Film: Cold Comforts

The Ice Storm reveals the big chill at the heart of the Age of Excess

In several of his more memorable poems, Philip Larkin wrote with insightful bitterness about the sexual revolution and its disappointments. In “High Windows,” he explored the crushing emptiness and nihilism that followed the casting off of traditional virtue, which his generation expected would lead to the

… paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—

Bonds and gestures pushed to one side

Like an outdated combine harvester,

And everyone going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly.”

It didn’t work out that way. Larkin dispassionately noted the bottomless void that people discovered when they divorced sex from the often frustrating “bonds and gestures” that had traditionally governed its expression. What one senses in Larkin is not the carnal frenzy into which the newly liberated threw themselves, but instead a cold absence, a vast and terrifying silence, conveyed with a lucidity as pure and bone-chilling as a death knell on a clear winter’s day.

The Ice Storm, Ang Lee’s superlative film version of the Rick Bass novel, is “High Windows” writ on celluloid. This story of a single Thanksgiving weekend in the lives of two wealthy suburban families gives a quietly devastating account of the effects of the wholesale eroticization of American popular culture. By 1973, the year The Ice Storm takes place, the sexual revolution of the ’60s had finally reached suburbia, which was primed for the Me Decade. The restless, wealthy residents of New Canaan, Connecticut, spend their time drinking, drugging, and winkingly committing adultery. They consider themselves terribly au courant.

It should be said straightaway that while The Ice Storm deals with sleazy behavior, it is in no way a lurid film. It documents not the destructive dionysian passions of that excessive decade—see Boogie Nights for that side of the story—but the equally deadly effects of tasteful decadence. The wealthy whites in the proper Connecticut suburb might never give in to the disco-and-porn gaucheness of the lower orders, but this is a matter of aesthetics, not morals. Their comparatively classy corruption results in progressive numbness and utter desolation. If the porn hounds of Boogie Nights are the pentecostals of the cult of eros—losing themselves in enthusiasm and ecstasy—the bourgeois of The Ice Storm are the Episcopalians. In either case, they worship the same god, with the same calamitous results.

As the film begins, Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) and his neighbor Jane Carver (Sigourney Weaver), whose hard face seems made of copper, are having a miserable clandestine affair. “I already have a husband,” Jane snaps at Ben when he begins a postcoital discussion of golf and office politics. “And I don’t particularly feel the need for another.”

In their upper middle class world, adults go to dinner parties and talk salaciously about Deep Throat and encounter groups. They’re reading Erica Jong and Philip Roth. Even the youngish village minister (Michael Cumpsty) has grown his hair long and feels confident enough to propose, with a thoughtful nod, a therapeutic tryst with Elena (Joan Allen), Ben’s wife. “I’m going to pretend not to understand the implications of what you just said,” she retorts, her timid and besieged dignity indicating an awareness that something has gone very wrong. Thanksgiving dinner at the Hoods’ house signals what a sham the ideals of family and community have become.

Meanwhile, their children, unsupervised and uninstructed by their self absorbed parents, are furtively experimenting with sex and drugs, both to mimic their parents’ behavior, and to provide a way out of the emptiness they feel. The Hoods’ precocious, angry daughter Wendy (Christina Ricci) is trying to seduce, in her clueless way, the eager but frightened Carver boys (Adam Hann-Byrd and Elijah Wood). Away in New York City when the Thanksgiving ice storm hits, the eldest Hood child, prep schooler Paul (Tobey Maguire) is busy using drink and drugs in an attempt to ease into sex with a female classmate.

You pity these children. They are in desperate need of a loving parental hand, but have to wind their own way through the minefields of the culture. Wendy’s sexual precocity is clearly an indicator of her misguided hunger for emotional and physical closeness, which she doesn’t get from her family; she’s only twelve or thirteen, yet her face is beginning to gel into the sharp spitefulness of Mrs. Carver. Mom and Dad have gone AWOL; they’re into EST, or at a party, or canoodling the neighbor’s wife, and the television is always on in the family room.

These parents don’t even know how to talk to their children. When Jane catches one of her boys playing doctor with Wendy, she delivers an inane lecture invoking Margaret Mead, which she probably got out of Redbook. Ben attempts to speak to his eldest son about the facts of life—of which the boy is already fully apprised—and, either compromised by his own sinfulness or afraid of seeming “negative” about sex, ends by muttering something idiotic about not masturbating in the shower because it wastes water. Behold, the man.

How sad and impoverished this must all seem to director Lee, who spent the ’70s in his native Taiwan, with its more traditional culture. He is known for colorful, warm depictions of domestic life, whether in his Chinese language films (Eat Drink Man Woman) or in last year’s Sense and Sensibility. Yet here he is called on to show us families, and indeed, a society drained of all human warmth, a culture that tries to replace authentic love and spirituality with sexual license. He succeeds brilliantly, but in so doing has created a pale, washed out looking film that depends on keeping its characters at an emotional distance for its disquieting power.

The creepy thing is how bloodlessly and banally these people sin. All the characters, adults and children, move in isolation from each other and from any sense of connectedness, save for sexual predation. Money, booze, dope, and Me have entirely corrupted their culture; they are all walking severely wounded, yet don’t appear to have the faintest conscious notion that there’s anything wrong. The movie culminates with a ferocious ice storm, which strikes during a mate swapping party hosted by a posh neighbor. By the end of the evening, a tragedy symbolizing the peril innocence faces in this cultural climate forces an adult reckoning with the world they’ve created for their lost children. By this point, though, a father’s tears are as useless as they are elegiac.

The ice storm is obviously a meteorological metaphor for the sexual revolution, and, contrary to the propaganda of the randy Robespierres, its deadening effect on individuals, families, and communities. With meticulous attention to detail—and, most admirably, an artful restraint that allows us to make up our own minds from the evidence at hand— director Lee and screenwriter James Schamus show us the consequences of having overthrown the old regime. The adults’ naive pursuit of personal happiness above all result in husbands and wives being estranged from each other, kids being estranged from their folks, neighbors exploiting neighbors, and innocence being exiled from childhood as the youngsters, left to be raised by pop culture, begin to imitate their elders. All persons in this film, whether young or old, look like they’re desperate for someone, anyone, to say, “Stop!” But no one does, and lacking any connection to the past or the courage of self-restraint, they go on killing their souls by degrees.

The film’s production design gets the embarrassing details of ’70s style down perfect. The avocado kitchens, the pterodactyl-winged collars, the awful hairstyles, the crocheted vests, the water bed, for heaven’s sake—all of which impart to us an amused horror today. But Lee is after more than period accuracy. He is showing that these trendy people adopted ugly morals as unthinkingly as they accommodated themselves to ugly fashions. Their modish values look as hideous and dated as their clothing and home decor—and as ersatz. And they wear them, both the clothes and the lifestyle, with graceless unease. Joan Allen wears the anxious and bewildered expression of a woman having trouble keeping up with the times, as if she feels embarrassed and guilty by all this but is too ashamed to show it.

Along with Boogie Nights, which is far different in tone but essentially alike in its harsh assessment of ’70s excess, The Ice Storm may signal a new willingness, in Hollywood, to view more critically the catastrophic effects of the permissive culture it has long celebrated. Though it rings damnably true, I don’t expect people to rush out to see The Ice Storm, and that’s not only because it condemns the fundamental values upon which many baby boomers have built their lives. With its pervasive sense of malaise, anxiety, and alienation, The Ice Storm is hard to readily embrace—how could it be otherwise given the total moral and spiritual collapse it depicts?—but it is serious and unflinchingly truthful. Its very calmness gives it a power that Boogie Nights, with all its farcicality and surface showiness, doesn’t have.

Jane’s husband, Jim (Jamey Sheridan), says this about the swingers’ party: “Somehow it seemed different in my imagination, when I thought about it. Actually, I didn’t think about it at all, really.” It’s a tragic epitaph to the mindless anti-traditionalism of a generation, and an era whose chill still endures. Twenty-five years forward, and baby, it’s still cold inside.

Rod Dreher

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Rod Dreher (born 1967) is an American writer and editor. He was a conservative editorial writer and a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, but departed that newspaper in late 2009 to affiliate with the John Templeton Foundation. He has also contributed in the past to The American Conservative and National Review. He wrote a blog previously called "Crunchy Con" at beliefnet.com, then simply called "Rod Dreher" with an emphasis on cultural rather than political topics.

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