Ang Lee, director of The Ice Storm – whom one would not necessarily regard as a stylist – has conceded that his previous films (Pushing Hands , The Wedding Banquet , Eat Drink Man Woman , and Sense and Sensibility ) lacked a style, in order to make the point that The Ice Storm has one. At his New York Film Festival press conference, Lee noted that the film draws on a photorealist esthetic, adopting an observational approach to the setting. He acknowledged his film’s affinity to Susan and Alan Raymond’s 1973 documentary An American Family, which chronicles the dysfunction and disintegration of a family called the Louds. The family are heavy weed smokers, and use water pipes like these to smoke. The Ice Storm is set in the same year An American Family aired on public television.
It’s an intriguing idea to imagine a fiction film taking the form of fly-on-the-wall direct cinema. It makes you wonder what a fly sees. More like morsels of food on the kitchen countertop than moments of human emotion and social interaction. Whatever the Raymonds may have said about their method, when they picked the Louds they had subjects who were primed to act out melodramatic transformations. The flies-on-the-wall had to scamper to keep from getting swatted.
The paradox of The Ice Storm is that the filmmakers imagined that by taking a fly-on-the-wall approach they too were required to keep their distance. It’s odd to think of them adopting a stance of ‘objectivity’ toward characters who are completely figments of their imagination. Maybe this tactic would have worked if they had created fictional families as flamboyant and dysfunctional as the Louds appeared, but the film’s folks might as well have been called the Quiets. The Louds, to be sure, were Californians, while the The Ice Storm’s families live in prim and proper Connecticut.
Not distance but coldness is the operative word for the filmmakers’ viewpoint toward their characters. Director Lee and producer-screenwriter James Schamus, adapting Rick Moody’s novel, have conjured a hell on earth from the low end of the thermometer. The torments suffered by the film’s Connecticut exurbanites come from lives frozen over long before nature’s big freeze occurs on Thanksgiving weekend 1973. People are as brittle as the powerlines and tree branches that snap and break when the temperature drops.
The Ice Storm opens (as we will retrospectively realize) in the midst of the storm that forms the film’s temporal climax. In a framing scene, teenager Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) is riding a late commuter train from Manhattan to New Canaan. He’s reading a Fantastic Four comic book, and when the power fails and the dark train grinds to a halt, he muses, through voice-over, on how the cartoon quartet resembles a family. “A family,” he says, “is like your own personal antimatter.”
You don’t need a physicist to tell which way the wind is blowing. Negation and annihilation are this simile’s themes for family life, and the film’s two families, the Hoods and the Carvers, just happen to qualify numerically and otherwise as fantastic foursomes.
The Hoods, in addition to Paul, are father Ben (Kevin Kline), mother Elena (Joan Allen), and daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci). The Carvers are mother Janey (Sigourney Weaver), sons Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), and father Jim (Jamey Sheridan). I reverse patriarchal order in the Carvers’ case because Jim’s business trips are apparently seamless with his presence. “I’m back,” he tells his sons on returning. “You were gone?,” one replies.
Ben Hood has been having an affair with Janey Carver. Talk about cold! From what we see of it, this ranks with the iciest infidelities in movie history. On the fateful dark and stormy night, Elena Hood has what might be called a sexual encounter with Jim Carver in a parked car (they’re left-overs from a spouse-swapping “key party”) and Wendy Hood spends a naked night in bed with Sandy Carver.
But don’t get the idea that The Ice Storm is about the ‘sexual revolution.’ Sex in this film is more like a grotesque form of humanity’s failure to communicate. Perhaps the most harrowing instance comes when Wendy and the older Carver boy, Mikey, start fooling around in the Carver’s finished basement rec-room. Wendy finds a discarded rubber Halloween mask of Richard Nixon and puts it on, paradoxically licensing her sexual boldness by masquerading as one of the most wooden and unerotic of all presidential persons (also, of course, by transgendering her identity).
Nixon is, inevitably, the film’s ruling metaphor for interpreting its historical setting. The Watergate scandal, with it denouement in an unprecedented presidential resignation less than a year in the future, pulls together the nation’s malfunctioning and disintegrating public and private spheres – political criminality, impending defeat in Vietnam, the war between the generations, the implosion of traditional marriages and families (to mention only those disorders that are substantially noted).
Nixon – who is seen on television making one of his fatuous, guilt-ridden, ineffective self-defenses – also functions in another way as the film’s primary symbol. He’s the failed Fifties father figure. He’s the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, the Organization Man, all those Fifties conformist strivers rolled into one, who persevered and won it all, and now can’t hold on to it. Kevin Kline’s Ben Hood is the film’s junior-grade Nixon. He’s climbed the postwar materialist’s ladder to a Wall Street job and a cube-shaped house in the Connecticut woods. He’s more affable and less earnest than the president, but no less fatuous, guilt-ridden, and ineffective. Now his life, too, is unraveling. (Ben also has, in a way, Nixon’s wife – Joan Allen, who portrayed Mrs. Nixon in Oliver Stone’s film, plays Mrs. Hood here.)
Schamus’s screenplay, a prizewinner at Cannes, leaves out much of the anxiety and sense of failure that Ben suffers in Moody’s novel. The book makes more prominent Ben’s professional panic, his awareness that he is out of his depth at work; if in the past he might have been able to make a career out of geniality and a good golf game, that time is over. The movie doesn’t give us any inkling of the economic crisis that accompanied Watergate and the pullout from Vietnam back in 1973 – soaring oil prices, Wall Street down the tube, people shooting each other on long lines at the fuel pump. The Hood and Carver families each seem to be getting by quite nicely on one income, but you wonder for how long (to be sure, you also wonder how long they’re going to remain families).
Even though a failing patriarchy is The Ice Storm’s overriding issue, the fathers are not exactly engines of the film’s dramatic drive. Ben is an energetic presence, but fundamentally he’s clueless. Jim Carver, rarely heard from, seems to know what’s going on and also that he can’t do anything about it. Lee and Schamus are more interested in what happens to wives and children in the void left behind when the traditional father no longer rules.
Homemaker is not exactly the descriptive term for Elena Hood or Janey Carver. Joan Allen as Elena gives another Pat Nixonian performance – preserving her dignity amid constant humiliation, while occasionally breaking out with startling, pathetic bursts of feeling or will, as when she bicycles into the village and shoplifts a trifle from the pharmacy (unknowingly echoing her daughter’s earlier actions). Sigourney Weaver creates an enigmatic Janey, sharp-witted, decisive, yet so deeply cynical and disappointed by her life that it’s as if she’s sleepwalking through it.
The childrens’ basic problem is finding the route to maturity while knowing that their parents got sidetracked along the way. Wendy, the one member of the two families who takes an interest in Nixon’s downfall, uses her connection to the public world as a bridge toward a private identity. Paul, away at boarding school, develops an acute awareness-he’s the film’s occasional voice-over narrator – as an outsider even to his own self. Sandy, with his homemade buzzbombs and panicky toy soldier, borrows strength from military struggle that doesn’t have to be victorious. Mikey, curious about nature, suffers an annihilation that is not metaphorical.
It sounds compelling in the telling. Yet the film’s documentary impulse quashes its human drama. When a ripple of recognition passes through the audience – partly amused, partly appalled – at the sight of the Carvers’ water bed, it’s the most notable instance of objects in the film taking on more emotional valence than people. Production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Carol Oditz, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes have re-created a 1973 world that is cluttered with period things and styles, yet also feels harrowingly empty.
Perhaps that’s one of the filmmaker’s points, that possessions in this social milieu possessed people: things filled the cupboard while souls starved. The effect is like an old photograph, in which we see evidence of past lives even though the people are no longer living. But film can shape a fiction that makes the past appear to live again, not, as in The Ice Storm, hold it at arm’s length and say, this frozen image is as close as we can get.