Big Wednesday

Genre, Myth and Trauma


Big Wednesday is a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of 1960s and 1970s Californian surf culture. Written by John Milius and Dennis Aaberg, the film is a semi-autobiographical fictionalised account of their own experiences growing up in Malibu. It is without doubt Milius’ most personal film and is a relative anomaly in a career synonymous with action and adventure. From its opening narration to its closing theme, Big Wednesday is a lamentation to lost youth and to the friends that were made there. This book will explore the ways in which the film constructs ideas of youth and what it means to be young in the first act, and then spends the remainder of the film, reflecting on the loss of that youth as the inevitability of age moves them away from that ideal. Though unsuccessful on its original release the film has since gone on to be reappraised and is now considered a cult classic thanks to screenings at midnight movie festivals and finding success on video and DVD. The film is an important entry in the career of a significant figure who has been largely overshadowed by the success of his contemporaries, often afforded just a footnote in the careers of his more prominent friends. This book will help orient the reader by locating Milius and Big Wednesday alongside the ‘movie-brats’ George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and in doing so, it will consider Milius himself, an often divisive and contradictory figure, as no less significant in the history of New Hollywood.
My approach to the analysis of Big Wednesday reflects the aims and objectives of the Cinema and Youth Culture book series. The film is primarily concerned with relationship between the three friends as age moves them away from the defining moments of their youth and the period in their lives that had initially brought them together. Through a close narrative analysis the book explores this aspect of the film, considering the generic qualities, narrative dimensions, stylistic choices and thematic concerns. This is preceded by contextual chapters that foreground both the films production and the mythical auteur status of the writer/director John Milius. These chapters facilitate a later analysis of prevailing social, cultural and political readings that have argued that the film is explicitly a response to the trauma of Vietnam. While the book presents these perspectives, it also offers an alternative reading through which it is possible to reconceptualise this trauma as simply another marker of the inevitable trauma of the ageing process that the friends must undergo, and therefore another reminder that the idyllic youth that they shared together is no longer their lived experience. The penultimate chapter speculates on the effect that this alignment with Vietnam may have had on an audience in the 1970s, and then, through an examination of the limitations of promotional materials used in predominantly “male genres”, explores the ways in which these promotional failed to adequately communicate the content of the film to the marketplace. Considering the ways this might have contributed to the films’ poor reception on its initial release. The final chapter considers the reappraisal that has happened in recent years and the cult status that has grown around both the director and the film.

Cinema and Youth Cultures

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