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Ah, the 70s. A time full of political scandal, sexy key-parties and copious amounts of corduroy. A time rife with social anxieties that many look back on with whimsical nostalgia. In 1997, twenty years after it is set, acclaimed director, Ang Lee captured the anxieties of this decade perfectly in his adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel The Ice Storm. What is interesting however, is that they seem to resonate quite strongly with those similar themes in the 90s as well.
The film mainly follows the story of the Hood family in small-town Connecticut as things slowly begin to fall apart for them over the period of the Thanksgiving holidays. Dissatisfied with his life, family patriarch Ben Hood (played to clueless perfection by Kevin Kline) is having an affair with his sultry neighbour Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), while his wife Elena (Joan Allen) simmers in her growing suspicion, oblivious all the while as their respective adolescent children are taking part in sexual exploits and personal endeavours of their own. This drama closely examines their personal battles with their own mundanity, the claustrophobia of family life, the ever-growing disconnect between generations (in this case the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers) and what adults will do to feel free of it.
The young character of Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) innocently sums up this state of affairs perfectly as he describes “the negative zone” – a concept from the Fantastic Four comics wherein all every-day assumptions are inverted and perverted. This grim sense of sameness and soullessness is incredibly clear in poignant scenes in this film as dozens of men in tan trench coats await their train to work, or when a mother takes her daughter’s bike and steals from a drugstore, just to feel young again. Despite attempts to suppress their desolation, their icy conduct towards one another ultimately comes to a tragic head with the destructive arrival of the worst ice storm in years (notice the symbolism).
Relatively speaking, the seventies and nineties seem like rather contrasting eras. Flower power versus grunge; bell-bottoms versus ripped Levi’s; the Rubik’s cube versus the, erm, Furby. In spite of these cultural differences however, the underlying sentiments of Lee’s film transcend the twenty year divide, and the tribulations of The Ice Storm’s characters were very much relevant to its 1997 audience – especially the growing feeling of obsolescence in adults as their descendants inherit the world.
During the 70s, the media gained a new type of power. In the wake of the Vietnam War as the grim reality of war was shown on television screens in every household; and with the Watergate Scandal, people watched as their country’s president descended into disgrace. Around this time, came a new generation of young people – the Baby Boomers – no longer ignorant of their surroundings, and more aware than ever of their social importance. This is personified in the character of Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) who is first shown immersed in President Nixon’s televised speech and seems to have a fascination with the man and his imminent downfall. Her parents don’t seem to understand her interest, preoccupied instead with raunchy dinner parties and golf. As a result of this, the youth of the 70s matured quickly and adapted faster to the changing world. They were as wise and experienced as adults, but they also still had their youth. Their cultural awareness is laughed at and sexual curiosity is scolded by their parents – who are in fact clueless to their surroundings and if anything, incredibly irresponsible – both sexually and otherwise. Ultimately, it is no coincidence, that the film’s narrator is a 16 year old boy.
A similar thing was also happening during the 1990s between the now grown-up Baby Boomers and their progeny, Generation X. The nineties saw the once unfathomable rise of new media as cable TV and the internet took the world by storm. Information became readily available to almost anyone who wanted it and once again, the new generation of young people took total advantage of this to an extent their elders would never fully understand or grasp (*insert joke about parents asking how to send an email*). Just as before, young people in the 90s were more and more aware of the changing world around them; seeing their country change (incredibly in 1997, they were just a year shy of the biggest presidential scandal since Nixon – Clinton and Lewinski), the end of old wars, the beginnings of new ones, the rise of terrorism, and enormous developments in technology. Perhaps once revered and respected, the elders slowly became increasingly obsolete and disconnected – the result of which being to look down on their offspring with envy and contempt. After all, what could they possibly know about the world at that age?
This week, The Ice Storm celebrates its 20th birthday and incredibly still manages to be as relevant now as it was upon its release. While the war between Baby Boomers and Generation X has ended, a new one has taken its place – both of the aforementioned versus those pesky Millennials. In the twenty years since this film was released, society has developed again in even more previously unforeseeable ways and the product of this – the Millennial – is mercilessly preyed upon by all those who came before it. Having grown up in a technological age, this generation has had the world at its fingertips, what with them being born with a phone in their hand and all. They are arguably the most socially and politically aware (or indeed, woke) generation of all time, often the driving force behind many social movements and protests. They are the Wendy Hoods of the 2010s, mocked and patronised for speaking out about things they’re “too young” to truly understand – berated for buying avocado toast by the generation that ruined the economy. They have more freedom and advantages than their parents had (yet also have many fundamentals held out of reach) and they will be younger for longer (but only because they can’t afford to start a family until later). Evidently, the generation gap as depicted in Ang Lee’s film is a vicious cycle which makes it incredibly relatable and great for re-watching over time, regardless of your feelings for Tobey Maguire.
The Ice Storm isn’t a film about the 70s, affairs, or misleadingly, an ice storm. It is about the power of obsolescence over a person, their fear of the fact, and their resentment towards their successors. This is a film that will stay relevant for as long as there are adults and youths, for theirs is a rivalry that transcends time, and I hope to one day watch it with my children as I quietly resent them.