Directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach are well-known for their depictions of a particular subset of Americans: the East Coast elite. Usually hailing from affluent section of Manhattan and old-money families, their characters are depicted as out of touch and increasingly irrelevant in a diversifying world.
While Anderson and Baumbach have experienced career-defining success from this storytelling model, they draw inspiration from the urban pioneer that paved the paths they currently tread. That man is Whit Stillman, and despite his relatively short filmography, he has built up a respectable niche for himself as the chief chronicler of the “urban haute bourgeoisie”.
I was, for the most part, unaware of Stillman’s existence as a filmmaker until somewhat recently. I had heard his name bandied about in film discussions, but Criterion’s recent Blu-Ray upgrades of his 1990 debut film, METROPOLITAN, and 1998’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO piqued my curiosity. Having previously studied the work of Baumbach and Anderson for the purposes of this project, I was interested in studying the man who served as their inspiration.
I was particularly excited about studying Stillman, seeing as I had never seen any of his films before. I felt I could really dive into his canon objectively without preconceived notions or nostalgic memories of films already-seen. First up was 1990’s METROPOLITAN, a polarizing, sedated work that netted Stillman an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.
The story of METROPOLITAN concerns Tom (Edward Clements), a young Ivy League man who (much like Stillman was himself) is an impoverished debutante caught between the cultural divide of Manhattan’s East and West sides. A self-described socialist and “radical”, he comes off as a curiosity to a foppish, nihilistic young man named Nick (Chris Eigeman), who invites him to join his group of friends for their nightly Debutante season after-parties.
Dubbed the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, this group of upper-crust teenagers spend the majority of the film debating their increasing irrelevance as a social group and the value of their archaic traditions. Along the way, hearts are broken and realizations are made, but in the end, it’s clear that the elite class will continue to prattle on in their opulent mansions in the sky, just as they always have.
Before there was GOSSIP GIRL, there was METROPOLITAN– a more sober and sedated satire of Manhattan’s old-money class. The cast, comprised of young, fresh faces, deliver effective (yet complacent) performances. This particular subset of New York’s social demographic isn’t particularly known for bold action, so the story is inherently heavy on dialogue and light on visual panache.
To Stillman’s credit, each of the performers is believable as discontented, over-privileged, and over-educated. With a shock of red hair, Clements simmers with anxious energy as he navigates unfamiliar social terrain. Chris Eigeman, who would later go on to feature prominently in Noah Baumbach’s early work, is undeniably magnetic as the Rat Pack’s chief cynic.
His haunted eyes convey a vision of the future where their kind has no place among the real movers and shakers of the world— much like how the decadence of the French aristocracy led to their downfall in the Revolution. METROPOLITAN was Eigeman’s first feature-film project, and he rode the wave of the film’s success to a respectable career in well-known independent 90’s films.
The rest of the cast is filled out with various faces who have not had as much career success as Eigeman. As Tom’s love interest, Audrey, the little-known actress Carolyn Farina seems to be the only other member aware of the fading heyday of their class. Externalized by a trend-bucking bob haircut, Audrey is a progressive thinker and romantic that hasn’t yet lost her idealism.
Besides Tom and Nick, she’s the one shining light of real human connection throughout the film. A standout sequence for her character involves her silently crying during a Christmas Eve mass. It’s captivating to watch someone conforming wild emotion to the stoic reserve expected from her station.
Taylor Nichols, as fellow debutante and aspiring philosopher Charlie Black, serves as the main foil to Tom. Driven by his own yearning for Audrey, he cloaks direct confrontation in the pyschobabble of philosophical theory and practice. However, towards the end of the film, he is allowed to soften up, loosen up, and enjoy the ride. I was initially turned off by Charlie’s stuffy pretension, but found myself more sympathetic to him during his subtle transformation.
For a drama that plays out in the opulent confines of sky-high parlor rooms, Stillman and Director of Photography John Thomas establish a low-key, realistic aesthetic that puts the characters on the forefront of our attention. A naturalistic color palette comprised of beiges and pastels complements a natural contrast.
Stillman and Thomas favor wider compositions and strategic close-ups, almost entirely achieved through locked-off tableau shots, with the exception of the occasional dolly tracking shot. I also noticed a particular framing quirk, where Stillman shoots the majority of his wide shots from a perspective that gives diagonal depth to the background, while the actors are flush in-profile in the foreground.
In terms of my own personal taste, I find this to be awkward, spatially-confusing framing. However, it’s nothing that actually affects the movie– it’s just a weird pet peeve of mine.
It’s worth noting, however, that the film features one dream sequence in which Stillman and Thomas take a decidedly stylized approach to the cinematography. The contrast is boosted higher with impressionistic lighting, and the entire image is shifted into a cobalt blue hue. The naturalistic sound design that permeates the film also finds an opportunity to abstract itself by throwing in a droning ambient tone.
The music of the film is comprised of stuffy versions of well-known classical pieces. The composer, Mark Suozzo, creates a score that alternates between uppity/classical, and something resembling ragtime. It’s an accurate musical representation of the film’s themes and characters, but can’t help but be dwarfed by the inclusion of traditional classical cues.
It’s clear from the outset that Stillman knows this world well, especially from the perspective of an outsider. Early in the film, Eigeman’s line: “There’s a westsider amongst us”, speaks volumes about the immense social divide on either side of Central Park. Manhattan’s Upper East Side is a bubble of wealth and arcane tradition (who else even has debutante balls anymore?), and to explore this world of nightly tuxedo events from the perspective of a rental tux provides a fascinating way into this closed world.
Stillman’s vision and direction is reinforced by subtle cues, such as the contrast between the Rat Pack’s inky black overcoats and Tom’s khaki coat. The fiscal worries and stress that come with the Christmas setting only serve to alienate and ostracize Tom further from his newfound friends, who can spend cash on a taxi ride to Long Island without a second thought while he has to worry about paying $25 back to his own mother.
As a result of their top-tier education, everyone is incredibly verbose and articulate, but their social bubble makes them inherently unprepared for the harsh realities of the outside world. This air of looming disaster hangs heavy over the film, making for a cinematically rich subtext. In light of billionaire Mitt Romney’s resounding defeat to a decidedly middle-class electorate in last week’s presidential election, the twenty-two year old METROPOLITAN seems more potent and relevant than ever.
While the story doesn’t exactly boil over with pulse-pounding excitement and drama, Stillman’s debut feature film is strong, assertive and timely. The slowly-paced, sedate nature of the film isn’t for everyone, but it’s decidedly more captivating than it would otherwise suggest. Not so much a visual stylist as he is a gifted dialogist and character-creator, Stillman paints a minutely detailed portrait of an increasingly vain and irrelevant social group that clings to its social customs and rituals as a way to fend off the growing realization that its reign of power has come to an end.
After the breakout success of Whit Stillman’s METROPOLITAN in 1990, speculation naturally turned to what he would do as a follow-up. Following up on his debut film’s slightly-autobiographical bent, Stillman drew inspiration from his time spent in Spain as a film sales agent. In 1994, that experience abroad would inform his second film, a romantic comedy set in Spain during the turbulent days of a waning Cold War, titled BARCELONA.
As I wrote previously, I had come into the study of Stillman’s filmography completely blind– that is, I had never seen a film of his before in my life. Having enjoyed (but not being bowled over by) METROPOLITAN, I was very pleasantly surprised to find an energy and exotic air of mystique around BARCELONA. It’s arguably better than his debut, but funnily enough, it has proven to be unfairly overlooked in recent years.
BARCELONA follows Ted (Taylor Nichols), a socially awkward young American who lives in Barcelona because his job at a large US corporation sent him to run their outpost there. As it is the closing days of the Cold War, Ted lives quietly and discreetly amidst strong anti-American and NATO sentiments vehemently expressed by the city’s youth.
One day, his cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a US Navy officer, arrives unexpectedly for a visit and ends up staying for a few months. As the months go on, both men find themselves falling for the same girl, while the tide of anti-American contempt across the city grows and focuses in on them.
For his leads, Stillman recycles two of the most memorable cast members from METROPOLITAN: Eigeman and Nichols. Eschewing the nerdy glasses but keeping the nebbish, stuttering demeanor, Nichols carries the film as a focused, uptight American in a strange land. Despite his anti-social quirks and general blandness, he’s mostly likeable.
His character is not altogether too different from his character in METROPOLITAN, but Nichols adds the gravitas and depth of an older, more experienced person. The always-watchable Eigeman is also not dissimilar from his METROPOLITAN counterpart, save for his military decorum and sense of national pride. He’s outspoken, but not entirely cynical. As in Stillman’s first film, Eigeman is given the lion’s share of snappy lines, providing the film with a snarky wit and attitude.
As for the ladies, Tushka Bergen is effective as the boys’ mutual romantic interest, Montserrat. Bergen carries herself like a woman twice her age. A young Mira Sorvino plays Marta Ferrer, a sexually adventurous beauty that the two cousins also lust over. Funnily enough, I didn’t even recognize that it was Sorvino until halfway through the movie.
She assimilates so effectively into the Spanish cultural landscape, you’d never know she actually hails from New Jersey. Great casting on Stillman’s part.
Working again with Director of Photography John Thomas, Stillman creates a similar look to METROPOLITAN, but plays it out on a larger canvas. The image is composed of warm, natural colors and high contrast. The color palette is similar to METROPOLITAN’s, only more vivid. Camerawork is mostly locked-off and favors wide compositions and strategic closeups.
Stillman also utilizes diagonal depth in his framing, which feels admittedly more natural here than it did in METROPOLITAN. BARCELONA is by no means a flashy film, but Stillman embraces the colorful Spanish culture and renders it in understated ways.
Mark Suozzo returns to score BARCELONA, infusing Stillman’s classical sensibilities with the spicy salsa of Spain. It’s worth noting that there are significantly more source tracks that pepper the piece, mostly European pop songs of the 60’s and 70’s. There’s also a fair amount of American disco tracks, which foreshadow Stillman’s preoccupation with the genre as a subject he’d explore in 1998’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.
Stillman shows considerable growth as a filmmaker, expanding the scope of his story and imbuing his comedy of manners with political and revolutionary intrigue. The first shot of the film is an exploding building, and Stillman uses that both as a way to distinctly establish the cultural mood of his setting as well as generate a sustained suspense that lurks at the edges of every frame.
Like METROPOLITAN, much of the dialogue still gives way to philosophical and cultural debate, but it’s given a narrative urgency by the looming youth rebellion. Like an organ transplant being rejected by its host body, the Americans in BARCELONA spend the film slowly realizing that the city is turning on them and wants them out.
This being my second time viewing a Stillman film, I’m beginning to recognize distinct stylistic traits of his. For instance, Stillman seems to begin each of his films with minimal, formalistic opening credits set to classical music. The font is usually stylized and is always a shade of yellow (which I suspect influenced Wes Anderson in his own distinctive lettering style), and more notably, Stillman never gives himself his own card for his directing credit.
The credit is always shared on-screen with other collaborators. It’s a subtle way of acknowledging that his team’s contributions are just as important as his own. Stillman also seems to make frequent use of fade-in’s and fade-out’s as scene transitions. This positions his directorial style as more akin to live theatre, with his focus on dialogue over action.
Fades are a distinct transition native to theatre, and Stillman uses them in film as a way to both refresh the story and indicate that some time has passed. All that being said, these observations only come from his first two films, and at the time of this writing, I have no idea if Stillman will continue this established style in later films.
In summary, BARCELONA is a strong follow-up to METROPOLITAN in every way, and in many instances betters its predecessor. It hasn’t gotten a particularly large amount of love in the home video arena, and as such it’s unfairly become Stillman’s most over-looked film.
This is most likely because BARCELONA is distributed by Warner Bros, who are notorious for not paying much attention to most of their catalog titles and refuse the licensing of such works to independent labels who would (read: The Criterion Collection). Here’s hoping that Criterion’s recent acquistion of a few select Warner Bros catalog titles yields BARCELONA the treatment it deserves.
HOMICIDE: “LIFE ON THE STREET” EPISODE: “THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT” (1996)
The year 1996 saw Whit Stillman branch out from the world of cinema and try his hand at the television medium. Interestingly enough, this maker of old-money parlor dramas chose to take a stab at that classic lynchpin of primitive TV: the police procedural.
I vaguely remember HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS airing around that timeframe, which would put me at around 10 years old. I never watched it, and having watched only this episode sixteen years after its release, the show’s age is immediately apparent. The whole thing feels creaky and low-budget, like a generously-funded student film.
It’s clear that the series hails from a time before the recent renaissance of television content and quality. The Baltimore setting ofHOMICIDE brings to mind the gritty reboot of the “schlocky crime/detective procedural” genre that would happen only a few years later in THE WIRE.
Where film is a director’s medium, television is a producer’s medium. The director of a TV episode has to adhere to a pre-established look and tone (unless he or she is directing the pilot episode and is part of the creation of said look). When Stillman came aboard in 1996 to direct his episode, “THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT”, the series was well into its fifth season.
As such, it’s interesting to watch Stillman appropriate the documentary/handheld aesthetic that the series embraces, while still imbuing his own sense of characterization into the story.
THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT uses a group murder counseling session as its framing device in the exploration of the emotional damage wrought by three random murders. Jude Silvio (Stillman reportory performer Chris Eigeman) is a cynical, affluent man whose wife was murdered by a random carjacker, and his three year old daughter (who was in the car with her) kidnapped.
Caroline Widmer (Rosanna Arquette) can’t bring herself to forgive her philandering husband, who she was planning on leaving before his throat was slashed with a beer bottle in a drunken bar brawl. Tom Rath and his wife (Tom Quinn and Polly Holliday) are a working-class couple who grapple with the feelings of resentment towards their murdered daughter’s past as a drug addict and prostitute.
These vignettes frame the main narrative as it unfolds for the Baltimore homicide division, led by Yaphet Kotto. As the night wears on, and the number of John and Jane Does keep coming in, the detectives find themselves strained to deliver justice quickly and efficiently.
Mid-90’s television isn’t known as a bastion of compelling performances. With its cliched cop-speak dialogue and pulpy subject matter, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET doesn’t exactly bring out the best of its performers, but the episode is surprisingly stocked with a respectable ensemble cast of character actors.
Besides the aforementioned Eigeman, Arquette, Quinn, and Kotto, a young Melissa Leo shows up as one of the key detectives. Richard Belzer, who seems to be in every cop procedural show on television, is a strong, yet distracting presence as another detective. However, THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT is really the victims’ show, and they all convey an effective pathos in their respective circumstances.
Eigeman perhaps benefits the most, having collaborated with Stillman previously on METROPOLITAN (1989) and BARCELONA (1994). My bet is that Eigeman’s casting was Stillman’s doing, probably after envisioning him spouting out Silvio’s acerbic, impatient dialogue. Indeed, it’s Eigeman’s presence that’s the only suggestion that Stillman had a hand in the creation of this episode.
As lensed by Director of Photography Jean de Segonzarac, the episode’s visual look is a drastic departure from Stillman’s previous works, albeit I suspect that its because of his responsibility to adhere to a pre-ordained aesthetic. The 4:3 aspect ratio frames a 16mm image composed of high contrast, naturalistic colors, and a thick layer of grain.
The quickly-edited camerawork is mostly handheld and framing is done in close-ups to convey a documentary style, which ends up feeling hollow due to the clunkiness of the writing. Stillman finds an opportunity to stylize the film further by desaturating the colors in the counseling session vignettes. He knows this isn’t his show, but it’s interesting to see Stillman try to match a look that’s pretty much the opposite of what he’s known for.
As an hour-long episode of television, THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT is pretty unmemorable and almost entirely disposable. That said, it’s probably one of the best episodes of HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET due to Stillman’s artistic inclinations and sensibilities (take that with a boulder of salt, since I haven’t seen any of the other episodes) .
For me, it’s going to be most memorable for the inclusion of a crackhead character who comes off as a serious, dramatic version of David Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums character. There’s also a strange slow-motion montage in the middle of the episode scored by a weird grunge rock song that seems entirely out of character for Stillman. Again, however, it’s probably best to chalk that up to the demands of the producers and the show bible.
THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT is certainly not Stillman’s strongest work, and remains a curious oddity in the filmmaker’s relatively sparse oeuvre. It’s really only of interest for hardcore Stillman fans, but even then it would be hard to honestly recommend it. It makes some compelling arguments and delivers thought-provoking insights into the emotional wreckage of murder, but ultimately it’s all undone by the dated cheesiness of the television format.
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998)
With his previous two films, METROPOLITAN (1990) and BARCELONA (1994), director Whit Stillman had built up a reputation for sobering depictions of the urban/East Coast bourgeoisie. His themes and characters are a world onto themselves, often crossing over from one film to another seamlessly.
As a result, Stillman found himself creating an informal trilogy of films, which he has since come to call his “Doomed-Bourgeois-In-Love” trilogy, or his “Yuppie Trilogy”. With the 1998 release of his third feature film, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, Stillman completed the trilogy with his most absorbing and arguably most popular film to date.
Taking place in New York in the early 80’s, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO follows a small cadre of characters as they struggle to find themselves amidst the death throes of a genre of music they have come to identify themselves by. Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are fresh out of college and aspire to careers as book editors during the day, only so they can let their hair down at the disco club at night.
Supplementing the main narrative is a subplot involving their friend Des (Chris Eigeman), a manager of the club who finds himself in trouble when his boss’s shady side dealings spell financial and legal trouble. The club’s excesses will prove to be its undoing, thus becoming a metaphor for an entire subculture and way of life that reigned supreme in the druggy, heady days of the 1970s (only to come crashing down to sober reality in the following decade).
Stillman is known for his literate, talky characters, and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO has them in spades. While METROPOLITAN dealt with the confusing social hierarchy of that time between high school and college, and BARCELONAreveled in the collegiate pursuits of worldliness and travel to exotic lands, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO concerns itself with the realities of establishing a career in the working world while using a disposable income to hang on to those last shreds of youth.
As Alice, Sevigny turns in an early career-making performance as a moody, soulful woman who finds herself coming into her own in the waning days of a movement she never really fit into in the first place.
In her own breakout performance, Beckinsale plays Charlotte as the original Mean Girl. She’s young, gorgeous, and her skin is creamy and perfect— and she knows it. She effectively weaponizes her beauty in a perverse twisting of feminism, all in the pursuit of satisfying her own vainglorious desires of becoming a television personality.
Despite her nasty traits, Charlotte is an undeniably charismatic character and the most watchable. As an actress that’s now primarily known for her agility in a catsuit within the UNDERWORLD films, she still uses her sexuality to weapons-grade effect, but it’s ironically in service to the male gaze and not as an expression of an empowered femininity.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Stillman film without the presence of Eigeman, who steals every scene he’s in. It’s worth noting, that under Stillman’s guidance, Eigeman doesn’t really stray from the singular, outspoken personality he’s known for. The names and clothes are different, but the philosophy and attitude is the same.
Luckily, Eigeman is entertaining enough that he remains inherently watchable and relatable. He has become a cypher for Stillman himself, a conduit in which Stillman can inject his own musings about the subject matter at hand. In THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, Eigmen embraces the sleazier aspects of his stock character. For example, he sleeps around with many girls, and gets rid of them by telling that he’s gay. In real life, this would be abhorrent behavior, but goddamnit if Eigeman isn’t a lovable huckster.
Working again with Director of Photography John Thomas, Stillman sticks to the pre-established look seen in METROPOLITAN and BARCELONA. The image is high in contrast, with even and natural colors. He frames his subjects mostly in 2-shots that feature both performers in conversation, oftentimes with that ¾ depth angle that I often dislike.
The camerawork is more varied than his previous films, perhaps owing to having to switch up his style for HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET (1996). While most of his coverage is primarily locked-off on a tripod, he makes strategic use of long tracking Steadicam shots that are arguably inspired by the use of similar techniques in PT Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)– another film about the dying days of disco. As a result, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO becomes Stillman’s most energetic and visually dynamic work.
Stillman reteams with Mark Suozzo on the music front, who provides a light, subtle score that never distracts and provides just a touch of emotional underpinning to its respective scenes. Ultimately, however, Suozzo’s contribution takes a back seat to the sheer quantity of disco music on display.
There’s so many classic tracks here that it comes off as a college-level historical survey on the genre. It plays wall-to-wall in the club, sometimes even bleeding over into the characters’ reality. The presence of the disco music gives the film a vibrance and personality that coincides not only with the zeitgeist of the genre itself, but the quasi-resurgence that disco was already enjoying in the time of the film’s release.
I distinctly remember a nostalgia for the 70’s during the 1990’s (a phenomenon I like to call the Twenty Year Nostalgia Rule), more than likely brought about by the popularity of films like BOOGIE NIGHTS and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.
As a director, Stillman’s work on THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO shows a subtle development. His unique characterization is still present, but the world around those characters is expanded. It’s not just articulate, over-educated and over-privileged people trying to find themselves– there’s also idealistic lawyers and sleazy club-owners too.
Just as the world expands around us when we leave the insular world of our youth and college, so do Stillman’s characters encounter a reality where their lifestyle and opinions are actually in the minority. They use their education and privilege to deny their flaws and maintain a sense of superiority over others. A perfect example is when Des remarks “I’m not an addict.
I’m a habitual user”. His verbosity and vocabulary afforded to him by his affluent background allows him to hide behind his words and create euphemisms for his flaws without having to actually confront them. Small exchanges like this show why Stillman is the premier chronicler of that specific subset of the population known as Old Money.
It’s well-known that the film raced to completion in competition with STUDIO 54, another film about the heyday of disco. While STUDIO 54 proved to be the more commercially successful and popular film, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is remembered today more fondly, perhaps because of its sober depiction of a gaudy subculture.
The tone is decidedly non-cartoonish, going so far as to to specifically and explicitly mock the excess and cheese embodied by SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1997). In taking this tack, Stillman turns the film into a sad portrait of one’s search for identity when faced with irrelevance.
Indeed, the looming death of disco hangs heavy in the film. Stillman even incorporates news footage of a public event where thousands of disco records were literally blown up in a stadium while people cheered. All of this doom and gloom is given a refreshing counterpoint in what is perhaps the film’s most seminal and inspired moment.
As the story comes to a close and the characters encounter the hangover of disco’s “morning after”, we see two main characters riding a subway quietly. However, all it takes is one little, subtle dance move and the entire subway system becomes a disco party. With this expressionist ending, Stillman’s message becomes clear: “the discotheque may be gone, but as long as we hold it in our hearts, disco will never die”.
By the time of THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO’s production, Stillman had cultivated a distinct universe for himself– self-contained and a step removed from reality. The film features cameos from characters from his past films, such as METROPOLITAN’s Sally Fowler and the Taylor Nichols’ ex-pat businessman from BARCELONA. It’s a nice touch that capitalizes on Stillman’s cult appeal as a filmmaker.
He even includes nods to filmmakers who have been influenced by him— for instance, Carlos Jacott, who appeared with Eigeman in Noah Baumbach’s KICKING AND SCREAMING (1995), makes a cameo appearance as a bumbling dog walker. Moments like this are why taking on projects like “The Directors Series” are so much fun– it clues you in to an unseen world of in-jokes and references you wouldn’t necessarily encounter by viewing of a film out of context.
With his self-described Yuppie Trilogy complete, Stillman had created a comfortable niche for himself within the annals of independent filmmaking. He had passed from upstart reactionary to the status of seasoned veteran/tastemaker/influencer in his own right. Due to the success of THE LAST DAY OF DISCO, he had solidified his standing as the go-to-guy for depicting the trials and tribulations of the east coast elite.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2011)
Following the release of 1998’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, director Whit Stillman promptly sold his Manhattan digs and relocated to Paris. The reasoning is unclear, but given his romanticism of European countries and a lengthy stay in Barcelona during his youth, I can’t say it’s entirely unexpected. What’s more unexpected is that he would drop out of the film scene entirely for the next decade.
Stillman would return to the US in 2009, and after a 13 year hiatus from filmmaking, he released his most recent feature, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2011). Whereas his previous films had gotten increasingly larger in scope, Stillman scales back the story and infuses it with an eclectic mix of faces, both famous and non.
While Stillman’s works are considered “comedies of manners”, they often have a serious, dramatic underpinning to them alluding to the loss of a certain way of life. DAMSELS IN DISTRESS takes a different tack, as Stillman goes for a firmly comedic tone, at turns both obscure and broad. The result is a wildly uneven film that’s firm in its eccentric convictions, but lacks the warmth and accessability of his previous work.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS follows a clique of young women at an elite (fictional) East Coast university, motivated by their de facto leader, Violet (Greta Gerwig). This group of haughty, socially-awkward girls originally starts out with just two others: Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), but through their outreach efforts at the school’s Suicide Prevention Center, they find themselves collecting an eclectic array of people into their circle.
When Violet invites a young transfer student named Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into the fold, she finds herself contending with her rebellious new charge for the affections of a self-admitted player (Adam Brody).
While the story is erratic, uneven, and oftentimes meandering, Stillman commands consistent and dedicated performances from his cast. Hot off her big feature film debut in Noah Baumbach’s GREENBERG (2010), it’s fitting that Greta Gerwig was then cast in a film by one of Baubmach’s biggest cinematic influences. Under Stillman’s guidance, Gerwig blossoms into an enigmatic and alluring leading lady.
Gerwig’s Violet is verbose and articulate like many of Stillman’s previous characters, but she exists in a closed-off bubble of reality that allows her to see herself as a tastemaker and leader. She’s a debutante in a world that no longer has any need for one. Her anachronistic personality even extends to her wardrobe, which takes its cues from midcentury and 80’s designers.
As the primary love interest and duplicitous player Fred, Adam Brody sheds his nerdy The OC persona and assumes an air of confidence and sophistication that would make Seth Cohen seethe with envy. First seen in a suit posing as a clean-cut businessman and buying drinks for girls at the bar, Fred reveals himself to be just another student at the university.
Competing with Violet for his affections is the discretely charming Lily, played with an innocent curiosity by Analeigh Tipton. It’s almost her story as much as Violet’s, and her character is grounded enough in reality that the audience can access this peculiar world through her eyes. As Violet’s partners in crime, MacLemore and Echikunwoke are likable and funny in their own ways. It’s worth noting that Echikunwoke stands out as the first real character of color in a filmography dominated by the white bourgeoisie.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is the first film by Stillman where it’s evident that a concerted effort was made to cast recognizable faces, and Stillman assembles a large chunk of his supporting cast from the zeitgeist of television comedy. Aubrey Plaza, from PARKS & REC, is hilarious as a more talkative, goth version of herself. Alia Shawkat (Maebe from ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) has a great cameo as a disgruntled student looking for quiet.
Zach Woods, of THE OFFICE fame, has a substantial role as the wannabe-bad-boy editor for the school’s newspaper. His characterization is reminiscent of the kind of stock Stillman character that Chris Eigeman would play, so I can’t help but speculate that maybe Stillman sees in Woods a new cinematic surrogate.
Fans of Stillman’s work will also recognize a cameo by regular collaborator Taylor Nichols, who plays a college instructor named Professor Black. Nichols’ character in 1990’s METROPOLITAN was named Charlie Black, and since THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO proved that Stillman’s filmography is its own self-contained universe, it’s not unthinkable that Nichols is reprising his METROPOLITAN character twenty years on.
To round out the casting, Stillman throws in a handful of male characters who come off more like bumbling idiots than functional young adults. While sophisticated and refined, secondary Lily love interest Hugo Becker still turns out to be driven primarily by his ego and his libido. Becker gamely tackles Stillman’s complicated dialogue even though he has to garble it through a thick French accent.
As Violet’s ex, Frank, Ryan Metcalf is a highly erratic presence. First presented as a suave, well-dressed ladykiller, he quickly degenerates into a schlubby buffoon with an intelligence bordering on retarded. The most puzzling part of this arc seems to be that there’s no real reason for it, other than to inject some broad humor.
For his first film in over a decade, Stillman collaborates with a new Director of Photography: Doug Emmett. Together, they recreate the classic Stillman aesthetic but update it for the 21st century. The (possibly digital?) image is natural and filmic, with high contrast and even colors favoring a warmer tone.
Stillman sticks to his usual bag of visual tricks: medium close ups, 2-shot framing, locked-off tripod set-ups limited to pans and fluid dolly moves, etc. However, he finds ample opportunity to switch up his presentation. For the first time in his filmography, Stillman incorporates a series of flashback vignettes depicting Violet during her childhood. It’s a small departure, to be sure, but it definitely shows that Whitman has a vision for the expanded world beyond the story.
While he changes up his visual collaborators, Stillman sticks to his working relationship with Mark Suozzo for the film’s music. Unlike his barely-there effort for THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, Suozzo’s contributions are front and center in informing the overall tone of the film. Composed of poppy, almost air-y piano chords and synths, Suozzo creates a whimsical feeling that harkens back to midcentury compositions as well as contemporary works like Air’s score for Sofia Coppola’s THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999).
Stillman also uses the music to inform his characters to great effect. One standout moment is Violent’s observation about hearing a Eurythmics song at a party: “Oh, it’s a golden oldie. I love these!”. Such a weird, fantastic little moment.
After four feature films, Stillman’s approach to structure hasn’t differed drastically, which makes it easy to chart how he constructs his stories. Just like his previous films, Stillman begins the film with an old-school, minimalistic credits sequence set to score. This is perhaps a great window into his aesthetic, as the titles (like his stories) are very straightforward and non-flashy.
He prefers to share his director credit on-screen with other collaborators, which is a refreshing change of pace in such an ego-driven profession. The film is broken up into chapters, not unlike a book (arguably a reference to Stillman’s literary preoccupations). The story itself, dealing with a girl’s inclusion in (and subsequent delusionment of) an exclusive, privileged social clique, reads like a female-centric mirror of METROPOLITAN. Indeed, the characters of both films are around the same age.
The tone of the film is very peculiar, in that it takes place in a kind of overmedicated haze. It’s like the film was bathed in an elixir of Prozac and Ritalin, but I suspect that may be intentional on Stillman’s part. The exertion of power among the various social cliques plays like a nerdy MEAN GIRLS. As such, the comedy is very deliberate and a little loopy, which under Stillman’s direction can be either hit or miss.
For instance, Stillman includes a brilliant scene where a would-be suicide is thwarted by the fact that the young death-aspirant jumps from a two story porch and merely maims his legs. Conversely, Stillman includes a weird lip-sync musical dance number (complete with stylized golden lens flares) followed by an instructional sequence on how to dance the “Sambola!” as the film’s ending. It’s so bizarre and out of place that it took me out of the film entirely.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, ultimately, is a very polarizing experience. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. It’s at once both charming and abrasive, sumptuous and off-putting. The comedy veers from subtle to near-fart-level zones of broad humor. After building such a strong body of work with his Yuppie Trilogy, Stillman’s first work in thirteen years is lackluster and oftentimes dull.
Despite great, valiant performances from his cast, the story sinks under the weight of its own pretensions. Every filmmaker seems to have a work in which he is working at his most indulgent, and it appears that DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is that work for Stillman. Those who are familiar with his films will find something they can recognize and connect with, but I’m afraid that the uninitiated will find the story mostly inaccessible.
As of this writing, DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is Whit Stillman’s most recent work. His career thus far has found him working mainly as a prominent, influential voice in independent cinema. Just as Preston Sturges and Woody Allen informed Stillman’s aesthetic and characterizatoin, so have his depictions of the East Coast elite influenced numerous younger filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson.
His style didn’t evolve or change like many others of his generation, but the “sameness” of his films speaks to a larger truth. In just four features, he has cultivated a whimsical, self-contained universe with the urban bourgeoisie at the center.
With the realities of the modern world gathering ominously on the fringes of that universe, Stillman’s guiding artistic preoccupation becomes clear. It’s this author’s opinion that Stillman is compelled to make art because of his fascination with the decline of the debutante in a democratized world. Perhaps it’s a morbid interest, as he is every bit the privileged, educated WASP that his characters are.
His films are eulogies for a cherished way of life that only a select few get to experience. So why does he make comedies? Well, everyone knows that the best eulogy is the one that makes people laugh.
THE COSMOPOLITANS PILOT (2014)
Over the past decade, television has undergone rapid, major change—to the extent that many are calling it a new “Golden Age” of television. Up until very recently, television was referred to as the “boob tube” for very good reason—programming was cheap and disposable, the writing was lazy and clichéd, and the banality of reality television reigned supreme.
But then, a curious thing happened—cable content providers like HBO and Showtime began developing their own programming, with an emphasis on quality storytelling, compelling characters, and impeccable craft. Groundbreaking shows like THE SOPRANOS and THE WIRE showed off the medium’s potential for powerful, cinematic storylines.
As Hollywood studios were experiencing a budget arms race in a bid to capture the theatrical box office with ever-increasing spectacle (and decreasing returns on originality and quality), television was able to assert itself as a home for substantial, thought-provoking, and innovative content. In short, the spirit of cinema in the 1960’s and 1970’s was born anew in the form of modern-day premium television.
The last few years have seen even-more unconventional providers like Netflix and Hulu getting in on the original programming game. For Netflix, this strategy has been insanely successful—giving us the likes of HOUSE OF CARDS and ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK—and for Hulu, less so.
Perhaps the most radical player in this new wave of television, however, is Amazon—a site that until only recently had been primarily considered as America’s online retail store. The television game of the 2010’s dictates that the entity with the best programming slate will attract the most amount of subscribers to their proprietary service, and Amazon has emerged as quite the unexpected player.
Amazon’s Pilot program is unique to its peers in that it presents a slate of pilots every year and allows the public to choose what will continue in series form or not. The 2014 Amazon pilot slate was just released for public voting, and one of the entries is THE COSMOPOLITANS, director Whit Stillman’s latest work after 2011’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS.
Produced by Alex Corven Coronia and written by Stillman himself, THE COSMOPOLITANS follows a group of young expats looking for love and friendship in contemporary Paris. No doubt inspired by Stillman’s decade-long residency in the City of Lights at the beginning of the new millenium, the pilot episode of THE COSMOPOLITANS doesn’t boast much in the way of a discernable plot or story, but serves rather as an introduction to the main characters.
There’s Jimmy (DAMSELS IN DISTRESS alum Adam Brody), an anxious, neurotic expat who’s relatively older age can’t save him from random attacks of puppy love. He’s joined by Adriano Giannini as Sandro—a suave, carefree Italian and perhaps a little too old for such youthful endeavors—and Jordan Rountree as Hal—a stuffy, over-serious prep. Fellow DAMSELS IN DISTRESS alum Carrie MacLemore plays Aubrey, who has just moved to Paris and serves as a mousey, naïve addition to the expat crew.
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998) star Chloe Sevigny plays Vicky, an aloof fashion journalist. Rounding out the cast is Dree Hemingway as the shy, quiet Camille and Freddy Asblom as Fritz, a rich young Parisian who has quite the high opinion of himself. The group’s chemistry together doesn’t exactly generate a lot of spark, but they’re charming enough to fit right in with Stillman’s career-long examination of the urban bourgeoisie.
Lensed by cinematographer Antoine Monod, THE COSMOPOLITANS retains the unadorned, journeyman visual style that Stillman utilizes. He doesn’t seem to be interested in cultivating a distinct visual aesthetic for himself, which perhaps speaks more to his preference for literary over cinematic style.
He doesn’t move the camera, save for a singular tracking shot at the end of the pilot, and routinely opts for talking-head close-ups which, while compelling from a characterization point of view, does little in the way of giving us an immersive sense of Paris and its distinct landscape. The image—which is unclear to me as to whether it’s film or digital—is also curiously over-lit, especially in the central house party sequence.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS deviated from Stillman’s general preference for naturalistic lighting in his cinematography, and THE COSMOPOLITANS appears to follow this trend. Stillman also incorporates his eccentric pop affectations into the musical soundscape of the pilot, peppering it with doses of French pop and Motown soul and anchoring it with Joan Osbourne’s cover of “What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted?”.
Stillman’s last foray into television—an episode for 1996’s HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET”—was during a very different era for the medium, and Stillman was forced to work within the aesthetic confines of the series established by the producers. 2014 is a different story, and Stillman has almost free-reign in establishing the look and tone of THE COSMOPOLITANS.
Beginning with his director credit, shared on screen with the credits for his other collaborators, Stillman clues us in on the fact that we may be in a different storytelling format but we can expect the same Stillman flavor that we’ve come to enjoy from his feature work. THE COSMOPOLITANS wears its literary ambitions on its sleeve—the plot resembles something like a modern day update to Ernest Hemingway’s seminal novel about expats in Paris, “The Sun Also Rises” (I also suspect that in this regard, the casting of Hemingway’s granddaughter Dree Hemingway wasn’t necessarily a total coincidence).
The characters in the pilot serve as continued proof of Stillman’s artistic thesis— that the elite leisure class is in decline due to their over-education; they’re ultimately ineffectual because they’d rather sit around and philosophize or intellectualize their struggles instead of taking action to gain control of them. They’re only relevant when they are in the good graces of society’s upper crust, so their main struggle in life is to hold onto their “privileged” status as much as they can.
The pilot for THE COSMOPOLITANS is a solid introduction to its characters, but it’s entirely possible that an introduction is all we’ll ever get. The model behind Amazon’s pilot programs is constructed so that popular vote decides whether a pilot is picked up to series.
While THE COSMOPOLITANS is interesting for those who are acquainted with Stillman’s body of work, it remains to be seen whether it is interesting enough for the wider population. The pilot is available for online voting for a few more weeks, and if THE COSMOPOLITANS is picked up to series, it should serve as a fun, intellectually stimulating continuation of Stillman’s unique worldview.
The new wave of programming—designed to take advantage of consumer binge watching—has been suggested to be a new medium different from television entirely, more akin to a good novel instead of episodic television. In that sense, THE COSMOPOLITANS may just prove to be an inspired conduit for Stillman’s literary affectations and provide him with a storytelling format that’s tailor-made for him.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (2016)
From his 1990 debut, METROPOLITAN, to 2011’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and beyond, director Whit Stillman has built a celebrated career exploring the idiosyncrasies and quirks of Old Money America through a series of original films produced within the independent sphere. His unique writerly flair enables him to express his insights into this rarified, slightly-stale world in a profoundly funny way that’s also quite accessible to larger audiences.
It seems natural, then, that his fascination with the aristocracy and literature would dovetail quite effortlessly with the writings of 18th-century author Jane Austen. He found himself inspired by her novella “Lady Susan”, an obscure minor work that Austen had penned in 1794.
Written as a series of letters issued back and forth concerning a young widow’s attempts to secure her station by remarrying to a rich nobleman, the novella appealed to Stillman as the slightest of narrative frameworks onto which he could graft his own distinct material. That material became 2016’s LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, the kind of buttoned-up comedy of manners he was renowned for, albeit saved from criticisms of redundancy by virtue of its distinct period setting and lavish costume design.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP serves as a reunion on two fronts– one being Stillman’s second collaboration with Amazon Studios following their production of his 2014 television pilot, THE COSMOPOLITANS, and the other being a reunion for Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, the two leads from his 1998 feature, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP proves that time has not dulled the sharp chemistry between these two ladies, each delivering a bitingly-witty performance with precise comedic timing.
Beckinsale plays the Widow Vernon, the eponymous Lady Susan of Austen’s novella– at once both glamorously aloof and deeply insecure about her social standing. Beckinsale’s icy elegance is the perfect fit for a woman who plots and schemes her way through England’s high society, masterfully manipulating allegiances and affections in her dogged pursuit to land a rich bachelor that will secure the financial future of both her and her adult daughter.
Sevigny plays her closest confidante, a droll American expat named Alicia Johnson whose biggest fear in life is getting sent back to her native Connecticut. The remainder of Stillman’s cast consists of entirely new collaborators, boasting the talents of performers like Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, and Stephen Fry.
Samuel plays the handsome suitor Reginald DeCourcy, the primary target of the Widow Vernon’s pursuits. Greenwell plays his sister and Lady Susan’s sister-in-law, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon. Bennett steals the show as Sir James Martin, another wealthy suitor whose awkwardness and smug obliviousness knows no bounds.
Fry appears in what amounts to a glorified cameo as Mr. Johnson, a relation of Alicia’s and a voice of authority to the younger cast members.
Stillman’s films have never quite been regarded for their visual dynamism; indeed, his technical aesthetic makes it quite clear he places a higher value on the screenplay and character development. That’s not to say he’s a slouch in the cinematography department– on the contrary, his images are every bit as formal and buttoned-up as his subjects, eschewing elaborate camerawork and stylistic flash in order to better hone in on pure character.
Stillman and his cinematographer, Richard Van Oosterhout, supplement his well-lit and deliberately-composed static shots with a modest array of crane, pan, and dolly moves that suggest an approach that’s more ambitious in the context of Stillman’s previous work, while nonetheless feeling relatively sedate compared to the work of other filmmakers in his generation.
He does, however, employ a modest amount of stylistic flair in the form of introductory character vignettes presented in the style of portraiture, as well as the overlaying of onscreen text during scenes in which characters are reading aloud, rendered in an elegant handwritten script that evidences Stillman’s love for the literary and the sheer visual appeal of the printed word itself.
Stillman’s straightforward aesthetic is reinforced by the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, although it’s a bit unclear to this author whether the image originated on film or digital– if there’s a grain structure, it’s very fine, and the $3 million production budget might have been too modest to allow for a celluloid acquisition considering what was no doubt the hefty (but necessary) expense of Anna Rackard’s lavish production design.
Stillman also brings back two key post-production collaborators, his editor Sophie Corra and his longtime composer Mark Suozzo, who teams up with Benjamin Esdraffo to deliver a stately, baroque score appropriate to the setting at hand.The source material may be Austen’s, but the final product is undeniably Stillman’s, who brings his artistic signatures to bear in every facet of the film– right down to the onscreen credit he shares with multiple collaborators in the formalistic opening titles.
While his previous films have examined the moneyed leisure class as a contemporary caste in decline, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP finds them in their heyday, blissfully unaware of their growing irrelevance in a fast-modernizing world. After a six year hiatus from cinema screens, Stillman reminded audiences of his indie cred by debuting LOVE & FRIENDSHIP at the Sundance Film Festival.
Its warm reception by critics and strong box office take ($18 million over $3) would easily make LOVE & FRIENDSHIP Stillman’s highest-profile work since THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO. Whereas many filmmakers find their careers re-energized by exploring outside their wheelhouse, Stillman would rejuvenate his by delving even deeper within it, and thus reassert the value of his unique voice in the realm of American independent cinema.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———