unintelligible line that is spoken while everyone is watching the J. T. Lancer intro, and comes immediately after the “I want a margarita and I want it now” line. Sam gives someone a scowl for it, but Lord knows what the line is.

The other is a reference, spoken by Karen (?) to Sam (?), asking “who did he think he wanted to be, John Barrister Tipton?” I cannot find any reference to this person; Google only responds with a Danish site that says “John Barrister-Tipton – som er den rigtige Hero-Man!” which seems like it would be appropriate, if only I spoke Danish. (Aha! The Tipton question, answered.)

  1. Hello, Film Buff
    June 7th, 2010 at 20:52 | #1

    …an unsolicited “devil’s advocate” question for you: do you think [Harold]’s buying and putting out Richard’s shoes is his subtle reminder to Karen & Sam that although out of sight, Richard should not be out of mind? Remember Harold’s look of concern from the doorway when Sam says to Karen “you know, if we had gotten married, we’re be doing this together.” It comes right after Harold tells us about Sarah/Alex affair… Notice from the beginning how much the director always shoots Harold watching Sarah closely from behind… as if he is shadowing her…. These would be the actions of a husband betrayed by his wife’s extramarital affairs… like Richard.

  2. June 9th, 2010 at 17:15 | #2

    You make a very good point; I hadn’t noticed Harold’s actions, but his being the “husband betrayed” certainly is another credible motivation for his shoe purchase. Thank you for that added dimension.

  3. Rob Britt
    September 18th, 2010 at 16:59 | #3

    Thank you for this interesting insight into the Big Chill, my favorite movie. I have watched it over 25 times. I think the reference in Karen’s line is about John Beresford Tipton a fictional character from a 1950s televsion show called The Millionaire.

  4. September 2nd, 2017 at 06:18 | #4

    Thanks for this. Rewatched the film yesterday and needed some discussion.

    Question: The “original” march on Washington was 1963. Meg and Michael sleeping together would have had to be at a later date, right? Jeff Goldblum was 11 in 1963 and even if Michael is a few years older he would still be in his early teens.

  5. November 13th, 2017 at 08:03 | #5

    It’s been a while since I watched this… did they say it was the 1963 march? There were many, many marches on Washington back then… I always figured they marched around the time of Nixon’s reelection in 1972, when Michael would have been about 20.

  6. Anders
    November 13th, 2017 at 09:38 | #6

    @Kevin S. Forsyth
    Ah, ok. Thanks.

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