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Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Virgin Suicides: Watching American Cult Classics with my Turkish Husband

My good friend, Steven Hudosh, called me in November and excitedly told me to go see Mustang, a French movie set in Turkey. He had seen it at a festival, "You have to see it!" he insisted, "It's a sort of a modern take on the Virgin Suicides." I was very intrigued. I definitely want to see Mustang, but, first things first. Since I already had the Virgin Suicides on the list of cult classics to watch with my husband, I moved it to the front of the queue. Like Heathers, he had never seen or ever heard of either movie. I figure we can watch the films back to back.

The Virgin Suicides, 1999

A group of male friends become obsessed with five mysterious sisters who are sheltered by their strict, religious parents. - imdb

This classic film is an even better book by the same name (Jeffery Eugenides, 1993), or so I've heard. If ebooks weren't so blanking inexplicably expensive, I would be reading it right now. Anyhow, my comments are only regarding this beautiful movie, adapted by a 28 year old Sofia Coppola. The cast includes Kristen Dunst, James Woods and Josh Hartnett. I'm happy to say, this movie is a hit with my husband. I mean, there is a reason I married him, we love and hate many of the same things.

In the Virgin Suicides, while each sister has her own minor storyline, the story is told through Lux (played by Dunst) the second oldest daughter. Lux is the wildest, and consequently, the most tortured of the Lisbon sisters. The girls are virtual prisoners in their home, with only school as an outlet. Later, after Lux stays out all night, the girls are taken out of school by their ultra strict Christian parents, their rock records burned in the living room fire place.

The movie is dreamy with the perspective of a perpetual flash back. The decade is undetermined, the story is in the past, told by still-haunted neighbor boy, now a man. The easy aesthetic is driven by pleasing cinematography, rich with sun-kissed pastels. The sisters are seen listening to (apparently less offensive) records in gauzy nightgowns. A pile of limbs, they pass the time and brushing each others long blond hair and sending signals to the boys across the street.

In an effort to keep the girls pure and untarnished, the strict Christian parents, particularly the mother, eventually lead all five girls to suicide. The mother's relentless oppression in the name of God, or what amounts to her intense desire for the girls to retain virgins, is just too much for the teens.

“What did you think about the movie?”
"I like the story," my husband declares the next day. "It points out that social problems are caused by the religion. Good subject,” he says, “but, there should be more scenes about the parents."

It's true the parental relationship is a bit under developed. The father, a school teacher at the high school his daughters attend, seems to be at the will of his neurologically protective, fanatically Christian wife, when it comes to decisions about their girls. We are never privy to their private conversations, nor do we see much evidence of their fanaticism outside of her insane treatment of her 5 daughters and a few shots which lingers on crucifix a few beats too long. Perhaps this was a sacrifice made in the book-to-movie adaptation.

"The movie shows us that we can relate the religion and that kind of behavior toward a child in the white race, “ he says.
After some more discussion I understand his point to be that white people freely recognize fanaticism in other religions and races, but that he had not seen it in this self reflective way. White people calling out crazy white Christians fro being crazy. It struck me as a little funny, but considering the current (ignorant and extreme) rhetoric in the United States surrounding Islam, this was a welcome and refreshing perspective for him. After all, he is culturally, if not in practice a Muslim, the same way I am culturally a Christian. While neither of us adhere to either faith ,the proposed “ban on muslims” would exclude him  and roughly 25% of the worlds population from entering the United States.

This movie lays out the problem with extreme (white) Christian Ideology, that is, that human nature cannot be suppressed forever. It shows, in the softest, quietest way possible the most extreme breaking point. The commission of a mortal sin, committed the seemingly least likely perpetrators. These privileged young ladies not only take a life, they take their own - martyring themselves in an extreme defiance of the faith they aim to escape.

"Maybe it was normal for the time, but is it always just wimpy white kids?" is the next question my husband has.

It's true there is not a single person of color in the movie. I explain that high schools and housing in America continue to be very segregated. While there are many beautiful exceptions, most high schools are 85% one race (you can look at stats for Illinois highschools here. Many are over 95% one race). Considering this, the Virgin Suicides is a pretty accurate representation of what a white suburban upbringing might be like in the States. They do seem to stress this consciously in the film, the Lisbon sisters are limit of whiteness, so fair and so blonde. But, I can't account for that wimpy thing, it's just a sort of wimpy movie, full of wimpy characters. No single character is too strong, except Lux and the mother. Also, white people produced this, and most movies in Hollywood. And it's no secret, Hollywood has a whiteness problem.

One thing I have noticed talking to my husband is that while Turkey has its own race problems (what does it mean to be or look Turkish?) The issue is shades of brown, where in the States, it is literally black and white (at it's extremes). But this is a post for another day. I digress.

“So, do you see crazy families like this in Turkey?” I want to know. “I mean this movie represents a fictional extreme? But...”

“ Oh yeah, they have that. Imams were often shown in movies as being bad or extreme - like he will do things for money. But, in Turkey, there is nothing similar with bad parents - they don't show it in movies, not really. You will see the families in Turkey who grow their child religiously. However, those kids will find the same type of people socially, so they will accept the situation, most likely.”

Final rating – 7.8
"Good movie, yavrim!”

For more on this series look here: Introduction to the series or here: Heathers
*I took the screen shots from this blog post about the movie.

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