“The Cosmopolitans”: Whit’s Still the Man

This weekend I had the chance to check out the pilot episode of “The Cosmopolitans”, the new series by writer and director Whit Stillman released on Amazon Prime.  If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, then you know that I’m an unabashed fan of his work.  Yet after the somewhat anti-climactic “Damsels in Distress”, it was great to see him return to seriously good form in this, a new series about young Americans living and loving in Paris.

Like much of Stillman’s work, “The Cosmopolitans” isn’t so much about a story moving toward resolution, but rather a series of stories that intertwine, punctuated by significant events.  He’s been described as the conservative, bourgeois version of Woody Allen, and there’s some truth to that observation.  For more often than not, the reason why someone either enjoys or does not enjoy Stillman’s work comes down to the question of whether the conversations taking place among his characters remind the viewer of conversations which they themselves have had.  If you can’t relate to Woody Allen – and I certainly can’t – then you probably find him irritating and perverse.  Stillman, on the other hand, is “The Man”, in a sense, because he is writing largely about the experiences of educated, cultured Americans from good schools and respectable backgrounds, exploring the world around them and always dressing stylishly as they do so.

It’s also interesting to see how effortlessly Stillman has transitioned to the small screen.  Like Amy Sherman-Palladino back in the first few seasons of “Gilmore Girls”, when it was one of the best-written things on television, Stillman has an ear for the witty comeback, the snarky cultural reference, and the perfect put-down worthy of the Ancien Régime. Yet because of the nature of the films which he has made so far, Stillman’s work usually has a drawing-room quality to it, like sitting at a party at the house of someone you don’t know – also a favorite plot device of his – and overhearing other people’s interesting conversations. These make the small screen just as good a venue for his observations as the big screen.

Stillman has also presented us with a combination of characters that we will try to figure out better as the series continues.  For example, writing Chloe Sevigny’s character as a kind of proto-Miranda Priestly seemed a surprise at first, seeing as how her outing in Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” was as something of an ingenue. Yet watching her take a throwaway comment about how long it takes to become a Parisian and turn it into a recurrent thematic weapon is absolutely hilarious, and makes the viewer want to hear more of what she has to say.

The phenomenon of seeing prominent actors and directors like these creating on-demand streaming internet series is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.  The American version of “House of Cards” is, understandably enough, extremely popular and heavily advertised here in DC.  This is due not only to the fact that the series is set here, but also because a significant percentage of the population here is tech-savvy enough to feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of watching a show streamed via the internet.  As more investment in digital infrastructure takes place in the coming years, it seems reasonable to assume that more and more of these “online tv” series will be made.

Of course the best sign that any series, online or not, has completely sucked you in is when you are watching a scene, the music swells, the screen goes black, and you audibly shout, “Awwww NO!” You’ve been so caught up in the story that you weren’t keeping an eye on the clock.  That’s happened to me a few times, during some really engrossing series: the British series “MI-5″ for example (as “Spooks” is known in the U.S.) These moments are the sign of a good writer, good director, and good actors all coming together. And that same, telltale outcry of disappointment that the episode was already over arose from me and my group of friends watching the pilot for “The Cosmopolitans”.

As the central characters began to make their way home across Paris from a party they had stayed at too long, the credits began to roll, and we were all disappointed to see that the episode was already over. I was reminded at that point of the conclusion of Stillman’s first film, “Metropolitan”.  In that story, his characters had to make their way back to Manhattan with no reasonable means of transportation at their disposal, leaving them to hitchhike along the highway as the picture faded into text.  Unlike in “Metropolitan” however, it appears that we are going to have the great pleasure of seeing what happens next to this new group of characters.  I can’t wait to eavesdrop on their conversations.

It's Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

It’s Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

>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: