The Ice Storm (1997): Part 1 of 2
Director: Ang Lee
Writer: James Schamus; based onThe Ice Storm by Rick Moody
Cinematographer: Frederick Elmes
Producer: Ted Hope, James Schamus, and Ang Lee
by Jon Cvack
There’s a strange subgenre that is the domestic drama that flourished near the turn of the millennium, beginning with The Ice Storm, followed by Best Picture Winner American Beauty (1999) followed by one of my all time favorite films In the Bedroom (2001), and culminating in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls (2005). They’re the types of films that would be tough to make today; focusing on middle-upper class white families as they struggle with suburban alienation. Growing up in a comparable, though far more middle class town, I related to the images contained, dreading the monotony of 9-5 traditional office life where I’d work a job that meant nothing to me which would pay well enough to build a life I could never leave. I’d get married and have a couple kids, buy a house, and continue a lifelong routine of heading out on weekends to buy more stuff to further fill or fix that house, with the occasional holiday or family party in-between. The criticism is that the film’s show a life of privilege with characters failing to grasp how good they’ve got it; disconnected from the horrors of the world. What I find is a look at what’s to come; that even when problems are relatively absent, humans are cursed for a life of dissatisfaction and doubt.
Lately I’ve been getting images from late high school and college, back when I used to consume these films on the regular; of parties in Chicago three flats and apartments and driving around the city, thinking of where I might end up and how far my pursuit of film would take me. Nine years later and making a living as a director with content that fails to excite me, I imagine I’m feeling the same as if I’d stayed back home. Not in a cynical way where the two are all the same, so much as the relative feeling - if I never pursued the dream the feeling would have always been what if, and as I’m still trying to get into movies, the question remains an equally mysterious what if I quit what I was doing and tried something else. I’m confident the feeling is the same in all situations with how far you are from a particular dream serving as the dividing factor. Yet with dreams operating per Xero’s Paradox, any big advance seems far bigger than it actually is, leaving you to wonder what if things were different.
The Ice Storm is a movie I never fully grasped the first few times I had watched it. My memory is that of some parents who’re exploring swing parties with some alienated teenagers attempting to navigate the perils of first loves and lusts. Owning the Criterion Collection copy, I read the back and saw the mention of the Watergate Hearings operating as a backdrop. I hadn’t known any details of the Watergate hearings while growing up and failed to see any connection. As of writing this, congress has finished its first round of public hearings into the Trump impeachment inquiry and the country is as divided as I could ever remember and voters are more physically separated as they divide between rural/suburban and urban. The consequences of Trump is a new willingness to take the gloves off and fight dirty and talk nasty, all with the perspective that it’s worth doing. I increasingly dread going home, where being one of a couple liberals in my entire family, there’s a bizarre tension in each conversation as I hope that no one brings up Trump and forces me to have to engage and spend hours in heated arguments and debates that lead to nothing.
Knowing a bit more about Watergate and American politics and three years into a disastrous presidency, I now pieced together what the story explored - which is how the shift of values at the upper echelons of government can infect the family.
The story focuses on the Hood family, consisting of patriarch Ben (Kevin Kline) and his wife Elena (Joan Allen) and their two kids, fourteen year old Wendy (Christina Ricci) and her private schooled brother Paul (Tobey Maguire) who call each other Charles. Made in 1997, Ricci is more in line with Wednesday from The Adam’s Family and McGuire is only 21 years old, looking like a gawky teenager. The cast continues with Paul’s crush on the rich girl Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes; shot the same year as the Dawson’s Creek premiere) who’s nervous he’s going to lose his opportunity to his roommate and ladies man and most famous for being Bernard from The Santa Claus, Francis Davenport (David Krumholtz), all the while Wendy is seeing Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood) who finally provides the one person that looks younger than his soon to be complete Lord of the Rings typecasting. The faces provide a bizarre nostalgic blast, made all the more impressive by Lee clearly discovering some of the 90s/00s most memorable performers.
On the adult front, Ben and Elena have a cold relationship. Ben pours a vodka the moment he walks through the door and continues on throughout the night. Wasted by bedtime, he makes moves on Elena who’s completely uninterested. On the side, Ben sees Mikey’s mother Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) as the hot milf character who’s married to a dull husband, Jim (Jamey Sheridan) who’s often traveling for business.
Wendy is obsessed with the Impeachment hearings, convinced that Nixon is a fascist, sympathizing with the left much to the chagrin of her father. Her and Mikey have an awkward relationship, often meeting in the middle of the woods or an old abandoned pool where they can make out. They don’t interact much beyond the experiments. Back at Mikey’s house they watch TV and snack in silence when Mikey’s brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd) enters the room, catching eyes with Wendy and then scuttling off. Sandy is a strange kid, at one point blowing up all his toys with fireworks; far more disturbing as I’m now a full blown adult and grasp how strange it would be to watch a child destroy the things you bought them.
Wendy meets Sandy outside of the bathroom, propositioning him with a show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine game. They head into the bathroom and Wendy begins to unzip her pants, revealing her underwear when Sandy grows uncomfortable, shouting as his mom comes home and realizes what they were doing. Mikey finds out and in a haunting shot, Ang Lee has Wendy walking home in the rain down a trail while Mikey approaches from behind on his bike, declaring that he never wants to see her again, though proceeds to follow her. It’s a stinging moment, condensing volumes into a single take. Mikey hates her, but his lust dominates; he’s not nearly as mad at her as he is at himself for following her.
BELOW: Regular old middle-class Thanksgiving dinner
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