When it comes to oppressively obvious metaphors, few things top the titular event in “The Ice Storm” the popular 1994 novel that became an unpopular 1997 movie that weaves its tale of sexually hot-and-bothered families during a Thanksgiving weekend in the midst of the Nixon years.
Unlike “The Big Chill” — the 1983 movie about sexually hot-and-bothered college friends reuniting for a funeral where the metaphor is about these lives being frozen in time there is an actual ice storm in “The Ice Storm,” which prompts young Mikey Carver to want to go outside.
“When it’s freezing,” he tells his father, “it means the molecules aren’t moving, so when you breathe, there’s nothing in the air; you know, you breathe into your body, the molecules have stopped, it’s clean.”
Mikey goes for his walk, sits on a guardrail to rest and take in the beauty of the metaphor and is promptly electrocuted when a downed power line hits the guardrail.
The moral of the story (and it’s one to keep in mind these days when you find yourself cursing triple-digit temperatures) is that, when it comes to the arts, the cold isn’t exactly a prize, either.
Few artists have made better use of life’s big chills than Canadian-Californian legend Joni Mitchell — who not only talked about a making sexual-electrical circuitry explode in “Come In From The Cold,” but fills her lyrics with allusions to less than sunny skies.
The best example of creating such a climate is in “River,” which, despite being set in California during the Christmas season, uses Mitchell’s piano and haunting voice to evoke a cold, cold heart at the end of a relationship.
It’s prominent image — “Oh, I wish I had a river / I could skate away on” — is about as pinpoint a depiction as it comes of sorrow and the need to be among unmoving molecules.
When it comes to unmoving molecules, though, few images are as lasting as the fate of Jack Torrence within the snow-blind topiary maze at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s film version of the Stephen King horror classic “The Shining.”
King purists rightly note that this is not how the book ends — and the author himself has a long record of giving the cold shoulder to Kubrick’s adaptation — but the lasting image of Jack’s lost body and soul freezing to death also chills the spine.
The fear inherent in King’s novel is played for comedy in an episode of “Friends” where Joey is re-reading “The Shining” (and hiding it in the freezer when it gets too scary). He and Rachel swap favorite books (hers is “Little Women”) to discover what makes them cool enough to read repeatedly.
Eventually, as Beth March’s illness gets worse, Louisa May Alcott finds herself next to the ice cube tray and frozen peas and the friends spoil the endings of their swapped novels. Or, as Ross puts it, “Joey is asking if you’ve just ruined the first book he’s ever loved that didn’t star Jack Nicholson.”
The stone cold fact is that while we can find ourselves afraid of heat, of fire, of palpable destruction there’s a metaphorical and physical psychosis behind dealing with the cold — or else Eugene O’Neill would have written “The Heating Oil Man Cometh.”
The coming of winter ends the year, it’s the preferred artistic symbol for approaching death. Characters in the cold are heavily clothed to ward off the elements, lest snow and ice lure them into eternal sleep like the injured Warren Beatty at the end of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”
The effects of the cold become a character on their own as when (yes, Stephen King again) injured novelist Paul Sheldon realizes that — even if he could escape the manacles and sledgehammer of crazed fan Annie Wilkes — he would still need to navigate the damage from a blizzard to find freedom.
Nowhere does this play itself out more effectively than in John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the horror classic “The Thing.” A research team stranded in Antarctica not only must deal with a shape-shifting beast, but with the tricks the weather is playing on their minds.
“Whether we make it or not, we can’t let that Thing freeze again,” McReady says of the alien in their midst. “Maybe we’ll just warm things up a little around here. We’re not gettin’ outta here alive. But neither is that Thing.”
The cold is used, repeatedly, to make us not only face, but deal with mortality.
In the “First Snow” episode of “Northern Exposure,” the Alaskan residents matter-of-factly discuss Cicely’s expected grave count for the coming winter — to the horror of the community’s New York native doctor, who vows to fight death.
“You are only a doctor,” Ruthe-Anne tells him. “Do you reproach yourself when winter comes, when the grass dies, when the leaves fall from the trees?”
When the snow does fall, it’s greeted as a friend returning from too long an absence. The existential villain has become the plucky sidekick.
Considering our current circumstances, I’d throw a “Welcome Home” party for a few days of rain.
Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, where it’s always a cool 72 degrees.