Last weekend it was Mother’s Day, which meant that my husband made me breakfast and then I got to do whatever I wanted all day while he watched the kids. I took a yoga class, read for a few hours, and then, in late afternoon, I went to see Chilly Scenes of Winter at BAM. The screening was part of a film series, “A Different Picture: Women Filmmakers in the New Hollywood Era 1967-1980.”
I knew nothing about this movie except that it was based on an Ann Beattie novel that I’m pretty sure I read when I was a teenager, because there were a bunch of her novels in our home library. (I guess my mom went through an Ann Beattie phase at some point—isn’t it funny how, when you’re a kid reader, you end up going on the same reading binges as your parents?) The first Ann Beattie novel I read was called Falling In Place and when my mother noticed me reading it, she said, “Oh, her style is kind of mellow. There isn’t a lot of plot.” Ever since then, I have always associated Ann Beattie with the word ‘mellow.’ I also associate her with Blondie, because, if I remember correctly, the song “Heart of Glass” is referenced throughout Falling In Place. I don’t know why that detail has stuck with me over the years; I think it’s probably because it was one of the first times I noticed and thought about how authors use pieces of pop culture in literature.
Watching Chilly Scenes of Winter reminded me of reading Ann Beattie, which I think is the sign of a good adaptation. There was, first of all, the excellent use of 1970s period details, which I guess I should refer to as quotidian details, since Chilly Scenes was made in the late 1970s. But what I liked about the costumes and especially the sets was that they seemed real and lived-in. The house that the main character, Charles (John Heard), occupies, is one that he inherited from his grandmother. It still looks like his grandmother’s place, with old-fashioned décor and furniture. Charles and his roommate inhabit it sloppily and carelessly, not quite fitting into the traditional family culture that surrounds them.
The office that Charles works in is even more perfectly realized. It’s very drab and very beige, save for two plants on top of Charles’s file cabinets. It reminded me of the law firm where I worked for several years, as an assistant, where philodendrons and ferns were the only real color in the building. There was a man who came, once a week, to water all the plants. I asked him once, did he work in other buildings, or just ours? He said he had contracts in several of the skyscrapers downtown. Imagine that job! Watering the indoor plants of Lower Manhattan. I wonder if he’s still there.
I digress. . . something about this movie makes me want to digress, and makes me remember the times in my life where nothing really seemed to be happening, but everything was happening. There is not much plot to this movie, which makes it an unusually realistic romantic comedy. Charles falls in love with Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), a married woman who works in the file room of his office. She’s in the process of separating from her husband and doesn’t want to be attached to anyone, but she gets together with Charles, anyway. They break up after just a few months together. Charles becomes obsessed in a frankly creepy way but it’s played for laughs, and it works. For instance, he parks his car outside Laura’s house to stare into the windows, and later, he makes a replica of her house that he fills with dollhouse furniture. His behavior is ridiculous, and maybe exaggerated, but not particularly strange when you think about the way people watch each other via social media.
There were several times in this movie when I thought, wow, people just had more time in the seventies, which is a response that has more to do with my own hang-ups about technology and mobile phones than anything else. At the same time, this is a movie about characters who are spinning their wheels and not particularly ambitious. I was reminded of 1990s movies with slacker characters: Trees Lounge, Party Girl, Reality Bites, and especially, Kicking and Screaming. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film was an influence for those filmmakers.
The director, Joan Micklin Silver, also directed Crossing Delancey, another romantic comedy, and one I remember fondly from my teenage years. I’m going to try to watch that one again, and also to check out some of Micklin’s other films. There is a quiet precision to Chilly Scenes that I really admired. Beattie is a naturally witty writer, but she’s subtle and doesn’t care about suspense, so that couldn’t have been easy to translate to the screen. As with Beattie’s novels, I have the sense that the mood and details of this movie will stick with me for years to come.