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By Miriam Bale
Ang Lee's 1997 film The Ice Storm, which screens Jan. 15 at the Walter Reade Theater, is successful for what it isn't more than what it is. For a drama ostensibly about suburban swinging in Connecticut in 1973, it's remarkably restrained in its use of retro color and soft rock. Smirk or celebration are not part of its nostalgia; nostalgia is instead transformed into a more ageless sense of loss.
Lee sustained this mood by a remarkable discipline, trimming scenes and performances (including one that he described as the best acted and directed scene of his career at that point) that trailed off even slightly from the slow slide into tragedy. According to scriptwriter-producer James Schamus's notes in the published screenplay, Lee cut scenes throughout production and post-production in a general movement away from the script's social satire. A strained, familiar send-up of Benjamin Hood's (Kevin Kline) superphony Midtown office life was edited to just his commute -- reconceived, as Schamus describes it, as more of a melancholic interlude than a comedic sequence.
While the Rick Moody novel on which the film is based often draws comparisons to Cheever and Updike, the film doesn't retain the tone of these authors' work --always a cocktail of humorous disassociation, sexiness and withdrawal. Instead of trying to represent this milieu in a watered-down form for the screen, Lee chooses to concentrate on one note of this genre: the Cheeverian sadness of the commuter train. Spiritually, both the film and most work by Cheever pivots on this commute. They're not so much about the hypocrisies of leading two lives -- in Connecticut or New York, as husband or adulterer -- as about the ride in between those places where you're left staring out the window, contemplating and roleless.
The shiny crimson-and-navy vinyl of the train seats are the heart of Lee's movie. While those colors and the textured teal and brown prints in the film's interiors seem restrained and more realistic than in other movies that depict that era, the colors seem gauchely bold and generic compared to interiors described in the novel: puce with grey, or lavender with ocher. While The Ice Storm avoids social satire to evoke something more timeless, the emotional structure of the novel is built entirely on analyzing the social class that was obsessed with that ostentatious display of restraint and forward thinking: the too quiet WASPs of New Canaan.
But, as Moody (who will introduce Tuesday's Lincoln Center screening) commented in an afterward of a recent edition of the novel, the movie is the fraternal twin of the novel. He recalls crying at the end of the his first viewing of the film, partially out of relief that the film was so good that he wouldn't have to fake pleasantries but also because, "I had successfully given away my book, and this was a bittersweet thing."
The Ice Storm screens Jan. 15 at the Walter Reade Theater as part of the Young Friends of Film program; visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Web site for ticket information.
Seduced and Abandoned is a regular feature about repertory cinema highlights in New York. Miriam Bale programs the monthly series The Movie Night Disco at Frank's Lounge in Fort Greene.
Posted at January 10, 2008 11:39 AM
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