JOAN MICHELIN SILVER'S Chilly Scenes of Winter is not an exuberant movie. The location is Salt Lake City, and the climate is pure drizzle. The film, however, is more than just a standard outpouring of cosmic angst. The controlled tone, consistently strong acting, and the convincing--at times hilarious--dialogue make for an intelligent, enjoyable movie.
In its first incarnation, as a 1979 release titled Head Over Heels, the piece aspired to be a more conventional comedy. The series of pathetic entanglements led to the very inevitable--and in the context of the film--very unlikely Hollywood happy ending. This merging of the cynical undercurrents with a starry-eyed conclusion worked about as well as a cocktail of pink champagne and onions. Head Over Heels closed in New York after only five weeks.
Re-released three years later, this time under the title of the Ann Beattie novel it is based on, Chilly Scenes is doing considerably better. The elimination of the first ending for a more logical one, as well as a change in procedures, did the trick.
The movie centers on the characters rather than the plot, the latter being quite simple. Even in Salt Lake City, neuroses abound. Most of the characters seem to have been abandoned, left to their own, insufficient, devices. Charles, a civil servant, is confined to his glass cubicle for most of the day. Charles' boss treats him to endless tales of a Dartmouth son--"He wants to be at Harvard, but he couldn't get in"--who is suffering from sexual maladjustment. Then there's the typist Betty, a Ted Kennedy look-alike much enamoured of Charles and salad dip recipes.
Nothing much happens. Charles' only friend Sam loses his job as a jacket salesman and moves in. His mother, alternately in a silver lame dress, bathtub, or asylum, has a bad habit of attempting suicide. Susan, the fresh-faced younger sister, "always appears to be happy and normal. She must know something," he muses. Reminders of the Sixties lie sprinkled about: Janis Joplin on the car radio, references to Woodstock--according to Susan, "Just a bunch of people walking around in the mud looking for a place to pee." But these bits of nostalgia are carefully controlled, contributing to the movie's bitterer tones rather than becoming a self-indulgent frill. Somehow, the energy is gone and a generation is left to cope, without anything to do or anywhere to go.
IN THIS FRAMEWORK, we do not really expect any grand passions to survive. Romance emerges when Charles meets Laura, a secretary who works in the same office building. They meet; he falls in love; he asks her to move into his apartment--all in the same afternoon. There are meetings at greasy-spoon restaurants, at his house, at her house, the latter furnished with a plant and a mattress. "I went to buy a folding chair, but then, I thought of how awful it'd be to live in a house with a mattress and a folding chair," she explains, a creature of instinct rather than bureaucratic calculation. Laura is appealingly vulnerable, evoking the image of a Dorothy who has just given up looking for the yellow brick road. She seems to have been dragged from '50s Kansas via the '60s Village only to be deposited by the inscrutable hand of Beattle in Salt Lake City of the '70s. Toto is replaced by "Ox," the ex-football player husband.
Charles is undeterred, however, "Don't worry. I'm not going to beg," he assures the audience, fooling no one. Laura moves in, finally. They cook his favorite dessert, dance to gramophone schlock, buy a bird-feeder. The shortness of domestic bliss keeps it from over-sweetening the movie, as Laura soon finds herself stifled by Charles' passion and jealousy. There are absurd attempts to fetch her back from Ox and his daughter, mostly culminating in physical removal. It is obvious that the romance, as all romance in Chilly Scenes, was at best a respite rather than a rescue from the loneliness and unglamorous desperation of day-to-day existence.
John Heard's performance as Charles sparkles, even against the somber backdrop of the movie. He maintains an ironic edge throughout, towards both the world and himself. This makes his portrayal of pathos both palatable and convincing. While Mary Beth Hurt's role does not allow for the scope or development of her performance in The World According to Garp, her Laura is likeable, a modern version of the waif. The visual effects are understated and well-controlled; the scenery--running the gamut from dingy grey rooms to dingy grey hospital corridors--parallels the predominant emotional tones of the piece. The most surprising thing, however, is that Chilly Scenes is fun to watch. The absurdity of what goes on, emphasized by the ironic self-reflection and witty dialogue, works in tune with the more sobering point of the story--that life, in spite of momentary illusion, goes on much as it began: with a whimper.