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Sage of Innocence

Whit Stillman embraces the idea of utopia in his films

By Alexander E. Traub, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

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.

The first shot of the party is a discussion between a beautiful girl and the bespectacled Charlie Black (played by Taylor Nichols, the only major actor to appear in every Stillman movie) about a proof of God. “What it shows is a kind of belief is innate in all of us,” says an academic and tuxedoed Black about his proof. The girls at the party have heard of Townshend as a political radical who looks down on things like deb balls, and they ask him what exactly his beliefs are. “I’m a committed socialist, but I’m not a Marxist,” he says. “I favor the socialist model developed by the 19th century French social critic Charles Fourier.”

Stillman has effectively recast the Enlightenment salon among adolescent deb ball preps. Like with any other salon, there is some belief shared among all the participants that rational debate can lead to some greater truth—that each individual at the party is committed to a common task of mutual learning. This idea lends the scene its comic self-seriousness. References like Fourier then seem utterly pretentious. But what is important about the scene is actually that pretense is completely absent—the kids are on a sincere quest to become the kind of adults they could respect. They want to understand their own position in the world.

"The Last Days of Disco,” which features many of the same actors, could concern the same exact group of people eight years later. A circle of friends forms around the once-famous New York nightclub Studio 54. In one scene, the characters all compare their intellectual readings of “Lady and the Tramp.” There is the same disconnect between their believable setting and their unbelievable behavior within that setting. “The idea of a disco where people go to have intellectual conversations—that’s a utopia, that doesn’t exist,” Guest says. Stillman’s films make us laugh at these idealistic depictions of human behavior, but they also make us wonder what life would be like if our friends really were this sincere. Or, even, if everyone were.

Ultimately, Stillman’s characters are denied the utopia they wanted in the beginning of each film in favor of a different image of social harmony. In “Metropolitan,” the clique that Townshend stumbled into—The Sally Fowler Rat Pack—dissolves, but a desperate sequence alone with Charlie leads to his reunion with Audrey, the girl whose love he has mistakenly spurned. In “The Last Days of Disco,” the disco age ends and the main characters, in the final scene, all walk their separate ways. “To me, these communities are tinged with a twilight quality,” says Guest. The film’s end credits, however, qualify as Stillman’s most obvious expression of utopia: all ethnicities and classes of pedestrian on a subway train and platform spontaneously break into dance to The O’Jays’ “Love Train.” “This is Whit Stillman’s fascination with and love of disco,” Guest says. “It’s a shared and ardently sincere ritual. It can liberate people, bring people together, it can forge or create a community, however fleeting it might be.”

“DAMSEL” DREAM

The fantasy that ended “The Last Days of Disco” opened a new path to Stillman, who says he has been working on “transcending naturalism” ever since. In the rough cut Stillman showed of “Damsels” at the HFA, friends go on a search for the lost protagonist using lacrosse sticks as if they were metal detectors on the beach; a frat boy struggles to name basic colors; and tap dance is used at the campus Suicide Prevention Center as a serious possible remedy for suicidal depression. For D’Arcy and Lane, this fantasy and the seemingly serious conversation surrounding it typifies Stillman’s pervasive irony.

Actress Greta Gerwig’s Violet, the outsized personality whose type was given to the characters played by Chris Eigeman in the past Stillman films and Kate Beckinsale in “The Last Days of Disco,” has a refreshingly perverse attitude toward all sorts of things. “I love clichés and hackneyed expressions of every kind,” she declares at one point; “I’d like to thank you for this chastisement,” she comments after being justly insulted; and, after a breakdown that follows being dumped by her boyfriend, she finds the answer to her crisis in a bar of hotel soap: “The scent and the soap is what gives me hope.”

"I tend to think that a lot of these conversations that seem a lot more refined than the frat boys’ are just as pointless and just as absurd as what the frat boys do,” says D’Arcy. “It amounts to just as little.” The absurdity that connects Violet’s and the frat boys’ behavior, then, serves as a clue: the reflective, intellectual mode of understanding the world is just as pointless as the most dumb and thoughtless orientation. With this view into Stillman’s world, we are incapable of finding any deeper meaning or richer truth. “The films are all about futility, about finding out that things are not as good as you thought they might be,” says D’Arcy. “Think of a very polished and gentle New Yorker cartoon that’s wrapped around cynicism...that’s wrapped around a very gentlemanly skepticism about anything.”

That means that though Stillman’s characters are on a quest to find integrity and joy, they are inevitably destined for the mediocrity prescribed by the depressed metropolitan in J.G. Melon. The viewer, then, sees each character from an alienating distance. In his New Yorker review, Lane writes that the charm of “Damsels” “springs from the principle that characters’ feelings exist not so much to be indulged as to be guyed and sported with, or swapped like clothes and shoes. The more intense the feeling, the more that principle obtains.” Lane uses Violet’s embrace of tap dance and soap as solutions to depression as paradigmatic examples of this cavalier attitude toward serious issues.

Stillman’s own statements about the utopian aspect of his films cast serious doubt on Lane’s and D’Arcy’s reading. But D’Arcy’s and Lane’s central mistake is that they seem to assume that Stillman’s absurdity reveals some distaste for reality—how, they think, could a bar of soap really mend a broken heart? Stillman’s representation of conviction in soap would then function to reveal the absurdity of any conviction.

In fact, the absurdity of Violet’s discovery of the soap is an idealization, not a mockery, of reality. When she hands the bar to two construction workers in a diner, they sniff it and smile—they understand its potential significance. Violet’s friends also appreciate the scent once she shows the soap to them. In Violet’s joy at finding her soap, “Damsels” shows how seriousness of purpose can be infused with a lightness of being. By that reasoning, the cynicism that Lane detects in Violet’s use of tap as an anti-depressant completely misses the point of the gesture: Even if tap could never actually solve depression, wouldn’t the world be wonderful if it could?

Utopias do not concern a critique of what is; they concern an imagined world outside of reality that constructs new possibilities for human order. “Damsels” is a dream Stillman has been having for 14 years about a world in which being normal and clean and enjoying dance can lead unerringly to fulfillment. The new film—his most absurd—is the clearest expression of Stillman’s utopian impulse.

STILLMAN’S SOAPBOX

“In all three films—it’s true in ‘Damsels’ too—it’s so funny because no one is ever kidding,” says Stillman devotee Amanda W. Hameline ’12. “The humor comes because no one is ever making a joke.” Stillman’s greatest achievement has been this ability to make pure reason so ridiculous and so admirable at once. His small groups of friends discuss Disney movies like they are funerals, but that also means that they really listen to what everyone is saying about everything. They are rarely sarcastic and never indifferent. A Stillman-styled utopia is not realizable in its full form on earth—and maybe we should be happy that there are people who don’t love hotel soap, or even who don’t shower every single day. It’s bizarre that someone could see utopia in a bar of soap—and therein lies the value of Stillman’s work.

—Staff writer Alexander E. Traub can be reached at atraub@college.harvard.edu.

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