URI professor releases new book on ‘Virgin Suicides’ film

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Justin Wyatt
Justin Wyatt, associate director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media, has released a new book on the 1999 film, "The Virgin Suicides." URI Photo by Nora Lewis.

KINGSTON, R.I., July 30, 2018 — Justin Wyatt, associate director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media, recalls a “golden era” of film during the 1970s, before marketing juggernauts like “Star Wars” and “Grease,” when films dealt with weighty subjects.

One of his favorites was Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” which came out in 1975, when he was about 11. “Nashville” is a satirical musical drama of people in the country and gospel industries striving to build names or hold on to success as they stage a rally before Tennessee’s presidential primary

“It engages with social malaise and social issues directly,” says Wyatt, an assistant professor in communication studies and film/media. “But it does so with humor and a kindness of heart. And, to me, that’s what films should be doing. They should be making us think, making us feel, and making us look at our lives differently.”

That is what he sees in the 1999 film “The Virgin Suicides,” the subject of his latest book. “The Virgin Suicides: Reverie, Sorrow and Young Love” was published in late June in hardcover and ebook form, as part of the Cinema and Youth Cultures series by academic publisher Routledge.

“The whole idea of understanding how youth is represented in the media has become a big focus given the internet and social media,” says Wyatt of East Greenwich. “[The series] is based around films that feature youth or youth issues in interesting and revealing ways.”

“The Virgin Suicides,” based on the 1993 book by Jeffrey Eugenides, is a fictional story of five sisters who committed suicide in an affluent Michigan neighborhood in 1974. It’s told through remembrances of the now middle-aged men who were smitten with the sisters about 25 years earlier and remain fascinated with the mystery of their deaths.

The film was the first full-length feature by director Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola of “Godfather” fame. Kirsten Dunst stars as one the doomed Lisbon sisters, and James Woods and Kathleen Turner play the sisters’ repressive parents.

When asked in 2016 to write a book for the Routledge series, Wyatt, author of numerous books on film history and media marketing, went looking for a film that met the series’ objectives. He wanted more than a youth movie. He wanted a film that focused on meaty issues, and one that had a high level of cinematic craftmanship.

“What fascinated me about the film was the way it problematized mental illness, mental health and suicidal ideation. I felt it created space to think about these issues and to talk about them and to engage with them in depth.”

Also, the film is a great example of how cinematic technique can be used to tell a story. “My book became about really trying to uncover all the different ways the film creates meaning. Without destroying its fascination for me, I wanted to understand why I was hooked on this film.”

Wyatt’s book examines a half-dozen topics in free-standing chapters – the wave of female directors in the ‘90s who explored female sexuality at new levels; Sofia Coppola’s backstory and the motivations that drove her to make the film; the blending of ‘70s advertising motif and film craft to reflect the conflicting themes in ads of the day of women as empowered and prepubescent girls as sex objects.

One technique of the film that interested Wyatt was its absence of traditional structure. “It’s structured around a mystery that never gets solved,” he says.

“The middle-aged men [in the film] are going to solve the mystery through recounting these incidents and these anecdotes,” he says. “But as you get more details, more explanation, it actually becomes fuzzier. It’s not really about explaining psychologically why the girls committed suicide. It’s more about why these middle-aged men are so fascinated with these adolescent girls.”

Even though it has numerous light moments, the film is very dark, and forces the viewer to consider bigger issues, such as the role of the family and social structures on identity formation and psychological health. “Topics that can be tough to think through and consider otherwise,” he says.

It’s similar to what he tells student in his film classes. Even if they don’t like a film, he says, they have to engage with it, determine what they didn’t like, what left them unsettled, why the film didn’t touch them.

Wyatt is in his fourth year at URI after returning to academia following a 15-year career in television, leading market research projects and agendas at companies such as NBCUniversal, Viacom and the ABC TV Network. He also conducted qualitative and quantitative research for a wide variety of TV shows including “Lost,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

He is working on a new book with the University of Texas Press on “Capturing the Phantom Viewer: Market Research & The Evolving Media Ecosystem.”