Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Ice Storm (1997)

Retro Active Critique #3

If a surface gets cold enough, it will crack or break. That is what is happening on many levels in Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" –– one of my favorite films of the 90's, and Retro Active as it depicts the 1970's so poignantly. The setting is Thanksgiving weekend, 1973, in suburban Connecticut. It is the "Me Decade", for sure, with parents too busy with themselves to pay appropriate attention to their children, and children learning destructive behavior from their parents.

Every character displays some type of confusing behavior. There are claustrophobic emotions in the midst of cold and sparse
environments. Tobey McGuire's character, Paul Wood, is a narrator of sorts –– and perhaps the least disturbed of the group. He is a 16-year-old boarding school student living a relatively normal existence consisting of a major crush, drugs and youthful musings (sometimes reverting back to his childhood comic books to make sense of the world.) He talks of the "negative zone level" from The Fantastic Four and relates this to people being tempted by negative behavior, the type of behavior all the characters in the film seem most capable of demonstrating. Not to mention the state of American society and politics at that time. His little sister, Wendy, played by Christina Ricci, is skating on thinner ice, testing darker forces from within. She thinks about politics and Richard Nixon, eats junk food and makes sexual advances to her boyfriend's younger brother, the more volatile of the two boys who enjoys blowing up model planes in the backyard.

When she finds them in her home, planted in front of the TV, Janey Carver, played by Sigourney Weaver, asks Wendy and her son Mikey (Elijah Wood), "Excuse me, don't you guys have homework?" Their blase and empty response: "Thanksgiving break."

The storm is literally coming. The film beautifully captures the style and mood of this era aesthetically. I feel cold just watching the film. Trouble among the parents leads up to a "key party." Or the beginning of the infamous swingers period. Elena Wood (Joan Allen) and Ben (Kevin Kline) are the parents of Mcguire and Ricci. Ben is having an affair with his neighbor's wife, the cold, calculated and bored Janey (Weaver). Elena suspects them and starts to develop her own disturbing behavior in her frustration, namely kleptomania.

Mikey is fascinated by molecules, so much that when the storm hits, he is compelled to go out and experience it. Because, as he explains to his little brother Sandy, in an ice storm the molecules freeze so that all you breathe is yourself; there is a rare purity to the air. Despite this dangerous environment, he goes out and frolics happily. The kids in the film seem to like danger as much as the parents do. Sandy's toy soldier has a broken record, and it says, "Mayday, mayday! Get this message back to base." But no one gets the message before it's too late and a terrible tragedy forces them out from their selfish, dream-like existences.

While the parents are in the midst of their own icy chaos –– trading spouses at the neighborhood key party –– two of the kids take sexual experimenting too far, one is traveling back by train from a drug ridden party in New York, and the other is taking his dangerous frolicking too far in the ice storm. The film bears the question in its final moments, why does it take a tragedy to wake people up? Why should the worst happen to finally bring people closer? This is a beautiful, sad and entertaining film, and Ang Lee is masterful in bringing this story to life.

To take us out, here is a #1 hit from the year 1973, "My Love" by Paul McCartney & Wings. (Certainly not the sentiment that prevails in the Wood and Carver families... but at least it was out there.)

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