Part 2: The Virgin Suicides to The Blair Witch Project (May - August 1999)
In Part Two of our look at the most memorable films of 1999, we experience music, foul-mouthed mayhem, and a late, great auteur's final cinematic statement.
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The Virgin Suicides
Director: Sophia Coppola
To begin with, they weren't all virgins.
In a movie that struggles for an epiphany, a climax (if not an orgasm), it needs to be said that 14-year-old Lux goes to her grave as the only Lisbon sister to lose her virginity. Whether the title of Sofia Coppola's film includes her is debatable; whether Lux died before recklessly and, yes, finally colliding with another person for the first time is not.
Does it make a difference? Maybe. After all, everyone remembers their first time, don't they?
And The Virgin Suicides is rich with first times: The 1993 novel by the same name was the first by Jeffrey Eugenides; the film, released six years later, was the feature film debut of Sofia Coppola. For 16-year-old Kirsten Dunst, who played the carnally charged Lux, it was a first turn as an object of desire -- only five years removed from a part in Little Women and four years from Jumanji, the first film that suggested she might someday be capable of tongue-lassoing Spider-Man in a soaked-through blouse.
Like most first times, the film is a learning experience for everyone involved. Both Eugenides and Coppola received greater acclaim for their sophomore efforts -- a His 'n' Hers awards set, a Pulitzer Prize for Eugenides' Middlesex, a screenplay Oscar for Coppola's Lost in Translation. Dunst's performance earned her more high-profile, if not glamorous, gigs; the same could be said for Josh Hartnett, who was only a year removed from The Faculty's squinty, slouchy rebel, Zeke Tyler, yet seemed reborn in Coppola's film as the slithering temptation named Trip Fontaine.
The cast and crew can walk away from their first times, of course. What makes The Virgin Suicides such an incredible film is the simple fact that the Lisbon girls cannot.
Why not? The world of The Virgin Suicides is rich with meaning yet void of answers. Scenes are shot on a palette of rose water and honey, pierced by plumes of intoxicated blues and clouds of wrist-blood reds—Trip Fontaine's car, for instance, or the popsicle Lux nurses at the film's beginning. The ethereal music of the French duo Air is ever-present, punched up on occasion by the incomparable sex appeal of Heart.
In fact, from the death of Cecelia Lisbon through the next year in the lives of the remaining Lisbon girls—school uniforms, a meek father, a domineering mother, a prom that feels like liberation and a grounding the seems like a death sentence—the film aches, lusts and wants as hungrily as the girls at its center. Especially Lux Lisbon.
Of the five Lisbon girls, the camera sticks on Lux with the rapt attention of a gaggle of horny teenage boys. (The film and novel are famously narrated by 'we', a chorus of neighborhood boys, male hormones tracking their goddesses.) We see her soaked through with sunlight in a field, playing footsy with boys under the dinner table. We see her lunge through the window of Fontaine's sports car while Heart plays "Crazy On You" and Lux follows suit, licking Trip's mouth and throat. On prom night we see through her skirt to where the name 'Trip Fontaine' is written in Magic Marker on her panties. And the day after prom, we wake up beside her on the football field, abandoned.
Broken somehow by this experience, and on a new trajectory, Lux and her sisters begin their disappearing act. Coppola, meanwhile, continues to gingerly nod at warning signs for depression all around the sisters. And like the innocent boys that gather scraps and souvenirs left by the Lisbons, we try to figure out the clues. Yet we're never presented with anything more than the tokens the boys collect. When we try to piece the puzzle together, we construct a giant circle with a hole in the middle where the Lisbon sisters used to be, and fall straight through to the bottom.
In a capsule review for The Virgin Suicides, The New York Times notes that the film "includes sexual situations and a morbid fascination with premature death. " The first is certainly true. As for the second, well, the girls don't seem to have any fascination with death. In The Virgin Suicides, what's most shockingly memorable, or memorably shocking, is how quickly the Lisbon girls opt of life, their true fascination—how they race towards that final first time before experiencing any more. Brendan Fitzgerald
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Buena Vista Social Club
Director: Wim Wenders
Wim Wenders’ documentary on the music of the Buena Vista Social Club offers a real portrait of modern Cuba, juxtaposed with its ties to a more heady past. Ry Cooder’s collaboration with many of the prominent Cuban musicians of the '40s and '50s resulted in the hugely successful 1997 release Buena Vista Social Club. One year later, Wenders accompanied Cooder and his son, percussionist Joachim Cooder, back to Cuba. Having heard Cooder’s initial recordings of the ensemble and interested in learning more about these previously forgotten musicians, Wenders combined interviews, recording studio footage, and a live concert performance at Carnegie Hall to present a more complete picture of the making of the album and all the elements that went into its origin.
Much of the documentary’s success comes from its subjects (Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa, Barbarito Torres, and Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, among others), a compelling group filled with wonderful stories and boundless energy for their music. Immediately engaging and moving, the music goes beyond its initial buoyancy or sadness to create a poignancy that may not be as obvious to listeners of the CD, particularly those who do not speak Spanish. While music often transcends language, it is in understanding the stories told in song, as well as the stories of those performing the songs, that a real immediacy to the material is created.
Wenders spends a good portion of time with the musicians in the studio and there is an intimacy to the recording process that is paralleled in the footage of the Buena Vista Social Club’s performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Though far from intimate, the Carnegie Hall show represents the culmination of their success. There is such obvious, pure joy in the performance – not to mention, a great deal of experience and skill (see Torres playing his laud behind his back on the blistering “El Cuarto de Tula”) – on display that as a viewer, one cannot help but be moved by such exuberance.
Highlights such as Omara Portuondo walking down a street in Cuba singing as a local woman spontaneously joins in, or Ruben Gonzalez surrounded by young ballerinas dancing along to his piano playing in an old dance studio, or Compay Segundo’s story of lighting his grandmother’s cigars as a boy: all of these moments offer a glimpse into the bold personalities that make up the Buena Vista Social Club, as well as present a look at Cuba rarely seen to American audiences. It seems almost impossible to capture the energy of the live performances seen in this film, yet Cooder’s production in the recording studio allows for these musicians to present their music as in-the-moment as possible. It is both Cooder’s and Wenders’ obvious enthusiasm for this ensemble that translates their story so well. Buena Vista Social Club gives the music a chance to shine while also placing it and those who make it in a context both unique and revealing – an essential film that seems even more important today, as many of these performers have passed on. J.M. Suarez