Sage of Innocence

Whit Stillman embraces the idea of utopia in his films

Caroline M. Trusty

Film critic David D’Arcy is incredulous. “Are you trying…I’m not sure you’re doing this, but do you want me to try to identify something that’s actually earnest in one of Whit’s films?” a bewildered D’Arcy asks me. Critic Anthony Lane of The New Yorker takes a similar stance toward “Damsels in Distress,” the latest movie from filmmaker John Whitney (Whit) Stillman ’73. “Even the distress of the title could, and probably should, be taken as a straight-faced joke,” Lane wrote in a review. In Stillman’s world, Lane claims, “Beauty is not truth, nor truth beauty; both are cradled in quotation marks.” Lane and D’Arcy could have broken a sweat straining to keep their eyebrows raised through all 97 minutes of “Damsels.”

But their distant, ironized reading of Stillman’s works has more serious consequences. Understood properly, Stillman’s four movies—beginning with “Metropolitan” in 1990, then “Barcelona” in 1994, “The Last Days of Disco” in 1998, and finally “Damsels,” which opens in Boston this Friday—make a claim for the utopian value of social communities. The group of young friends at the center of each movie is painfully self-conscious about a critical dilemma: How does one grow into a successful adult without becoming impossibly boring or unhappy? These groups of self-styled UHBs (“Upper Haute Bourgeoisie,” characteristic Stillman-speak from “Metropolitan”) can make fools of themselves in their attempts to mature. However, a cult following has developed around Stillman’s films based on his young characters’ serious attitudes about growing up together.

“It was impossible not to know who Whit Stillman was at the time his films were released,” says director of the Harvard Film Archive Haden Guest. “They were so rapturously received; they were such touchstone films for American independent films of the late 20th century. They brought a new energy and sophistication into screen comedy.” Stillman is the clear artistic predecessor for contemporary giants like Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson. Getting to the truth of his movies is necessary, then, to understanding some of the best contemporary films. But, more importantly, truly understanding his work has the potential to save Stillman from an ill-fitting critical mischaracterization.

PASSING THE ACID TEST

Stillman has floppy gray hair and a quick walk that belies his 60 years. But the bounce in his step should be no surprise: Stillman is a man on the move, publicizing his first new movie in 14 years as his artistic legacy remains in flux. On a publicity tour for “Damsels,” Stillman spent a weekend in February talking about his major films at the HFA. Clad in baggy green corduroys and a Ralph Lauren tweed jacket, he also stopped by for an interview at The Crimson, where he was an editor as an undergraduate. Stillman talked about his time at Harvard, his memories from visiting New York when he was young, his late start at directing movies, and the meaning of his work.

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Stillman arrived at Harvard as a freshman in 1969 at the height of student political radicalism. He recalls attending some of the monthly demonstrations. At one of the more violent mobilizations, he watched students burn the Out of Town News in the center of Harvard Square and trash J. Press. Stillman’s dissatisfaction with this kind of political activism extended to the Harvard social scene. “The time I was here was a grim time, ’69 to ’73. It was really kind of bleak,” he said at the HFA. “There was no social life, no dancing.”

Fred Boynton (played by archetypal Stillman actor Chris Eigeman) in “Barcelona” provides a counterintuitive reading of “The Graduate” that seems emblematic of Stillman’s attitude toward the ’60s: “Katharine Ross has just married this cool, tall, blond, popular guy, the make-out king of his fraternity, and this obnoxious Dustin Hoffman character shows up at the church, starts pounding on the glass, acting like a total asshole.” This famous scene in the canonical ’60s film is typically understood to show Hoffman, a reflective, searching hero, stealing the girl from his bland and conservative rival. The comic value of Fred’s attitude is that there is some truth to the opposite interpretation that Ross’ fiancé is a desirable guy and that Hoffman’s character is being incredibly selfish. The dramatic attempts at moral or spiritual transcendence typical of a certain ’60s attitude transform under Stillman’s lens.

Stillman took time off from school to learn Spanish in Mexico, and when he came back he took a job at Tommy’s Value—then a lunch counter—and joined the Fly Club. He said he found his voice on The Crimson only briefly, through columns written by a fictional outsider named “Alexis de Tokeville” who examined Harvard culture. By junior year, Stillman says, he had shaken off his depression and found himself at home at the College.

That was due in part to Stillman’s discovery of his academic sensibility. “A huge influence was professor Walter Jackson Bate and his course The Age of [Samuel] Johnson,” Stillman says. “We read The Spectator paper, Joseph Addison, his character Sir Roger de Coverley, and it led to a lifelong interest in that sort of literature.” Stillman translated this highly mannered 18th century literary style into the hyper-rational conversations of his fictional characters.

But his inspiration for the way his characters speak also comes from his experience growing up. Though Stillman is not from New York City, he often spent time there in high school and college. He remembers going to dances at Chapin, one of New York’s elite private schools, and asking girls what they thought about Harry Truman in order to strike up conversation. “I really dined out on that,” Stillman recalls in our interview. The deb ball social scene from “Metropolitan” comes from Stillman’s own experience meeting graduate students from Columbia University at deb parties. “They were sort of effete, decadent, literary grad student types who gravitated to that social milieu and really made it charming…. [The parties] attracted lots of odd birds and rare birds.”

Stillman did not begin work on “Metropolitan” until he was in his 30s. Between graduation and his first film, Stillman says he identified to some extent with one of his most depressing and funny characters, the almost young, almost middle-aged man in the restaurant J.G. Melon in “Metropolitan.” When asked whether his entire preppy class is “doomed to failure,” the man replies, “Doomed? That would be far easier. No, simply failure without being doomed.” He calls the “acid test” of success or failure “whether you take any pleasure in responding to the question, ‘What do you do?’” The man’s reaction to the test: “I can’t bear it.”

But Stillman did eventually find a satisfying answer to that acid test in filmmaking. After Stillman struggled to raise money for “Metropolitan,” in which his mother made a substantial investment, the movie grossed almost 10 times its budget. Stillman also received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. That film and “The Last Days of Disco” have both gained entry into the Criterion Collection as Stillman has found his films supported by a small international following.  D’Arcy, a fan of Stillman’s work, compares his fanbase to that of an Apple product or type of wine; it’s something, he says, “that wasn’t rooted in any particular geographic place but was rooted in a sensibility.” Though Stillman’s commercial success has been moderate, his impact on a certain subculture has been tremendous.

DISCO UTOPIA

Stillman’s films have a beautifully manicured comic exterior, but what has made them so important is their sensitive treatment of social connection. “The utopian aspect of these films is the idea of these communities,” Stillman says in our interview. “I felt that there wasn’t enough fabric and texture in American society, institutions that bring people together. A lot of people like to be critical of institutions that bring people together…. I am in favor of institutions that bring people together.” “Utopia” is a big word, and its strangeness to real life and inaccessibility to Stillman’s characters is enacted by the comedy of his films. But the real possibility of utopia also makes Stillman’s movies matter.

Part of the comedy of this utopia comes in the way that Stillman’s films create a fictional space for civility that, from reality’s point of view, looks comedic. In the first scene of “Metropolitan,” a few college students on their way out of a New York debutante ball get in a discussion about who has claim over a taxi. “No, we’ll share it, I insist,” says Eigeman’s character Nick Smith. “That way there will be no ill feeling.” This consideration for a stranger over a taxi ride is preposterously far from the reality of New York cab-hailing practices. Smith and his friends, without second thought, then invite the stranger—Tom Townshend—to an after party with them.

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