Blow Waves & Micro Waves

The Virgin Suicides

published in Real Time No.39, Sydney, 2000

Maui-surfer bead necklace, peeking through a shirt undone to the chest. Two-toned aviator sunglasses, optionally worn or fondled. Narrow flared trousers slung low at the hip line. And a sexy stud haircut: an amalgam of Farrah Fawcett's heat-wanded wings, the Botticelli 'page-boy' look and the unfurled hirsuteness of Jesus Christ. Such is the retro visage of one Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett) as he sashays down the corridor of an upper middle class Catholic high school circa 1975 in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides.

Despite the pleasure in reading this scene (accompanied as it is by Heart's "Magic Man") the vacuousness of The Virgin Suicides perplexes me. From what I could get, a quartet of blondes move around for 90 minutes, often set in repose as if they are about to engage in a soft-core bacchanalia. Eventually, they off themselves. Something about life being tough when you're a teen girl. A bunch of male nerds perv on them in a variety of ways (all ludicrously ineffective) but can't even manage to wank. And some dork drones on and on with a voice-over narration that is as insightful as The Wonder Years. Something about "we-this" and "we-that" and other crap about love, society, yadda-yadda. I guess the book was a 'must-read'. Through this blancmange of 70s panel van art (about as hip now as using a Chemical break-beat sample) an arch 'girliness' wafts through the music by Air - a French band, as they label themselves. And did I mention that it's set in the 70s? The film reminds you of this about every 30 seconds.

It's 2000 and still people think the 70s is 'cool'. Like they're able to laugh at those 'dags' back then. Like people dressed in Country Road, Mooks and new Levis are not 'dags'. Like kids going into ad agencies with 'rad' ideas like 'sending up the 70s' are real with-it. This ongoing flirtation with 'bad' style is typically retro - and typically insecure. Most tellingly, it is achingly sanctioned and validated as a stylistic stance, which makes it so weak and reduces it to the highly conservative paradigms which define kitsch and camp. Like the straight declaration of love for Abba as a statement. Like the gay aesthetic embrace of Kylie as a politic. Real radical. The Virgin Suicides looks and moves like a video clip copied from an ad copied from a movie copied from a send-up on a TV show copied from a video clip copied from an avant-garde fashion spread copied from a nightclub flyer copied from a film. In the end, you get a micro-wave safe movie which numbs you to all processing in the act of consumption.

How exactly does this micro-waving - this 'retrogradation' - work in a film in an audio-visual sense? How does one fold, caress, arrange and drape a cinesonic fabric from another era as part of the material texturing and rendering which can enliven and embody a film's aesthetic, purpose and pleasure? The Virgin Suicides offers a chance for considering this - even though the film is woefully off the mark in terms of successfully exploiting, fusing or even handling the audio-visual issues discussed below.

The Virgin Suicides has a requisite peppering of 70s songs, and the music supervision is canny and accurate: Todd Rungren, Gilbert O'Sullivan, 10CC, Heart. A consistency guides the selection into a cache of soft sensual rock. Not entirely vapid, but oozing with a pregnant sexuality which thematically mirrors the languid moves of the blonde quartet and their palpable pubescence. Just as many soft rock songs from the mid-70s alluded to heady states of passion without unleashing any noticeable libidinal energy (The Starlight Band's "Afternoon Delight" being the penultimate example) the Virgin blondes hover as objects beyond reach - but moist and ripe for engagement. In a sense, they visualize the four-part vocal harmonies which densify pop music's choral floridity. Such harmonic vocalizations within Pop's meta-trajectory - from barber shop quartets to wartime swing to urban doo wop to secularized gospel to Brit pop to ornate R'n'B to the currently undying boy/girl-group resurgence - use multiples of voice to act as a swirling garment which simultaneously dresses and undresses a melody. Such eroticism is rendered pornographic when one lyrically addresses intimacy, privacy and consummation. Although a better selection of tracks would more effectively amplify this, the gratuitously enigmatic placement of the blondes throughout the film serves to sound this musicological trope.

Where the audiovisual construct of seductive shots of the blondes lolling around combined with 70's soft rock on the soundtrack generates a coital limpidity central to the film's "what-me-sexy?" tease, the music of Air melds these two elements into an interiorized soundtrack. The score provided by Air (and released as a CD separate to the official 'soundtrack recording' compile of 70s songs) imagines the film musically almost by pretending to be a band from 1975 who has been asked to score a movie. The Air 'sound' is thus highly referential and hyper-representational, perfectly befitting French culture's curating of stylists who excel in replication (which may be why post-70s Japanese pop culture has been so transfixed by all things French). The choice to use Air is a savvy one - though Air's playful authorial coding tends to be lost within the film's own vagueness, due to the film's alignment with the 'sound of Air' being posed against the film's ambivalence toward the history of that sound.

So what exactly is this 'sound of Air'? Their music for The Virgin Suicides can be identified and classified by tracing a multiple of sonic arcs which stream forth from the band's studio-produced epicentre. One stream leads to a 'symphonic loch', wherein a melting pot of mid-70s Euro rock references, echoes, phonemes and motifs can be discerned. I spy concentric ripples emanating from Magma, PFM, Le Orme, Ash Ra Tempel, La Dusseldorf, Klaus Shulze, Kingdom Come, Goblin, King Crimson, et al. Another stream leads to the lite-rock arrangements gleaned from Ennio Morricone, Riz Ortolani, Bruno Nicolai, Michel Polnareff, Michel LeGrand, Gert Wilden, Manfred Hubler, Siegfried Schwab, et al. Their frothy film scores from the late 60s to late 70s struck modern and modish poses via their use of rock/pop instrumentation and spacey studio effects to suggest a libertine power unleashed by their pseudo-hip music. I can imagine that in Air's record collection you would find Jerry Van Royen's score for Jess Franco's Succubus (1968); Francois de Roubaix's score for Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness (1971); Pink Floyd's score for Barbet Schroeder's The Valley (1972); Gato Barbieri's score for Bernado Bertolluci's Last Tango In Paris (1973); Jose Bartel's score for Charles Matton's Spermula (1976), Michel Polnareff's score for Lamont Johnson's Lipstick (1976); and Goblin's score for George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978). (At the very least, it has to be noted that the two-chord pattern of The Virgin Suicides' main theme is lifted straight from Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon", 1973.)

Collectively, these composers, ensembles, arrangers and orchestrators often employed Baroque-style modals and chord sequences which root the melodic terrain of European pop music as solidly as blues idioms provide the musical cartography for American pop music. There's a very simple way of putting this: Euro music always sounds like it somehow comes from a church. Its melodic progression, drama and resolution wells up deep from the musical architectonics which mark the shifts through Early, Medieval and Baroque music. Knowingly or unknowingly, every trained keyboard player who ended up as a composer or band member in the 70s imported such mock piety through the use of organs, synthesizers and mellotrons. The bizarre thing is that the soft-core sex boom which fuelled European film production between 1969 to 1977 often combined scenarios of mysterious topless nubiles wandering somnambulistically through mansions, castles, convents and tombs with symphonic rock throbbing and pipe organs droning on the soundtrack. As scantily as the costumes adorned women's bodies, so did themes of redemption, salvation, retribution and seduction drape these films, limply aligning them to purported libertine ideals intended to decimate the mouldy values of the Church and the State's represssion of sexual freedom. (In other words: virgin lesbian nuns humping to prog rock.) Such were the characteristically heady delusions of the upper middle class which both produced and consumed these movies.

Taking all of this into account, The Virgin Suicides can be viewed as a contemporary arthouse version of this endearingly pathetic period of progressive cinema. It even - unknowingly, I would argue - recalls far greater titles (and films) like The Virgin Report, Virgin Among The Living Dead, The Blood Splattered Bride, Confession of A Sixth Form Girl, Behind Convent Walls, etc. via its sensationalist juxtaposition of 'virgin', 'suicide' and David Hamilton photographic effects (though all we get is a cupboard full of Tampax). Yet in place of the kind of haunting erotic inexplicability one finds in much 70s Euro sexploitation, The Virgin Suicides serves up a blanched, complacent Italo-Catholic ambience intermingled with a lackadaisical sexuality. The referents and codes lazily announce themselves in the film's audiovisual terrain, but the narrational machine of the film does not run on their fuel.

Despite the careful sono-musical landscaping of Air - and despite a controlled and consistent tone which guides the film's plasticity and performances - a flatness pervades the very surface of the film. Whilst this view sounds contradictory, it should be noted how the recouping and appropriation of a generic or iconic audiovisual textuality does not conform to the extant and reduced notions of postmodern quotation. You might be po-mo by restaging a film still for a photo shoot in a fashion mag staged inside a new retro-outfitted night-club and get all the details right, but such production is like chemically distilling the flavour of lemon detergent: your molecular formula of reconstruction remains in the immaterial realm of calculable formula. You're doing an image of an image; it was already rendered immaterial before your arrival. Sound - specifically, the tonality of sound of the recording of a musical style - is a dense fabric of textures, hyper-material and abstract. It happens when you arrive at it. Less a terrain of signs, images and objects and more a dimension of shades, tones and surfaces. The surface of music is never flat, as its sound images its depth and engineers an environment for experience. Image production does not operate in this way at all. So when you bring the two together - yes, in the film soundtrack - you design a multi-planar and multi-linear space for audio-visual narration. Music - supervised, commissioned, scored, composed - may be treated as mere wallpaper as in The Virgin Suicides, but music is the whole room, the view outside the window and the space inside your head. How does one fold, caress, arrange and drape a cinesonic fabric from another era as part of the material texturing and rendering which can enliven and embody a film's aesthetic, purpose and pleasure? The research continues.

Text © Philip Brophy 2000. Images © respective authors