Films

A time of polyester principles

Two movies flash back to Seventies decadence

Brian D. Johnson October 20 1997
Films

A time of polyester principles

Two movies flash back to Seventies decadence

Brian D. Johnson October 20 1997

A time of polyester principles

Two movies flash back to Seventies decadence

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Disco, eight-track tapes, progressive rock, digressive sex, cocaine at the workplace, polyester leisure suits, open-necked shirts with giant collars—the Seventies are back with a vengeance. Or so it seems at the movies. Perhaps Quentin Tarantino started it all by lifting John Travolta’s career out of the dumpster in 1994 with Pulp Fiction, and by spiking sound tracks with bands like Stealer’s Wheel and Kool & the Gang. Now, as a new millennium looms, the Seventies suddenly seem to matter. There will always be nostalgia for the naive freedom of the Sixties, the age of allegedly infinite possibility. But the Seventies is the aftermath decade, the era that picked up the pieces, and in its mirror-ball reflections American film-makers have found a moral complexity that seems oddly relevant to the present.

Two new movies, The Ice Storm and Boogie Nights, foreground Seventies culture so specifically that their atmospheric images of the time almost eclipse the characters. Though radically different, both films are stylish comedies of manners with tragic overtones. And both are stories of betrayal, about characters who let sexual licence take them to the brink of the abyss. The Ice Storm focuses on loveless, wifeswapping parents and their lost, sexually confused children. Elegantly directed by Sense and Sensibility’s Ang Lee, it frames the moral vacuity of the Seventies with cool, contemporary hindsight. Boogie Nights, a splashy second feature written, directed and produced by 26-year-old Wunderkind Paul Tilomas Anderson, is a wild and woolly saga of the 70s porn industry. The film is so immersed in the excesses of the decade that it could almost be a product of it. Featuring Mark Wahlberg (formerly rap singer Marky Mark) as an ambitious young porn star, it unfolds as a 1001 Nights of the American Dream, a magic carpet—or shag-rug—ride into decadence.

The Ice Storm takes place on the middleclass fringe of the hurricane that rips through family values in Boogie Nights. The

story, based on the 1994 novel by American author Rick Moody, revolves around two Connecticut families and is set in November, 1973, just as the Watergate scandal is breaking. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is in the midst of an extramarital affair with his neighbor’s wife, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), but she is rapidly losing interest now that their fling threatens to congeal into a relationship. And Ben’s high-strung wife, Elena Goan Allen), is silently beginning to suspect.

As the adults act like adolescents, their children are trying to become instant adults. Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) is only 14 but impatient to get the pants off both the boy next door, Mikey Carver (Elijah Wood), and his kid brother, Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), a budding psychopath who likes to blow up his toys with cherry bombs. Wendy’s older brother, Paul (Tobey Maguire), is hoping to score with a rich girl from his prep school in the city.

Their parents, meanwhile, converge in a wife-swapping “key party”—willing participants drop their car keys into a bowl, and at

As a new millennium looms, the Seventies seem to matter

the end of the night a lottery decides who goes home with whom. But tragedy is waiting in the wings, and as an ice storm turns everything to glass, the story takes a dark turn.

Lee extracts precision performances from his cast, although the characters often seem no more than the sum of their attitudes. Kline relies on crisp mannerisms to play the adulterous husband and pedantic father who is trying to act normal. As the hardened sexual opportunist, Weaver is efficiently dominating, with a look that could have been borrowed from Jane Fonda’s call girl in Klute.

But it is Joan Allen who stands out. As the wronged woman, she emerges as the drama’s brittle emotional centre. And here—as in Nixon and The Crucible—she acts with a raw mix of resilience and vulnerability that goes straight to the pit of the stomach. The children also strike a nerve, conveying a bluntly precocious sexuality without resorting to cuteness.

What is annoying about The Ice Storm, however, is how methodically it trots out signifiers of the Seventies. In just a few minutes of screen time, there is Paul smoking Thai stick from a giant water pipe,

Nixon on TV saying he has some tapes that will vindicate him, Jane lying on a waterbed reading Philip Roth, and her husband talking about some new semiconductor called silicon that comes from sand.

The script—by Ang Lee’s longtime producer, James Schamus— won a prize at Cannes. But although it captures the expanse of Moody’s novel, the writing spells out its intentions too cleverly. Lee, who grew up in Taiwan, portrays 70s America with the same curious gaze that he brought to Jane Austen’s England in Sense and Sensibility. But as the drama darkens in the second half, he finds emotional power in spare, crystalline images—the Oriental bend of tree limbs shrouded with ice, or a train wheel inching over a frozen rail.

Canadian composer Mychael Danna accents the minimalism with the bare-wood sounds of native American flute and Indonesian gamelan. Danna also scored Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, which bears a resemblance to The Ice Storm. Both films are muted adult fables about lost children and tragic accidents involving ice. But The Sweet Hereafter, which seems eerily suspended in time, is the more mysterious and profound film. While The Ice Storm charts the slippery slope of moral misadventure in

the Seventies with meticulous care, it still just skids along the surface.

Boogie Nights does not go very deep either, but in this case that seems to be the point: to make a virtue of shallowness. In its own way, however, Boogie Nights chronicles the breakdown of a family—the extended family of a porn entrepreneur. The story, very loosely based on the life of late sex star John C. Holmes, takes place at a time when makers of X-rated movies considered them-

selves at the cutting edge of some ill-defined revolution. It was the pre-AIDS era. They were still making films, not videos. And some of them went about it with a sense of pride that seems sweetly naive in retrospect Wahlberg is impressive in the role of Eddie, a busboy and part-time male prostitute who changes his name to Dirk Diggler and becomes a charismatic porn star. Not only does Wahlberg, a former Calvin Klein poster boy, prove he can act, but his is a fully fleshed character in every sense—in the end, he even unveils the evidence of Dirk’s phenomenal endowment (with the aid of a prosthetic member). Burt Reynolds, meanwhile, gives his strongest performance in years as Jack Horner, the godfatherly filmmaker who recruits Dirk. Reduced to pa-

thetic self-parody in recent roles (notably Striptease), Reynolds finally seems in charge playing this Zeus of sleaze.

The actual director, Anderson, displays prodigious talent. After making one small feature (Hard Eight), with Boogie Nights he attempts a sprawling panorama of a subculture on the scale of Altman’s Nashville or Scorsese’s GoodFellas. The film is a non-stop carnival of period kitsch. And without showing a lot of nudity, Anderson succeeds in

evoking the deliciously cheesy atmosphere, and manic delusion, of the 70s porn industry—which starts to look like a pop-culture concentrate of the decade as a whole.

But unlike Altman and Scorsese, Anderson lacks a compelling vision. And as the narrative stretches to 2 */2 hours, his intoxicating style wears thin. Too many characters, such as porn princess Amber Waves Oulianne Moore) and sad-sack actor Little Bill (William M. Macy), remain undeveloped, all undressed with nowhere to go. Still, there is enough brilliance—including a drugs-and-guns showdown that outdoes Tarantino—to make it worth sticking around for the end of the party. And nothing could be truer to the Seventies than a party that goes on too long. □