Monday, April 16, 2012
On Whit Stillman
Whit Stillman had been incredibly elusive and under-the-radar after his third film "Last Days of Disco." A distinct voice in the '90s, his three films perfectly captured the happenings of these young urban-haute bourgeoisie characters. His depiction of these characters were both genuine and revealing. The biggest strength of cinema is being able to shed light on a culture or group of people that normally aren't displayed. Nobody wanted to see a movie about young wealthy WASPy people talking about Jane Austen novels or Fourier until Whit Stillman came along. He manages to do so in a very welcoming and inviting way, evoking the styles of Woody Allen or Ernst Lubitsch.
But Stillman's characters, while intelligent, are also deserving of ridicule. While "Metropolitan" puts these aforementioned characters in full display, they surely are not without some faults. We hear Tom Townsend go off on the immorality Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" but later we find out that he's never read a single Austen novel. He only reads literary criticisms. The bottom line is that although the characters of "Metropolitan" are intelligent and thoughtful, they're still also college kids. In a lot of ways, they're naive and idealistic and it's fun to see Whit Stillman play with that dynamic.
Stillman took those same character-types and transported them to his later two films "Barcelona" and "Last Days of Disco." The reason why Whit Stillman's films linger around today are because they all relate to each other. You may not relate to or particularly like Stillman's characters but after spending three movies with them, you get to know them and, at the very least, understand how they think and what makes them tick. Stillman's style is reminiscent of Woody Allen, but he's very much his own man. The only person who comes close to emulating his style is Noah Baumbach with his early films "Kicking and Screaming" and "Mr. Jealousy." Still, this is quite a difference between Baumbach's depiction of these characters and Stillman's. To watch Stillman's first three films is to enter a very intricately detailed world and when "Last Days of Disco" ends with random people dancing and having a good time while on NYC subways, you can't help but smile and be somewhat charmed.
If I were to rate and grade those three films...
On my top 100 films of the '90s list for a good reason and I already kind of go into the film's strengths earlier in this post. But Metropolitan is arguably Stillman's best work because it's his most relaxed film and his least plot-centric. He allows his characters to just breathe and shoot the shit. And again, it's not that they're just wealthy, young, intelligent characters talking about intelligent things, they're flawed and eccentric. But their eccentricities make them human and when you watch Metropolitan a second or third time, you feel like you really know them.
Barcelona's strengths are in its characterizations, but it kind of goes awry in the third act. Stillman's light style feels ill-suited for the way the last act of this film unfolds. Regardless, Chris Eigeman, one of the main stars of the film, is so fun to watch in this film, much like he was in Metropolitan. He really is Whit Stillman's weapon. The way he's able to take Stillman's words and add a touch of his biting, cynical tone, it's just beautiful.
Last Days of Disco
His third film, Last Days of Disco is just a touch below Metropolitan in terms of quality. They're two different movies but still contain exceptional dialogue. In fact, Disco might have some of Stillman's best dialogue in any of his films. When your characters can go into a detailed analysis of Lady and the Tramp without sounding like fools, then you're doing something right. Disco contains Chris Eigeman again but also has Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. The intelligence and confidence that Kate Beckinsale displays here makes you wonder why she's been wasting her career with such shitty films. She's great here.
Whether or not you like Stillman's films take on young UHBs, the fading Disco scene of the early '80s, or American relations in Spain, the charm and wit is what remains the same. A lot of people, after having watched Stillman's films, come to the conclusion that he's a conservative Republican. That may be true, but that's also what makes his films and their perspectives unique. Even so, there's not a hint of smugness in Stillman's commentary, although there is in Stillman's characters.
How does Damsels in Distress compare to his original three films? It's kinda below Barcelona, to be honest. It's not that it's his worst film, far from it, it's just that it's so incredibly light and filled with whimsy and it misses the more earnest characterizations that were on display in Whit's earlier films. As I said in that review, I hope it's just the first step in what hopes to be many more Stillman films in the future because I think his voice needs to be displayed more in this current generation.
Plus, his first three films contained Chris Eigeman, who is brilliant in all of them. It makes you wonder why the actor never really took off in other ventures. He also starred in Noah Baumbach's first few films. In those five films combined, he really cultivated quite a personality, even if they were riffs on the same personality. I really hope Stillman will bring him back in a big way in the future as I really think he was key to making Whit Stillman's films in the '90s so fun to watch. In fact, when Chris's character Nick in Metropolitan leaves at around the 75 minute mark, you can kinda the feel his lack of presence in the rest of the film. Even Tom Townsend asks "What would Nick do?" late in the film when he and Charlie are stuck in a bad situation.
So, I welcome back Whit Stillman with open arms. He creates characters that, at times, I dislike, and yet I would love to have conversations with. Even though Damsels was kind of his weakest film (I still gave it a B), it definitely reminded me why I liked him so much in the first place. Let's just hope he doesn't go off and disappear for another long period of time.
Check out my review of Damsels in Distress here