All in the Family

The Ice Storm, The Myth of Fingerprints, A Thousand Acres.

The Ice Storm
Directed by Ang Lee
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Myth of Fingerprints
Directed by Bart Freundlich
Sony Pictures Classics

A Thousand Acres

Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Touchstone Pictures

While producers of TV shows labor to shore up the image of a stable nuclear family, our filmmakers are busy documenting its meltdown. Various causes continue to be proffered, none entirely adequate. Memories are still fresh of Newt Gingrich condemning liberals and their counterculture for the drowning by Susan Smith of her children in a South Carolina lake. Gingrich’s attack, you might recall, was soon followed by the revelation that the woman’s addled psyche owed less to Maoist hippies than to the nocturnal visits of her stepfather, a pillar of the state’s Republican Party. (One longed to hear Gingrich twitter, à la Gilda Radner, “Never mind.”) So what has destabilized the American clan–Oedipal counterculture or overweening patriarchy?

The Ice Storm, which opens this year’s New York Film Festival, portrays the radioactive fallout of the counterculture on America’s moneyed suburbs, in this case New Canaan, Conn., circa 1973. Although drugs and promiscuity (and fashions!) have migrated from the garrets of Haight-Ashbury to the woodsy estates of Fairfield County, the Left is not targeted per se. Indeed, the ugly mug that hangs over all events like a toxic cloud belongs to Richard Nixon, whose unconvincing assertions of innocence set the tone for the general hypocrisy. On television, he’s fighting to keep his tapes under raps. On a dormitory poster, he and Agnew wear prison stripes. A Halloween mask of his visage casts a pall over the rec room. With this kind of father figure, all rules are suspended.

T he movie’s own father figure, Benjamin Hood (Kevin Kline), is a wimpish alcoholic who carries on a listless affair with his witheringly aloof neighbor, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver). Janey’s husband, Jim (Jamey Sheridan), is absent inventing the silicon chip. He returns from business trips to find that his sons (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd) never knew he’d been away. Hood’s wife, Elena (Joan Allen), smells someone else’s perfume on her husband–“Is that a new after-shave?” “Uh, yeah … uh … Musk”–and grows increasingly disgusted. She reads New Age books and shoplifts. Her adolescent daughter, Wendy (Christina Ricci), shoplifts too, and has also taken to fooling around sexually with the Carver children, reserving an especial fondness for the awkward, prepubescent younger (Hann-Byrd). Teen-age Paul (Tobey Maguire), home for Thanksgiving from his prep school, finds metaphors in Fantastic Four comic books. The family, he says, exists in a “negative zone.”

Are these young people affected by their elders’ drug abuse, promiscuity, and refusal to behave like real authority figures? Clearly. Crystally. With icicles on top. They are unsupervised, allowed to wander about under dangerous conditions. It is implied that these kids want to be caught, to be restricted, to be paid attention to, to be enfolded in the bosom of a real family. Their parents catch them in the midst of sexual experimentation and offer only token outrage. The grown-ups, it seems, are more absorbed in their own sexual experiments, among them a “key party” in which the husbands’ keys are dropped into a bowl and each wife selects a set at random and slinks home with its owner. To this haute-bourgeois American Sodom, this loveless and unnatural order, Nature sends The Ice Storm.

Rick Moody’s novel, published in 1994, is a lively brew that bubbles with pop-culture references. It’s a heartfelt muddle: Fractured and sardonic, it transmits the narrator’s inchoate feelings about his subjects–which turn out to be his own parents, his sister, himself. The film, directed by Ang Lee from a screenplay by James Schamus, is austere, and glacially worked-out in visual terms. It’s Shampoo without the suds. The tacky houses sit mute and isolated amid forests that are like bone yards. We’re in a world of empty pools covered with dead leaves, of gray skies, of lonely exhalations from a Native American flute. Probably the deadly freezing would have meant more if it had offered some contrast to what had come earlier, if the tone of the picture hadn’t been numbed from the outset.

What saves The Ice Storm from art-film paralysis is that the characters never tip over into grotesquerie. Instead, they wear their shame as plainly as their leisure suits. (One could argue, perversely, that if they just went ahead and had their fun without agonizing about it so much, they’d be better parents–less internally divided and less secretive.) Lee and Schamus have malice toward no one, not even the nastiest character, played by Weaver as a suburban Kabuki demon whose mask is so tight that it’s hard to miss the fact that she’s its prisoner. At times, her stiffness comes across as a sane and amusing counterpoint to her lover’s flabby affability. (She interrupts Ben’s long anecdote about his golf game with, “You’re boring me. I have a husband, I don’t particularly feel the need for another.”)

I missed the book’s messiness, its adolescent preoccupation with masturbation, and such surreal details as the crates of Bazooka bubble gum in the Carvers’ basement (though actually, in the novel, they’re called the Williamses). It’s also a shame that we never glimpse “Silver Meadow” (modeled, of course, on the legendary Silver Hill, New Canaan’s private mental facility for the well-to-do). On the other hand, when Wendy dons a Nixon mask during a spell of heavy petting, it’s one of the wildest comic coups in a movie in years. The performances are stunning, especially those of Sheridan, who brings a tender befuddlement to the most elementary demands of fatherhood; and Allen, a brilliant miniaturist whose tiny flickers of despair have a way of stabbing you in the heart.

As in Sense and Sensibility, Lee views these mortal fools with a sorrowful detachment. He’s a sort of clinical humanist, editorializing only by what he leaves out. The downside of this method is its impersonality, which limits our involvement. The upside is its lack of cheap sentiment, and its clarity.

The Myth of Fingerprints, produced by the same worthy outfit (Good Machine, run by Schamus and Ted Hope), is also the story of a family in winter. It’s a portrait of WASPs in their frosty domain–Maine, Thanksgiving, family reunion, oodles of subtext under a blanket of the white stuff. The film is the kind of well-carpentered buried-secret drama I’ve committed my critical life to stomping out. Yet, apart from that pretentious title, I found it surprisingly convivial. The picture opens, unpromisingly, with Noah Wyle talking to his off-camera shrink about how nervous he is about going home and seeing his family for the first time in three years since his hometown girlfriend dumped him and he went into a funk. I was bracing for a long evening when, in the very next shot, Julianne Moore climbed a ladder wearing a short black skirt and, suddenly, all was right with the world. (Yes, this is what’s known as the Male Gaze.) Thereafter, the movie goes swimmingly–or, given the temperature of the lakes thereabouts, skatingly.

Moore plays–not to put too fine a point on it–a bitch from hell. She’s a sight with her long, straight hair; flat, white face; and strange, hooded mouth. This is the daughter who goes home for the holidays and finds that every remark uttered by anyone in the vicinity of her family, no matter how innocent, drives her into a fury. Apart from Wyle, the other grown-up children are played by Michael Vartan (sturdy) and Laurel Holloman (perky). The parents are Blythe Danner (warm) and Roy Scheider (cold). Significant Others are Brian Kerwin (straight), Hope Davis (giddy), and Arija Bareikis (life force). The deep, dark secret–which involves drunken paternal lechery a few years back–is neither terribly deep nor terribly dark, but you can lop that part out of the film and forget about it.

The Myth of Fingerprints, written and directed by Bart Freundlich, has spasms of silliness that thaw things out delightfully. Davis plays Vartan’s girlfriend as an irrepressible, sexed-up brat, and gives every line a little hop, skip, and jump. James LeGros shows up as an elementary-school classmate of Moore’s who has renamed himself “Cezanne.” With his Garry Shandling-like goofiness, he melts her ice–they’re sublime together. A stoner friend of Wyle’s has a line I wish I’d written: “Imagine all the stuff that wouldn’t get done if I were the only person in the world.” The movie also features a scene in which siblings sit in a treehouse and ask, “Do you think you need to have a healthy family life to have a successful relationship?”

A bsolutely, says A Thousand Acres, which fancies itself the anti-King Lear: The old man, in this reading, really is more sinning than sinned against. After he divides his farmland between two daughters (Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer) and banishes a third (Jennifer Jason Leigh), this garrulous patriarch (Jason Robards) develops a 1,000-acre-wide streak of paranoia, and what was a universal tragedy becomes the conventional tale of patriarchal abomination and female liberation. Seems this Lear was the one who perpetrated all the unnatural acts.

Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, the movie makes even what’s new seem cobwebbed. From the first frame, a silhouetted barn and windmill at dawn, the images feel prefab, and the all-purpose wistful tinkly piano and sighing strings pin them even more boringly down. Worse is the narration, which, for the first third of the film, tells what ought to be shown: “Jess laughed and I laughed and for a moment everything seemed very remote. We had stumbled onto some kind of daring privacy.” What kind of screenwriter could get away with a line like that? What kind of director could let it pass? Filmmakers who are overawed by their source material, maybe. The opening credits say: “Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jane Smiley.” Nothing like leading with your awards.

Amazingly, A Thousand Acres develops an independent life–and some real power. Two words why: Jessica, Michelle. Lange begins blandly, as if she isn’t all there, but it soon emerges that the character has lobotomized herself. Watch the way she touches her own face and arms as she begins to wake up to the nightmare of her life: It’s as if she’s rediscovering her body along with her memories. Pfeiffer has to carry off the kind of illness-as-metaphor role that would give Susan Sontag hives. Eaten up with anger and refusing to let anything drop, she is consequently eaten up with cancer and dropped into a hole in the ground. But there’s no banality in Pfeiffer’s excoriating stare, in those eyes that really do reflect a fiery hell. Pfeiffer, Moore, and Weaver could form one scary coven.

Thanksgiving dinner at the Hoods’ (The Ice Storm) (61 seconds):
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A key party explained in The Ice Storm (50 seconds):
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Confronting the patriarch: Ginny (Lange) and Rose (Pfeiffer) face off with their father (Robards) in A Thousand Acres (47 seconds):
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