Sunday, October 15, 2017

anything but darkness

Ice Castles is almost necessarily cheesy and sentimental. This particular story cannot be told any other way. At the core, there are two threads to the story--young girl, Olympic hopeful on the rise, loses her sight, then fights through near-complete blindness to skate again; and same young girl separated from her longtime boyfriend, cheats on him and only though her own struggle with that other story thread can she get her shit together and be with that longtime boyfriend again. It's a basic romance with a Cinderella sort of sports story over the top of it.

As for that basic romance, I love Roger Ebert's take on this film...

Have we grown so desperate for vicarious cheap thrills that the simple love story is done for? Is it no longer possible to have a movie in which two young people meet in the first reel, smooch in the third, get married in the seventh, and disappear into the sunset as we disappear down the aisles?

I must interrupt because any film out of Hollywood worthy of a 7-act structure breakdown would be far too complex for such a simple love story. That's more acts than most Shakespeare plays, I'm pretty sure. But anyway...

Roger goes on to describe the basic plot of Ice Castles, then this:

Call me Scrooge; stories like this make me cringe. I don't deny the bravery of the characters being portrayed--I just object to the emotional bankruptcy of the people making the movies. I sit there in the dark and I think of "Love Story," with the girl dying at the end, and "The Other Side of the Mountain," with the Olympic ski champion being paralyzed, and "The Other Side of the Mountain, Part Two," where she finds true love even so, and "Uncle Joe Shannon," where the kid was not only an orphan but had to have his leg amputated, and I ask myself, and I ask myself: Is it possible to find true love these days outside of the hospital?

Aside from the specific location being the hospital, my take on Roger's question is, is it possible to find true love without life otherwise being a struggle? And, in cinematic terms, if not in real life, my response is simply this: why should it be easier? I mean, this blog started--and still has at its core an association with--Groundhog Day, where the love story is simple because everything else is so complicated. Phil has to reinvent himself and reinvent his day time and time again until he can be worthy of love. Many romantic films rely on arbitrary differences between one person and another, or relatively innocent lies get in the way of things, or cultural minutiae (not to be too dismissive) gets in the way, and in the third act they realize their differences or their lies, or their cultures just don't matter as much as their love. That's already more complicated than what Roger seems to want. Where are these romances he's talking about? I mean, I think of romances before the 70s and I'm thinking of sexually progressive films like Carnal Knowledge or a screwball comedy like His Girl Friday, or Sabrina, Roman Holiday, or The Apartment (which I know Roger liked)--none of these are as simple as this thing he's longing for in his review of Ice Castles.

Nor should they be. The best romantic story is one that feels realistic, that feels like it takes place in a world that is lived in, with characters who feel like they have actual lives. Life and love can so very easily be at odds, I figure any romantic story needs something bigger to complicate it than arbitrary minutiae.

Ice Castles begins with a nearly colorless scene, Lexie skating on the frozen pond, the Oscar-nominated song "Through the Eyes of Love" playing, and gradually, the shots expand away from the skating, showing us a farm, a road, and then Nick in his truck coming back to the town of Waverly. And it puts us with Nick before we're really with Lexie, and that's interesting to me. But, Roger dismisses the film, saying, "One of the melancholy aspects of "Ice Castles" is the quality of talent that's been brought to such an unhappy enterprise." As if an unhappy film isn't a worthy film, simply because it might revolve around unhappiness. The first emotion of the film, of course, is joy, when Lexie sees Nick is back. He's dropped out of school, pre-med. And when Beulah asks why, he responds, "None of your goddamned business." He never really explains, either. But, explanations aren't the point. That Nick has failed at school, that he later isn't good enough at his hockey tryouts, this just rolls him into the same basket as Beulah and Marcus, the former who is coaching Lexie and wants her to go do something with her skating ability, the latter who is holding Lexie back because she reminds him too much of her dead mother, the one who first took Lexie out onto the ice. Not even ten minutes in, the two of them fight about it, but it's easy to boil it down with an exchange from later: Beulah: Damn it, Marcus, give her a chance to be something!" Marcus: "She is something!" He's her father. He wants to protect her from the world. Beulah is her surrogate mother. She wants to send her out into it. These aren't diametrically opposed ideals. The thing is--and this is the real melancholic aspect of Ice Castles--is that Beulah and Marcus are coming at Lexie from different angles but their both coming from the same place. Beulah won regionals 25 years ago. Marcus was probably happy when his wife was still around, and she was, we can infer, a skater as well. But, his wife died. His life fell apart. I swear I'm not even sure what he does for a living in Waverly. We see him at home, we see him drinking at a bar, we see him bowling angrily at Beulah's place. We do see him repairing a tractor, so I guess he has a farm. Every time the movie is in Waverly, it seems like a place of perpetual winter, so it's hard to be sure. But, that's sort of the point, visually. This is a town that is always covered in snow (even if it isn't). This is the town where Marcus lives as a distant father, a belligerent drinker, a distraught widower. This is where Beulah lives as a failed skater (for whatever reason), running a barely-used business into the ground, and coaching a girl who is explicitly too old to have any success in skating. And, immediately, though the film doesn't make it clear, Nick is there with them. For whatever reason, he quit school, and he's depending on hockey to take him somewhere. But then he tries out and that gets him to a farm club at best (and the coach suggests he should go back to school). Later he quits. And he comes back to Waverly just as much a failure as they are. But that doesn't mean his life is over.

They are all living vicariously through Lexie in the third act, of course. And, maybe that isn't healthy. But, when you've got nothing, you take what you can get. I was looking at the screenplay for one of my favorite films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind earlier this evening, and I noticed one of Joel's lines about falling in love with every woman who pays him any attention at all. A melancholic note from that film that I have often felt far too familiar. But, here, too--having failed at your own dream--and I've failed at more than a couple--you can find a new one, you can make do, or you can help someone else fulfill theirs. (Or more than one of those options, I suppose, but who's got the energy for that?). Marcus' wife, Lexie's mom--she didn't die quickly. We are never told explicitly what happened to her, except for Marcus' description, that Lexie's mother could see more of the place than other people could but she "Never has a chance to show you. When you were old enough to remember, she couldn't come out her anymore." Maybe she had cancer.

(Or some form of dementia; when Marcus asks Beulah (after Lexie has been hiding in her room) "She ever talk to you?" It almost feels like he's asking about someone other than Lexie, that this question is bigger than that. Like maybe Beulah and his wife were close, that that loss is what has destroyed both of their lives... But, he's asking about Lexie. But he might as well be asking about something bigger, because Lexie's implosion could be the thing that destroys their lives all over again.)

Maybe hers and Marcus' story was even more one of those stories Roger wouldn't want to see on film.

And out there in the world away from Waverly, Lexie is told on the one hand that she's Cinderella, that she's special, but on the other hand, she's not good enough for a triple, when she literally just landed a triple--as her new coach Deborah tells her, "Triples may be big crowd pleaser so, to judges it's a piece of showoff acrobatics." (Which is interesting because Brian compares her to Russian gymnast Olga Korbut, whose focus on risky acrobatics, according to CNN drove the change in gymnastics from an "emphasis... poise and elegance, [with] older and more experienced gymnasts made up the majority of the competition" to something "more dynamic with its participants primarily comprising youngsters that are on the cusp of adulthood." It's an apt comparison, I suppose, but not one Deborah should approve of.

The dichotomy is deliberate of course, between Lexie and Nick. She knows what she wants and has the skill to get it, but doesn't seem all that into the business of it (or winning at the expense of others). Nick seems to know what he wants in playing hockey and he has the skill, but that farm club isn't enough for him. He gives up because he can no longer see his future, figuratively speaking. She gives up only after she, on the obviously more literal level, cannot see hers. In the end, it takes the different failures around Lexie to bring her back. Beulah and Marcus have to get on the same page, and Nick is there to force it, very dramatically.


But this push comes from all of them (and Lexie for a time) feeling like there's nothing left. They don't even know what they want anymore, and they certainly couldn't get it if they did know.

Coming back to that last big paranthetical, it feels as meaningful to Beulah as it is to Lexie that when Beulah does come to get her out, Lexie is in the attic, wearing her mother's old sweater. And the lack of detail in everybody's backstory becomes vital to this story. Marcus' loss, Beulah's loss, Nick's failure, Lexie's loss--these all get tangled up together, and Lexie, as blind as she is, is the only one who can manage to be pulled out of it. And maybe pulling her out will pull them all out. The reason this film is the wholesome family film it is is right there, in the end; when Lexie skates again for an audience, Marcus is there, Beulah is there, and Nick is not only there, when she trips over the flowers after her performance is over, he walks out onto the ice to help her up. The film starts with Lexie as this bright center in a cold, melancholy world. In the end, even she needs to be lifted up, because, and this is the big cheesy center of it all, family (even a broken one with surrogate members) is important. And maybe Lexie's success without them would have felt a little empty. That moment when she's at the party and she's looking at the empty ice outside, before her accident--being out there alone on the ice is more appealing to her than the hangers on and wannabes at that party. She has already invited Nick to come see her (which he does, but only after saying he can't) and that backfires. She misses them. She needs them. Although to be fair, she has already proven that she doesn't need Nick's actual help to get up--she quite stubbornly gets up without his help when he's with her out there her first time on the ice without her sight. But stubbornness can only go so far. In the end, she can need him and not need him at the same time. The point is that he's there. And her father is there. And Beulah is there. And the movies ends on that hopeful note. Sure it adds the flowers and that fall right before it's over, but that's life. Even when it's good, there's got to be something to make it interesting.

Coming right back around to Roger, really. Because whether it's falling on the ice then or falling earlier and going blind, these things make the love story side of things stronger. If it were nothing but a love story, it wouldn't be any good. There has to be flowers to get in the way, accidents to take away Lexie's sight, dead mothers, failed dreams. Otherwise, why even seek out love, but to pull you up from all the bullshit?

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