>Don’t Call It A Comeback: The Enduring Greatness of Whit Stillman

>At the nuptial mass (and subsequent wedding reception) The Courtier attended on Saturday, as well as the dinner party he attended last evening, Whit Stillman was a topic of some excited conversation. Mr. Stillman, for those readers unfamiliar with his work, is the director of three terrific films, which are among The Courtier’s favorites: “Metropolitan” (1989), “Barcelona” (1994), and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998). After a long absence from the silver screen, Mr. Stillman is at last beginning a new picture, entitled “Damsels in Distress”, and just had a very interesting, lengthy write-up in December’s “First Things” magazine. His work is a particular favorite of The Courtier for it inevitably combines two elements often missing from contemporary movies: a morality tale based on the consequences of one’s actions, and amazingly complex, thoughtful dialogue

It may be difficult for many to understand, in the present cultural climate, why Mr. Stillman could even survive as a director; no doubt he himself has wondered this as well, as society continues to circle the drain. Contemporary morality is generally reduced to the mantra of the Baby Boomer generation, and us, the progeny of that blight on human development: i.e., if it’s not hurting anyone and it makes me happy, then it must be alright. Saying something to the contrary usually provokes cries of keeping the government out of one’s bedroom or reproductive organs, and other such nonsense. Mr. Stillman is not an in-your-face preacher in his films, but at the same time selfishness is ultimately punished, not rewarded, in the stories he tells.

Moreover, in print reviews and in conversations The Courtier has had with those who do not “get” Stillman, his films have sometimes been dismissed as anachronistic and “too talky”. His write-up in a publication such as “First Things”, and the fact that the social events which The Courtier attended this evening were, in the main, populated with friends who are members of the Catholic branch of the vast Right-wing conspiracy, would seem to suggest that the adulation drawn from certain quarters would have something to do with Mr. Stillman’s ideas being what, in layman’s terms, might be deemed conservative. This would be a false conclusion, in this reviewer’s opinion.

The director himself has always been a bit coy about his personal politics, even if he has been known to criticize a certain collapse in matters of taste and social interaction. Biographically speaking, he is the son of a Democratic politician who worked in the Kennedy Administration, and although this alone is no indicator of where he himself would fall politically, it should not lead the casual observer to assume anything about Mr. Stillman’s views. While it is certainly possible to point to certain characters or lines in his movies which would indicate a conservative bent to his work: Mr. Stillman is an intellectual but not of the conservative variety of a, say, William F. Buckley, Jr., anymore than he is some sort of an Isaiah Berlin, on the other end of the spectrum.

It would also be too easy to say that the attraction to Mr. Stillman’s oeuvre is that there are characters who make fun of Leftist socio-political philosophy, since there are certainly also characters who reject traditional moreys and poke fun at conservatism. These films are not for the kiddies: any uninformed viewer who wanders into the screening of a Stillman film will find morally objectionable material, whether it be elicit drug-taking, the seduction or afterglow of non-marital relations, and so on, albeit in small and fleeting moments. Yet it is precisely in these actions on screen, or rather in the impact of such actions, that one of the two key elements that “make” a Stillman film comes together with the other, i.e. the aforementioned “talky” quality.

It is very interesting to note, after repeated viewings of his three films, that the director always shows that the acts committed by his central characters, and in some cases their thought processes, have consequences. Take for example the central character of Alice (played by Chloë Sevigny) in “The Last Days of Disco”. She decides that she wants to seem hip and up-to-date, egged on in a very subtle way both by the times in which she lives and the people with whom she surrounds herself, and her promiscuity gifts her an incurable sexually-transmitted disease.

This does not happen in a heavy-handed, Old Testament sort of way, as if Alice is a sort of Hester Prynne in an off-the-shoulder cocktail dress; it is incredibly subtle, a cause-and-effect that is all-too-common, and therefore believable. Alice ends up happy at film’s end, but only when she turns away from the lifestyle that she had been falling into, even as that lifestyle is coming to terms with the consequences of its own downfall. In so doing she embraces another outcast, who may or may not have mental problems: in a strange way, he has less baggage than the fellow who made her ill, as the latter has a rather significant piece of luggage in the form of a wife. Finally doing the right thing ends some relationships for Alice, even as it begins others.

Another example is Tom Townsend (played by Edward Clements) in “Metropolitan” who, as the film begins, has adopted a type of agrarian socialism as his calling card. As the film develops it becomes clear that he is lonely and, because he and his mother have been abandoned by his well-to-do father for a new wife and family. Economically speaking, he is now unable to keep up with the Joneses at Princeton, or when back home for the holidays in Manhattan.

Tom’s reaction against the Upper East Side background from which he has now been excluded by circumstance is to embrace a type of Leftism which would be considered rather specialist; he does not realize that in so doing, he is in fact proving the point that a leopard cannot change its spots. By picking a form of rebellion which has not been widely accepted, and even among those aware of it considered to be a failure (a source of a brilliant bit of dialogue between Tom and another character on the nature of death), he is unwittingly being just as much an elitist as the elitists he claims to look down upon. Gradually, through social interaction with the very people whom he feels would or should reject him, he comes to abandon or at least moderate his views, putting aside “The Theory of the Leisure Class” [N.B. dreadful book - ed.] in favor of “Mansfield Park” and friendship.

Mr. Stillman’s new project will no doubt be broadly appealing to many a fashionista, as it apparently involves a group of well-to-do girls obsessed with old-skool Dior at an otherwise grungy liberal arts college, and their efforts to help others. Like “Metropolitan”, this premise is very Austen, and fits well not only with the director’s apparent interests and strengths, studying the members of his class, but also with his base: people who love clothes, cocktails, and good literature. It also, at least in theory, has the potential to appeal to a broader audience than the UHB’s who often champion his work, and with the popularity of shows like “Mad Men” and “Gossip Girl”, Stillman may be at the right place and the right time to experience a greater number of eyes at the cinema when his new work premieres.

From The Courtier’s perspective, the wait has been so long since the director’s last film that the time between filming, editing, and releasing this new work cannot fly swiftly enough: Godspeed, Mr. Stillman.

Whit Stillman,

>Empire State of Mind

>No, the Courtier is not going to go on about how unimpressive and off-key Alicia Keyes’ singing is (although it IS, horribly so.) The Courtier will be in New York for the long holiday weekend, and wishes all of you well! To tide you over until my return, here is a little clip from one of my favorite New York films, Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”. Despite being a committed socialist, Tom Townsend does have a valid point:

>Review: "The Last Days of Disco" Disappoints

>Whit Stillman is one of my favorite filmmakers, so I was very excited to learn that his third (and to date, last) film is finally being re-released by Criterion on DVD in August. “The Last Days of Disco” was released in theatres in 1998, and stars Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, and Chris Eigeman, among others. Although it was briefly put out on DVD after its theatrical run, it subsequently disappeared from distribution and became something of a holy grail for fans of Stillman’s work. Used copies were occasionally available on Ebay for astronomical prices.

“The Last Days of Disco” is part of a rather loosely defined trilogy of films Stillman made in the 1990s, beginning with his Oscar-nominated “Metropolitan” in 1990 and followed by “Barcelona” in 1994. “Disco” was made last, but chronologically falls between the other two. Some of the characters from the first two films make an appearance or are mentioned in the third, although this is more akin to an author such as Anthony Trollope or Brett Easton Ellis having one of their characters pass through a party scene or other locale in a subsequent, unrelated book.

In the film, “Disco” tells the story of two young women from East Coast prep school backgrounds, starting their careers in New York in the very early 80’s. They spend their evenings hanging out at a posh discotheque and meeting a host of unusual people. The disco era is nearing its end, but none of the characters can quite accept that this is ever going to happen, as they are all adrift in the sexual and drug revolution that hit American society hard in the 1970’s.

For those who appreciate his work, the joy of Stillman’s films is in the almost stilted, Austen-like impossibility of the dialogue. Most people simply do not speak this way on a regular basis, more’s the pity:

Dan Powers: You know, Alice, except for politics, we’ve got a lot in common: We’re both pretty serious, and, I think, respect each other’s bases for judgment. Occasionally I get reactionary thoughts, too.
Alice Kinnon: I’m not reactionary.
Dan Powers: Well, aesthetically.
Alice Kinnon: Oh, well – *aesthetically*.

There are a number of such amusing lines and exchanges in the film, which in this respect come together to form a classic Stillman script. Stillman also has a great sense for location, soundtrack, casting, and the “look” of his films. In some respects he could reasonably be called the WASP conservative version of Woody Allen.

Some comparisons between Whitman’s three films are inevitable. “Metropolitan” was more or less an ensemble drawing room piece, that could have easily been turned into a stage play. “Barcelona” was your classic “fish out of water” or “innocents abroad” film, about two Americans trying to understand life in a foreign city. “Disco” tries to combine elements of both, centering our attention around two main characters, but bringing in an ensemble of quirky supporting actors.

Unfortunately, “Disco” fails because it is never quite certain what it wants to be, unlike its predecessors. Is it a buddy movie? Is it a bonfire of the vanities? We are never quite certain.

As in all of his films, Stillman has a good morality tale to tell, without doing so in a preachy way. However the way he goes about telling it in this film is so convoluted, that we are almost surprised when it finally is told. By then we are so distracted by the revolving cast that the point, if there was one, was lost somewhere along the way.

And perhaps, to give Stillman credit, this *IS* the point. The disco era brought about rampant drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases as a result of promiscuity, including the onslaught of AIDS which, though not mentioned in the film, is about to make its appearance. Intimate relationships began and ended in a few hours. It was no doubt a confusing time, when old social boundaries had fallen away but new ones had yet to be defined.

I will probably give “Disco” another airing at some point, now that it is available on Hulu. Perhaps when less distracted by the admittedly rather superb soundtrack, I will be able to pay more attention to the dialogue and appreciate the film for what it is. But unlike “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona”, I did not immediately fall for this film, whose charms, while obvious in certain places, still seem to elude me.