Director Whit Stillman
Posted 02 August 2006 - 10:54 PM
I'll be heading into town this Sunday to rent all three of the DVDs, so I won't have much to offer until I've started rewatching the movies, but feel free to kick in your two bits worth any time.
Posted 03 August 2006 - 11:06 PM
Posted 04 August 2006 - 08:07 PM
Posted 04 August 2006 - 08:50 PM
Posted 12 September 2006 - 03:11 AM
Becoming a distinct majority on this particular thread, because it's my favourite as well.
Watched it last night. Love the tensions between the characters' absurd statements that actually contain layers of truth. The character of the cousin is an amazing creation. Reminds me a bit of the outspoken, opinionated, somewhat gauche character in METROPOLITAN with the hate on for Rick Von Slonecker (sp?): both refreshing for their unguarded, unpretentious qualities, however grating or annoying they might also be.
I've been puzzling a lot over the faith element in these films. You get hymns, you get assertions about Christianity, and while they always seem ironized, they also seem to carry weight (as with so much in these films: they mock and value a thing all at once, or by turns, in a most disorienting, pleasingly giddy sort of way). Sometimes I think these characters' protestantism is just a "symptom" of their social milieu, other times it seems an authentic spiritual element is being layered in. Curious to know what others make of this. Viewpoint character in BARCELONA speaks of his religious conversion, vows celibacy, then without further comment ends up in bed with a woman. Which his cousin mentions, and to which we hear no real response. And how about that prayer?
Watched BARCELONA (for the second or third time) the day after PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and am quite interested in the similarities between Stillman and Austen. Both focus on social nuance among privileged people who aren't entirely conscious, who are somehow waking up through the course of the film. Affectionate parody, mocking tribute, something like that. Tiny stories of more or less inconsequential lives that mostly ignore the Big Historical Events also unfolding: no mention that the desirable soldier-boys in P&P are off to fight Napoleon. Only BARCELONA of the Stillmans (Stillmen?) references the larger political context.
Going to watch DISCO tomorrow afternoon, then try and write about all three. They're elusive, their spiritual aspects are elusive, that's what I think. Elusive but, at least to my eyes, inescapable.
Edited by Ron, 14 September 2006 - 11:57 PM.
Posted 15 September 2006 - 12:01 AM
In any case, here's the first of my attempts.
METROPOLITAN (1990, USA, Whit Stillman)
Of course there’s a God! We all basically know there is.
I know no such thing.
Of course you do! When you think to yourself — and most of our waking life is taken up thinking to ourself — you must have that feeling that your thoughts aren’t entirely wasted, that in some sense they are being heard. I think it's this sensation of silently being listened to with total comprehension that represents our innate belief in a supreme being, an all–comprehending intelligence. What it shows is that some kind of belief is innate in all of us. At some point most of us lose that, after which it can only be regained by a conscious act of faith.
And you’ve experienced that?
No, I haven’t. I hope to someday.
It is a truism universally acknowledged, that Whit Stillman is the Jane Austen of indie film. But truisims only become truisms because they're at least partly true, and this one most certainly is. Both Austen and Stillman bring an affectionate irony to their carefully observed studies of romance and social ritual among the young and privileged, whether in rural Britain around the turn of the eighteenth century or in uptown Manhattan at the end of the twentieth.
We don't want to like these people: they have too much, they are too full of themselves. We delight in the author's gentle skewering of their pretensions, the understated portrayal of their follies and the quietly relentless exposure of their casual cruelties. All too eager to see the high and mighty fall, we intuitively trust Stillman and Austen to be our guides in these exotic locales: their knowing attention to detail proves them to be insiders, their ironic distance shows them to be like us.
Little do we know, it's all authorial strategy. These writers love the worlds they describe, love the characters they create, and in spite of ourselves we find before long that we've been won over. That sort of affection is contagious, and we end up bigger-hearted people for the experience.
In METROPOLITAN, we enter the world of debutante balls and exclusive Park Avenue afterparties through the character of Tom Townsend, a bookishly intelligent and humorless young man who is inadvertently drawn into "The S.F.R.P." (the Sally Fowler Rat Pack) when a party of preppies mistakenly conclude that they've commandeered his cab. Tom disguises his inability to afford cabfare (or a decent overcoat) with high-sounding principles, they (approvingly) label him a "public transit snob," and he's in – all the while hiding his desperate loneliness and desire to fit in behind a deliciously transparent intellectual posturing, his attendance at the social functions he pretends to disdain cloaked in a condescending quasi-anthropological curiosity.
But his disdain and ours begins to fall away as the outspokenly snobbish Nick takes Tom under his wing, tutoring him in such matters as detachable collars and "the standards and ideals of the UHB" (the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, which they prefer to terms like "preppie" or "yuppie."). The artistry in the way Stillman crafts his story is seen most clearly in the way he shapes our perception of Nick (brilliantly played by Chris Eigeman, who became a fixture in Stillman's films), as an initial impression of grating arrogance gives way to genuine respect and affection. Nick may not be like us, but by the end of the film we may wish we were more like Nick.
In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Pride And Prejudice, Tony Tanner calls the story "a drama of recognition," which is to say, of re-cognition: as events unfold, not only the characters are called on to change their initial judgments of other characters, but so too the reader. Just as Elizabeth Bennet must revise her original assessment of the "proud" Mr. Darcy, and, in the process, expand her view of the world, so are our perceptions – indeed, our prejudices – challenged.
There is something significantly Christian in this shift from judgment to understanding, affection, even respect. One might call it the perspective of grace. In fact there are any number of other little markers that seem to hint at the writer-director's transcendent intentions. The opening credits are heralded by "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," the opening phrase elegantly rendered by piano and string quartet before a sassy segue into the film's neo-Jazz Age theme. We are introduced to Audrey (the film's Fanny Price, a virtuous heroine whose favourite novel is Mansfield Park), then the title card "Manhattan – Christmas Vacation – Not so long ago" gives way to a shot of a magnificent New York office, its windows illuminated in the shape of a cross. Tom is swept up into the Sally Fowler afterparty, and we reach what Stillman describes as "the original beginning of the film": an intense after-midnight conversation about the existence of God. Which certainly tells us much about the essence of these characters, the gap between their sophisticated theories and their meagre life-experience, but which also seems to be the culmination of a whole sequence of references to Something Beyond the narrow concerns of the debutantes and their escorts.
One recurring motif in the film is the tendency of these naďve sophisticates to resolve any conversation about another character's short-comings or questionable moral behaviour with some variation of "Well, he's basically a good person." Only the brash, truth-speaking liar, Nick, sees further into things. We take as essentially comic his early instructional monologue to Tom:
You haven't seen this? Detachable collar. Not many people wear them anymore, they look much better. So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned to supposed convenience. It's a small thing, but symbolically important. Our parents' generation was never interested in keeping up standards. They wanted to be happy. Of course, the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life.Yet this is very much of a piece with his much more costly admission of personal guilt later in the film;
I wonder if our generation is any better than our parents'?
Oh it's worse. Our generation's probably the worst since… the protestant reformation. Barbaric. But a barbarism far worse than the old-fashioned striaghtforward kind. Now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.
You're obviously talking about a lot more than just detachable collars.
Yeah, I am.
Charlie: So you're just another hypocrite!For all Cynthia's dismissive response that "It's hardly that," we feel that a deeper, starker truth has been spoken than we've heard in all the earnest self-disclosures and intellectual theories that comprise the bulk of the film's dialogue. And later, when an evocative return to "A Mighty Fortress" underscores one of the film's most touching (yet understated) scenes, that ancient hymn almost becomes Nick's theme.
Nick: That's not hypocrisy. It's sin.
It would be a mistake to read METROPOLITAN as fundamentally a religious film, yet there's no denying that faith – Protestant Christian faith, in particular – is part of the essential fabric of Whit Stillman's world. As his characters move from the debutante balls of METROPOLITAN to the dance clubs of THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO to overseas careers in BARCELONA, the childhood protections of naivete and privilege erode: Stillman's characters are increasingly confronted with their own limitations and mortality, and find themselves reaching for something beyond what money, youth, and social standing can provide.
Fundamentally, though, these are not message movies. If there is serious spiritual intent beneath the delightfully comic surfaces of these brilliantly observed and witty stories, fear not – it's cleverly concealed, if indeed it is there at all. Whatever these films may intimate about eternity, the chief pleasure they offer is the opportunity to spend time in the company of the gracious, erudite Whit Stillman and his earnest, bright, "basically good" young friends – however filthy rich they may be.
Edited by Ron, 15 September 2006 - 12:10 AM.
Posted 16 September 2006 - 02:08 PM
What is this? Some strange Glenn Miller-based religious ceremony?
Whit Stillman's wonderful trilogy of serious comedies about rich kids in love might almost be dubbed "The Discrete Charm of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie." The second, a story of not-so-much-ugly-as-absurd-but-still-rather-charming Americans abroad, is the lightest of the three, the characters' upper-class foibles extended to the point of likable ridiculousness (to borrow Donald Lyon's apt description). It is probably also the most spiritually explicit – in Stillman's characteristic, delightfully confounding way.
Here his whole tone is sunnier and lighter hearted, as befits the Mediterranean locale: these kids are having fun, earnest and self-preoccupied though they may be. Stillman's humor is at its most direct and whimsical, turning on endless (and endlessly inventive) misperceptions and "lost in cultural translation" moments. If the stakes are higher in this story of twenty-something Americans abroad – in fact, they are truly life-and-death, with a prolonged hospital vigil and at least one funeral – somehow the tone remains less sombre throughout. And while we are dealing with far more serious matters – the end of the Cold War rather than the last days of the debutantes or the decline of disco –romance and comedy carry the day. The last act of the original screenplay extended an anti-American terrorist subplot in a way that risked dominating the film, rendering it far messier, more explicitly political, and therefore distinctly less Stillmanesque. The film version edits out that "bigger" story in the home stretch, wisely narrowing its focus to character: the political points have been made, we want to get to the wedding for God's sake! Multiple weddings, as it turns out, with plenty of surprises: heck, it's practically Shakespearean.
If Audrey was the still centre of the social whirl that was METROPOLITAN, Charlie and Nick made it spin, and you have to think Stillman penned this follow-up as a showcase for actors Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman. Here they play cousins Ted and Fred Boynton (you can sense the broader humour even in the names), but it's mostly only the names that have been changed: these innocents abroad are pretty much yuppie extensions of their preppy forebears.
Both are sales reps of a sort. Ted represents the ultra-Yankee IHSMOCO – The Illinois High-Speed Motor Corporation – a devout apostle of Saints Benjamin, Ralph Waldo and Dale, while his cousin takes a decidedly more casual approach to his role as "sort of an advance man" for the U.S. Navy; "The last fleet visit was a disaster, so they thought it was a good idea to get someone in early to smooth things out and make sure nothing goes wrong." Of course, this being a comedy, the job falls to the utterly tactless Fred, who is oblivious to the fact that he is grossly unsuited to such a potentially (and literally) explosive diplomatic mission. Of course, this being a Stillman comedy, the implicit comment on a military leadership that would choose so blunt an instrument for so delicate an operation is left unstated – only to be quietly subverted in due time. One might almost say the film ends up a remarkably subtle study of the glories of good old fashioned Yankee bluntness.
In fact Eigeman's character differs significantly from his METROPOLITAN antecedent: if Fred puts the boor back in bourgeois, Nick was in fact the sophisticate of his circle, the keeper of its morals and traditions, however poorly he proved able to fulfill those standards. Prone to speak the unspeakable, he was more gadfly than goofball: to his circle, Nick's behaviour could appear unconsciounable, but he was in fact its conscience. Ted is more or less socially unconscious, and pretty much lacks any conscience at all apart from his reflexive pro-Americanism. Stillman's great accomplishment is that we love him for it.
It is the Nichols character who follows the most directly from the prior film. In his opening speech, METROPOLITAN's Charlie is pegged as a compulsive theorizer with a religious bent, his certainty of God's existence predicated on the flow of chatter that plays constantly in his head and the conviction that Someone must be listening. In the latter film, that Someone is (at least in part) the audience: Ted's relentless intellectualizing spills out into voice-over, and we are made privy to a curious sort of spiritual awakening. The all-too-decent Charlie hoped someday to regain his innate childhood "belief in a supreme being" by "a conscious act of faith": in the character of Ted, we have the privilege of seeing that process unfold.
The film is packed with memorable moments. An evasive Ted lies about his true reasons for staying home one evening, clandestine "reading material" hidden behind a copy of The Economist – leading to a comic payoff as touching as it is absurd. There is an embarassment of feminine riches (and you'd better pay close attention: the gorgeous dark-haired princess is Marta, Aurora her maybe-plain-maybe-beautiful friend who gets named most often but shows up least, Montserrat the cosi-perfecto blonde who shows up at the Hampton concert, and Greta the "War And Peace" reader): out of this confusing chaos of attractive, sexually active Spanish girls emerges one who sketches angels – but not professionally – and knows a few Catholic prayers: she's cosi-religious. And a perfectly obvious miracle is wrought before our very eyes, obscured by playful editing and subverted by clever writing, our attention rodeo-clown distracted by Fred's definitive declaration of that Stillman trademark phrase, "Oh give me a break!"
Writing about METROPOLITAN, Armond White comments that Stillman's singular interest in character "reveals each one's moral quest. The effort to behave decently, even by the most eccentric (self-serving) standards, gives Stillman's upperclass stories a surprising kick and a fine grain." It is marvelous to see these moral quests extend beyond the confines of a single movie, as a handful of familiar characters in fascinating variations are stripped of superficial childhood securities to make their slow, stumbling journeys toward grace.
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, THE UGLY AMERICAN
Posted 16 September 2006 - 05:08 PM
I'm going to turn over a new leaf in Spain. I'm going to turn over several new leaves. You know that Shakespearean admonition, "To thine own self be true"? It's premised on the idea that "thine own self" is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if "thine own self" is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better in that case not to be true to thine own self? See? That's my situation.
Indeed, that's the situation of all the characters in this closing chapter of Whit Stillman's NYC WASP triptych (acronyms cluster around these films like debs around a punchbowl). Of course, none of them know it at the outset: when first we meet them, they're out for a disco night on the town, flushed with youth, good looks and the high spirits that come from gaining admission to New York's most exclusive dance club. They're on top of the world, neither sadder nor wiser than their younger METROPOLITAN counterparts – but they will be by the end of the movie.
The tagline for the first film of the cycle was so apt, you'd think it was penned by the writer-director himself: "Doomed. Bourgeois. In love." – a phrase later appropriated by Mark C. Henrie for the title of his very fine anthology of essays on "the peculiar comic genius" of Whit Stillman, whose work is there described as "class-conscious, theory-laden, nostalgically romantic, and deflatingly ironic." A tone of nostalgia and deflation permeates this autumnal final installment in the series, a sharp contrast to the sunny, summery comedy of BARCELONA, its immediate predecessor. Charlie spoke in the first film of the impending doom that awaited his entire class. Prophetically enough, as it turns out: as the trilogy draws to its close, it's reckoning time. Time to come to terms. With sin and consequence, with weakness and mortality. And, perhaps, with redemption.
Each chapter in Stillman's magnum opus concerns a different set of characters, but they are essentially alike. (In a very satisfying touch, several faces from the first two films show up at the disco: Audrey Rouget, now something of a legend in the publishing business, is deep in conversation with Charlie, Fred and Sally – nice to see the SFRP at least somewhat intact – and when Ted Boynton enthuses about his new job in Spain, it's a kick to realize how much we already know about the "future" trajectory of his relationship with his date, whom he awkwardly introduces as "Betty." Our disappointment at not seeing Taylor Nichols in a central role is at least mitigated by the fact that he gets not one but two cameos.) The Audrey-ish Alice (Chloe Sevigny) works in an entry-level publishing job with her stunning soon-to-be-roommate Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale). Around them, a cluster of attractively Young, presumed-to-be Upwardly-mobile Professional men: Jimmy Steinway, in advertising; Josh Neff, an Assistant D.A.; Des McGrath, majordomo at the club (played by Chris Eigeman, a veteran of both prior Stillman campaigns); and "Departmental Dan" from the publishing house, who may be an Ivy League grad, but whose politics and social manner mark him as being a little less haut than his fellow bourgeois.
As suggested by the film's wryly apocalyptic title, the heyday of disco is beginning to wane, along with the youthful optimism of the characters. The bottom rungs of the professional working ladder are tougher than freshman year at college and, far more important to this financially independent crowd, the rituals of romance have changed from the exhilarating game of dating to the high-stakes business of mating – a risky business indeed in the promiscuous early eighties.
Religion, however ironically disguised, makes its presence felt early in each of the two previous films, but for much of THE LAST DAYS the only cathedral is the dance club, the only faith a misplaced allegiance to "the disco movement." That absence, combined with the realistically rendered downward spiral of Alice's search for love, lends the story a slowly accumulating gravitas that has much to do with moral consequence and more to do with spiritual emptiness: isolation surrounded by copulation, loneliness in the middle of a partying crowd. More often than in any of Stillman's other films, the irony falls away for entire scenes: he's playing for keeps. This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around.
When grace comes, it comes unexpectedly (as grace is wont to do), from damage and weakness. The ragged words tumble desperately over each other, tuneless and unmusical, manic, apologetic, embarssing, and we don't know just how to take them – as evidence of mental instability, or a very present refuge in a time of trouble.
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
And there's more hymn-singing to come! From a source so unlikely as to defy not only expectation but explanation. Apparently the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. The high and mighty are brought low and helpless, characters move from control to abandonment, and it just may be Divine Providence they end up abandoning themselves to, whether they realize it or not. As we learn along with Alice "to appreciate the virtue in what others find defective" (Mary P. Nichols) – a bogus spiritual memoir, a loyal Scotty-dog, a damaged friend and the universally despised dance music that is his glory – we sense that, while the reign of disco must come to an end, another Kingdom may well be at hand.
METROPOLITAN opened the Stillman saga with a hymn that quickly gave way to a dance tune. So THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO bookends the set with The O'Jays' "Love Train," which surrenders the dance floor to John Newton's "Amazing Grace." Human love, divine grace – and everybody up dancing, not just the ones well-dressed or gorgeous enough to get past the gatekeepers at Studio 54. Amazing indeed.
"Doomed Bourgeois In Love" dubs Stillman's work "a major achievement of Christian humanism in our time." You may feel that's overstating the spiritual case, but the more one considers the puzzling place of religion in Whit Stillman's films, the more plausible that statement seems. If, like me, you find yourself intrigued by the question of the film maker's own relation to the faith that keeps asserting itself in his autobiographically-informed creations, your curiosity will likely never find a direct answer. Like so many of his characters, Stillman is reticent about these matters. Perhaps the closest we'll come to a response is the suspicion that Josh's last word in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is, in effect, that of the filmmaker's: "Most of what I said, I believe."
Edited by Ron, 16 September 2006 - 05:12 PM.
Posted 14 August 2008 - 12:03 PM
It's called Dancing Mood.
And the best DVD news in ages....
Posted 18 May 2009 - 12:07 PM
Edited by Overstreet, 18 May 2009 - 12:08 PM.
Posted 03 September 2009 - 10:14 PM
Posted 31 January 2010 - 08:26 PM
Posted 03 June 2010 - 09:08 PM
Posted 29 September 2010 - 04:45 PM
WWD: How do you balance your work between big movies and indies?
G.G.: It seems to find a natural balance, so far. In two weeks Iâ€™m starting Whit Stillmanâ€™s new film, called â€śDamsels in Distress.â€ť I play a girl named Violet who runs a suicide-prevention center at a liberal arts college. She prevents suicides through the powers of Thirties song-and-dance numbers. So itâ€™s a very dark comedy. Iâ€™m not really worried about my indie cred. I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any danger of me going, â€śI only do franchises now.â€ť
Posted 30 September 2010 - 08:33 AM
She was such a cool friend to Samantha (Jocelin Donahue, who I haven't seen before or since). Do we have a thread on friendship? Cuz her character should be represented...