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friends of peter's friends
maybe chosen family is just another park you can't get into without a key
this essay is in some ways a continuation of both the long green essay I was writing in august, and the essays on chosen family from the last month. but it’s also its own thing. you can read those if you want, but you don’t need to.
Maybe I only liked it because it was green.
When we got home on the first Sunday in October— almost a month ago now, which seems impossible and atrocious—after we had seen Lee and after we had said goodbye, after we had sat on couches and told jokes and held hands and talked softly, after we had gotten a cab and gone uptown and seen David and told stories and also not told stories and all tried to act like real people who lived in the normal world of appetizers and small talk, after we had tried not to think about the strange and rushing currents of memory and inheritance and generatively, and what it means to pass something up a ladder, continuing into the calendar where the future is, and after we had paid the bill and done the dance with the check and done the thing that only no-longer-young people do, standing around with our coats on and our bags on our arms saying goodbye for half an hour for no reason, as though performing a long-known ritual—it was very late, and neither of us wanted to sleep. So I made Thomas watch Peter’s Friends.
Peter’s Friends is a both perfect and deeply mediocre movie from 1992 starring a frankly staggering line-up of heartrendingly young actors who now make up a significant percentage of the elder firmament of British theatre and film. I love it with my entire life, but I also saw it for the first time at the age when anything you even halfway like gets in between your heart and your spine and lodges there, made part of the permanent landscape. The easiest way to describe it, the one I’ve seen most often, is that it’s the British version of The Big Chill. Kevin Kline’s tiny shorts in The Big Chill aside (one day I’ll write them their own lyric essay though), I like Peter’s Friends infinitely more. But again, this may simply be because I saw it at the right age.
The plot is similar enough: Six university friends reunite after ten years, for a long weekend spanning New Year’s Eve, at Stephen Fry’s ancestral estate somewhere in the English countryside (yes the characters in this movie have names and no, after at least ten viewings I have never learned them and never will). Some of them are married, all of them are changed from who they were ten years before. Some of them bring their partners. Conflicts emerge and are, for the most part, resolved. A large secret is shared, many other hard truths are confronted. Friendship is affirmed and strengthened.
Peter’s Friends is deeply imperfect, and maybe doesn’t really work unless you already loved it the way I did from a young age. It wants to be an issues movie, in a very early ‘90s way, and it sort of succeeds and sort of fails spectacularly. A few aspects hold up with surprising ease and nuance; another subplot is, viewing it now, so gratingly insensitive that it might make the movie almost unwatchable if you haven’t seen it already. Everyone’s Kenneth Branagh tolerance levels are different, and only you can know whether this movie will exceed yours.
Peter’s Friends wants to be about big ideas and serious topics, in self-important caps-lock. The transition of the ten years between the opening flashback to the characters’s university years are shown through a newsreel montage set to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” situating the story in the larger goings-on of history, Thatcher and Reagan and the Berlin Wall coming down. But it doesn’t really want to be about any of that. The only thing the movie is actually interested in is friendship. It sings the same facile and sentimental song I keep singing despite my own efforts. It thinks, in the same embarrassing and maudlin way I do, that there is something profound about this idea when in fact little could be more ordinary: What if you friends could be your family?
Friendship, in Peter’s Friends, is a green world. Early on, we see the various friends arriving for the weekend, and how they get there. The point of this part, I guess, is to give us a glimpse into each of their lives, and how separate from each other they have become.
But really, the point of those establishing shots is the color green. The drive that brings our group of friends from a rural train station to the grand old estate that functions as a stage set for the movie’s plot is a bunch of green pornography. Everything is soft, the way photos of your parents when they were young and hot are soft, big thick winter-coat colors saturated and everything else dialed down, a world in which neither neon nor shrillness exists. The greens roll and coo and purr. A green car noses around the bend of a narrow road penciled into a lush green landscape. There is no humidity to the lushness; the greens are deep pine-y forest shades, a day when rain is coming, the sort of place where a cold and wet season makes the deep green hills sing and ooze their color.
Everything is green here. The landscape of this movie, Stephen Fry’s spectacularly gigantic manor house and its ironically tacky Christmas decorations, functions just as the green world does in Northrop Frye’s theory about the permissive forests in Shakespeare’s plays. Our characters depart from their known, everyday lives, and enter a realm lifted out of time, in which the rules are different, in which both habits and partners can be changed. Here, secrets are revealed, old rifts are reopened, and confessions are made. This world is insulated from the normal one, and therefore greater permission is granted in it; shedding their habits and their public personas, the characters can get closer to truths both kind and ugly. There is an easy way to trace a line through this movie to plays in which confused lovers emerge on the other side of a night in a mystical green space, having through experimentation reconfigured themselves into correct partnerships (and not just because every actor in this movie has at some point famously starred in one of those plays).
The movie’s six friends journey not just in space and in permission, but also in time. The movie is about six people who loved each other when they were young, in the reckless way that friendship happens at an early age when we throw ourselves bodily and with our whole hearts toward whomever happens to be standing near us, regardless of their personality or qualifications. Peter’s Friends is a movie about what happens to those friendships, those fierce early-adulthood connections, when we get past the age for which they are considered appropriate. Can we maintain this sort of friend-family love as we age into the part of life meant to be more concerned with family and romance, with monogamously partnered sex and home-making and children? What place do the friendships from youth have in the part of our lives that has less space for them?
The people Thomas and I had seen that day, before we came home and watched Peter’s Friends at one in the morning when we couldn’t sleep, were two of these friends from my dad’s twenties, friends with whom he had thrown himself into these sorts of fierce and proximal friendships. I knew those friendships had waxed and waned over the years, and I knew my dad used to roll his eyes when I talked about my friendships in my twenties, as though to imply that this might not seem so important when I got older, and settled into my life. It was true that he no longer gathered with any of these people in rooms the way they had when they were young. But also it was fifty years later now, or just about, and I had spent the day with two of these friends from this time in my dad’s life as though they were my family, doing the work of inherited connection, and the work of grief, in the ways I would have tended to a familial or romantic relationship. That long day up and down the city, eating and talking and sitting down and standing up, embracing and asking questions, was made up of the rituals we perform for the people who define our lives. What if, asks Stephen Fry’s shining, nervous face in Peter’s Friends, your friends could be your family?
These figurations are widely available in our culture, from the complex and esoteric to the absolute most banal. The same vast spectrum encompasses, for instance, both Julia Ducournau's Titane and every episode of “Friends,” two media properties which in some utterly bizarre way can be said to be about the same thing (family is who you chose). There has, at many times, been something revolutionary, something radical in the sense of life-saving, something genuinely counter-cultural, about the idea of friends as family, and family as a choice. But mainstream versions of the same story, or nearly the same one, have long since been farmed out of those urgent constructions. These proliferate to the point of being unavoidable, across sitcoms and ad campaigns and viral twitter threads. It is no big secret, if it ever even was, to say that friends become family, and family can be chosen. The billboards and bullhorns of the world scream about it. Chosen family saturates the landscape; you’re soaking in it.
Understanding how ubiquitous this concept is has changed its looming stature for me not at all. It was already way too late by the time I realized that everybody else knew about this thing, too. When I was younger, I often assumed friendships would naturally blossom into something that might be called family, skipping over the calmer and more pedestrian steps by which we test the weight of people in our lives. I did most of the stupid things people do in romance in friendship. But sometimes I got lucky. Maybe the things we spend too much time thinking about really do become who we are. I believe that’s at least partly true—our obsessions give shape and highlight to our lives, choosing what to underline and what to elevate, sifting out what matters and raising it up to importance. I never got over the idea of friends as family, of family as chosen, and now it’s the big running theme, the thread that pulls visible through the fabric. Maybe we all just become whatever we talk about too much.
At Ruthie’s wedding, Sam leaned over the back of my chair, his suit already festively disheveled. We were all sweaty from dancing until the floor of the venue shook underneath us, everyone clasping one another’s arms and flinging each other around, grabbing hands as though for the time we spent on the dance floor, we were all this kind of friends, even those of us whom had never spoken before. Sam knows Ruthie from high school; I know Ruthie through Sam. Ruthie’s wedding was beautiful; I loved it in the same way I loved watching Peter’s Friends at one in the morning, something joyous that did not quite include me.
Sam, catching his breath between ecstatic dancing, was talking about friendship. The room was full of his high school best friends, a term he and Ruthie, and the numerous people in the wedding party, use in the plural. In their thirties and in some cases in their forties, these people were still an unchanged high school friend group, all going to each other’s weddings, following each other through milestones all the way from childhood to adulthood. I knew that people had friends like this, but I have never quite believed it.
Sam opined about high school friends versus college friends, and what each one meant, and the different ways they had persisted through his life. I had little to say; I had barely learned enough to be a person at either of those ages to be friends with anyone, and I didn’t manage to form anything resembling a coherent social group until my mid-twenties, when I held onto it with teeth and claws, and tried to retcon it into a story of this same kind of friendship, always knowing that that story was in some way a little bit of a fraud. When I say the people I love are my origin story, I know I am not quite speaking the same language Sam or Ruthie might be speaking when they say it. In reality, so few people ever get inside this kind of thing, ever access this or any kind of green world like it. Almost none of us get to carry the same friendships through the long strand of a life. Sam got to the end of what he was saying, and I needed to say something, so I told him to watch Peter’s Friends.
I did have fierce friendships when I was younger, and I do now have the utterly pedestrian struggles to maintain those friendships that crop up as we age and our lives both broaden and narrow. But that’s not why I like this movie. I like it for the same reason I liked it when I was a pre-teen who rented weird British movies by herself on Friday nights, and for the same reason I liked Ruthie’s wedding: Because I didn’t have these friends at that age, and I have always wished that I had. Peter’s Friends is not a movie for people like Sam, who are living it. It is a movie for people like me, and like most of us, pressing our faces against the glass, looking into the warm yellow rooms of other people’s homes from the dark street outside.
Maybe green is always the thing someone else gets to have, the world we can’t quite access. What looks like ease, or graciousness, second chances, the lush permission of a long summer lawn stretching into the blue twilight or the round and flatteringly blurred curves of a small road through an expansive countryside, is often a rarefied world that few people can enter. Green is the color of money, and excess, of having enough to live lavishly, to never be worried about the wilted dull colors of scarcity. Green is the months when we don’t think about winter. Peter’s Friends takes place in the winter, but the choice to make everything green rather than blanketing the landscape in picturesque snow, feels intentional to me, whether or not it actually is. The friendship in this movie is a green currency, running abundant and easy through the hands of the characters who have it.
A sort of hilariously terrible thing about the movie, a thing that is at once actively bad about it and also without question a big part of why I like it better than The Big Chill, is how open it is about its abject hatred of anyone brought into this social circle who was not part of it ten years before. The partners or spouses whom your friends acquire outside of your friend group are trespassers, says the movie, and should be shown no mercy. They deserve only humiliation, and whatever humiliation befalls them should be understood as both a joke and a happy ending, restoring the rightful order of things. It is exactly how extremely toxic friend groups treat new people; it is exactly how the worst part of me, the knee-jerk reactive self that it is necessary for me to overcome in order to love the people in my life functionally and generously, feels when a close friend gets involved with a new partner. One of the ways in which the movie is a green world is how much its friend group is a walled garden. It’s a Gramercy Park version of found family: there are a finite number of keys and you can’t have one.
The problem with utopias is that they are exclusionary— for us and not for you— which immediately defeats and undoes the idea of utopia. It is difficult to create something welcoming that does not also define itself through a loyalty that draws borders. A family unit is just that, a unit, whether or not the family are biologically related to one another. We can attempt to uncouple love from jealousy, and family from the domestic or romantic. We can even attempt to uncouple romance from sex and from traditional family-making. But love still stands on the constructed lines of what is and what is not, who is inside and who is outside. The yellow windows along the street are meaningful to me because I am not inside of the houses to which they draw my attention. The green world is defined by who is shut out of it.
We love our friends, and then we go home. I loved everyone I saw on that Sunday before we watched this movie at one in the morning, but even that love had a smallness to it, jealously drawing a limited group together inside a warm room. At one in the morning I was awake in my home with just my husband, trying to use a movie tell a story about family in which family does not shut out more than it welcomes, and failing to do so. Love is a terrible politics, even when it throws its arms open and calls friends family, and family, friends. I wove history into a narrative that wasn’t quite true, in the same way the movie did. I papered over the gaps and the failures, the places where people hurt one another in the way that any family unit almost necessitates. The fear of loss makes love anxious and sharp, trying push others aside to get at the warm center of it. I wanted this long day of generational chosen family to be expansive, and it was, but it was also impossibly narrow: I had gotten into it through a tiny door made by one of my parents. It was a gift of circumstance, and a thing very few people have. Like all love, it existed by means of exclusion.
Chosen family is at its best a green world, a permissive space in which we step outside of the strictures and dullness of our daily lives. But most green worlds are what Central Park, or an English manor house, actually is, rich spaces offered only to people who can afford them. The big problem at the center of Peter’s Friends is the same one at the heart of Four Weddings and a Funeral, another movie about chosen family that I love a whole lot, that takes place in this same era and absolutely exists in the same universe as this one: All of these people are rich. Their problems are both real and not real. They occupy a green world for the space of the weekend, but also for the space of their lives. Like Sam’s holding-forth on high school and college friend groups as though everyone had had them, the story seems widely applicable, but is actually very narrow.
The movie ends on a tableau in which the friends all rally for one of their members in a time of crisis. It is a round whole-note image, a warm room full of found-family love, everyone’s faces joyously smashed together, forcing a tragic moment into a happy one by way of abundant love. The characters fall into a sweaty, ecstatic, adoring six-person embrace, after all exterior partners are vanquished. Stephen Fry’s beautiful disheveled face tells the audience in its glow what if your friends, are your family. It is unbelievably moving, but it is moving in the same way the rolling green estate at the beginning of the film is moving: A beautiful vision of something someone else has, something that isn’t mine. Almost nobody has friends like this in the same way almost nobody has an ancestral mansion in the English countryside. Friends can become our families, but those families can develop fissures and wounds and infections in the same way biological families do. Closeness, no matter which way it is defined, makes it easier for us to hurt one another, and love by nature is better at contracting than expanding.
The movie asks why it is so difficult for these friendships to endure, to go on the way they always have. Although these characters are so closely knit, they have also not seen each other in years when the movie begins. The dream, or one of mine anyway, is to privilege friendship to the same level that romance is privileged, to give it the same importance. But doing that means admitting the other part of the story, which is that it is just as difficult for this kind of love to stay, to persist and strengthen over time. The rarity of the friend group that I watched congregate on the dance floor at Ruthie’s wedding was not that they had become close when they were young, but that they had stayed close until they no longer were. Peter’s Friends is a fantasy because it repudiates the changes in the lives of the people we love: we can knit ourselves back together, it says, by shearing off everything that was not there at the beginning when we first loved one another. But we remake ourselves, we love new people, we move forward and change and struggle upward toward the light. We become other selves, we cast ourselves off in other directions. Things matter and then they don’t, and then new things matter. The thing about family is you can’t escape it, which is a meaning of love but also a meaning of how standing water becomes undrinkable.
Luck is always hideous, which means love is always a little unconscionable, always closing the door to keep out the cold. Warm rooms are always at someone or something’s expense. The day had been full of grief and so we watched a movie about how the people we love are the people we choose. But mostly what it did was remind me that that love is a green world, that perhaps even the best love is a manicured lawn posing as a utopia. Thomas and I went to bed. In the rooms where I love people, where I can carry a version of family down through generations, everything is green.
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