Thursday, December 01, 2005

New Film: The Ice Harvest

Entering the final month of 2005, it has suddenly become clear to me just how atrocious this past eleven months have been for new American cinema. Aside from Canadian auteur David Cronenberg's masterful A History of Violence and German madman Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, it seems reasonable to me that the modest virtues of Harold Ramis' The Ice Harvest may just make it the second or third runner-up on what is thus far a dismal list (save us Brokeback Mountain and The New World). Indeed, it is only the former that will figure on my year end's top ten list, not that that says anything for the relative quality of Hollywood. For 2002, for instance, I would not include a single American-financed film among my ten best (though again there is a Cronenberg film, Spider) even if I could name perhaps a half dozen very good films which I prefer to everything but A History of Violence and Grizzly Man this season. The point in this is that one, much of the best of world cinema happens outside the U.S.; and two, usually we fare quite a bit better -- Hollywood-wise -- than we have in 2005.

So, yes, if you've confined yourself to Hollywood pictures this year, by choice or circumstance, you most likely have convinced yourself that there are no good movies out there... and largely, you're correct. However, as I have said, there are modest virtues to be witnessed in the John Cusack-Billy Bob Thorton headliner, The Ice Harvest, which opened nationwide last week to below average reviews and an indifferent public -- judging by the poor box office. What critics and audiences have missed in passing over the über-cruel comedy cum neo-noir is this year's most extravagant reinterpretation of genre, in this case the Christmas film, even if the Ramis-helmer may at times seem like Bad Santa (2003) redux or a Coen Brothers retread.

In the Groundhog Day director's favor, however, is what might be judged to be the fuller reversal of genre (even if it can't equal Bad Santa's wicked pleasures) and the more generous picture, as it avoids the condescension of the Coen's, however nihilistic Ramis' perspective may be. The point is that The Ice Harvest operates according to a spatial logic that catalogues those places that Christmas movies tend to elide -- bars, strip-clubs... okay, lots of strip-clubs, etc. -- and a set of details that seem to cut against the holiday's mythical grain, be it Oliver Platt's Christmas Eve binge-drinking and subsequent purging, Thorton's porn video and even the (freezing) rainstorm itself, which Ramis snidely and economically introduces during the opening credit sequence with a few drops falling on a nativity Christ child. These are people and places which exist -- on Christmas just as they do anytime else -- but typically have no place in your typical Christmas movie... and rightfully so, one could argue.

Nevertheless, Ramis' Bad Santa set-up (which is surely the epochal film in this sub-subgenre) gives way to a Fargo (1996) or A Simple Plan (1998) without the accents -- or more importantly, given that we are talking about Witchita and not Minneapolis, the snow. Consequently, Ramis reminds us of his postmodern street-cred by giving us another generic mash-up, just as he presaged Pulp Fiction a decade earlier with his experimental Groundhog Day-time structure. Still, it is less the director's adept generic/tonal shift than it is the cohesiveness of his heterocosm that marks The Ice Harvest as noteworthy new Hollywood cinema. The very fact that The Ice Harvest engages our sense of narrative expectation, let alone the rigor of its conceit, provides its anomaly in the wasteland that has been 2005.


Anonymous said...

dang, mr mortensen is mesmerizing in a history of violence..

Anonymous said...

He aint.