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"Big Wednesday": Wrestling With the Past

By admin Published: November 15, 2007

BIg Wednesday
Gary Busey, Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt

The other morning, during a channel flip, I got caught up again in 1978's "Big Wednesday," John Milius's reflection on surfing, American culture and adulthood. ...

It's an impressive film, lyrical, understated and nicely underplayed as it follows its three characters across a couple of decades of merriment, heartbreak and understanding. They're allowed to make wrong turns but still end up as functioning adults. Katt gives one of his best performances, and there's a great turn by Lee Purcell as Vincent's girlfriend and later wife.

It's also of interest because of its stars. Katt and Vincent, movie-star handsome, were obviously poised for big careers, and Busey was beginning to make a mark as a character actor. Of course, the years since then have led them different ways. Vincent and Busey have had a host of troubles, which have driven Vincent into retirement and made Busey a joke. Katt still acts, but he didn't become the next-gen Robert Redford that hype once held for him.

The movie also interests me because of my own aging as I have seen it. I didn't see it in a theater the first time, but discovered it on HBO or the like, probably around 1979 or '80. I was still in my twenties then, not yet married, not yet a father, not as deeply (and, somewhat often, sadly) experienced as I am now. But because of my experience, the movie seems richer now than when I first saw it, its depth something that I can better understand.

There was a review when "Big Wednesday" came out that called it bland. It's not, because life as most people know it is not bland. It is full of challenges, small victories, small defeats, regrets, joys -- and another day to be faced, as wisely as we can manage.

Even the big moment, the "Big Wednesday" that lets them briefly reclaim their old joy at surfing, is brief. Nor does it affect the lives they go back to when they leave the beach. They've already recognized that their past is just that; Vincent's character knows he's just a bit of local history surpassed by younger surfers, Katt's character has memories of Vietnam as well as ones from his youth.

While Busey is still a restless soul, he is not a lost one. He's just heading inexorably toward the day Sam Elliott faces at the end of "Lifeguard" (another movie I also love in a possibly irrational way); sometime, age will catch up with his ambitions -- but not yet, not now.

Grand movie.

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