Monday, July 23, 2012

What Do You Do?

At one point in Whit Stillman's 1990 film Metropolitan, which Criterion is releasing today on Blu-ray along with another Stillman film, The Last Days of Disco, Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), one of a group of young rich white people drifting from party to party during the season when such people do such things, mentions his disappointment at finally seeing Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. His objection boils down to the fact that, for one thing, he didn't assume the title held any irony, which he obviously should have, but mainly the problem, he says, is that it was simplistic and unfair and, further, the bourgeoisie has "a lot of charm." I'm pretty sure we're supposed to find Black's take silly, but at the same time Stillman's scarce and scattered filmography up to this point -- four films in twenty-one years -- seems to exist to, at least some degree, prove his point. I haven't seen Stillman's most recent film, last year's Damsels in Distress, but his previous three, which also includes 1994's Barcelona, are nothing if not charming, though this is a simplification. But they are charming. Funny, smart, gentle, sardonic (but not venomously so) they are about a world that is pretty much always mocked, if not vilified, in films from around the world. It's one Stillman knows better than most filmmakers who take it on, however, and his approach is refreshing to the point of actually being invigorating.
Merely telling a story about the privileged young (or old, too, but mainly the young) can cause you to take a beating these days. Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls has gotten quite a bit of heat for this reason (I don't like the show, but the fact that it's about people I'm told I'm supposed to hate before I've even met them is not the reason I don't like it). However Stillman -- a beloved, if somewhat cult, filmmaker -- avoids both the heat and the beatings not by kicking this, well, subculture, I guess you'd call it, in the teeth (Dunham kicks in a lot more rich peoples' teeth than Stillman ever even thinks of doing) but by betraying his full awareness of the issues people will bring to films such as his. Saying that Metropolitan is talky doesn't really cover it -- it's basically all talk, and what's being talked about, even when it's not being directly addressed, is the culture and its rather dubious claim to any kind of broad significance. I wouldn't, and Stillman certainly wouldn't, claim any such significance. Metropolitan more than any of his other films that I've seen is partly about the ridiculousness of these lives. But not the people. Or not necessarily the people (the line "It's a tiny bit arrogant for people to go around worrying about those less fortunate" gives some indication of the range of places Stillman's coming from). Each of these characters, save Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), the lead character who is actually not rich, but is mistaken for rich by Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) in an early string of mildly goofy coincidences and assumptions, was born into this world and into this money. Does this make them hateful?
Among the many things Stillman finds absurd, that idea is near the top of his list. Some of them are certainly unlikable, and in fact part of the thread of Smith's character is his occasionally pathological-seeming hatred for another member of their cult, but crucially not of their group, with the wonderfully ridiculous name Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe). Smith, who is kind of the stealth lead of Metropolitan, even though the poor, naive Socialist Tom is the hero, may go too far in his attempts to turn the group against Von Sloneker, but, we'll learn, he's also not wrong. And so -- and this point might seem laughably obvious and simplistic, but the fact remains that, within this specific realm, almost nobody but Stillman bothers to make it, or apparently even think it -- the young, privileged, and white are a group like any other group in that some of them are rather nice people, they don't have to loathe their own station in life in order to be nice, and they can detect wickedness, or anyway assholery, among their own without having to second-guess their entire existence. This is doubly notable in Metropolitan where the very presence of an outsider like Tom Townsend would appear to signal Stillman's intention to dismantle the super-upper-class world he stumbles into. It's positively subversive that he doesn't care to do that. The formula is set up so that it can be revealed to not be a formula.
I also happened to watch The Last Days of Disco, as it had been a very long time since I'd seen any of Stillman's film and wanted a little more context for Metropolitan (which I'd first seen so long ago that it barely counted, though as I watched it large chunks of the film came flooding back). If anything, it might be better than Metropolitan, though it's a tight race. The title sums up the idea of the film, not to mention the setting, and the financial malfeasance subplot involving the nightclub favored by the main characters makes The Last Days of Disco, out of all of Stillman's first three movies, feel positively twisty. But again what I love about what Stillman does here is that he structures everything around long conversations, and Stillman might drift, though never restlessly, from one to another to another, and the audience just listen in.
More interesting here is how the importance of certain characters fluctuates. Chloe Sevigny's Alice holds the top spot pretty much throughout, but her friend, roommate, and occasional antagonist Charlotte, played by Kate Beckinsale, sometimes retreats. Even more striking is how Robert Sean Leonard's Tom seems to surge into the spotlight, but he does so only as long as his presence has a direct impact on Charlotte, and then he, a fringe acquaintance when the film begins, goes about his life away from the rest of them. Going the opposite way is Matt Keeslar as Josh who initially appears to be some sort of eccentric minor character who will be turned to occasionally for laughs and that's it. As it turns out, though, Keeslar's role here is not entirely unlike the one he would go on to play in Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes's underrated Art School Confidential, plus with added extras in Stillman's film. It's just interesting to see characters not being forced to cling to the place in the story where they began. Usually a character will only drop out in the way Robert Sean Leonard does here because he gets shot in the face, which indicates to the rest of the characters that this shit is no joke. Similarly, the path to significance that Keeslar takes is usually punctuated by the audience collectively gasping "Oh, he was the killer!?" So it's unusual, and welcome.

As is Stillman in general. Damsels in Distress, I'm told, is quite a different kettle of fish, stylistically speaking, from what Stillman has offered previously, though from what I understand about it the ending of The Last Days of Disco sort of hints at what's to come. Thirteen years later, yes, but you can't have everything.


otherbill said...

I recently watched Metropolitan for the second time under much the same conditions as yourself. I'd written off Stillman back in the day because something about his dialogue just hit my ear wrong. I guess somewhat similar to the way a number of people of my acquaintance can't abide Hal Hartley films- something about his dialogue/ how he directs actors just turns them off. I enjoyed Metropolitan MUCH more the second time around and for many of the reasons that you cite. It also seemed to me that a lot of the conversations/scenes ended or were intercut with very shape edits- almost like you were anticipating a couple more sentences but Stillman got out just at the second you had enough information. I thought it helped to subtly lend a talky film a sense of forward momentum.
I've never seen Disco, but I imagine if I can sit through 6 hours of Underworld to stare at Kate Beckinsale, I can make the time to watch her in a quality film.
You've got me chomping at the bit to see the Cavalcanti films. And kudos for requesting a "mini-flood" rather than a cavalcade. You are a better man than I.

bill r. said...

Hey, otherbill, nice to talk to you again! But yes -- I remember when I first started watching Stillman's films that they have a way of engaging me no matter what my resistance level might be. Since I was a teenager at the time, I probably rented BARCELONA because I thought Mira Sorvino would be naked in it. She's not, and I *still* liked it.

My wife was in the room doing other things when I was watching these, and when METROPOLITAN was over, the second of the two I watched, she remarked about how unusual they were, and they are. I think if you were to describe the basic idea of THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO to somebody who didn't know Stillman's work at all, they'd imagine a very different film from the one Stillman made. And that's all to the good, because the film I'd imagine in that scenario would be unbearable.

You can get WENT THE DAY WELL? on Netflix, and you have to do that ASAP. It's that good. As for the "mini-flood," well, I'm realistic.