The Big Chill
Credit: Photofest

Seventy-six million Americans were born during the baby boom that lasted from1946 to 1964. Technically, these children of postwar prosperity, who comprise roughly a third of the population, might be categorized as one, very big generation. But any amateur sociologist will tell you that the people my older brother went to college with in the late sixties were different from the people I went to college with in the late seventies. The children of the sixties were widely noted for their commitment to social change, a commitment that created strong bonds of generational identity among them. My peers, on the other hand, appeared on the scene when idealism had reached its nadir, an embarrassing circumstance that has made us generally unwilling to be categorized as a social group at all. Most of us would rather label ourselves by other means—geography, race, profession—than admit our affiliation with the Me Decade.

Although some might say this makes us the generational equivalent of an Uncle Tom or a self-hating Jew, I think that our collective invisibility is a healthy thing. America is, after all, already filled with a confusing array of subcultures; why would anyone want to add to the roster a group that, for no discernible reason, loudly proclaimed the cultural identity of everyone between the ages of 19 and 28?

Needless to say, mine is a very different attitude from that of most members of the sixties generation, whose ties to each other remain deeply felt long after the sit-ins and protest marches have subsided. The widespread political activism that created this solidarity may have passed, but the Woodstock generation will go to its grave with a sense that it is special. And indeed, even those of us who weren’t invited to the party must concede that there was something unique about the sixties. The intensely felt experience of either opposing or fighting in the Vietnam war, the exuberant, optimism among those who wanted to create racial and economic equality, and the general feeling of high-spirited nonconformity all served to define a group of people whose common values set them apart from and-at their best-above the narcissism and grim conformity of the 1950s and the 1970s.

But now that the sixties are over and the members of that generation are looking toward middle age, the bonds that remain among them have taken on an unattractive quality that sometimes makes me glad I wasn’t invited to the party. For too many veterans of that decade, the litmus test of political idealism—and, in a larger sense, virtue—has come to be not what you do, or even what you believe, but when you were born. In this view, the Woodstock generation doesn’t have to grapple with the issues of today’s larger political community because, unlike the benighted souls who came before and after, it earned its stripes in the political battles of the sixties. This sustains a feeling of commitment that is curiously apolitical. The idea seems to be that if the world doesn’t seem a much better place now that the college students of the sixties have assumed adult responsibilities, then, dammit, it’s the world’s fault, or perhaps the fault of adulthood itself. It certainly isn’t theirs. And if the children of the sixties don’t like the world as they now find it, then the answer the generational view sets forth is not to make it better; rather, it is to retreat to the companionship of one’s fellow 35-year-olds, among whom can be found a smaller, more exclusive society where some of the old attitudes and customs still reign. As the advertisements for the movie The Big Chill put it, “In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.”

Is Mr. Coffee Immoral?

It’s no accident that the spirit of the Woodstock generation is so aptly articulated on posters advertising The Big Chill: increasingly, that generation’s attempts at self-definition have come less and less through politics and more and more through popular culture. Movies like The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus Seven, books like Ann Beattie’s Chilly Scenes of Winter and Falling in Place, and plays like Michael Weller’s Loose Ends have chronicled the growing disillusion of the children of the sixties as they make their way through the cruelly pragmatic seventies and eighties. One idea most of these depictions share—an idea that comes across with particular clarity in The Big Chill—is that the possibility for social change is a thing of the past.

The Big Chill is about a group of former sixties types who gather for a weekend to mourn their friend Alex, who has committed suicide and who serves as a sort of symbol of the lost ideals of the sixties. (Among the few facts we learn about Alex are that he was a brilliant physics student, that he turned down a prestigious fellowship after he graduated for vaguely ideological reasons, and that he spent the rest of his life drifting on the fringes of society while his friends ascended to the professional class.) “Where did Alex’s hope go?” asks the minister at the funeral. Harold, an athletic shoe tycoon (his chain is whimsically called “Running Dog”), answers the question in a way that we’re supposed to find poignant, but which struck me as vain and cynical: “There was something about Alex that was too good for this world!”

The idea that sixties-style idealism is “too good for this world” is the central theme of the movie. As we are introduced to each of the rest of the characters, we see this theme illustrated. There’s Meg, the former public defender who is now working for a real estate law firm. (“Their clients were only raping the land,” she explains. “And there was, of course, the money?”) There’s Michael, who gave up teaching in Harlem to write for People magazine. Sam is now the lead character on a “Magnum P.I!”-like TV show. Harold and Sarah are the prototypical two professional family: he has his shoe stores, she’s a doctor. Karen married a square advertising man. The only character who hasn’t acquired a stake in the system is Nick, an embittered, impotent Vietnam veteran and drug dealer who seems to be the film’s one clumsy stab at complexity. Even Nick, however, illustrates the film’s central theme: by choosing to be a dropout, as Alex was, he seems to be affirming that today’s world is inherently polluting.

The idea that the idealism of the Woodstock era is unattainable in the chilly 1980s has an appealingly elegiac ring to it, but it is refuted by the existence of people in our midst who still maintain a realistic belief that they can change the world. Unhappily, most of them seem to be on the right these days, but those who remain true to the ideals of the sixties have justifiably taken offense at what Pat Aufderheide of In These Times described as the movie’s false choice between “aimlessness on the margins of or ruthless participation in the mainstream of American professional life.” One interesting indication that the makers of The Big Chill themselves have some difficulty believing their theme is the conspicuous

absence in the film of the one character who is still an idealist. She is glimpsed briefly at the beginning of the film with Michael, the writer for People magazine who used to teach in Harlem, and is later offhandedly identified as Michael’s girlfriend who still teaches in Harlem. This mystery woman is never heard from again because her very existence contradicts the premise of the film.

Of course, it is a little unreasonable in the first place to define idealism so uncompromisingly as one’s willingness to teach in Harlem. Dedication at that level is an honorable thing, but it is also extremely rare. In fact, there are a hundred perfectly acceptable interim steps between writing for People and teaching in Harlem: volunteering in your spare time to be a Big Brother, running for the city council, even creating a business. When you look at the film this way, its cosmology seems unnecessarily harsh. I’m willing to believe that becoming a real estate lawyer or a writer for People magazine or an actor on a dumb adventure series may not be the best way to put your ideals into practice; but what’s so bad about raising a family, as Karen has chosen to do? The fact that Karen’s husband is an advertising man—with all its 1950s grey-flannel associations—is an unfair gimmick designed to create the phony impression of compromise. Then there’s Harold, who is an entrepreneur of sorts, and Sarah, the doctor. While the opulence of their pillared mansion, where the film takes place, makes you wonder about his prices and her fees, the suggestion that it doesn’t matter how you make your money misses the crucial distinction between those who provide useful services, like (arguably) shoe salesmen and doctors, and those who don’t, like hack writers, real estate lawyers, actors on bad TV shows, and drug dealers.

Distinctions like these are never raised in The Big Chill because they would muddy up the movie’s neat association of political idealism with a moment in history that has passed. In fact, aside from one lightning-quick scene in which Sarah questions the depth of the group’s former “commitment:’ there are no political moments in the film at all. We never do find out exactly what the characters were “committed” to. Instead, the film opts for an unspoken nihilism about the world: to try to resist the forces of compromise is to resist the tide. It’s a cold world out there, remember? But the lack of any substantive discussion among these characters that would explain their politics places too much weight on the only information about the characters’ lives that is provided in any detail: their material possessions. Since these are rendered with near-maniacal precision, the movie ends up, by default, reducing political questions to questions of fashion. All sorts of intricate social comment is communicated through the fact that this character drives a Porsche, that another character owns a Mr. Coffee automatic drip, and that everyone in the film has a blow dryer.

The ultimate effect of defining political idealism as something that happened in the sixties rather than something that could happen today is, ironically, to turn what might have been a biting criticism of one generation’s moral shortcomings into an exercise in reassurance. If the people who still teach in Harlem can be kept out of sight, we don’t have to recognize that some people are moved to live deeply altruistic lives long after altruism has fallen out of fashion. Our lesser anxieties about identity and friendship—the kinds of questions discussed in The Big Chill—seem more meaningful when those who are more inclined to talk about the problems of other people aren’t around. Moreover, if idealism is defined in the sixties’ characteristically all-or-nothing way—will you teach in Harlem or will you sell out—it can be placed safely out of reach. Few people are willing to stand lonesome at the barricades, but that shouldn’t be where the argument ends. The question should then become, if not total sacrifice, what partial sacrifices can I make for my ideals?

Finally, when all you’re left to consider is the morality of owning a Mr. Coffee machine, you can congratulate yourself for enduring an examination of your principles. But the thirty-ish people I saw leaving the theater to the strains of “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” didn’t look to me like they’d just come through a catharsis. They looked more like they’d just had a massage.

‘Never Trust Anybody Under 30’

I didn’t notice the same look in the faces of the younger members of the audience. In fact, the notion of political idealism as something that passes by only in historical intervals, like Halley’s Comet, has a tendency to make those who weren’t around to witness the bright streak feel pretty low. “My time has been a limp time,” sighed a 23-year-old New Yorker writer last August in that magazine’s “Notes and Comment” column. After expressing anxiety that “my generation may not get a chance at providing lasting answers,” he concluded, “there are times when I wish that I’d been born ten years earlier.”

It isn’t every generation that can get its little brothers and sisters to apologize for their age. But the Woodstock generation seems to have infused more than one potential idealist with a deep sense of futility. “Don’t brother,” the children of the sixties seem to be saying. “You’re not up to it.” The idea that membership in a particular age group was a precondition to enlightenment has always been one of the more unattractive doctrines of the sixties generation. During the sixties, when the object of exclusionary sentiment was the older generation, “youth culture” consciousness was but one shrill note among many more melodious ones. Now that the political turmoil has subsided, however, generational chauvinism, now directed against the young, has become practically the whole symphony.

Who can forget the generation gap and the old rallying cry of “never trust anybody over 30”? The spirit is captured at its most perverse in an eerily fascinating movie made in 1968 called Wild In The Streets. The premise of the film is that the public clamor for an 18-year-old vote (which three years later gave us the 26th Amendment) didn’t go far enough—that if you were old enough to die in Vietnam you were not only old enough to vote but old enough to lead. The hero, a 24-year-old rock star named Max Frost, offers his support to a Kennedy-esque candidate for the Senate on the condition that he lower the voting age to 15; when he succeeds, he then arranges to lower the age requirements for national office and runs for president. The youthful hordes of new voters sweep Max into office. Max then declares a sort of dictatorship of the young, placing everybody over the age of 35 in concentration camps, where they are rendered docile by a heavy dose of LSD in the drinking supply.

When Wild In The Streets came out, Renata Adler, then a film critic for The New York Times, observed with some understatement that it was “rather heavily weighted against the old. But in retrospect, the most interesting thing about this self-indulgent pop fantasy is not that it culminates in the establishment of a youth culture police state where everybody over 35 is interned-though that’s pretty interesting, too but what it says about those who are too young to take part in the revolution. Pushing the logic of the youth culture to its extreme, the movie ends with an irony that in retrospect seems hackneyed but is treated like a revelation: youth is not forever. Max has this epiphany after an exchange with a blond little black-shirted boy. The boy asks Max if he can be president; Max says no. The boys asks why not; Max answers, “Because you’re not old enough.” The boy then asks Max how old he is. Max tells him that he‘s 24. The boy answers, “That’s old.” (You can almost hear yesterday’s audiences muttering, “Oh, wow.”) The film ends with the words echoing in Max’s ears and another little boy muttering to his friends, “We’re gonna put everybody over ten outa business?

Heavy-handed though the irony may seem, the final moments in Wild In The Streets stumbled onto where the generational hostility of the Woodstock generation was about to be redirected: away from the older generation, which would have to yield power sooner or later, and toward the younger one, whose existence created anxieties about the sixties generation’s operating principle of “the younger the better.” Thus when Abbie Hoffman recently turned 47, he declared that “watching college students today is about as exciting as watching TV bowling” and vowed that he would “never trust anybody under 30;’ A cloying new television series has appeared, presumably the brainchild of someone in his thirties, about a family where the parents are ex-flower children and their son is—you guessed it—a stuffed-shirt right-winger. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to find in any of the popular-culture depictions of the Woodstock culture grown up a sympathetic portrait of anyone under 30, while there are plenty of damning ones.

Fairly typical is the portrayal of “Doctor Mark”: a grotesquely precocious, career-obsessed medical student who appears as a minor character in Ann Beattie’s novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Here is how Doctor Mark’s future is imagined by Charles, the charmingly maladjusted sixties-generation protagonist, as a Dewar’s profile:

HOME: Rye, N.Y.

AGE: 35

HOBBIES: Squash; attending concerts


LAST MEMORABLE ACCOMPLISHMENT: Told some poor jerk he had an inoperable melanoma.

QUOTE: “I think everybody should go to med school and get a high-paying job and get the little woman a Maytag.”

PROFILE: Keen, aggressive. Plays squash and cuts brains with precision.

SCOTCH: Dewar’s “White Label”

Sure, the caricature‘s funny, but it’s also cheap, and so is the portrayal of Chloe, Alex’s girlfriend, in The Big Chill. Chloe is the only character of any consequence in the film who isn’t part of Alex’s college circle, and it’s made clear from the beginning of the movie that this makes a big difference. In our very first glimpse of her she is exercising before a mirror, an activity she repeats throughout the film in case we have missed the point that she is a vapid narcissist. Later in the film Chloe becomes more sympathetic—a sort of holy innocent who blurts out startling truths and helps set Nick, the drug dealer, back on his feet—but even then her innocence is seen in a clearly condescending way.

The function of this generational chauvinism against the under-30 crowd is to provide a cover for the Woodstock generation’s own seductions during the Me Decade. Sure, we may be career-oriented and narcissistic, but we’re not as bad as the kids who never got the chance to experience that fleeting brush with campus radicalism. Doctor Mark and Chloe don’t exist to denigrate the children of the Me Decade; their purpose is to put the assumed greater emotional depth of the over-30 generation into sharper relief.

In It But Not of It

As a member of the under-30 crowd myself, I can’t help resenting having my generation put to this use. But the larger problem with allowing people to go strutting around saying they’re superior because they’re 35 is that it encourages them to regard the larger bonds of community with an informality that society can ill afford. There’s a baffling scene in The Big Chill that illustrates what I mean. Harold and Nick are out on a morning jog. Suddenly, Harold turns to Nick and offers him some inside information on a stock deal. Nick turns him down. The incident is then forgotten for the rest of the movie, except for a brief scene where Sarah scolds Harold for making the offer (which he also apparently made to Alex), as if chiding him for overtipping a waiter.

But hasn’t a fairly serious moral issue been raised? Apparently not. You can take away from the scene a couple of interpretations. It might be meant as a winking reminder that this is the sort of behavior that made the Woodstock generation hold the older generation in contempt. Now the children of the sixties have grown a bit more worldly. But when the older generation behaved this way it deserved to be held in contempt. Or you can read it in a mildly favorable light, as an act of noble sacrifice (civil disobedience?) by Harold, who selflessly risks being thrown in jail-as he himself points out to Nick-in order to help a friend get back on his feet. Indeed, to the extent that the scene poses a moral question at all, it seems to be whether Nick would be compromising himself by accepting a handout. Set aside romantic notions of generational solidarity, however, and it’s a little more clear that what the scene really depicts in its breezy way is a crude and immoral violation of a public trust.

SEC regulations may not get violated very often in the name of sixties solidarity, but the world does seem to be populated with quite a few members of that generation who think that there’s nothing inconsistent about being both an ex-radical and, say, a tax lawyer who now contrives to minimize the contributions of our richest citizens to the Treasury-so long as you treat your job with the proper amount of contempt. The key is to draw your real sense of worth from your membership in the Woodstock generation. The mainstream culture has no hold on me, such people will say I may work in the pig world, but I’m not a pig. The apotheosis of this In-It-But-Not-Of-It ethic may be Jackson Browne’s song, “The Pretender,” in which a self-aware self-seeker proclaims, “I’ll be a happy idiot, and struggle for the legal tended’ It’s okay to be a tax lawyer as long as you hate yourself for it. The irony of this stance is that where once it sought to create a “relevant:’ alternative culture, now it serves to create a deliberately irrelevant one. And where once such distinctions were made in the name of politicizing previously neutral questions, now they are made to depoliticize them.

In this respect, the Woodstock generation is coming to resemble the people it once rebelled against: those who draw their memories of idealism and political commitment from their participation in World War II. Like the World War II generation, which after the war settled into a prolonged period of complacency and conformity, the children of the sixties seem to want little more than to quietly retreat from politics. Since few of them can claim, as their predecessors could, that they risked their lives for their country, this complacency seems even less justifiable than, say, an Iwo Jima veteran’s.

Sensing that in this smugly apolitical crowd is a constituency willing to be wooed not with ideals but with nostalgic invocations of its idealistic youth, at least one presidential candidate has identified himself as the candidate of the sixties generation. “I don’t have to sell myself. Gary Hart was recently quoted as saying in a flattering article in The New Republic, “I have to sell the need to change generations of leadership!” It is particularly distressing that Gary Hart should be appealing to this mindless impulse, because he is supposed to be the candidate of “ideas.” But it is the idea of the sixties generation, rather than any specifically political ideas, that sells to a group that “gave at the office” with its radicalism in the sixties.

There are some people, of course, who lived through that time who do not feel that they gave at the office. They are working in the various grassroots organizations around the country that Ralph Nader started in the early seventies; in Meals on Wheels groups that serve food to the elderly; in public and private shelters for the homeless; and, yes, there are even a few teaching in Harlem. Then there are those who are starting up small businesses that will create new jobs, services and products; those who are putting in a couple of days a week recording for the blind; and millions of others who in various small ways are keeping alive the spirit of idealism that animated their youth. Some protested the Vietnam war, some fought in it, and some went through the sixties with little thought of politics at all. If you ask them why they’re doing it, few are likely to say, “for my generation.” Instead, they will say, “for my community.”

If there aren’t more of them, much of the blame can be placed on the attitude toward political idealism reflected in movies like The Big Chill. At its best the Woodstock generation sought to promote communitarianism through its emphasis on collective living and collective political expression; even Woodstock, though it’s become a cliche for the sixties idea of utopian community, offered some inspiration in its elevation of a concert to an experiment in cooperation among a large mass of people. Where the sixties idea of community went wrong was in its failure to keep alive the idea that community should exist to make the world a better place, and not merely to reinforce already strong bonds between people of the same age. The kind of community that the Woodstock generation needs to be calling for should not be the kind of community that comes easily-where attitudes and experiences are held in common. Instead, it should be calling for the kind of community that you have to work at: forging bonds between people who grew up at different times, in different places, under different circumstances of class and race. It should be a community that is more like a neighborhood, a city, a nation, and less like a class reunion.

Timothy Noah

Follow Timothy on Twitter @TimothyNoah1. Timothy Noah is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.