>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,

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