Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that runs every Thursday and celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Though director Ang Lee has drawn influence from Asian cinema and his Taiwanese heritage, he's traversed genres, time periods, and cultures throughout his filmography – navigating the intimate and complicated worlds of his characters with a reverence and curiosity that some have dubbed clinical. While Lee's controlled and distant approach isn't for everyone, it undoubtedly fits the bill for 1997's 'The Ice Storm' – a film about two families coming to grips with the rapidly changing political, social and sexual climate of the 1970s in the sterile Connecticut suburbs. Mark Friedberg's production design and Frederick Elmes' cinematography highlights the internal narrative of Lee's lonely characters.
The parallels between the teenagers and adults in 'Ice Storm' seem fairly obvious on the surface, but it's the ways in which Lee draws the connections between the two that is not only emotionally jarring, but visually fascinating. The sins of the father (and mother) have been passed on to the next generation – all of them suffocated by their own dysfunctions and grasping for a way to make sense of everything. The Carvers live in a glass house, yet can't see each other beyond their own agenda. The Hoods appear to be an all-American nuclear family, but things couldn't be in more disrepair. Drugs, alcohol and sex lead to awkward attempts to connect, but only alienate further.
Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) passes the time with the Carver boys – negotiating sexual trysts with philosophical stoner Mikey (Elijah Wood) and his younger, violent brother Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). She has little patience for her family's strange behavior and restlessly struggles between the need for a meaningful connection, and the disillusionment she feels regarding everyone and everything around her.
There's nothing really subtle about the frame I've chosen – and the same goes for many of the metaphors in Lee's movie, including the impending ice storm – but all of the images speak to the film's beautiful design and Lee's penchant for stillness and drama. There are no fast cutaways in 'Ice Storm,' or frenzied camerawork. Lee instead relies on space, light and the actors to change the frame, while he's content to observe. This is as much of a reminder of the power of nature as the brutal storm that transforms the lives of these families.
Mikey and Wendy are downstairs in his basement looking to "mess around." Meanwhile, Wendy's father, Ben (Kevin Kline), is (unknowingly) upstairs goofing off after being abandoned by his now reluctant mistress, Janey (Sigourney Weaver), who also happens to be Mikey's mom. Wendy's already cornered Mikey's brother for a game of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours ... ," which infuriated Mikey but isn't stopping him from seeing how far he can take things with her. He asks her why she did it and if she liked it, but Wendy can only mumble, "I don't know." When she spots a Richard Nixon mask, she puts it on and boldly sets the rules of their make out session which stuns Mikey -- and this is what we see.
There are several interesting things happening in this frame -- carefully crafted by Lee, Friedberg and Elmes -- which appear throughout the movie. To achieve a sense of intimacy, starkness and simplicity cinematographer Elmes and Lee looked to the works of photo realist painters while designing their lighting scheme. The dimness of the basement, with a bit of somber light peeking through the window, sets the mood for Wendy and Mikey's clumsy sexual experiment. The filmmaker also uses reflections literally and figuratively -- in this case mirroring the previous scene of Ben and Janey's awkward conversation about Ben's marriage in the bedroom upstairs. The two characters also appear as reflections, or opposites -- Wendy already becoming somewhat hardened by her conflicted emotions, and Mikey still hopeful and finding beauty in the world around him.
Friedberg's design of the basement was modeled after his own childhood home (another nice bit of realism) and makes use of the geometry and fractured space that Lee felt was integral to the storytelling. This is reflected in everything from the clothing, to the furniture, to the art and light fixtures on the wall. The fact that Wendy wears a mask -- let alone a mask of the person who represents disorder in her life (she's often shown scowling at the television when Nixon appears) -- before she can talk openly to Mikey is a pretty dead giveaway that she's basically roleplaying her parents, who continually shroud their emotions in one way or another. All the objects scattered around the room are further symbols of the poetry of this scene.
While some people criticized Lee for illustrating his observations too blatantly, no one can deny his sensitivity toward the lives of these frigid characters and the elegance with which he tells their story. Between the more obvious metaphors exists a bevy of sophisticated, visual clues that points to a deeper and fascinating framework which houses the trapped and tried lives within.