Our Playground Love: The Virgin Suicides (1999)

the-virgin-suicides

Remember soundtrack albums? These were everywhere during the 80s and 90s. A perfect piece of cross-promotion, if you ask me, promoting the artists on the CD (or cassette, depending on your vintage), and promoting the film at hand.

Hands down my favourite soundtrack albums were for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999). Yep, this film had two soundtrack albums: one filled with music from the 1970s, the other containing music from electronica outfit Air. The second of these tends to be the best remembered. And I mean, c’mon, who can’t remember 1999-2000 without hearing that dulcet voice croon: “You’re the piece of gold, that flashes on my soul/ Extra time on the ground/You’re my playground love”?

Here’s the ‘Playground Love’ video. Check out the singing chewy:

 

The singing chewy. Cool, eh?

Anyhoos, I bought both soundtrack albums in 2000. And yet, for some reason, I only caught the film for the first time on VHS some seven years later. 2007 was a time in which VHS and the soundtrack album were dying slow, digital media-driven deaths. 2007 was the end of Video Shop Days (if not Daze).

So, The Virgin Suicides is based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel, and is set in suburban Michigan circa the 1970s. The focal point is the Lisbon family, which is led by conservative Catholic parents who are bringing up five very lovely girls. All of them have hair of gold, like their mother … but that’s where the similarities end. These girls have no interest in nightly prayer sessions or curfews. The young Lisbon ladies crave boys, dancing— and death.

The film is told from the perspective of several young men who were acquainted with the sisters. These young men provide a lifeline (but not enough of a lifeline …) for the girls when they’re grounded by their fire and brimstone folks. Years later, the men remain transfixed by the teenage temptresses.

The Virgin Suicides is actually the perfect film to revisit on Video Shop Daze, because it’s a celebration of the very thing that energises this blog: Nostalgia. Plenty of academics have theorised ‘nostalgia’ in compelling ways, but I think this term is best explained by John Lennon/Roxy Music:

I was dreaming of the past

And my heart was beating fast

I began to lose control

Nostalgia, here, means pining for a period that has passed, a period that was hardly unproblematic, but that seems impossibly idyllic when compared with the noxiousness of the Now. Nostalgia means a desire to return to the unreturnable, a glorification of all that’s gone.

Edward Lachman’s cinematography gives The Virgin Suicides an oneiric, long-ago aesthetic. Hellgodamn, this is a luscious film to look at. The mournful strains of Tod Rundgren and Styx reinforce the sense of yearning for a bygone world.

Of course, the film’s nostalgia should be unsurprising given its source material. Alas, Eugenides’ novel was nostalgic in a particularly problematic way. Reading that text, I got the sense of the novel’s narrators as man-children swooning over dead damsels. No irony, no subversion, and hell, those last few pages needed a major edit. (Did I mention that I’m also an editor?)

Conversely, Coppola’s film challenges (to some extent) the androcentrism and voyeurism of its source. The girls (and especially Lux, played wonderfully by Kirsten Dunst) return the gaze; they’re not simply there for their “to-be-looked-at-ness”. The narrative is as much a critique of male fantasies as an appeasement of these fantasies.

Oh, yeah, and there’s a delightful scene in which Lux’ erstwhile beau, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett), strolls through school to the strains of Heart’s ‘Magic Man’.

Here’s the ‘Magic Man’ clip.

 

Funny stuff, eh?

Though even in the film’s witty moments (and there are many), there is still an underlying sense of tragedy. This tragedy is signposted by the very title of the movie. The girls’ actions are made all the more horrifying by the fact that the film (like the novel) fails to provide any kind of clear-cut explanation for them.

(On that last point: Kudos to Eugenides and Coppola for not resorting to pop psychology).

Okay, so to wrap things up, The Virgin Suicides is the ultimate in celluloid nostalgia. And just writing this blog, I find myself longing to return to the time that I listened to this film’s soundtrack albums on my portable CD player. I find myself longing for the era of the videocassette and the soundtrack album.

And I find myself longing for the 70s. This was a period which I didn’t experience (being born in 1980), but which is brought to life here with all the reverential, rose-coloured, radiance of a playground love.

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