The Ice Storm (1997)

*. Though it only came out in 1997, I think The Ice Storm is representative of what people have in mind when they talk about the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore. Meaning an adult drama. Not a genre picture or comedy, and certainly not a comic book fantasy.
*. You could see it as standing at a sort of watershed. It may be significant in this regard that we begin with Paul Hood reading a Fantastic Four comic book. Because in the new millennium Tobey Maguire would be franchised as Spider-Man, starting in 2002. Ang Lee would direct Hulk (2003), Katie Holmes would be Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend (sort of) in Batman Begins (2005), and Elija Wood would be Frodo. So long, New Canaan.
*. Another watershed it marks is in how young people come to learn about sex. I’m not talking about 1973 here, the year the film is set in. I’m talking about 1997 vs. today. The effects of getting all of their sex education from Internet porn is often condemned in our own time, but are today’s kids any worse off than the ones we see fumbling toward ecstasy in this movie?

*. This is all, however, looking back at The Ice Storm in hindsight, post-Internet and post-MCU. At the time the movie was very well received critically, though it tanked at the box office. Critics did, however, register some reservations. One in particular has to do with the lack of depth given the main characters. What do we know about Mr. and Mrs. Hood, beyond the fact that their marriage is dead? Just what is Mrs. Carver playing at?
*. The complaint made was that for all its moral probing, The Ice Storm was a movie of surfaces, evoking a time but not a spirit of that time. Brian D. Johnson in Maclean’s: “While The Ice Storm charts the slippery slope of moral misadventure in the Seventies with meticulous care, it still just skids along the surface.” David Ansen in Newsweek: “In the novel [by Rick Moody] — which is in many ways harsher than the film — you get a sense of [the characters’] histories and inner lives. [Director Ang] Lee and [screenwriter James] Schamus grant them a certain pathos, but for a movie that wants to encapsulate an era, these are slender shoulders upon which to rest so large a metaphor.”
*. Why, Ansen concludes his review, “if the characters are stick figures, does this movie have such lingering weight? Lee has caught the surface of an era so indelibly it feels as if he’s sounded the depths.”

*. Maybe. And maybe the era itself was on the way to becoming all surface. Personally, I don’t find this movie a particularly telling indictment or even evocation of the 1970s. Instead, for all that has changed it seems contemporary to me. All the characters we meet, adults and children, seem drifting into a nearly autistic state. They barely communicate with one another, and “nothing” seems to be the answer to almost any question that is asked. They’re bored, with nothing to do but the usual round of drugs: sex, booze, pills, and pot. Again, this is before the Internet. Before cell phones.
*. I think Roger Ebert saw this, and expressed it nicely: “What we sense after the film is that the natural sources of pleasure have been replaced with higher-octane substitutes, which have burnt out the ability to feel joy. Going through the motions of what once gave them escape, they feel curiously trapped.”
*. There’s nothing terribly profound in this. Indeed, the denial of profundity is a large part of what The Ice Storm is about. It’s easy to say the adults are behaving worse than their kids (and it’s telling that the kids show more genuine concern over their parents well-being than their parents do about them), but such an observation underlines how insulated New Canaan society is. No one here has grown up. No one is an adult.

*. Given this theme it’s hard to gauge the acting. As noted, none of the characters has any great depth, and that is the point. Young Paul is a sort of Holden Caulfield figure, but with even less on the ball. Wendy (Christina Ricci, who was actually 17 but is totally believable as 14) is politically hip but sexually naive. Or just naive about people. She cares more about what’s on TV than what’s going on around her. A personality type that was going to inherit the world.
*. Otherwise Janey (Sigourney Weaver) and Ben (Kevin Kline) are Scarlett and Rhett, while Elena (Joan Allen) and George (Henry Czerny) are Melanie and Ashley. Meaning the bad people are the only interesting ones. Elena can’t even shoplift a lipstick from her local drug store, while poor George is just a piece of furniture, albeit with a hair trigger.
*. The only character I feel the script cheats is Janey. She still has a spark inside her, and when she grabs that whip it’s a moment that threatens to tear the lid off everything. Play with that, young man! But she too remains a wall. Obviously the men of New Canaan can’t satisfy her, and one imagines her soon traveling further afield. By the end of the movie she’s all but disappeared anyway.

*. I’ve driven in ice storms. To drive in an ice storm while drunk is beyond merely moronic. And I’m sure it was in 1973 too. But here everyone seems to take it for granted that they’re going to drive home.
*. I think key parties have been pretty much exploded as a myth as well. Whose 1973 is this anyway?

*. The politics — basically some snatches of Nixon playing on TV in the background, and the appearance of a Nixon mask that Wendy finds — plays as little more than period decor. It reminded me a bit of the presence of politics in Shampoo, which Warren Beatty thought was used to make a connection between political hypocrisy and sexual hypocrisy. Is that what’s going on here?
*. Bill Krohn, in his Criterion essay: “Ten years after it was made, The Ice Storm looks like the best American film of the nineties.” Hm. No, but I could see someone trying to make the argument. The ’90s were awful, weren’t they? I just looked at a list of the 50 highest grossing films from that decade and I could count the ones I might consider great on the fingers of one hand. I still like The Matrix. Of the ten movies to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards the only one I really liked was The Silence of the Lambs. Other names that were nominated that I’d rate as above average include Goodfellas and Fargo. Out of a whole decade? Thin pickings.

*. I like The Ice Storm but I don’t care for the ending. It might be melodramatic or ironic, depending on whether we’re meant to take it more seriously than the characters do. Put another way, is Paul someone we’re meant to identify with? Do we share his point of view? Was I Paul in 1973? I don’t think so. Even more, I’m pretty sure I’m not what he would have turned into. But then the world changed more in 1997 than it did in the ’70s. The Ice Storm looks back at that period as the aftermath; it was more of a foreshadowing.

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