The Ice Storm
A Film by Ang Lee
The Ice Storm The new feature from director Ang Lee, is a fascinating reflection of the interplay of individual character, family and society. All of Lee's films have examined the structure of the family, its strengths and weaknesses. It is a subject that clearly fascinates him, through which he offers penetrating insights into human motives and behavior.
His first three films centered on the evolution of traditional Asian "family values" in the modern world. Then he undertook the unsuitable English melodrama of manners Sense and Sensibility, which he managed to elevate beyond the stilted artificiality of its original material by his precise and fascinating focus on the characters and the relationships between them.
In The Ice Storm, he takes novelist Rick Moody's teenager's-eye-view of the effects of the cultural, political and sexual "revolution" of the sixties and early seventies on suburbia, and moves it beyond melodrama and cynical satire to suggest the existance of something essentially good at the core of confused, misguided, suffering human beings.
And his characters are confused. In the background we witness the near melt-down of the American political system that was Watergate. We encounter the perverse percolation of the "counter-culture" ideals of personal openenss and heightened consciousness through media exploitation and suburban alcoholic fog into notions of casual sex and drug use. We see the commercially-inspired meaningless consumption and hopeless conformity that constrict the characters lives.
Lee conjures up a time when a sincere search for meaning, for something more in life than mere prosperity, was exploited and deflected at the same time, in the same way that the Government was explioiting and deflecting criticism by claiming that Watergate was proof that the system worked. But he takes comfort in the idea that, unlike the aborted social transformations of that era, perhaps individual transformations are an irreducible force of our nature, and it is in these small transformations of individuals and families that our real hope lies.
In a period of several days, culminating on Thanksgiving, 1972, ten years and one day after the assassination of JFK, we see all four members of a family make decisions that will shape the course of the rest of their lives, that ultimately reflect a decency and sensitivity that no amount of media bombardment or social pressure can overwhelm. Lee explores the question of where decency-the essential consciousness of right and wrong-originates, and suggests that it may always be available inside ourselves-that in fact it may be our true nature.
As in previous Lee films, there is no preaching here. Lee is not trying to prove a point, but to examine one, and in doing so, he minutely details the context in which character and circumstance come together. These details give the film its exquisite-but never precious-texture, and its powerful sense of authenticity. What we learn, we learn by observing the characters and drawing our own conclusions.
In order for the audience to draw conclusions, however, they must be engaged with the characters. The power of our reaction to the film is in direct proportion to how invested we become in the character's lives. Lee invites us to become involved in two ways: with meticulous attention to creating an accurately detailed background, and with profound sensitivity to and respect for the authenticity of the actor's performances.
As director, Lee must get some credit for assembling and co-ordinating a talented team that creates a substantial, believable evocation of the times without any sense of "look-what-I-can-do" cuteness. Production Designer Mark Friedberg, Director of Photography Fredrick Elmes, Costume Designer Carol Oditz, Music Director and composer Mychael Danna and their crews fabricate a structure that is absolutely convincing-not the actual world, but the world as it appears to the characters. It has more than historic authenticity, it has a hallmark of Lee's work, emotional authenticity.
Through this world move characters created by actors at their best-relaxed, intelligent, daring and vulnerable. Lee must get some credit as well for maintaining an atmosphere in which they-especially his important teen-age cast members-can give these kind of performances. Credit is also due to the actors themselves.
Joan Allen ought to win an Oscar for her performance here and Kevin Kline could also be a contender. Christina Ricci suggests the depths of adolescent confusion and compassion with a sincerity actors her age almost never manage. Sigourney Weaver gives another of the startling, subtle performances that make her one of the few actresses of her generation whose work will have lasting value. The supporting players all add their part to the unfolding story with a consistent honesty that must have been at least encouraged, if not inspired, by Lee.
The small gestures of this film work as well as the broad strokes. Infact, the broad strokes only work because they are supported by the details. An image of a milling crowd of commuters, compressed by a telephoto lens looks like a herd of restless, trench-coat-wearing herbivores in a nature documentary. Sigourney Weaver's face, half-smothered in bedding as she wakes to a confusion we know will become a shattering knowledge, is a powerful image of tragic helplessness. A talking action figure with only one message left in him evokes both the futility and meaninglessness of the Vietnam War and the develpoment of technology that intrigues,but in the end has nothing meaninful to say.
Ang Lee has already proved that he is a focused, competent, sensitive film-maker. With this film he develops both his craft and his dramatic range, to take his exploration of mysteries of individual consciousness and human interaction to a new level of intensity and clarity. It is an expedition well worth joining.
That's my take on it. What's yours?