29 March 2014

Like It's 1999

by Kevin Powers

Two weekends ago, before March Madness took hold and at the beginning of my latest conquest of AMC's The Walking Dead, I watched two movies that have proven themselves formative in my passion for the movies. Both released in 1999 and both dealing with teenage casts, these two films stand out in the list of my favorites from high school and still today. They are vastly different, yet near and dear to me in many ways.

Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, an adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Virgin Suicides, is one of those films that will live in me forever. Its sounds and images forever embedded in the pantheon of my movie memory. It opens perfectly as such, a combination of moving image and music. Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst) standing in the middle of a sun-drenched suburban elm-lined street finishing a lollipop, the first notes of the beautiful, modern movie score by French band, Air. The camera continues its track down that street. Men water their lawns. City workers mark elm trees to be cut down. Small set details depict the 1970s teenage girls' bedroom. Water drips from a tap. My love for music, movies, and Kirsten Dunst (my high school fantasy) all coming together.

Thus begins Sofia Coppola's lesson in adaptation of good literature. The narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) begins the voiceover that will run throughout the movie, it is Euginides' beautifully simple prose: "Cecilia was the first to go." Coppola's camera hovers over a young girl in a bathtub of bloody water. The mood and tone is set. This is a modern movie set in the 1970s about troubled youth, but it is not at all what I, or anyone else having not read the book at the time, thought it would be.

There are five Lisbon sisters, their wimp father, Mr. Lisbon (James Woods), "our math teacher," their mother, Mrs. Lisbon (Kathleen Turner), and the boys, all the boys, the neighborhood boys, infatuated by their beauty and what it represents to them. That young, intelligent, sensitive boys often spend more time daydreaming and crushing instead of acting out their emotions is not lost on Coppola or Eugenides. And that is the beauty of this film.

Trapped by their extremely overbearing mother, Mrs. Lisbon, the five blond, teenage beauties of this particular Detroit suburb circa 1975 have little contact with males their own age, especially outside of school. It is summer, and the Lisbon's decide, after Cecilia attempts suicide, they will throw their daughters a party. The neighborhood boys are all invited, each receiving meticulously detailed and glittering invitations. We see them passing to each of their hands. They show up awkwardly to the party, not knowing how to approach what they see as unattainable. They can barely even talk to the girls. Todd Rundgren's "A Dream Goes On Forever" and The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" play underneath. A noise is heard from outside, Cecilia has succeeded in suicide. The party is over.

After the tragedy, the remaining girls return to their private Catholic school. The boys watch them from afar. Try to talk to them and not. Taking the Eugenides' novel a step further, Coppola interweaves mockumentary-style interviews. In one scene, one of the neighborhood boys, Tim Weiner (Jonathan Tucker), looks out the window in class sees Lux Lisbon out on the lawn, some loser boy whispers in her ear, and Tim says to his buddy, "He made her laugh. I've never heard him say anything remotely intelligent." Perfect. For boys like me, just like Tim, we foolishly thought that intelligence and sensitivity would win over the beauties. Oh, how that is not the case when you're sixteen.

Enter Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett in a horribly bad wig), tall and lanky, star athlete, king of the ladies and the sexual conquest. Avoiding the principal, he ducks into the nearest classroom and sees her, Lux Lisbon. She ignores him. Her parents would never allow her to date. He comes over to "watch the tube." He gets in his car. Heart's "Crazy On You" on the soundtrack in one of the best matches between image and sound ever. He is as infatuated as the other boys. He will ask her to "Homecoming," the big dance. We see an adult trip in an interview remembering how much he loved her. He has aged poorly, a recovering alcoholic in a treatment facility. What happens with the boys and the girls leading up to and at the dance is just brilliant. So matter-of-fact.  I won't spoil anymore plot. It's too crazy to.

When I watched The Virgin Suicides on DVD for the first time back in 2000 (age 16), I was that neighborhood boy in infatuation. As I revisited this film many times as I grew into an adult, the greatness of this film became something more to me. This is a simple narrative not about a group of beautiful, trapped sisters but about the boys that loved them. Sofia Coppola took a really good debut novel and turned it into perfect debut film. It opens and closes with his prose and that score by Air. It was the first perfect new movie I saw as an budding adult.

I knew Tracy Flick. We all did in school. She's that girl who gets up at the crack of dawn to bake cupcakes for the voters as the SGA election season begins at Carver High School. This Carver High School is in Omaha, Nebraska. As she sets up her signature booth, her U.S. Government teacher, Mr. McAllister runs laps on the track around the football field. He showers. Puts on his tie, and makes a well-planned mess in the teacher's lounge. We are introduced for the first time to Alexander Payne's style. Simple, normal, perfect. The movie is Election.

Alexander Payne went on from there to make some of my favorite movies (Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska). But this one, his first hit, is my favorite. This is simply due to the fact that I was there at that age in that time and place. I identify with it. As I said, I knew Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the ambitious over-achiever. And part of me wanted to be Mr. McAllister, Teacher of the Year, favorite teacher of many. I mean, I became a public school teacher.

Election is generally referred to as a political satire, and it is. The political spectrum in microcosm...a high school SGA presidential election. Flick is the front-runner and unopposed. But McAllister can't stand her. She's that kid who bounces as she raises her hand while the teacher scours for someone else to call on. She also just had an affair with Mr. McAllister's best friend and former co-worker, Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik). Bitter about his friend and stuck in a boring marriage to Diane (Molly Hagan), McAllister enlists injured, dumb, star-athlete and simpleton, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to run against Tracy. In a series of twists, Paul's adopted sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), decides to run as well. All hell breaks loose, and Tracy's dreams may just get shattered.

Adapted from a novel by Tom Perotta, Election is funny and, at times, shocking. Alexander Payne's style is part of its charm. He is just so matter-of-fact towards his characters. Often, people feel as though Payne is making fun of these salt-of-the-earth types. He is not. He loves them, so we love them. Consider a scene where the camera follows Mr. McAllister down to the basement. He opens a chest filled with old blankets, removes a false-bottom to reveal stacks of porn videos. He puts one on. Its the classic football-player (played by a forty-year-old man) and cheerleader (late twenties) scene. He sips his Pepsi and hears Tracy in his head. "Coke is by far the world's leading soft drink." Cut from the porn vid to a close-up of McAllister's face as he sips. A ding is heard on the soundtrack. "Paul," he says. Cut to footage of a skier wiping out on a steep mountain. Now, a new character is introduced and the voiceover narration (at this point only heard from McCallister and Flick) shifts to Paul, who broke his leg at a skiing trip losing any hope of playing football again.

All told, this film contains four different narrators shifting about throughout the movie. This is my favorite thing about this movie. In another scene, the night before the election, each of the four main characters say a prayer in voice over. The camera hovers above each one lying in bed, and we hear all of their shallow, desperate prayers. Simple people with simple lives and simple prayers. It is the funniest scene in the film. And Election is one of my favorite films, from then and now.

The year 1999 was a great year for movies. Alan Ball and Sam Mendes took home Oscars for the great American Beauty. Frank Darabont (developer of AMC's The Walking Dead) released his second feature and Stephen King adaptation The Green Mile. I was a sophomore in high school. I fell in love with Kirsten Dunst in my head and crushed on a girl named Amanda in real life. I worshipped Steven Spielberg and had watched all of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather movies. But something different happened that year. I began to appreciate smaller, more personal films, including The Virgin Suicides and Election and began to understand cinema as an art form. I never knew that smaller, independent films existed. I fell in love.  

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