The wit of Stillman

On Sunday I watched my weekly Netflix rental, this one a movie I’d only seen once before—Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan.

I’m going to have to buy the whole Whitman trilogy, delightful films that yield increasing rewards with each viewing. Stillman is apparently a Christian of some kind (for years he’s been trying unsuccessfully to do a movie about believers in the Caribbean. Metropolitan opens with the chords of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”).

Stillman delights in turning cultural expectations on their heads. In Metropolitan, his first film, he portrays Manhattan “Yuppies” (one character insists they ought to be called “Urban Haute Bourgeouise”) as sympathetic and even mildly disadvantaged. In Barcelona, two American cousins, a businessman and a naval officer, deal with the European narrowmindedness and prejudice. And The Last Days Of Disco, set in Manhattan in a strangely ambivalent time period, celebrates the discotheque as a place of joy and a strange kind of innocence.

At one point in Metropolitan, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) quotes a Lionel Trilling review of Mansfield Park to debutante Audrey (Carolyn Farina), in order to explain his dislike for Jane Austen. Audrey asks him what books of Austen’s he’s read. He says, “None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.” The great joke is that the film itself is pure Jane Austen, though the comedy of manners has been transported to a small fortress of civility in a barbarian land.

Memorable quotations like that abound in all three films. In Barcelona Fred (Chris Eigeman) says to Ted (Taylor Nichols), whom he has observed reading the Bible while jitterbugging, “You are far weirder than someone merely into S&M. At least they have a tradition. We have some idea what S&M is about. There’s movies and books about it. But so far as I know, there is nothing to explain the way you are.”

In The Last Days Of Disco, Josh (Matt Keeslar) says to Alice (Chloe Sevigny), “Take The Tortoise and the Hare. Okay, the tortoise won one race. Do you think that hare is really going to lose any more races to turtles? Not on your life.”

Alice: “I like that tortoise.”

Josh: “So do I. But if you were a betting person, would you say, ‘That tortoise won against the hare; in future races I’m backing him’? No. That race was almost certainly a fluke and afterwards the tortoise is still a tortoise, and the hare a hare.”

Although his films deal with extremely sophisticated and adult material, Stillman sometimes gets twitted by his co-workers for his reluctance to use rough language (though there is some). There is sex in the films, but it’s discreet (“Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge away,” says Nick [Chris Eigeman] in Manhattan.) A certain gentleness and discretion, both toward his characters and his audience, is characteristic of Stillman’s work.

Stillman hasn’t had a film released since 1998, but the good news is that his newest, Damsels In Distress, another Manhattan movie, is scheduled to come out this year. I’m looking forward to it.

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