The Ice Storm

June 17, 2009 Length: 17:35

Bobby reviews The Ice Storm (1997), directed by Ang Lee and starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, and Sigourney Weaver.

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I am going to begin this program with one of the most obvious statements ever associated with film criticism: My opinions will not necessarily reflect yours. In fact, they may be in every way wrong, misguided, and completely out of step with whatever absolute notions of quality exist out there that transcend human subjectivity. For this I apologize profusely.

My favorite film critic is Anthony Lane of The New Yorker. It’s not that I always agree with Lane’s assessments of contemporary cinema. Indeed, being an urbane aesthete with a penchant for praising movies that champion sexual perversity and moral relativism, he has missed the mark more often that he has hit it. Incidentally, for accurate reviews, I typically turn to Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader. It’s just that Lane is the best of the writers about film that I’ve ever encountered, and this is evident, I think, by his collection of reviews titled, Nobody’s Perfect. In the introduction to this aptly named book, Lane states the following:

I am always sorry to hear that readers were personally offended, even scandalized, that my opinion of a film diverged from theirs. I wish I could convince them that I am merely starting an argument, as everyone does over dinner or in a crowded bar after going to see a film, and that their freedom to disagree is part of the fun.

I think this is a very well-put sentiment, and I hope that you approach this podcast, first and foremost, is the beginning of a conversation. I have already received emails from listeners who have disagreed, whether in part or in total, with what I have expressed thus far on this program, and I would encourage all of you to do the same. Perhaps at some point I will even spend the first couple of minutes at the beginning of each episode addressing such concerns, affording you an opportunity to correct my erroneous judgments, of which, again, there will be plenty.

All this to say: Don’t be mad at me. I’m just about as fallen as they come, and nothing that I say should be construed as the last word on the proper Orthodox stance toward the cinema. To be honest, what worries me the most is not that our opinions of quality will differ, but rather that my own personal tolerance level for depictions of the ugliness of our sin-saturated world will grate against yours. For this reason, I will always do my best to forewarn you of scenes and situations that you might find objectionable. Please, by all means, gird yourself against immorality, no matter how much I myself may believe that such is necessary sometimes to arrive at a specially poignant truth that has the potential to aid us on our journeys toward salvation.

Case in point? The Ice Storm, a 1997 film directed by Ang Lee and starring Kevin Klein, Joan Allen, and Sigourney Weaver. When my wife heard that I was going to begin my examination of individual films with this particular movie, she got all up in my grill, as the kids say, arguing that I might as well kiss goodbye whatever number of loyal listeners I might currently enjoy and should get used to internet obscurity before I even truly get started. Her worry is that this movie, which she actually likes quite a bit, is not the sort of fare that will ingratiate oneself to a tentatively interested Orthodox listenership, so sketchy are its particulars. I get this, of course, and share her concerns to some extent, but I also believe that The Ice Storm ultimately exudes a decidedly Orthodox Christian worldview, of both the big-O and small-o varieties, that I have ever encountered in a fairly big-budget feature. In this sense, it is, I believe, the absolute perfect movie with which to begin these reviews.

But I likewise decided to start with it likewise because it is so replete with rough and revolting moments. That is, I wanted to address right from the get-go the ethic I follow when it comes to subjecting myself to on-screen sex, violence, profanity, and other immoral shenanigans, and The Ice Storm represents the outward limit of what I’m willing to tolerate. I guess what I mean is that this podcast will not tread on any ground more bumpy and fraught with debauched potholes than this introductory movie. Thus the parameters of my views in this regard can be established at the outset, freeing me from having to explain myself over and over again.

Per usual, I take my cue from Flannery O’Connor, the Christian author who spent a large portion of her writing life exploring just this subject. In her book of essays, Mystery and Manners, she explains that the Christian fiction writer is entirely free to observe. He feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe. He feels perfectly free to look at the one we already have and to show exactly what he sees. He feels no need to apologize for the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God. For him, to tidy up reality is certainly to succumb to the sin of pride. Note that O’Connor does not say that the Christian writer is free to ignore the ways of God to man and the ways of man to God. No, these are precisely the things that he must tackle. It’s just that he is under no obligation to sanitize reality. So this is where I begin.

First off, does the film actively and accurately reflect the real world, and, second, does it do so in the service of explaining the ways of God to man and the ways of man to God? As I asked in a previous episode, in other words, does it make cosmos out of chaos? To these two criteria, I ask only that a movie’s content should never make sin attractive. Then again, any film that is seriously interested in truthfully depicting the relationship between God and man would never traffic in the gratuitous or merely titillating anyway. Such are antithetical to the job at hand.

I hold secular filmmakers to the same standard. Whether it’s his intention or not, if a director manages to conjure up capital-T Truth, and if part of doing so means showing us the operations and consequences of sin, then I am willing to endure these depictions. The minute I suspect that something more is going on, that the director simply aims to shock or excite, or that he has begun to revel in corruption, I’m out of there. Again, I’m just trying to let you know where I stand on the issue. You may very well believe different, and I would never accuse you of being wrong in this regard. But you should also understand that I am not going to limit this podcast to squeaky-clean, G-rated movies, though a number of these will also be represented. Use your own judgment, and please follow your own ethic when deciding whether to watch what I recommend. Believe me, I don’t want to offend anyone’s sensibilities.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what in the world The Ice Storm contains. Well, the movie is R-rated for a reason. It tells the story of two wealthy suburban families, the Hoods and the Carvers, living in New Canaan, Connecticut, in the year 1973. The setting could not be more suitable to the narrative. The idyllic-looking small town is indeed a new secular promised land for these empty individuals, their existence punctuated almost exclusively by material possessions, extramarital sexual liaisons, boozy weeknight get-togethers, and a complete lack of warmth, love, or understandings in the families themselves. The climax of the film takes place at a key party, wherein the husbands swap out their wives during an actual ice storm, but the movie’s title also serves to describe the tragedy that has beset the entire community of New Canaan. That is, it becomes very clear early on in the movie that it is the hearts of these characters that have become iced-over, and long before the first frigid raindrop falls.

What makes this situation especially troubling is that both the Hoods and the Carvers have children, and we see first-hand how their parents’ chilling behavior—their superficiality, licentiousness, and vacuous spirituality—has infected their own lives, much in the same way that the titular ice slowly encompasses the slender and delicate tree limbs surrounding the two families’ houses, which director Ang Lee is careful to show several times.

Here is where the film is at its most disturbing. There is no nudity in the movie, but we do see the children engaged in sexual activity of the “show me yours” sort. Wendy Hood, who is played by Christina Ricci, is especially guilty of this type of promiscuity, seducing in an awkward, juvenile way both of the Carver brothers: Mikey, played by Elijah Wood, and Sandy, played by Adam Hann-Byrd. For their part, the boys are obsessed with marijuana and death, respectively, whereas Wendy’s older brother, Paul, played by Toby Maguire, pursues a sexual conquest of his own with the assistance of copious amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs. Such scenes are painful to watch, and intentionally so, for we are meant to despise what is happening on-screen, to condemn these parents for the evils they have wrought.

The ice queen of the film is Janey Carver, played with relish by Sigourney Weaver. Think Lieutenant Ripley of Alien, only with blue eyeshadow that looks as if it were applied with a caulk gun. She is having an affair with Ben Hood, played by Kevin Klein, but she is as uninterested in him personally as she is in her spineless husband, Jim, played by Jamey Sheridan. It is clear that at some point in the near past Janey transformed into something of an automaton. She cares for no one, least of all herself, and seems to take a perverse enjoyment in persecuting husband and lover.

Ben Hood, on the other hand, plays at being a kind, gregarious husband and father, but in reality does not have a selfless bone in his body. A glass of vodka perpetually attached to him like an extra appendage, he isn’t aware enough of anything external to himself to even realize how transparently he routinely lets slip his infidelity.

The only person in the film who doesn’t appear frozen beyond thawing is Ben’s wife, Elena, played by Joan Allen. For instance, we learn that she actually attended a church service once, and on several occasions we see her grasping for some sort of ultimate meaning, particularly at a neighborhood book sale, where she browses such tomes as Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre and Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus. Even so, she is also a kleptomaniac, for no other reason than the thrill it provides, and she is eventually caught shoplifting lipstick at a local drug store.

Plainly, all involved have sunken deep into sin, and their degeneracy comes to a head at the aforementioned key party. But then a catastrophe occurs that serves to break the ice, if only for a moment, and leave open the possibility of repentance.

From a technical standpoint, Lee’s film is a masterpiece. It is entirely encrusted with ice imagery, from the cubes that sweat before dropping into scotch glasses to the diamond gleam of the wet tracks of a nearby commuter train, the color scheme is one of faded greys and blues, and there’s almost a silvery sheen to the cinematography itself that washes the color from the actors’ faces. Contributing to the icy ethos is the film’s soundtrack, which is comprised of wind chimes and bells and faint xylophonic clinks. The combined affect is one of an austerity that haunts and beautifies.

No doubt what sold 20th Century Fox on the film was the fact that it takes place in the ‘70s. At the time of its release, there was some nostalgia brewing for the era, perhaps because it was the 20th anniversary of Saturday Night Fever and it was being cashed in on by movies such as Boogie Nights and television programs such as That ‘70s Show. However, Lee’s film does not succumb to the kitschiness that plagued these endeavors, opting for more subtle and appropriate touches to evoke the decade. The time period is also somewhat crucial to the plot. By ‘73, the sexual revolution had seeped its way into mainstream America, and much that happens in the film is a consequence of this phenomenon.

Far more amazing than the cinematic artistry of the film, however, is how Lee managed to take a book by Rick Moody, who is no friend to religion, and turn it into an apologetic argument for the need for Christianity. My screenwriting friend, Barbara Nicolosi, maintains that this is part of Ang Lee’s M.O., couching traditional Christian values in plots and scenarios that are billed as shilling the reverse. Nicolosi even insists that someday we’ll look back on Lee’s Brokeback Mountain as an indictment of, rather than propaganda on behalf of, homosexuality. There’s no way to know whether Lee does this consciously or not, and I would say probably not, but it sure seems like a good recipe for aspiring Christian filmmakers to follow in order to get their films made.

An early scene is set in one of the classrooms of Paul Hood’s exclusive prep school, where one of the female students is explicating a passage from Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. “To be a Christian is to choose,” she says, “because you have choose of your own choice. And since you can’t choose to do good, because that would be too rational, you have to choose to do bad.” What she means, of course, is that the only “true choice” one can make is to choose to do the opposite of what makes sense, which for the Christian is doing good. What we know, however, is that defining yourself in opposition to something in this way does not free you from it. Choosing to do bad to thwart the good is not a free choice either, because the good is still determining your choice. This is a fact that only Paul’s mother, Elena, dimly recognizes. She understands that doing good is rational for a reason, and she seems to even recognize that the reason is that it emanates from the nature of God.

As Orthodox Christians, we understand that sin has no substance of its own, that it is rather merely the absence of righteousness. The nihilistic lifestyles of those in Elena’s community thus testify to the reality of God and his goodness, the goodness of which they have fallen far short.

I mentioned previously that Elena once sought God at a local church, but it turns out that the ice storm besetting New Canaan has penetrated it as well. We know this, because we meet its pastor, a long-haired hippy-type who hits on Elena before telling her that his church is not exactly what most people would call “organized religion.” At times, he says, it is the disorganization that is liberating, echoing Paul’s classmate’s theory regarding Christianity. Later, this same pastor shows up at the key party, explaining that sometimes the shepherd needs the company of his sheep, to which Elena responds, “I’m going to try hard not to understand the implications of that.” And rightly so. It would be the last straw for Elena, who is clinging to the hope that something will melt the ice that has hardened the hearts of her friends, her family, and herself. Little does she know what it will take to do so, and that to overcome this level of glaciation will require a devastatingly violent act.

It is at this point that I again quickly turn to Flannery O’Connor, who has often explored the connection between violence and repentance.

I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace (she writes in Mystery and Manners). Violence is a force which can be used for good or evil, and among other things taken by it is the kingdom of heaven.

In the same way, just as it was necessary for Ang Lee to graphically depict the depths to which New Canaan has sunk in order to show its desperate need for grace, he had to provide us with an equally graphic tragedy to believably convey that grace has in fact been administered. But Ang Lee is also gracious enough to leave us with a glimpse of life after grace, and it is this that makes his films so poignant. Without it, the movie would have been just another exercise in post-modern absurdity.

And what exactly does Lee show us in the end? Well, without giving too much away, let’s just say that the ice does finally melt in the town of New Canaan, Connecticut, both literally and figuratively. And as the sun sallies forth for one of the first times in the movie, it becomes clear that things are about to change, that God loves his children, no matter how debauched they may be, and that he is more than willing to rock us to our cores to prepare us to accept our moment of grace. See you next time.