And so here’s to a writer who chooses to tell rather than show, and to a director who makes ongoing dialogue work and action feel unnecessary. Whit Stillman stays faithful to his principles through all his four feature films and establishes his very own filmmaking style that might remind us of Woody Allen, but just when it’s about to be compared, it makes a sudden move and shifts to something entirely different. Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days if Disco and Damsels in Distress are too familiar at times and utterly original at others. Their characters are people we know but also never knew existed. We love them and we hate them, we’d like to befriend them, but they also annoy us. Whit Stillman’s filmmaking is fresh and tiring, simultaneously. It says something new and repeats everything we know. And this is exactly what makes his work so important, interesting and worth following — the fact that it portrays life at its awkward and its cool. Its old and its new. Its disco and its jazz.
I recently got to attend a talk with Whit Stillman, thanks to the editor-in-chief of ΣΙΝΕΜΑ magazine, Fedra Vokali, and as part of the Athens International Film Festival – Premiere Nights 2012. The most important piece of advice given by the artist, as far as I’m concerned, was not to share too much information regarding works-in-progress. Not only not to jinx them, but also not to have anyone bigger or “more important” take them, run away with them and turn something different into mainstream and a warm real life experience into a Hollywood extravaganza. As the filmmaker himself seems too chilled to be able to follow his own advice, I’m under the impression that we would have had a lot more great Stillman movies if he were to have been slightly more competitive. Not at all a Hollywood entertainment business person, but a noteworthy artist, and the kind of subtle filmmaker that makes a difference with his work instead of a loud profile, Stillman may be facing his fair share of obstacles while creating and taking his time with things, mainly due to his chilled nature, but we’re here patiently waiting for anything he may have to show us.
No doubt, Stillman starts slow and speeds up on the way. His debut, Metropolitan (1989), begins quietly and manages to pick up the rhythm only slightly and just minutes before the film ends. But then again, the term “manages” is unfair, since it never feels like the movie is trying to do anything. Like all of Stillman’s work, Metropolitan is yet another faithful — sometimes kind and others sarcastic — portrayal of a certain group of people, in this case, the Park Avenue teenage bourgeoisie, the bored and desperate-for-some-action well-fed preppies.
Barcelona (1994) gets it all going. There is a pace here which, although slow, never completely disappears, and the naive, ignorant atmosphere that is creatively created by Stillman’s overly classy American characters is taken to the next level. As they grow up and move on to different phases in their lives, the audience gets to experience them in new surroundings, new relationships, with new superficial problems and with a lot to say about everything. In fact, this is even more effectively achieved with the help of a very clever trick — Stillman casts the same two lead actors in all three his first films. By the time that The Last Days of Disco (1998) comes our way, we have gotten to know as well as grown to like and dislike Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman’s characters so much, that there is nothing they can do or say that could surprise us or make us cringe. This is when Stillman moves on to four entirely different — and this time female — lead characters for Damsels in Distress (2011) and on to a fresh story as well as point of view.
Whit Stillman’s latest film has indeed a wonderful rhythm. Now whether this was a necessity, following the fact that women took over, I couldn’t say. But the pace has picked up without the Stillman quality ever being compromised. What should be noted is that the unbelievable wit that is to be found in this very female dialogue, concerning ladies problems, insecurities and ways of having fun in Damsels in Distress, would have never been possible to guess that it came from a male writer. Although the subtly eccentric and mockingly philosophical dialogue in Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco is worth-mentioning as one of the main ingredients that make Stillman’s work stand out, the beautiful balance that is achieved between emotional superficiality and depth in Damsels in Distress is one of a kind.
Whit Stillman at IMDb
Whit Stillman at Wikipedia
Whit Stillman at Rotten Tomatoes
Athens International Film Festival – Premiere Nights 2012 official website
ΣΙΝΕΜΑ magazine website