Cast: Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, JoBeth Williams
I started this particular series a while ago and posted a few times here and here with multiple entries. However, I have now decided to make it a feature, like Classic Movie Scenes and Under-Rated Film Classics. Like those I will now that concentrate on singular films rather than a group. This enables me to be more focused and detailed with the articles.
The Big Chill (1983) was co-written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. It concerns a group of seven former college students who gather for a weekend reunion after the funeral of one of their friends. Joining them is their friend’s girlfriend, who also mourns the loss. Having moved to different areas of the country and taken different roles in society, the friends catch up, reminisce, regret, plan, argue, laugh, cry, make love, get high, and try and work out why Alex took his own life.
Kasdan had directed neo noir thriller Body Heat (1981) and co-written screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He also got industry notice for writing the original screenplay of The Bodyguard (1992); eventually made years later. Thus, his stock was very high. But rather than go for a big budget production he wrote and directed The Big Chill (1983). It’s a more intimate story of grief and nostalgia with an ensemble cast, character led script and incredible soundtrack. It was a big hit on a lowish budget and the terrific mix of songs from the 1960’s and 1970’s became one of the best-selling soundtracks ever. It’s funny, smart, sad and brilliantly acted film with an amazing cast!
Glenn Close and Kevin Kline were relatively well known for their stage endeavours and William Hurt had established himself as a prominent film actor, so they, along with TV Emmy winner Mary Kay Place, were probably the most well known of the ensemble. Having said that, along with Tom Berenger, Meg Tilly, JoBeth Williams and Jeff Goldblum they were very much more toward the start of their respective careers. If you take a look back now over the last thirty-seven years since the film was made, you will now see a whole host of Oscar, Emmy and Tony award winners. Plus, they are a group of actors who have been in some of the biggest grossing films of all time. Not forgetting that Hollywood cinema giant Kevin Costner, in a very early role as the deceased friend, was edited out of the final cut. Thus, it truly is an incredible work of casting.
Having watched the film again recently I have to say that while it is definitely in the “first world problems” territory, the universal themes of grief, love, relationships and existential reflection resonated with me. Also, having lost a friend to suicide I very much connected with the group’s emotions. On reflection, through millennial eyes, the film also severely lacks diversity. However, Kasdan and his amazing cast are witty, warm, annoying, joyful and intelligent company. Moreover, that soundtrack is an absolute blast, with many memorable musical montages to counter the heavier moments of soul searching. Oh, interesting note, the house used in the film is apparently the same one used in Forrest Gump (1994).
Now I would like to broaden the subject and have a go at defining some basic film character archetypes. My definition of this has some crossover with personas, but archetypes are not necessarily the component which make up the character – they ARE the character!
Archetypes are a common or typical shorthand; a tool writers, directors and actors can use to define character during the creative process. They are not stereotyping though. They are standardized models and structures that can be built upon to fully flesh out a character.
The archetypes I would like to consider are: Everyman/Woman, Hero, Super-Hero, Anti-Hero, Nemesis, Mentor, Sidekick and Lover/Romantic Interest. Obviously, many of these archetypes can combine, especially in more complex films, plus I’m sure there are loads of others. However, I will limit myself to these for now.
EVERYMAN / WOMAN
The staple for many, many movies is an everyman or woman or boy or girl (or gender fluid) character who is easy to relate to for the audience. It could be Tom Hanks in Castaway (2000), or Tom Hanks in Sully (2016), or Tom Hanks in basically everything – even Toy Story (1995). They tend toward the working or ordinary class with regular jobs and family units. Their stories will be everyday, or they will find themselves facing incredible situations. Alfred Hitchcock favoured everyman and woman characters who would be thrown into dangerous situations. Actors who excel in such roles include: Hanks, James Stewart, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Francis McDormand, Jack Lemmon and many more.
Many characters can begin ordinary or everyday, but over the course of a film become heroes. Luke Skywalker for instance is an bright farm kid with dreams of joining the academy. A series of contrasting events then cause his rise to discovery and heroism. On the other hand, some heroes are fully formed such as James Bond and Indiana Jones. The everyman character and hero are often combined, like with John McCLane or underdog characters such as Rocky Balboa. My favourite hero arcs are stories where the character starts in lower status such as The Terminator (1984), Django Unchained (2012) and Harriet (2019).
So what’s the difference between a hero and a super-hero? For me the hero may be capable of incredible feats of action and endeavour, yet he or she is ultimately mortal. Thus, while they may be a super-hero on the surface, Batman and Iron Man are heroes to me; albeit mechanically improved ones. Superman, Wonder Woman and Thor, for example, have god-like powers, thus defining them as SUPER! Obviously, there are crossovers as illustrated by Peter Parker, Captain America and Captain Marvel. All of them begin as everyboy/man/woman characters and become super-heroes due to military experimentation or being impacted by incredible events which cause physical transformation.
I love a good anti-hero. I think they are my favourite character archetype. They can be charismatic and just on the side of the righteous, but misanthropic and sarcastic like say, Wolverine or Blade. They can be on the wrong side of the law, but redeem themselves at the end of a film like Danny Archer and Han Solo. They can be outsiders or loners like Travis Bickle. They can be hard on the outside and soft on the inner like Juno. Moreover, certain actors have cornered the market on anti-heroes such as Jack Nicholson, Ellen Page, Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood. My favourite anti-heroes are often cursed with supernatural forces causing them to be trapped by certain powers. The ‘Wolfman’, Lawrence Talbot, and Carrie White are fine instances of this.
Given it is pantomime season there’s no harm is looking at villains! For me the greatest villains are the ones which actually have a valid cause or point. Of course, I don’t agree with their actions as they will generally involve killing people or destroying the Earth or Universe. However, villains such as Robert DeNiro’s heinous Max Cady had valid motivation. Likewise, Thanos’ plan to wipe out half of everyone was founded on sound environmental ideology. This doesn’t make it right though. Sympathetic nemeses are also interesting like Marvel’s Erik Killmonger. Moreover, King Kong for example, begins life as a threatening monster, but ultimately ends up being sympathetic compared to man. Nonetheless, you cannot beat a good old fashioned baddie like Hannibal Lecter, The Terminator, Hans Gruber, Nurse Ratched and one of my favourites, The Wicked Witch of the West.
The Mentor character can take many forms. They are very valuable in supporting a hero or heroine on their adventures, plus providing vital exposition or the rules of the world information. The archetypal mentor archetype is a wise, older character like Morpheus, Alfred Pennyworth, Gandalf, Mr Miyagi, or Obi Wan Kenobi. Moreover, they will often have powers and magically assist those around them. The wonderfully helpful Mary Poppins is a great example of this. Every so often mentoring is rejected by the younger partner. A case in point being Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills eschewing Morgan Freeman’s Somerset’s sage advice with deadly results. Then again, mentoring can take a more twisted and controlling turn as seen with The Devil Wears Prada’s (2006), Miranda Priestly, and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent arthouse classic, The Phantom Thread (2017).
The sidekick is a lower status character that can be an ally, helper, friend or even enemy that also provides comic relief or dramatic tension. Different from the bromance or traditional buddy character, because that double-act dynamic is on an equal level of status. Great sidekicks include: Hermione Granger, Short Round, Robin, Chewbacca, Dr Watson and many more. Often, the sidekick actually becomes more interesting, funny and memorable than the lead protagonist. Examples of this include the brilliant Hit Girl, Igor, Donkey and the aforementioned Hermione. Sometimes the sidekick takes a darker route such as Loki and Lady Macbeth, who use their influence for evil rather than good.
THE LOVER / ROMANTIC INTEREST
So, the love interest can be a romantic extension of the sidekick but can also be a mentor and even a villain. I would differentiate the love interest character from traditional romantic comedies or dramas. For instance, in When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sally and Harry are of equal status and classed as everyman and woman archetypes. However, in James Bond films the love interest is traditionally a female conquest. More in depth love interest characters are those that are not just trophies; they become equal in the story. Princess Leia is a heroine and love interest, likewise Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most recently, and a reflection of our progressive times, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman found a fine love interest in Chris Pine’s heroic Steve Trevor. Thankfully, the outdated “damsel in distress” stereotype is being consigned to the past and now we have characters of all backgrounds and gender represented on an equal basis.
As I said earlier this list is just an exploration of archetypes. There are a number I could have included. That stock character the wife or husband is one which always appears regularly in films. Often, they are waiting by the phone or television screen as some disaster befalls their partner. Lastly, I could have included the double-act, the team or the ensemble archetype; where one or more characters combine to create a whole. But, I think I’ll save that for another essay.
“Hence, once again, pastiche: in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles… means that one of its essential messages is… the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past.” Frederic Jameson – POSTMODERNISM & CONSUMER SOCIETY (1983)
I loved this film for so many reasons. It’s a nostalgic rush and push of music, action, fantastical creatures, space operatics, zinging one-liners, knowing humour, spectacular effects and in Chris Pratt — a new cinema star (lord) for the millennium is born. Let’s be honest there isn’t an original bone in its body but the fleshy pastiche and meaty cultural references Guardians of the Galaxy wears proudly on its sleeves take the audience on one hell of a journey.
Marxist and cultural theorist Frederic Jameson spoke of the rise of the “Nostalgia” film and postmodernist movies such as Star Wars (1977) and American Graffiti (1973) in his seminal essay aforementioned above. The Nostalgia film harks back and references the past drawing influences not from reality but rather cultural artefacts such as films, comics, radio, TV and music etc. Guardians of the Galaxy involves an orphaned hero — with mysterious father — who must do battle against an evil empire, save a “damsel” in distress, all the while accompanied by a motley crue of intergalactic misfits. Sound at all familiar? Yes, finally the kids of today have their Star Wars. They have a new hope, kind of; a pastiche of a pastiche of a pastiche based solely on the cultural fossils of yesteryear.
Watching this film on IMAX 3D at Wimbledon Odeon Screen 4 (my favourite cinema screen by the way) made me feel nostalgic in so many ways. It felt more like the comic books I read as a child than any film I’ve seen recently. Further, I felt a surge of history as the film opened taking me back to 1977 when my Dad took me to see Star Wars (1977). I recall the massive queues waiting to go see Lucas’ classic and the giddiness and excitement I felt as a youth rushed through me; even more so when the film started and my consciousness was treated to one impressive set-piece after another. I felt young again and all because of a movie!
In a major ironic twist I too felt nostalgic for my University days and my discovery of postmodern theorists such as Jameson, Baudrillard and Foucault while studying. While it served no purpose in the real world my academic life was a great time for me. The knowledge of postmodernism I gained enhanced further this funky fusion of comic-book anti-heroes blowing stuff up to a 70s soundtrack. Indeed, I was at peace with the world. A bomb could have hit the cinema and I would not have cared. It was cinematic heroin. I was happy.
Guardians is the 10th Marvel Universe movie to be produced and is based on a lesser known product from the uber-comic overlords’ oeuvre. Young Peter Quill is not having the best day. At the beginning he suffers the loss of his mother. As he runs away from the hospital he is then kidnapped by a gigantic spaceship which airlifts him to a life with the Ravagers; a group of space cowboys and outlaws – led by Michael Rooker’s Yondu. Flash forward some many years to a galaxy far, far far away and an older Quill (effortlessly charismatic Chris Pratt) is on the hunt for a mysterious orb in order to make a few intergalactic dollars. Quill proves himself a decent dancer and well as fighter as he uses hi-tech weapons to outfox his foes.
The opening action sequence is a sheer joy and essentially riffs on the opening of Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981) while using Blue Swede’s funky classic Hooked on a Feeling also used in Reservoir Dogs (1992). Let’s be honest it is all very silly but I am not watching this as a fortysomething man but rather a young boy living in the warmth of the past bathing in the nostalgia of recalling Star Wars, Raiders, Reservoir Dogs and MIXTAPES!! I used to do mixtapes and it was such fun before the devilish digital age took over. Anyway, the orb Quill has stolen turns out to be one of those END OF THE WORLD plot McGuffin thingy’s and a whole host of benign and nefarious characters are after it notably evil Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), Kree mentalist Ronan (Lee Pace) and the Collector (Benicio Del Toro) etc.
So, Quill consequently finds himself pursued and caught and thrown in prison by the Nova Corps (basically humans with funny hair.) He then unwittingly becomes part of a bunch of misfits including: Rocket (Bradley Cooper) – a feisty raccoon and weapons expert; Groot (Vin Diesel) – a tree-like humanoid; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) – Thanos’s adopted assassin daughter; and finally Drax (Dave Bautista) – a giant blue alien muscle guy. Together these unusual suspects form an uneasy but at times hilarious alliance as they fight and argue and bicker and eventually accept each other and combine to overcome the villains before them.
If The Avengers (2012) was a remake of The Magnificent Seven (1964) then this is a remake of the Dirty Dozen (1967) (minus seven). Moreover, the film follows the successful Marvel template of superheroes (or in this case anti-heroes) saving a very Earth-like world from destruction from said poisoned destructive orb (see Tesseract). But what makes this Space-Western such fun is the oddball off-centre characters which director James Gunn and his fellow writers clearly gave a lot of time developing. While special effects reign over the production the likes of Quill, Rocket and Groot are given a humanity and humour which adds heart to story. Indeed the script is full of empathetic backstories and themes including: fatherless, motherless and adopted children, genocide, slaves, nature v. technology, medical experimentation, grief, tyranny of dictatorship; all of which add some depth to the otherwise fluffy frivolity of the script.
Gunn was an interesting choice of director as he had written some mildly successful screenplays and directed two low-budget movies: the hilarious horror Slither (2006) and anti-super-hero oddity Super (2010). But he marshals the army of cast and crew with a great sense of timing and while Guardians is generic in structure, the delight is in the incredible visuals and action, character detail and witty dialogue splashed throughout. The tone almost tipped over into farce in a dance off scene near the end and Del Toro is disappointing underused as The Collector. Plus Zoe Saldana’s character Gamora is gutsy and kick-ass until she turns to type and is saved by Quill. Although I forgave this stereotype because the scene was so memorably rendered and realised in a kind of space version of Jean Vigo’s poetic classic L’Atalante (1934).
The film finishes with a lovely post-credit kick in the nuts with an appearance of another comic-book-anti-hero. Marvel once again has delivered the goods and their standard template will continue to be a success if they choose off-centre directors such as Gunn, Whedon and the Russo Brothers. These are young (ish) guns like Lucas and Spielberg who while they wear their cultural influences proudly on their sleeves, jackets and underwear they paradoxically retain some originality amidst the pastiche and intertextuality. Thus, Frederic Jameson’s theories seem even more valid today. He himself argued that postmodernist culture was linked to the rise of late capitalism from the 1960s onwards and as the Marvel money-making monopoly marches on who can disagree with him.