Sunday, March 16, 2008

1973: The year of awkward sex, permissive parenting and tentative transgression

Early in the commentary track he shares with writer/ producer James Schamus featured on Criterion’s new two-disc special edition, director Ang Lee describes The Ice Storm (1997) as a “disaster film.” While it might seem laughable to apply this genre to a movie concerned with upper-middle class domestic conflict in 1973 suburban Connecticut, it proves an inspired way of contextualizing the movie’s cycle of events. Based on Rick Moody’s novel, The Ice Storm does in fact contain a pair of disasters, the larger being that of the Watergate scandal, the more immediate being the weather event of the title. Neither disaster promises pyrotechnics or rampant death, yet both have some sort of transformative effect on the characters. This effect works best when functioning on the level of atmosphere, but there’s also a tangible, irreversible effect that ultimately drapes an overwhelming shadow over the entire story.

It’s about two families. Ben and Elena Hood (Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) struggle amiably through marital disharmony, placating themselves with a casual affair and kleptomania respectively. Their teenage children Paul and Wendy (Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci) use the freedom granted to them by their desperate to be hip parents to explore pharmaceuticals and sex with a precocious inquiry. Jim and Janey Carver (Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver) by comparison seem more mutually remote and programmatic in their mid-life crises. Their sons Mikey and Sandy (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd), the former an already dreamy kid precariously enamored with weed, the latter sensitive to the point of paralysis, his only outlet for expression coming from a predilection for blowing shit up (okay, so actually there are a few pyrotechnics), are the willing playmates of the pro-active Wendy, who engages each in separate games of show-me-yours-and-I’ll-show-you-mine. Building tensions up toward the night of the storm, where the parents abandon the kids to attend a key party drenched in pathos, the story operates around this generational role reversal: what happens when the parents act like kids and vice versa.

In the same sense that Brokeback Mountain (2005) –Lee’s other most fundamentally American film– can be regarded as being about the failure of love to overcome outspoken social antipathies toward homosexuality, The Ice Storm can be said to be about the failure of The Sexual Revolution to overcome the repressive apparatus of the American family/community. This sense of failure emerges from a series of interesting conditions: virtually every character is either too old or too young to have come of age during the radical cultural shifts of the late 1960s; the characters exist largely within a community cut off from the unruly influence of cosmopolitan life by geography and affluence; and crucially, the film climaxes with a fatal tragedy that reverberates hugely through the final sequence, feeling unavoidably like some cosmic punishment for half-hearted experiments in permissive parenting. This ending still feels to me like this terrifically rich film’s one major misfire, reducing the complex relationships by way of what feels like the act of a forsaken and vengeful God. (It bears mentioning that Lee’s only previous appearance on a Criterion disc was his introduction to The Virgin Spring (1960), a film with a weirdly similar finale.)

Of course it would be even more reductive to judge The Ice Storm solely on such a reading of its last reel. Inherent in the film’s unusual multitude of central characters, with their ongoing, measured transgressions, their flashes of fleeting insight and their general lack of decisiveness, is the idea of the movie as a multifaceted portrait rather than a traditional linear narrative anchored by some overt moral lesson or resolution. Lee himself felt attracted to a Cubist method of directing, wanting to show varying sides of a situation, an idea or an emotion all at once –and indeed, without employing any overly conspicuous formal device, he achieves this effect quite well, through the careful placement of figures in a frame, the mirroring of gestures and images from one scene to the next, and, most of all, the tremendously detailed performances from his extraordinary cast.

A lot of attention was paid to Weaver when the film came out. Her subtle balancing of Janey’s exterior frigidity with an inner vulnerability is genuinely impressive, but her character remains marginal. Allen’s character by contrast feels more central and certainly more desperate, yet Elena nonetheless feels a bit too sketched out. Kline, who Moody himself credits with deepening his character, stands out from all the other adults because his weaknesses are so acute, his humiliation so squirm-inducing, and his deficiencies so tenderly undercut by the actor’s ingratiating persona. But the fact is The Ice Storm belongs to the kids: moony-eyed Wood conveys such innocent rapture; Maguire’s wavering voice and goofily cavalier way with literary references imbues his every attempt at confident delivery with a near-palpable ache; Hann-Byrd’s unbreakable astonishment with everything around him is both heart-breaking and totally hilarious; and Ricci, more than anyone, embodies the film’s tender hesitancy and desire for some elusive self-realization and sensual fulfillment. She’s just amazing.

Besides the commentary track, Criterion’s typically superlative extras include some very good new cast interviews (which reveal Weaver in particular to be an actor who admirably takes little for granted), some reflections from Moody, plenty of fun, candid material from the duo of Lee and Schamus, some interesting deleted scenes, and some fascinating making-of stuff from costume designer Carol Oditz, cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet, Night on Earth) and production designer Mark Friedberg, all of whom provide enlightening testimony on their detailed work and make an impressive case for the liberal use of biodegradable hair gel when wanting to evoke an ice storm in the middle of spring.

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