Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Ice Storm

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the quiet (a little too quiet…) community of Stepford. Well, sort of. I found myself in Darien, Connecticut, where the original film adaptation of Ira Levin’s novel “The Stepford Wives” was shot. Just down the street was another picture-perfect community – New Canaan, which served as the setting of “The Ice Storm,” novelist Rick Moody and filmmaker Ang Lee’s ode to the mid-70s mutation of the American Dream.

“The Ice Storm” has been one of my favorite films since I first saw it in 1998, and I’m firmly convinced that it is one of only a handful of films that improves on the source novel. In a recent edition of the novel, Moody comments on the difficulty of adapting such ambiguous source material to the screen: “To be human is to be, by turns, sacred and profane, magnificent and contemptible, light and dark, mirthful and humorless, and human consciousness can’t be contained in most of the vessels that would house it. Heroes and villains are one and the same, they have the same color horses, the men in black are no more likely to kill than the men in lavender; great orators smack their kids; our leaders are failed family men and women. That doesn’t make them bad. All is ambivalence, all is complicated and strange, and try getting that into a movie. Go ahead and try.” Ang Lee tried and, in my opinion, succeeded. His film conveys the novel’s wealth of character ambiguities by employing all of the subtleties available to the film medium.

Moody’s novel is comprised of a series of first person narratives. The four narrative voices belong to bored suburbanite Benjamin Hood, his submissive wife Helena, his sexually-confused daughter Wendy, and his overanxious son Paul – a wildly dysfunctional family. The setting is 1974 in the WASPy community of New Canaan – where middle/upper-class refugees of the Me Decade are experimenting with social and sexual mores. Because of the insular nature of the community, most of their experimentation takes place with close friends and neighbors – namely, the Williams family (called the Carvers – perhaps an homage to Raymond Carver? – in the film).

The film imports much of the brilliantly self-conscious dialogue from the book, and juxtaposes it with carefully crafted images that make the viewer acutely aware of things best said with silence. The actors demonstrate the same complexity in their performances, using mannerism and body language more than words. This approach works in large part due to the perfect casting. Kevin Kline is obnoxious but endearingly foppish as Ben Hood – adding another dimension to a character that is no more than a caricature in the book. Joan Allen does the same for Helena, rendering her more intelligent and therefore more likable. Tobey Maguire makes the central character of Paul Hood far more innocent and sympathetic than he was in the novel, which allows the character to be more of a central character in the film. Equally striking are the changes to the character of Wendy Hood. In the book, she is a suburban Lolita, captivated by the power of her budding sexuality. In the film, Christina Ricci emphasizes her awkwardness and insecurity.

Screenwriter James Shamus wisely expanded the scope of the story beyond the 24-hour time period of the novel and expanded the role of the Carver family. This means we get more great performances from a stellar ensemble cast. Jamey Sheridan and Sigourney Weaver are tragically aloof, but at times still overwhelmingly – sometimes almost unbearably – human in their emotions. Rounding out the cast are a young Elijah Wood, Adam Hann-Bird, and Katie Holmes. I could talk at length about all of these performances… but why listen to me when you can now hear it from the actors and filmmakers themselves?

The Criterion Collection has just released a special edition of "The Ice Storm" that is a praise-worthy as the film itself. It includes writer/director commentary on the film as well as an original behind-the-scenes documentary (commissioned specifically for this DVD release). There are even a few short deleted scenes… one of which hints at the most unsettling passage in the source novel: a scene where Paul contemplates sexually assaulting the girl he is in love with. Though the scene does strongly reinforce the story’s depiction of a community with no moral barometer, the filmmakers were perhaps wise to leave it out of this already very dark film. The beauty of "The Ice Storm" lies in the fact that it is at once cold, sad, lost… and still hopeful, funny, and forgiving.

The Ice Storm begins and ends in the same place... this terminal station on a New York train line. Production took place in early spring, when the surroundings were almost as green as they are in the photo below...

In the film, Wendy Hood rides her bike down this hill....

... and arrives at this pharmacy, where she proceeds to shoplift. Apparently, the filmmakers had some trouble filming at the location. They had secured permission to shoot inside Varnum's pharmacy, but they hadn't secured permission to put actors or equipment on the three feet of privately-owned sidewalk in front of the pharmacy.... so the production was held for ransom while they negotiated a fee with the owner.

This may or may not be the glass house where the first dinner party was shot... Apparently there are quite a few glass houses in New Canaan, all inspired by the Phillip Johnson house.

We found this little hut at a public park near New Canaan. Maybe it's where Elijah Wood stayed during filming...

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