‘The Virgin Suicides’ by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)

Usually I do try to read books before I watch their movie counterparts, but I was unaware of Eugenides’ novel when I saw Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation. Now that I’ve read the novel I can attest to Coppola’s excellent interpretation. As an appreciator of literature, I can recognize the superior quality of the novel, but as a feminist I like the film more. I understand the allegorical aspect of the material, but the story — the novel in particular — paints these girls as victims of the male gaze.

This gaze ultimately seems to destroy the girls. To protect her children from the ugly things in life, Mrs. Lisbon adopts the male gaze, criticizing her daughters’ dress and sheltering them from interacting too much with young men. When Lux comes home late from the prom and Mrs. Lisbon realizes that Lux had allowed herself to become a victim of Trip’s gaze, she keeps them in their house, away from the corruptive influence of males. In their one night at prom, the Lisbon sisters finally had the opportunity to stop being idols and just be young women and they were rejected (Trip left Lux on the football field and Bonnie’s date never called her). As much as the boys pretend to want to know the truth, I think that they prefer their romantic visions of the Lisbons and would not have wanted further contact to ruin their fanciful images. Anyway, as well as being rejected as real people, Mrs. Lisbon prevents them from reaching out to new people, which they might have done after their prom date, by taking them out of school. Perhaps knowing that they could never live up to anyone’s expectations caused them to kill themselves. That bit at the end about “[it] only [mattered] we had loved them” is a little disturbing considering that their “love” might have killed the girls.

Eugenides makes an interesting statement about memory, the importance of memory, and how people rationalize the differences in memory. He also draws an interesting connection between the decay of a suburb and the dwindling life forces of these five young women.

Ron Howard’s ‘The Missing’ (2003)

I just watched this film for the second time recently and I was reminded of how much I liked it. The film is beautiful, the acting is excellent and the story is very interesting. I do admit that the storytelling is very formulaic in a sense — estranged father and daughter grow closer, the less confident and bratty daughter learns strength and humility, the bad guy is defeated — but these characters are sympathetic and interesting, thanks to the actors, and the formulaic storytelling is accomplished rather subtly. Maggie and Jones don’t embrace fondly at the end of the movie and it isn’t dwelt on any longer than necessary that one of Maggie’s daughters was the product of a rape.

Regardless of being a little formulaic, the plot does offer an interesting feminist reading. In retaliation of having their identity stolen by white folks, these Indians are interested by stealing and molding the identity of these young women. The women are taken from their families, stripped of their clothes and given baggy men’s clothing to wear. They are being taught to forget all semblance they have of themselves: their lineage, everyday habits, position in society (as indicated by the brujo stuffing dirt in Lilly’s mouth), and even their conception of their gender. The Indians want to see them as things to be sold and want them to think of themselves as things. When they are preparing the women for sale, the captors choose their clothing (or rather underwear) and paint their faces, putting the final touches on the women’s new identity as probably whores to whomever buys them. After the women escape, they immediately wash the make-up from their faces as an initial step in reclaiming their identity.

My only criticism of the film is the length. Even though it is an entertaining 2+-hour film, it does feel a little long. Though I don’t have much of suggestion of how one might shorten it.

Mary Harron’s ‘American Psycho’ (2000)

American Psycho is an incredibly strange, violent film. I’m not surprised, but I learned that the National Organization of Women spoke out against the book on which the film is based because of the extreme violence to women depicted in the novel. The Los Angeles chapter of NOW denounced it as “a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women.” I’ve not read the novel, but based on the film Bret Easton Ellis’ excess in violence matches the excess of the culture he is critiquing, that of American yuppie culture of the 1980s.

I don’t think that Ellis intends to glorify the violence that his main character inflicts on both men and women, but rather the violence, that could only be perpetrated by a man completely void of conscience and humanity, is the most extreme symptom of the disease of yuppie culture, the egotism, greed and superficiality being milder — in some cases only slightly milder — indications. In fact, it kind of reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm in a way. Like Atwood’s Rennie, Patrick Bateman has become so consumed by his outer shell that he has forgotten about what lies inside of him. His dismembering and consuming his victims seems like some disturbing, misguided way to reconnect with himself.

But I can understand NOW’s reaction. American Psycho is not a Schindler’s List — the violence is not meant specifically to evoke sympathy for these women but rather it is part of the make-up of a character. I suppose the question becomes where does one draw the line?

With the film version, I believe that director Mary Harron really tried to make the material more palatable to women. While the viewer is allowed into Patrick’s mind, he is not expected to find Patrick sympathetic. Rather, the sympathetic characters of the film are the women: Courtney, Christie, even Evelyn. In watching the deleted scenes, I think that Harron decided not to include one of them because it would have made Evelyn less sympathic when the break-up scene occurred. The women of the film are seen as disposable, but Harron emphasizes that the men are disposable too. Patrick is mistaken not once, but twice for another of his colleagues who probably wears the exact brand of suits, shirts, and shoes as he does.

So what is the significance of the ending? Did Patrick really kill those people or is he just crazy? I think that an argument can be made for both options.

Joon-ho Bong’s ‘Salinui chueok (Memories of Murder)’ (2003)

Memories of Murder is based on actual events of the 1980s when one of Korea’s first serial killers, who raped and murdered women, was never caught. The audience is aware from the beginning that the murder mystery part of the story will not have a satisfying resolution; however, Joon-ho Bong manages to deliver a tense two hours of storytelling.

The film’s assets:

  1. Direction and cinematography. This film was beautifully filmed and the beauty of the shots does not jeopardize or overshadow the content. Despite the pacing problems of the first 30-or-so minutes of the film, the direction is really excellent. The film employs an interesting mix of comedy, suspense and drama. With such serious subject matter, the comedy could have been a detraction but Bong makes it work.
  2. The characters. While the acting is good, it is not phenomenal, but the characters are very compelling. The character arcs are strong, but predictable; the greatest appeal is the mix of characters and their interaction.

The film’s offenses:

  1. Contrivance. So the Seoul detective guy went to his office and left a note on his desk that said, “Hey, I’m going to go beat up this suspect on the railroad tracks. If anything comes for me, you can find me there” so that the not-as-stupid detective could bring him the DNA results there? And come on! When the mentally handicapped boy was describing the crime I knew that he had witnessed the crime rather than orchestrated it because of the language that he used.
  2. Anvils. Yes, we get it: the main character is an incompetent idiot. Did we really need the sex scene in which he tells his partner, “I think it fell out”? (So not only is he incompetent, but he’s….never mind.) The script also telegraphs the Seoul detective’s turn to violence.

Despite its weaknesses Memories of Murder manages to deliver an entertaining two hours. The characters are strong and the story is compelling. Despite the slow start to the film, Bong keeps the viewer interested and watching.