The Mesmerizing Chill of Ang Lee’s ‘The Ice Storm’

When it comes to seasonal films, the moment the air starts to take on its frigid texture and breath becomes visible the moment you walk out the door, it’s absolutely imperative to curl up and watch Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. For years, I’ve been referring to the dysfunctional family drama as “the greatest story Raymond Carver never wrote,” but with a script based on Rick Moody’s 1994 novel of the same title, there was certaily a lot to work with. Diving into domestic life in 1973 Connecticut, the film takes place over Thanksgiving break in a time when, for the Carver and Hood families, on a grand scale culture was teetering on edge, and personally, discontent and sexual confusion lined the walls of their homes.

In Bill Krohn’s article, The Ice Storm: Baby, It’s Cold Outside he recalls:
“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.”
 
But the film isn’t only a triumph on an emotional and intellectual level—in terms of aesthetics, The Ice Storm is its own pleasure to unpack. And with the new Criterion Collection release of the film this week, they’ve given us a clip from one of the many features that accompany their edition—this one from production designer Mark Friedberg who constructed the intricate visual narrative of the picture. Here we see him discuss the architecture of the homes and how their custom fit to the characters that inhabited them.
 
Take a look below.
 

Ten Movies You Shouldn’t Watch Alone on Valentine’s Day

Back when I was single, I didn’t put too much stock in Valentine’s Day. (I still don’t, really; I’ll probably stay in and watch movies with my boo.) But I also never really did it right, either. One year, I came home from work, opened a bottle of red wine, and watched the 1977 film version of Equus, which had just arrived from Netflix. You know, there’s nothing like a lighthearted movie about a naked teenager murdering horses! It’s quite charming. Another year, after my boyfriend dumped me three days before Valentine’s Day in a Chipotle, I stayed in with a friend (who had recently broken off her engagement) and watched The Departed. Not too cheery!

So please, don’t make the same mistakes I have made. Here are some movies you should probably avoid watching at home alone this Valentine’s Day.

Sophie’s Choice

You’d think surviving the Holocaust would be bad enough, but then Meryl Streep’s Sophie comes to America and things don’t really work out so well for her.

Kramer vs. Kramer

Meryl Streep is in a lot of sad movies, although this one does have a precocious child actor in it. Don’t let that fool you!

Anti-Christ

Do you like genital mutilation? Then sure, go on, watch the movie that perfectly portrays Lars von Trier’s slow decent into madness.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

It’s romantic, sure, but even though it has a somewhat happy ending, Eternal Sunshine is not the kind of thing you’ll want to watch tonight.

Paris, Texas

First of all, you really have to give yourself a lot of time to get through this one. It’s long and slow. It’s gorgeous, though, but definitely not a feel-good flick.

The Ice Storm

This is the opposite of any movie that made the ’70s look groovy and fun. The clothes are claustrophobic, the mood is tense, and key parties, for the record, are very emotionally complicated!

Celeste and Jesse Forever

Don’t let the familiar funny people in the lead roles fool you: this movie is bleak.

Far From Heaven

Things sucked for women and gay guys even more back in the ’50s, basically.

Half Nelson

There’s nothing romantic about this one, unless you consider the love for a crack pipe to be heartwarming.

Requiem for a Dream

Sure, it’s a lively little romp through the perils of addiction, but you might have a nightmare that your Valentine is a rabid fridge monster who wants to eat you.

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What I’ll Be Watching During the Storm, and So Should You

So far, the scariest part of this hurricane is the fact that I am stuck in New Jersey…indefinitely. The winds are gusting and the streets are wet, but luckily my road has yet to flood and there’s still power in my house; part of my town has been evaculated but I’m still here holding down the fort. So, when things eventually go dark and my internet disappears, I’ll need a steady stream of movies to keep me sane while I hide inside my couch cushions. Because, to be honest, in these type of situations I am prone to turn into Melancholia‘s Justine very rapidly, and that is good for no one. Preemptively, I thought it best to cultivate a solid playlist of films that will both keep me entertained and distract me from whatever fear might creep in throughout the next 48 hours. Enjoy.

carrie
Carrie
Blow Out
Sisters
Boogie Nights

con
The Conversation
Blue Velvet
Marathon Man
Husbands and Wives

hannah
Hannah and Her Sisters
The Big Chill
Melancholia
Interiors

ice
The Ice Storm
Night of the Hunter
The Red Shoes
Dressed to Kill

jaw
Jawbreaker
In a Lonely Place
Wings of Desire
As Good As It Gets

A Surprising Appreciation of ‘Dark Shadows’

I have a confession to make: yesterday I saw Dark Shadows, the new Tim Burton joint featuring, predictably, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as well as fresh Burton cast members like Chlöe Grace Moretz, Jonny Lee Miller, and Eva Green. I predicted that it would be awful, and most critics seemed to prove all my points: that Burton’s weird big-budget goth epics have gotten stale and stupid. But still, something drew me to the film—maybe vampiric mind control? And, um, I kind of really enjoyed it!

Like most people my generation, I have never seen Dark Shadows, the extremely popular daytime soap opera that ran from 1966 to 1971. A quick jaunt onto the show’s extensive Wikipedia page reveals it was like a late ’60s version of True Blood: there were vampires, ghosts, werewolves, and witches and was considered a gothic, campy masterpiece—just without the current vampire drama’s gratuitous sex and political subtext. It seems like the perfect source material for a Tim Burton movie (he has, after all, professed that he was a fan of the show, as did Johnny Depp), which, judging from his recent creative pursuits (Alice in Wonderland, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to name a couple of cinematic clunkers), would surely be a big old CGI mess.

And it was, let there be no doubt! But that was also sort of its charm? I concede that it makes absolutely no sense, is all across the board with a bunch of different bizarre subplots including reincarnation, surprise eleventh hour werewolves, fishing politics. It was somewhere in between the movie version of The Addams Family—lovingly showing the divide between an appreciation for straight-forward gothic sensibility and the modern, normal world—and Jan de Bont’s shitbox remake of The Haunting that featured a CGI-heavy scene in which a haunted fireplace murders Owen Wilson. Yes, the creepy old house that is at the center of Dark Shadows eventually attacks its residents at the hands of Eva Green’s sexy witch, but (spoiler alert!), the scene also has Michelle Pfeiffer shooting Green with a shotgun LIKE A BOSS, and then Green’s body breaks apart in a Death Becomes Her sort of way. It’s the best ’90s movie to be released in the second decade of the new millennium! 

Let’s talk about what makes this shitshow so great: it takes place in the ’70s. It’s so super stylized with ridiculous clothes, wigs, and accessories (I have never seen so many turtlenecks under corderoy blazers); it’s the best ’70s costume design I’ve seen since The Ice Storm, and we all know that the only way that Ang Lee masterpiece could have been improved is if Joan Allen was a witch and had the gumption to punish her cheating husband with dark magic. And the music! The Moody Blues, T-Rex, Barry White. Even present-day Alice Cooper makes a cameo as 1972 Alice Cooper! That is the most stupidly brilliant thing that I wish I could have thought of myself. 

So basically Dark Shadows is a gigantic disaster that entertained the hell out of me. Let’s compare it to another pile of garbage that has captured the hearts and minds of hate-watching Americans this year. As Tara Ariano writes of the NBC musical theater drama, "Smash is the worst TV show I’ve ever loved; it might be the worst thing I’ve ever loved." Well, Dark Shadows is my Smash. I’m not proud that I loved it, but I’m not ashamed, either.