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A remembered world


The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola's extraordinary debut feature, reminded me of a film to which it bears little outward resemblance, Terrence Malick's Badlands. No doubt, some will find that comparison a little strange. Malick's masterpiece, after all, is largely identified with its subject and story, which effectively launched a whole subgenre of similar films. As a colleague of mine has joked, one day soon we're sure to see the emergence of a cable channel--BLTV--devoted to all those myriad Badlands imitators, violent, supercool road movies about beautiful young criminals on the lam.

The difference between Badlands and its spawn is about the same as that which separates The Virgin Suicides from most American movies about adolescence. The genius of Malick's film ultimately derives less from its killers-on-the-run narrative than from the filmmaker's particular way of evoking the characters and their world, a method that carefully balances realism and lyricism, the profane and the poetic, and combines a ravishing-but-understated visual manner with a use of narration that stresses the private, retrospective nature of the filmmaker's approach. The Virgin Suicides is just as gorgeously idiosyncratic.

To extend the comparison as far as it need go, Malick's and Coppola's films both concern memory, self-consciousness and the American past. Where Badlands looks back on the late '50s from the vantage point of the early '70s, The Virgin Suicides (which is set very near the time Malick's film was released) looks back on the '70s from the late '90s. In the earlier movie, a male director adopts the viewpoint of a female narrator who recalls a lost (male) love; in the new film, that configuration is reversed. And gender clearly has something to do with the fact that the male-envisioned film centers on homicide and possession, the female on suicide and renunciation.

Scripted by Coppola from Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, The Virgin Suicides takes place in a Grosse Pointe, Mich., of the mind, a remembered world of longing and repression. The family at its center, the Lisbons, has five flaxen-haired daughters: Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Cecilia (Hanna Hall), Bonnie (Chelsea Swain), Mary (A.J. Cook) and Therese (Leslie Hayman). Headed by a goofy high-school teacher (James Woods) and his uptight, iron-willed wife (Kathleen Turner), the Lisbon household has an outward look of complete normalcy; indeed, their home is the very archetype of a typical two-story family house on a leafy, suburban street.

Observed from across that street--and through the glowing scrims of memory--by the boys of the neighborhood, the girls are all dewy complexions and reticent smiles. What their gentle demeanors barely betray is that Mrs. Lisbon's strictness and fear of the outside world has made the Lisbon domicile an airtight enclosure, one that's becoming increasingly insufferable. Still, it seems as anomalous as it is awful when little Cecilia is discovered in the upstairs bathtub, dead by her own hand. After the funeral, the family goes on in kind of a hushed daze; if the departed girl screamed, it wasn't heard.

What could possibly happen next? Actually, the film seems to operate in a state of suspended animation, where "what happens" is almost incidental to the mysteries it encloses. But if the story's moods are described in terms of acts, what happens next is Trip Fontaine (Josh Harnett), the school's square-jawed star athlete and leading dreamboat. He could have any girl, but he sets his sights on Lux, the nerviest and most vividly sensual of the Lisbon sorority. Of course, she can't date, is barely allowed to walk onto the front lawn. But he's more resourceful and determined than his lazy good looks might suggest, and he appeals cleverly to the divided sympathies of Mr. Lisbon, offering to provide all of the girls dates at a prom that he, the teacher, will be chaperoning. The one thing the father doesn't consider, it seems, is that one taste of romantic freedom might be more dangerous than none at all.

Trip wears a red velvet tuxedo; long hair and bell-bottoms are ubiquitous. Kiss and Aerosmith are on everyone's turntables. Yet the film doesn't fetishize the period or its details. Likewise it seems to care far less than most serious movies about individuating its characters (a choice that's perhaps its most risky and distinctive move): Apart from Lux, the girls are as interchangeable as figures in a Greek frieze or a painted Renaissance allegory. Apart from Trip, the boys are much the same; you forget their faces even before they leave the frame. (Given this strategy, it was wise for Coppola to cast mostly anonymous young unknowns in these roles.)

Remove the normal emphases on character, plot and setting, and what's left? Only the evanescent conjurings that turn the best movies into rich sanctuaries of feeling and reflection, which here both hinge on the link between cinema and adolescence. The latter is so often betrayed by the movies, by all the fictional machinations that forget--or deliberately ignore--how full of longing and intimations of loss every teenage heart is. Coppola gets this exactly right. In a way that's so unusual as to be almost uncanny, her film bypasses all the usual formulas and clichés to arrive at something that's remarkably close to pure emotion and rapt reverie.

That achievement is mesmerizing even if its precise nature is difficult to convey because it relies on such delicate balances. A little too much poetic vagary in the mix and the whole thing becomes as precious and weightless as one of those many bad French films about adolescence. A little more conventional specificity, on the other hand, and it sinks into case history and sociology. Clearly, Coppola isn't interested in passing judgment on Nixon-era America. (What a yawn that liberal hobbyhorse is.) In fact, if you take the movie as a statement about "repression" or "the patriarchy" or some such, it's hardly worth bothering about. Its originality comes not in what it looks at--givens, archetypes--but in its way of looking, a quicksilver, elegaic gaze that captures the magical and the unforgettable in the everyday. (Coppola gets sure assistance here from the great cinematographer Ed Lachman, who so far is this year's champ lensman; he also shot Erin Brockovich).

Besides being the daughter of Francis, Sofia Coppola is the wife of Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze. Given the support and resources available to her, one might easily suspect that her debut would be a slickly mounted vanity project. And that's finally what's so surprising and impressive about The Virgin Suicides: More than just a fascinating, intelligent and very original movie, it's one that depends from first to last on a purely cinematic vision, a sense of stylistic expression that can't be bought or faked. Regarding first films, I don't bestow compliments any higher than invoking Terrence Malick's debut. The haunting Virgin Suicides is the rare film that earns that comparison.

It wasn't so many years ago that a friend told me there was a North Carolina-born writer whom some considered the American equivalent of James Joyce and, deep in ignorance as I was at the time, I reacted with surprised skepticism. For anyone who might be so benighted still, I have a simple recommendation: Whatever you do about movies this summer, put Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel (a collection of four of his books that was released in the early '90s to wild critical acclaim) at the top of your beach-reading list, and be prepared for the most delightful of literary surprises.

Mitchell was, somewhat like this critic, a deep-rooted Tar Heel who became an enraptured New Yorker. From the '30s into the '60s, he made himself into sort of a journalistic Leopold Bloom, roaming Gotham in all hours and seasons, observing its human, physical and cultural peculiarities through the prism of pieces he wrote for The New Yorker. He wrote about the city's rats, its oysters, its street preachers and floozies. But perhaps the oddest bird ever captured by one of his droll life studies was a character called Joe Gould.

Gould was a well-born and -educated New Englander who by late middle age had fallen in station to become one of New York's colorful, verbose street bums. But not just any bum: He claimed to be writing a magnum opus, an oral history of the entire human race. Was this just another of his windy tales, or was he really embarked on an unprecedented literary undertaking?

Joe Gould's Secret, the last of Joseph Mitchell's books, has been turned into a movie of the same title by the actor-director Stanley Tucci (best known previously for Big Night). In the film, Tucci employs what struck me as a more than passable Eastern North Carolina accent in playing Mitchell, and the antic, wild-eyed Gould is played with consummate gusto by Ian Holm. Like other films directed by actors, this one makes its performances central to its enterprise, and they are fine performances indeed. In addition to its wonderful evocation of Greenwich Village and other New York locales in the '40s and '50s, Joe Gould's Secret also ventures a parallel between Gould's and Mitchell's literary lives, an interpretation that is quite credible and, in its own minor-key way, quite moving as well.

The end result is not a great film: It could tightened by 10 or 15 minutes, and it doesn't quite attain the dramatic lift that its second half needs. Yet Joe Gould's Secret is definitely a charming character sketch that brings to cinematic life the writings of a North Carolinian whom some critics have called the greatest American writer of the 20th century. Mitchell fans won't want to miss the film; others should make a beeline for the bookstore, before or after stopping at the movie theater. EndBlock

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