28 November 2013

The Ice Storm a Brilliant Look at the the 1970s Suburbia and When the Twain Did Meet

Joyless. Numbly going through the motions of suburban life in the 1970s. Barely understanding or caring about events shaping the country or the world. Not thinking not feeling and in fact avoiding the chore of exploring the self the act of being.

Plastic existence with the numbing drone of the television or of the softening effect of cocktails. Huge houses with too many rooms and too few ideas. Surrounded by nature outside and things -- so many things -- inside.

But it was comfortable. There was money and creature comforts so one could survive it all. There were also other people and the empty interactions that were supposed to bring community but only highlighted the isolation.

No film has ever captured the Seventies or suburban living and certainly not the meeting of the two as well as Ang Lee's brilliant The Ice Storm (1997). You will see the best minds of your generation destroyed by ennui.

The Ice Storm is set over a Thanksgiving in 1973 in a Connecticut suburb of New York. Kevin Kline and Joan Allen portray the principle mom and dad. With Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci playing their children. Other young actors in the film include Elijah Wood and Katie Holmes in her film debut.

Richard Nixon is a sort of featured player appearing in archival footage as Watergate is starting to sink his presidency. Only the 14 year old Wendy (Ricci) seems interested in his web of lies. Her older brother Paul (Maguire) is in prep school and is more interested in a beautiful classmate (Holmes) and getting high and reading comic books.

Part of the brilliance of The Ice Storm is how utterly nonjudgmental it is. Lee's camera captures the stark beauty of the homes and landscapes and of the ice storm itself but it is otherwise objective in following the characters. We thus have neither sympathy nor antipathy for anyone. We merely observe. Having been around in the Seventies and having spent some time (thankfully not very much) in the suburbia of that time I can attest to the accuracy of what we see. Not just the physical look -- which is spot on right down to the tacky clothes -- but the feel of the time and place. Looking back it seems a sort of faux modernism. It was a prosperous time in which one working parent could support a family with a house and two cars. There was a comfortable sort of intellectualism that was more focused on the superficiality of reforming government and weeding out corruption than with challenging conventions or producing great art. The conformity of the 1950s was dead but so too was the spirit of rebellion of the 1960s. Shlock was in whether it was trashy disco music garish clothes bushy sideburns obnoxious game shows or prefab sports stadiums.

Kline and Allen play Ben and Elena Hood. Whatever passion that their marriage once had is long gone so Ben is having an affair with the wife (Sigourney Weaver) of a good friend and neighbor. Elena feels purposeless which perhaps explains why she shoplifts at the local drugstore. Their precious daughter stares numbly at the TV and willingly allows the neighbor boys to see her vagina. Their forever bemused son comes home for Thanksgiving though he leaves the following night for an unsuccessful  date with the girl of his dreams.

That night there is a terrible ice storm a huge cocktail party that morphs into the saddest key party you'll ever see and a tragic death. Even in death there is no great wave of emotion. There is more an emptiness of a person lost which is odd given the emptiness of the lives we see. There is also a lack of desperation almost an acceptance of going through the motions. Taking the next step doing the next thing. A death of conscience and consciousness. The children at once detect the meaninglessness of it all and participate in it. The easy affluence has sucked everyone into its vortex.

Yet this is a remarkably watchable film. The characters are still engaging and the settings striking. Lee created a world that is familiar accessible and in its own way entertaining.

In The Ice Storm no one gets what she or he wants. Whether everyone gets what they deserve is entirely the viewer's call. I don't know exactly how "rated" The Ice Storm is but it can't be rated high enough.

1 comment:

Tudor Queen said...

I saw "The Ice Storm" when it first came out and thought it was incredibly well done. You pretty much capture what's notable and meaningful about it so I won't go on about that, but I did think the acting was pitch-perfect (even the very tricky, easy-to-overdo moment Kevin Kline has at the end), and as for Ang Lee, his talent seems to have no boundaries of genre or style. He's done Westerns, comedies of manners, Wuxia, magic realism (as I consider Life of Pi to sometimes be), and this very American drama of suburban numbness... I want to see him do a musical!