Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, The Ice Storm, and Welcome to the Dollhouse all attack family rituals. These films are not so much concerned with what rituals suburban families perform but rather with how those rituals are performed.
    These films suggest that the family ritual never looks or feels valuable for its suburban participants. The on-screen families are tired of enacting the same orderly rites year after year, of showing enthusiasm when they feel none. To reflect their disinterest, the scenes depicting rituals are shot with an appropriately staid, even static camera. When the camera does move, it does so slowly, almost imperceptibly. The intent is to create as calm a surface as possible through which we, the viewers, can watch the characters wriggling uncomfortably. Glances, facial tics, and vocal inflections become greatly amplified. Because we can see through the rituals, they become artificial. In particular, the "enthusiasm" that the characters display begins to look and sound strained. The stationary camera acts again as a critical eye, recording everything with a cool detachment. Artificiality and transparency are therefore the two defining characteristics of the suburban family ritual.


The opening sequence from Welcome to the Dollhouse.

    The opening credits of Welcome to the Dollhouse attack the annual rite of family portraits. Interestingly, we do not see the portrait session itself, only the result. As the credits roll, the camera lingers on the portrait of the Wiener family. The camera moves in on one of the kids, Dawn (played by Heather Matarazzo), who wears thick glasses, has bucked teeth, and shows too much gum when she smiles. The camera zooms in gradually until her entire face fills the screen, distorting her gawky features.
    By showing only the result of the ritual, writer / director Todd Solondz immortalizes the split second when Dawn's face becomes a mask. His camera, moving in ever so slowly, never actually lifts the mask away, but it does shine a probing light through the surface so that the unhappy pre-teen beneath is illuminated. The camera implicitly asks us, "Is her smile real?" Slowly, we realize that Dawn is concealing her distaste for the family portrait under a tense smile. And she clearly feels unattractive, though we could never guess it without the aid of the camera, which exaggerates her physical awkwardness. If the camera had moved in too quickly or had kept its distance, Dawn's face would have remained curiously opaque. The subtle camera allows her uneasiness to become visible and stay hidden at the same time.


The Hoods prepare for their Thanksgiving meal in The Ice Storm.

     The Ice Storm criticizes the way the Hoods, a suburban Connecticut family, celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. Their Thanksgiving dinner is filmed in a cold, static style. The camera hardly moves. The color scheme is dominated by blues and greys, as opposed to the browns and oranges we normally associate with the holiday. Like the opening sequence in Welcome to the Dollhouse, the camera externalizes the mindset of the ritual's reluctant participants.
    As the Hood family prepares the Thanksgiving table, director Ang Lee captures their movement from a single angle. The camera deliberately does not move, as if to keep our pulses as low as theirs. And it maintains its distance from the physical action, reflecting the Hoods' own mental detachment from the ritual at hand. In the scene, Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) carves the turkey while his son Paul (Tobey Maguire) sets the table. His wife Elena and his daughter Wendy (Joan Allen and Christina Ricci, respectively) busy themselves over the side dishes. All of this activity is performed in silence, like a factory operation.3


Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) says grace in The Ice Storm.

    When they sit down to eat, the bitter words they exchange across the table are surprising and jarring because we have subconsciously expected their conversation to compliment the subdued camera style. When Wendy Hood intones grace, she refers to Vietnam, Native American genocide, and capitalist greed. The camera allows her words to emerge like sharp barbs from a deceptively complacent (and even boring) veneer of civility.
    While The Ice Storm and Welcome to the Dollhouse attack specific family rituals, Mr. & Mrs. Bridge paints a broader panorama. The lives of Walter and India Bridge (Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward) consist of nothing but rituals. The filmmakers construct a series of vignettes (weddings, graduations, anniversaries), each portraying an aspect of the Bridges' lives.4 It is an anthropological study of suburbanites, like a suburban Nature.
    In one scene, director James Ivory criticizes the way suburban couples quarrel. To make the quarrel feel and look like a ritual, he films the scene primarily with static medium and long shots. This technique creates a theatrical or staged quality, implying that the Bridges are like actors who have performed the scene too many times and who can no longer convince themselves to feel their own emotions.


Mrs. Bridge (Joanne Woodward) pauses at the kitchen door before confronting her husband in Mr. & Mrs. Bridge.

    In the scene, Mrs. Bridge storms into the kitchen where Mr. Bridge is reading the paper. She accuses him of not loving her; he shrugs it off; they fight; she storms out, only to return seconds later in tears; he comforts her; they embrace and make up. The scene is deliberately mechanical. Their bodies and voices go through the motions, but their minds (like the camera) are removed. The understatement makes it easier for us to vicariously experience their disenchantment.
    While these films criticize the way suburban families perform rituals, they do not portray suburbanites as clueless individuals who don't know any better. On the contrary, they invest their characters with an unfulfilled longing to rebel. Their repression is never obvious, of course. But the sly camera is always there, guiding us, hinting to us, enabling the sad characters to rise above the mindless rituals that they force themselves to endure.

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