The Ice Storm

Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

8 August

 

President Nixon resigns, 1974

On this day in 1974, facing impeachment for his involvement in the Watergate affair, Richard Nixon went on air to declare that he would resign the next day.

His speech admitted no wrong-doing and spent at least half of its duration cataloguing the achievements of his administration, especially in foreign policy.

Watergate brought Nixon down not because he admitted what he knew – he possibly didn’t know that Republican hirelings had broken into a Democrat HQ to steal vital documents – but because he didn’t admit that he had learned about it some days later and had ordered a cover-up. This only came to light after Nixon was ordered by the Supreme Court to release unedited tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office.

Nixon had spent the previous year claiming executive privilege and had first issued only transcripts, then edited versions. The final series of tapes were unabridged and clearly showed when Nixon knew what he knew.

He accepted responsibility but claimed he had acted in good faith, blaming a memory lapse for his erroneous version of events.

 

 

 

The Ice Storm (1997, dir: Ang Lee)

Wife-swapping, drink, drugs and under-age sex. Director Ang Lee uses them all in this claustrophobic film to make a simple point: that the American way of life, based only on the “I want, I want” principle, has taken a wrong turn. And he sets it against the background of Watergate (news reports about which are constantly burbling away in the background on the TV) to suggest when the wrong road was taken.

The action takes place during an ice storm in Connecticut, a moment of stasis which forces two families, the Hoods and the Carvers, to crisis point.

Ben (Kevin Kline) is having an affair with neighbour Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). His wife Elena (Joan Allen) is regularly stealing things from shops. Their Carver and Hood children – we’re not always sure who lives in which house – drink and are taking exploration of budding sexuality slightly further than most kids go.

It’s all a bit of a mess, the hedonism of people liberated by the 1960s not quite meshing with the responsibilities of the same people who have become 1970s adults. And rather than confronting the dysjunction, everyone is carrying on as if everything is OK. It isn’t, behind the curtains of booze and drifts of marijuana smoke.

At a swinging key party that the Hoods attend, the local minister (Michael Clumpsty) is also there, wanting to join in, at one point mumbling something about shepherds needing the comfort of their sheep as some sort of grubby justification.

James Schamus, Lee’s regular screenwriter, catches it all with deft strokes, making the interchanges droll rather than finger-waggy. Lee complements him by serving up images of the 1970s that bring it back to pullulating life – the colour schemes, the clothes and the strange fixation on soft furnishings.

The Ice Storm is one of the first examples – possibly the first – of a shift in tone in Hollywood films about the heroic 1960s. Was it all good? Wasn’t everyone just a touch selfish? Were some of the political gains actually steps backwards in some sense, away from personal responsibility? Even so, it’s is not a right wing screed – that’s hardly Lee’s style – more a taking stock and a plea for us all to take a look around, perhaps trim the political sails.

When it first came out, in 1997, the film had a retro fascination. Now, time has moved on again and there’s the added nostalgic appeal of seeing the likes of Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood when still young – she was maybe 16, he about 15. And manners have moved on too. The culture has shifted to the right, partly because progressives like Ang Lee wanted it to, because we all wanted it to. The Ice Storm reminds us why we wanted it to.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Ang Lee doesn’t make bad films
  • A great cast
  • James Schamus’s acerbic screenplay
  • Mark Friedberg’s production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Ice Storm – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Brokeback Mountain

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain

A movie for every day of the year – a good one



17 May

First same-sex marriage in US, 2004

On this day in 2004, Bostonians Tom Weikle, 53, and Joe Rogers, 55, became the first same sex couple to marry in the United States. They had been together for 25 years and were taking advantage of the change in legislation, Massachusetts being the first state in the US to allow marriage between people of the same sex.

Though the US constitution was clear in its position on the “unalienable right… to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, many states had started countering the change of opinion in favour of same-sex marriage by passing “defence of marriage” acts. Indeed, President Bush had come out strongly in favour of constitutional amendments to define marriage as the union between a man and a woman. “The sacred institution of marriage should not be redefined by a few activist judges,” said Bush.

Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir: Ang Lee)

Ang Lee’s previous western, 1999’s Ride with the Devil, had been a revisionist affair, adding a layer of identity politics to the standard issue guns’n’horses. He’d followed that with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a kung fu film with an unusual romantic element. Then came Hulk, which not only lost the “The”, but also delivered an unusually thoughtful superhero (is he even a hero?) movie. But even with all these signs that Lee’s interest was in pushing genres into hitherto uncharted territory, was anyone ready for the gay cowboy movie?

Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two rough tough guys, all hats and check shirts, who finally get physical on a mountain, drunk, some days into a job tending sheep. They also fall in love, though neither says it. Years pass, the men get married to women. Settle down. Their brief dalliance is forgotten, until it is suddenly re-ignited, becomes semi-regular and both of them come to some acceptance of what they have together. Not that they tell their wives, who find out anyway. And that’s it, in plot terms, at least.

There’s an honesty, loneliness and sadness at the core of Brokeback Mountain that will cut to the heart of all but the most fervent gay hater. It’s there in Annie Proulx’s original short story – and yes, the film does sometimes feel like a short story that’s been over-extended – and it’s there in the performances of the two leads.

Jake Gyllenhaal is the more flamboyant of the two – the gay one, if you like. Heath Ledger is the one who is “turned”, a man so taciturn that he can barely get his words out, or his feelings. Whether Ledger is in fact turned or whether the feelings he has for other men, or another man at least, are buried deeper than he can know, is one of the little knots that the film explores.

Matching these two in terms of heft if not screen time are Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway as the two spouses who become increasingly suspicious about their husband’s “fishing trips”, Williams in particular knocking it out of the park in the scene where she confronts Jack (Gyllenhaal) about his relationship with Ennis (Ledger).

It’s an incredibly mournful film, broken in fact, which is why it didn’t seem to stir up quite as much animosity as might have been expected when it was released. And because in the end it isn’t really about being gay at all; it’s about shared secrets and love, something most people can relate to.


Why Watch?

  • Great performances all round
  • Winner of three Oscars
  • Rodrigo Prieto’s sensitive cinematography
  • A tricky subject handled with aplomb



Brokeback Mountain – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

 

 

 

He (Chow Yun-Fat) loves her (Michelle Yeoh); she loves him, but they cannot be together until the fabled jade sword has been returned to its rightful owner. This they seek to do, hindered by an assassin and a mystery figure whose martial arts abilities rival their own.

All that plot business is entirely secondary to the working of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon though. It has just enough connective tissue to lead from one breathtaking display of martial arts magic to the next. It was the film of 2000, taking the most autistically male of movie genres, the martial arts epic, and broadening its appeal by adding a balletic twist. By a similar sleight of hand director Ang Lee also took the chickest of chick-flick romances and added a thriller chase. Both elements of a date-movie night out now satisfied, Lee then complicated things still further by filming most of the martial arts fights in near darkness, whereas the more usually moody love stuff was shot in blistering sunshine – out in the desert in fact. Which is where the porcelain beauty of Zhang Ziyi comes to the fore, in scenes with outlaw lover Chang Chen. If you have not seen it, then you have truly missed out – but there will be plenty of people who will envy the fact that you are still yet to witness the occasion when our combatants in love and life first leave the ground and run up the walls onto the roof, where one of the most beautifully choreographed fights (arranged by the Matrix’s Yuen Woo-Ping) plays out, to astonishing effect. Breathtaking, beautiful, tender, tough and magical, Crouching Tiger is all the more remarkable when you consider that it’s not even made by a martial arts director. Lee’s previous film was an undervalued western, Ride with the Devil. His next was an undervalued comic-book adaptation, Hulk.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – at Amazon