Asked by French journalists in a 2001 interview what recent films he most admired, Brian De Palma named Ang Lee’s 1997 The Ice Storm. It was surprising to hear one of the leaders of a filmmaking revolution that aimed at transforming American cinema in the sixties single out as exemplary a work by a Taiwanese-born director whose first three films were in Mandarin, but De Palma was right. Ten years after it was made, The Ice Storm looks like the best American film of the nineties.
There were other great American films in that decade, of course—the words “Groundhog Day!” will no doubt spring to the lips of many an indignant film lover—but The Ice Storm occupies a special place among them because it offers a vision of a turning point in the country’s history. Most of the events of the film take place on Thanksgiving Day 1973, the tenth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which lit the fuse for the sexual, cultural, and political revolts that would explode in the late sixties. As the characters prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, the country is already sliding onto the downward slope that will lead to the end of that heady era.
The Ice Storm also occupies a special place in Ang Lee’s body of work. It was planned to be his English-language debut, but the producers of Sense and Sensibility (1995) chose him to direct their Jane Austen adaptation before he got to it. Even though The Wedding Banquet (1993), Lee’s breakout hit, had taken place in Manhattan, it was primarily about a Chinese family caught in the winds of change. The Ice Storm, which concerns an American family faced with similar problems, is Lee’s first truly American film, analogous in some ways to Alfred Hitchcock’s first real American film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), about a small-town family losing its innocence, for which Hitchcock engaged the services of the quintessentially American novelist Thornton Wilder.
Lee’s film is based on Rick Moody’s 1994 novel about growing up in affluent New Canaan, Connecticut, during the last years of the sexual revolution. Lee’s constant collaborator, producer-screenwriter James Schamus, first brought the book to his attention and adapted it for the screen. But the project underwent major changes during production and postproduction, which is where the director imparted his distinctive touch to the material: a sympathetic outsider’s reimagining of a moment in American history that has always proven recalcitrant to cinematic treatment, a hint of magic realism, and the ineffable quality called “tone” that is the mark of a master.
Although Lee and Schamus had initially envisioned a satirical comedy in the Billy Wilder tradition, as The Wedding Banquet had been, The Ice Storm evolved into a delicate mixture of moods that Lee has said he became fully aware of only when he first saw a rough cut with Mychael Danna’s haunting score. The script had already softened Moody’s ferocious farewell to his own dysfunctional family, which ends with the revelation that he is Paul, the befuddled son of Ben and Elena Hood, played in the film by Tobey Maguire. Ben (Kevin Kline) is no longer an alcoholic, and Elena (Joan Allen), whose last actions in the book are shockingly cruel, comes off as more sinned against than sinning. As for Jim and Janey Carver, neighbors with whom the Hoods become sexually entangled, Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver offer sharp portrayals of two lonely people in a failed marriage.
Richard Nixon, seen on television in the last days of the Watergate debacle, is virtually a character in the film, as he is in the book—Paul’s younger sister, Wendy (Christina Ricci), catalogs his lies with the passion of a Jeopardy addict—and so is the period he helped define. The happy confluence of sexual and political revolution in 1973 was epitomized by the readiness with which the press adopted the nickname Deep Throat for the mysterious informant inside the Nixon administration who helped expose the dirty tricks played by the Committee to Re-elect the President in 1972 and the subsequent cover-up: the nickname was the title of a pornographic film that became fashionable viewing outside the porn ghetto the same year. The Carvers and the Hoods discuss the movie at a dinner party early in The Ice Storm.
Lee never knew the period firsthand, having first come to the United States in 1978, so he approached Moody’s story as a period piece, like Sense and Sensibility. Costume designer Carol Oditz was encouraged to re-create the styles of the early seventies as part of an overall approach worked out with Lee, production designer Mark Friedberg, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes. They sought inspiration in the era’s art, specifically the work of the photo-realists, who painted photographs in a style that is both hyperreal and at one remove from reality—evoked by the variety of reflecting surfaces seen in the film—and the op artists, who deployed contrasting visual elements to create vibrating surface tensions on a single plane. Lee meant it as praise when he told Friedberg after the first screening: “Mark, it really looks good. It’s not the seventies, but it’s interesting.”
Lee and his longtime editor, Tim Squyres, did eighteen cuts of the film while finding the right tone and mapping out the crosscutting between families, members of families, and generations within families, particularly during the night of the ice storm, when all the plot strands intertwine to a conclusion: Paul in a Park Avenue apartment with the object of his desire, the wealthy Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes), and his obnoxious roommate (David Krumholtz); Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood) and his younger brother, Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), playing out their tentative sexual explorations with Wendy in the basement playroom of the Carver house; and Ben, Elena, Janey, and Jim at a neighborhood cocktail party that turns out to be a “key party”—a wife-swapping game that was first played in the posh precincts of New Canaan five years after the Summer of Love had proclaimed sexual liberation as an ideal.
The odd situation of parents imitating styles set by a generation only slightly older than the children they are struggling to raise is reflected by the film’s many internal rhymes. On the one hand, they suggest the old saw “Like father, like son”: Ben and Paul both pry into other people’s medicine cabinets, for example, and neither of them takes advantage of opportunities for sex that present themselves the night of the storm. But “Like daughter, like mother” also applies: Elena imitates Wendy’s bike riding and her shoplifting (but Mom gets busted). This is one of the places where omission of a causal link furnished by the book—Elena knows about Wendy’s kleptomania, which has gotten her in trouble before—nudges us toward inferring a magical connection: mother and daughter appear to be telepathically connected. The film’s fragmenting of Moody’s narrative, where each chapter tells a large arc of one Hood family member’s story, further invites this way of reading by eliminating some of the psychological links those arcs describe.
This magical worldview anticipates Lee’s later films about superhuman characters: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hulk (2003). His interest in myth can be seen in The Ice Storm in the identification that Paul (played by the future Spider-Man) feels with the Marvel comic The Fantastic Four, about a family of superheroes as dysfunctional as his own. When his family comes to the train station to meet him at the end of the book, he sees a flaming number 4 in the sky—a moment that Lee says made a strong impression on him when he first read it, although his quiet rendering of the Hood family’s epiphany doesn’t employ special effects.
The presence of The Fantastic Four in the editorial mix implicitly ratifies a magical reading of the way characters, actions, and images collide and mirror one another, like the molecules that obsess Mikey, whose destiny seems to be controlled by the tragic events in the latest issue of Paul’s favorite comic. Paul reads excerpts from Fantastic Four number 141 while riding the last train back to New Canaan as the night of the storm draws to a close, and the temporary blackout and stoppage of the train supply another connection—an electrical one—with what happens to Mikey, a character Paul has no scenes with in the film.
This results in both magical thinking and formal patterning that Lee, recalling the art of the seventies, has described as postcubist: “Many facets put together in a narrative way so that you can watch it from many angles and they all mean something.” Ultimately, this structure—hyperreal images that suggest magical hypotheses by the forms their colliding patterns make—reflects the ruminations of Moody’s narrator at the outset of his third act, when he stops portraying events through the eyes of the characters and begins talking about the viewpoint of God: “Though metaphors of the mind of God are characterized by coincidence and repetition, examples from nature aren’t as tidy. Nature is senseless and violent.”
Which brings us to the ice storm, a metaphor for the movie it gives its name to. “When I think of The Ice Storm, I think first of water and rain, of how it falls everywhere, seeps into everything, forms underground rivers, and helps to shape a landscape,” writes Lee in his preface to the published screenplay. “And also, when calm, of how it forms a reflective surface, like glass, in which the world reappears. Then, as the temperature drops, what was only water freezes. Its structure can push iron away, it is so strong. Its pattern overthrows everything.”
The unfolding of this natural pattern is evoked by the ghostly credits of the film: vapors that solidify into words, accompanied by the sound of a Native American flute. Lee also shows the storm’s effects in shots of the Connecticut landscape, reminiscent of the shots of time passing in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, a filmmaker he admires.
In 1997, some critics thought they discerned reactionary attitudes in The Ice Storm’s treatment of its unabashedly upper-middle-class, postrevolutionary subject matter. Supporting that view is the fact that Lee himself calls his first three films—Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)—his Father Knows Best trilogy, because of the loving portrayal in all three of a traditional patriarch, played by Sihung Lung. This conservative strain in Lee’s work can perhaps be traced back to Ozu, particularly the films the great Japanese director made after World War II, when conflicts between tradition and change, and between parents and children, were being exacerbated by the impact of the war on Japanese culture. But Lee is no more a reactionary than Ozu was, because his subject is that conflict, which is history as we experience it at any given moment of our lives.
Born on the frontier of the political struggles that shaped the second half of the twentieth century (his parents immigrated to Taiwan from Mainland China, where his grandparents were killed in the Cultural Revolution), Lee pursued this theme intuitively in his first three films but rethought it in The Ice Storm because of his recent experiences on Sense and Sensibility—Emma Thompson’s script, he has said, revealed to him the idea that had shaped his early work, the eternal tug-of-war between society and desire. He and Schamus followed The Ice Storm with Ride with the Devil (1999), an adaptation of Woe to Live On, Daniel Woodrell’s novel about Southern Jayhawkers in the Civil War, told from the point of view of two outsiders—the white son of a German immigrant (Maguire) and his black comrade in arms (Jeffrey Wright)—whose attitudes toward the Southern cause change in the course of the film. Lee’s preface to the published screenplay of that film sheds additional light on The Ice Storm.
“Through [the two outsiders] we come to experience the changes that freedom will bring,” he writes. “It is their emancipation that the film becomes about, their coming-of-age. So, as a Taiwanese, I can identify with the Southerners as the Yankees change their way of life forever, but I also identify more strongly with those outsiders, who grasp at freedom, and fight for it . . . Our story is about the very heart of America, even as this heart was—and still so often is—torn apart by racial and other conflicts. Even as America seems to conquer the world with the promise of freedom, it has still not fully conquered itself, or achieved its own freedom.” Ride with the Devil is another Lee film audiences have to catch up with on video, because it was not understood in its time. Filmographies that frequent the knife-edge where history is being made run that risk.
In November 2007, Newsweek proclaimed that America was still in the grip of the sixties, unable to wish the decade away or fulfill its promise. The still obsessive presence in our culture of the era The Ice Storm portrays gives it an unfaded freshness that few films keep for long. In 1997, it was prophetic. The country was a year away from the impeachment of Bill Clinton for participating in the sex act celebrated in Deep Throat. The history encapsulated in Lee’s film was about to be repeated as farce by a Republican-dominated Congress that was still stinging from the events of 1973, while Nixon’s “Southern strategy” would be deployed in the next presidential campaign to divide the electorate along lines first drawn by the Civil War.
“The period portrayed in The Ice Storm is innocent and good because people are rebelling against old rules and the old order,” Lee has said. “We’re jaded now, while the people of that era were very fresh and bold about reaching for their limits. What they encounter in the process is human nature, and the ice storm, which gives you a little more respect for nature. It turns out that we’re not that free after all.” Lee’s statement expresses both sides of the complex symbol that informs the images of his film—he is one of those artists for whom, without some positive sense of the past, the future is an empty promise. His cinema therefore recalls that of some of the greatest filmmakers who came before him: Ozu, of course, and Americans like John Ford and Orson Welles, with their laments for lost worlds and dissolving traditions.
One thing that gives The Ice Storm its hallucinatory intensity is the fact that the era before 1967 has already been swept away without a trace at the start of the film, which portrays the arrival of the present era. But the film does refer to a much older America: Wendy saying grace by thanking God “for letting us white people kill all the Indians,” a glimpse of the famous “Keep America Beautiful” television commercial, with Iron Eyes Cody weeping over a litterbug committing what was then called “pollution,” and the haunting flute music that begins during the credits, over those ghostly letters.
“I liked the irony of suggesting music endemic to Native Americans,” composer Mychael Danna has said, “to remind us that, as the characters walk through the woods to their mod houses, the ground beneath their feet used to belong to civilizations that are long gone. Ang and I wanted to remind people of the power of nature—that nature was there before anyone else, and that nature will be there when we’ve gone.”
Bill Krohn has been the Los Angeles correspondent for Cahiers du cinéma for thirty-five years. In 1993, he codirected, cowrote, and coproduced It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles. His award-winning book Hitchcock at Work has been published in several languages, as has his Luis Buñuel: Chimera. His most recent books are the Cahiers du cinéma/Le monde monographs Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. He also reviews films for the Economist. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2007 DVD edition of The Ice Storm.