Time for a road trip across the good ol’ USA, one film at a time.
Week 7 — Connecticut
If you don’t know what a “key party” is, you’re going to know by the time The Ice Storm is over. I wasn’t completely sure, but my inclination was to think it had something to do with sex (SPOILER ALERT: It does have something to do with sex.)
Confession. I did know what a key party was going into The Ice Storm. Confession. I did not know a whole lot about The Ice Storm before going into The Ice Storm. I knew that it was directed by Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain). I knew it was about dysfunctional families. Most importantly, I knew that it was set in Connecticut, which was the most important element in relation to this little project of mine. I did not know that a key party would be central to the movie’s plot, although if I had bothered to read about the film on Wikipedia prior to watching it, I would have known this. I probably also would have learned that a key party is a type of swinger’s party in which a large bowl is set out and party-goers, upon arrival to the event, throw their car keys into the bowl. At the end of the night, each attendee takes a random pair of keys from the bowl and, through this method, are paired up with another attendee whereupon the newly-formed couple would be expected to leave the party together — after that, presumably there would be an expectation of sex. Wikipedia says these types of parties were popular in the 1970s, when the typically sexually repressed American public felt they had reached some new plateau of sexual openness because they could go to the movie theater on a Saturday night and watch a hardcore pornographic film about a woman with a clitoris in the back of her throat.
Of course, it’s a bold step to go from watching a dirty movie in public to swapping spouses. It takes a special breed of married couple to progress (regress) to what some more liberal-minded people refer to being polyamorous. It helps when the couple has ample time to dwell on their various sexual hang-ups, as it takes much dwelling on the failing sexual aspect of a couple’s marriage for a couple to come to the (misguided?) realization that orgies and wife-swapping are the only things that can keep their marriage together. Real-life concerns like money and children get in the way of the type of limitless self-analysis which lead a couple to become swingers — so it helps when you’re wealthy and you have free time to spare.
The Ice Storm concerns two such couples living in a wealthy community in Connecticut with plenty of money and, as a result, plenty of down time to spend obsessing over sex. The film, set in the early 1970s, revolves around the following characters. There’s Ben and Elena Hood, played by Kevin Kline and Joan Allen. Then there’s neighbors Janey Carver and George Clair, played by Sigourney Weaver and Henry Czerny. Both are what would be considered “nuclear families” with 2 and 1/2 kids. Ben and Elena’s children are 16-year-old Paul (Tobey McGuire) and 13-year-old Wendy (Christina Ricci) — the “1/2” is Wendy’s budding libido. Janey and George’s children, whose ages are not specified but I would guess are between the ages of 10 and 13, are older brother Mikey (Elijah Wood) and younger brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd) — the “1/2” is Sandy’s sociopathic qualities, which include a fascination with blowing up his model airplanes with miniature explosives and avoiding human contact.
Of this group, if anyone qualifies as being semi-well adjusted, it’s 16-year-old Paul. At least that’s how I see it — maybe I just found Paul to be the easiest to relate to. For starters, he’s a big nerd. In the film’s opening scene, Paul uses the comic book team The Fantastic Four as a metaphor for family. In a serious bit of foreshadowing, Paul explains that family is the void you emerge from and the void you return to when you die. This occurs during a voiceover as Paul, away at boarding school, is traveling on a train bound for his family’s home in New Haven for Thanksgiving break — preparing to step back into the “void” if only for a brief moment.
We soon meet the other members of Paul’s family, in addition to neighbors Janey and George and their kids. Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver) is in a passionless marriage with husband George Clair (Henry Czerny), a brilliant but eccentric man whose spaciness seems to have been passed onto both his sons (Wood and Hann-Byrd). Janey is having an affair with Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) and, it’s implied, a number of other men as well. Ben Hood is also in a passionless marriage with his frigid wife. (Joan Allen — a few years later — would also played a frigid wife in the film Pleasantville, ALSO with Tobey McGuire.)
As for the kids, Wendy (Christina Ricci), has been acting out sexually with both of the neighbor boys, using her sexuality to torment the younger of the two brothers. It could be said that, like her mother, Wendy is using sex as a weapon, only substituting promiscuity for frigidness.
Meanwhile, Mikey and Sandy have their own issues. In addition to trying to understand their neighbor, it’s clear there’s something very wrong emotionally with both of the boys. Mikey has issues communicating with other people and spends a lot of time wandering around in a funk. Sandy is a little ball of anxiety ready to explode at the slightest provocation. In one scene, Sandy has a meltdown during a game of “You Show Me Yours and I’ll Show You Mine” with Wendy. As a result, Wendy is caught with her pants down and is given a “Your Body is a Temple” lecture by the philandering Janey Carter. Later, Wendy is caught by her father making out with the older brother and is scolded by her own adulterous father. Neither Janey Carter nor Ben Hood seem to even contemplate the hypocrisy of reprimanding Wendy for behavior less morally-troubling than their own affair.
The defining event in The Ice Storm is the titular winter storm that occurs, complete with frozen rain that covers the entire town in a layer of ice. Ironically, it’s this ice storm and the events that unfold on the night of the storm that bring to surface the issues in these two icy marriages, as well as the previously mentioned “key party” taking place the night of the storm. Oddly, you would think that with the storm turning the roads into icy deathtraps that it would discourage people from attending a swinger’s party, however that is not the case as the party is well attended. Actually, I was surprised that nobody really seems to have any problem in this film with traversing deplorable winter conditions that nowadays would probably result in a state of emergency forbidding any unnecessary travel. Maybe the adults were just really horny. Or maybe it’s the mentality that, living life in the upper echelon of society, you’re immune to things like car crashes and disease and black people. So you live life with a sense of recklessness that can only result in disaster.
I once was in a relationship with a girl from an upper-class area in New Jersey. We were both in our 20s and, during that time, I went to an extraordinarily high number of funerals. It seemed every other month another one of her classmates had died in a car crash or a drug overdose. I hypothesized that perhaps rich people have less of a sense of mortality than more poor and even middle-class, more streetwise folk, and maybe that’s why they tended to die younger. I still think there might be something to this theory.
The Ice Storm is a bleak movie about rich white people. Maybe, like me, you’ll find it hard to empathize with the characters. I found it easiest to feel sorry for the kids and, in the end, it is the kids that suffer the greatest losses. As for the adults — I’m not going to lie — I took a little bit of pleasure in their suffering. It cheapens things a bit though, when I consider that criticism of straight white people must have come a little too easy for Ang Lee, a gay Asian.
Over a decade old, The Ice Storm has held up well. I was actually surprised to learn that this film was older than I had thought. It was actually Lee’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Sense and Sensibility. And, while The Ice Storm was well received critically, it was a box-office bust. Lee directed another bust next in Ride With The Devil, a western featuring the singer-songwriter Jewel, although having never actually seen Ride With The Devil, maybe it just sounds like a terrible idea. Lee’s filmography is strange like that. Most of the time he either directs a movie that critics and audiences love (Brokeback Mountain) or that they hate (Hulk). The Ice Storm is one of his few films that falls in a more gray area.
The cast is pretty amazing. Not realizing the film’s age while I was watching it, I didn’t initially think much at first about the number of young actors who had their first real serious roles here. McGuire was an unknown. Wood’s last movie before this was Flipper. Ricci had just done a remake of That Darn Cat. To most people, Wood was still the good son from The Good Son and Ricci was Wednesday Addams. In addition to these two, you’ve also got a pre-Dawson’s Creek Katie Holmes in a minor role. Then you have your veterans in Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline. Sigourney Weaver was nominated for a Golden Globe for Supporting Actress but lost to Kim Basinger for LA Confidential.
The movie picked up a number of festival awards but was snubbed at the Oscars. My only guess is that with so many great performances, it was hard to single out one for a nomination. Maybe the movie was too bleak. More likely, the Oscars are just a schmooze-fest and, sadly, one movie that year made people forget any other movies were released. Hint: It’s about a boat.
Ang Lee’s direction is competent. Nothing sticks out as technically amazing. The one thing I can say is that he’s good at is balancing all the elements to create a picture that’s easy on the eyes. The Ice Storm is pretty to look at.
All in all, The Ice Storm is an interesting film that deserves a re-watch. Criterion has released a high definition digital transfer of the movie complete with director’s commentary, actor interviews and other good stuff. So check it out. Just don’t expect a happy ending.