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The Discrete Wit of Whit Stillman

1,063 words

[1]In a previous life, before I pledged fealty to the art of the written word — a pursuit for which I have subsequently won fame, fortune, and unbounded acclaim — a different calling beckoned for a time. 

I enjoyed reading as a kid, but I also loved the cinema, while at the same time generally detesting everything savoring of “Hollywood” glitz, glamour  and celebrity; by my late-teen years, I’d found a number of films with which I felt I could identify, which spoke in a unique way to my restless young heart.

Among this early personal canon of cinematic excellence was Whit Stillman’s indie classic Metropolitan [2], released in 1990. Others on my list included Richard Linklater’s Slacker [3] (1991), and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise [4] (1984). What drew me to these particular movies was in part their fiercely-wrought simplicity of craft: they were scruffy little projects, filmed on a microscopic budget with an ensemble cast of no-name actors, yet I found them infinitely more engrossing and entertaining than the latest formulaic Julia Roberts flick being sold to the drooling, credulous masses, or the newest Meryl Streep accent invariably fawned over by legions of no less credulous film critics.

Here, in fact, was an entirely different breed of cinematic experience, rich in substance, literary even, standing at a blessed distance from the abominable artifice and cheap, tedious pretentions and clichés one commonly saw on display among mainstream movies of the era. If nothing much “happened” in my chosen canon of films but a lot of talking and an equal amount of anti-climactic “down time,” that was okay by me: I had, by that time, discovered that life itself often lacks seeming direction or catharsis: one could address the dullness of existence in a perfectly un-boring way, and these films did.

But writer-director Whit Stillman’s work stood out among the rest for the manner with which his characters, dialogue and overall elegant mise en scène just seemed, in some exquisite and exhilarating way, to shimmer with beauty and intelligence. Perhaps it had something to do with the impeccable looks, dress, and deportment of the high-bred WASP protagonists, as well as their at times almost superhuman articulateness and supreme, slicing wit. I wanted to know these people, wanted them actually to exist, wanted to learn to talk the way that they did, wanted to attend their parties.

To be sure, I was at the time still a young man of the Left, trained to deplore reflexively the rich white WASP for his insufferable richness and inexcusable whiteness; still, there was something palpably exciting, even admirably subversive, about Stillman’s brash, unabashedly sympathetic portrayal of this much-maligned demographic.

His characters were upper-class preppy, bourgeois types, but they also managed to be fleshed-out, authentic characters bursting with charm and, yes, humanity; they were the flip side of the douchy, hateful caricature you far more frequently saw in movies of the time (think James Spader’s legendarily assholish blond snob Steff McKee in Pretty In Pink, or Ralph Macchio’s vicious blond antagonist in The Karate Kid, or the despicable blonde jock-frat boy bully in Revenge of the Nerds, or the sneering blond jerk in Back to School, or the similarly beastly blond boy who appeared in countless other ’80s dramas and teen-sex comedies).

Stillman wrote and directed two more movies in the ’90s, Barcelona [5] (1994) and The Last Days of Disco [6] (1997), both of which built upon the themes first introduced in Metropolitan [2]. While Metropolitan [2] was set in the late-’60s and featured college-aged young men and women attending Manhattan debutante balls and generally hanging out and discussing art, politics, love, and life, Barcelona and Disco centered around mid- to late-twentyish characters in the early ’80s struggling to find their niche in the world as young professionals. In Barcelona [5], two American expatriates in Spain find romance, intrigue, and roiling anti-Americanism; in Disco, a group of elegantly-attired slackers argue, debate, and banter over the strains of pulsing dance music at a “Studio 54”-like club during the tumultuous final days of the disco era.

In each segment of the trilogy, a conservative-minded hero confronts the social decay resultant from the destructive cultural upheavals of the 20th Century Western world; in all of them liberal bromides are mocked ruthlessly and critiqued harshly. Yet none of these movies are preachy, or even overtly political. Rather, they are witty and hyper-literate gab-fests in which a central character is tempted to sin, falls from grace, then eventually wins redemption. The sexual revolution is particularly singled out for censure; we see the destructive consequences of casual divorce, careless promiscuity, and other behaviors borne of hedonistic excess and spiritual rootlessness. Metropolitan is especially scathing in its depiction of shallow left-wing Euro-hipsters, while Disco celebrates transcendent faith as a desirable and necessary thing, whose erosion from modern public life has had deplorable societal consequences.

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Though the three films of the 90s Stillman trilogy are all delightful comedies, generally lighthearted in tone and featuring happy endings, a melancholy tone occasionally intrudes, sounding a pronounced minor note among all of the mannered amusement and wry erudition. A sort of Spenglerian tragedy, we are given to understand, is playing itself out behind the scenes; the WASPs, or “UHBs,” as they are referred to in Metropolitan (one character’s amusingly clumsy anagram for “urban haute bourgeoisie“), are “doomed,” and on their way out; there is a sense of an impending “decline and fall” which gives a context and a dramatic texture to the proceedings and lends a poignant undercurrent to the bright, debonair banter and repartee of the well-spoken, well-dressed, well-heeled cast of characters.

Following “Disco,” whilst at the height of his acclaim, Stillman abruptly retreated into hibernation for a decade and a half. He has recently returned to the big screen with a film called Damsels in Distress [7], which I haven’t yet seen. My tardiness on this front at least partly stems from the fact that I fear uncovering evidence of a “decline and fall” of an artistic sort in this latest work, evidence that the master has lost his craft. I want to remember the glorious Whit Stillman of my youth — the Whit who wittily chronicled the foibles of educated, upper-class whites in an affectionate, understanding and non-condescending manner, while larding his dialogue with enough breathtakingly clever bon mots to keep us reactionary-minded literary snobs (like the UHBs, a sadly shrinking demographic) perpetually grinning in escsatic delight.