Watch: The Dancing of Whit Stillman: A Video Tour

Watch: The Dancing of Whit Stillman: A Video Tour

His films have been described as “Comedies of
Mannerlessness.” Ranging from modern 90s Manhattan to the early 80s
Disco scene and soon the period of the late 18th century, Whit Stillman
has made a name for himself for his ‘[S]ly depictions of the “urban
haute bourgeoisie”’.

But while his characters often have a cynical detachment from the
upper-class life they live in, they sure know how to have fun. In all of
Stillman’s films, the art of dance is prevalent. Whether it’s the
conga, the limbo or the Sambola, the world of Whit Stillman seems to
provide a dance floor for anyone willing to give it a try.

This video showcases the love of dancing that appears in the first
four of Stillman’s films. While "Love & Friendship" is not included in
this tribute, it will be interesting to see what kind of moves will
be presented from the olden times.

Films Featured:

Metropolitan
Barcelona
Last Days of Disco
Damsels in Distress

Why Whit Stillman’s Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

Why Whit Stillman’s Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

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There are plenty of reasons not to watch The Cosmopolitans. The director of this Amazon pilot, Whit Stillman, has been issuing films about the upper-upper-class
since the early 1990s, and at a time at which the country in which the films are
released continues to go through severe economic duress, and at which the
divisions between the wealthy and the non-wealthy continue to grow sharper,
viewers might well choose to watch other pilots; after all, several have been released very recently. Additionally,
one might say his characters tend to hew to the same characteristics, time
after time: disaffected, confused, fortunate, unreliable, unpredictable, and
yet also quite predictable. And the list of dissuading elements goes on.
However, when I watch his films, as I continue to do, I think of a couple of
comments I received, oddly enough, from writing teachers. One pertained to what
the teacher called “the courage to be quiet.” In context, the comment
referenced being able to resist the impulse to write loud, flashy,
attention-grabbing, surreal work, as I was doing, and challenging myself to
write in a softer register. In terms of Stillman’s films the phrase could refer
to filming stories in which no one really does
anything, if “doing something” means saving the world or fighting
10-storey-tall robots or jetting between dimensions or inhabiting John
Malkovich’s brain or seeing a double of one’s self on a weekend retreat—or
working with, and competing with, that double. In a climate in which concepts
are important in films and TV shows, and original concepts sell (and why shouldn’t they?), making a
film in which problems are local, dialogue is clever, and no one moves terribly
quickly does indeed take courage.

The pilot of The Cosmopolitans is plenty quiet. Its story,
such as it is, involves a threesome of wealthy young men who live in Paris.
It’s not clear that they have jobs; it’s not clear that they do much during the
day, besides taking language courses and pursuing women. The men are fairly
prototypical Stillman characters. Jimmy, played with considerable energy and
nail-biting nervousness by Adam Brody, is looking for love, finding it each
minute, and then losing it. His tall, thin, fair-complexioned friend Hal (Jordan Rountree), who resembles a
cross between a Russian wolfhound and a human, is similarly unlucky; his
girlfriend Clemence has left him, and he hangs on her every text message in the
hopes she might be contacting him. Their Italian acquaintance Sandro (Adriano Giannini) seems marginally
more worldly but similarly unfocused, similarly single, and comfortable in the
high-end world they live in. As you can see, there isn’t much drama here.
There’s no hook. There’s no rush to create a fraught story within the first ten
minutes. There are no twists. There’s intrigue, but all of the boring, human
sort. And yet at the same time, the pilot is very watchable, because it is, as
famous American expatriate Hemingway might have said (and indeed one of his
descendants stars here), true. Sharp as the witticisms these
characters exchange might be, and they are sharp, they are memorable primarily because
they emanate from a firm knowledge of the class Stillman is making films about.
Similarities and differences with Woody Allen have been noted, but the chief
difference is this, and it turns out to be the key to why Allen’s films have
declined in quality in recent years: Allen does not know the class he is
filming, the European artists, the young, independently wealthy protagonists,
and his is not the kind of imagination which can recreate experiences he has
not had, or had a portion of. Stillman is, to honor an ancient and shady chestnut, writing about what he knows.

Even-keeled as the dramatic topography may be in this pilot,
Stillman manages to insert some literary characters, figures with some breadth
and potential. Chloe Sevigny, in what might be her best performance since Kids,
plays a fashion journalist who radiates a mood of anger, bitterness and possible sexual
frustration from her first appearance; she says everything through clenched teeth
and what would seem to be too much caffeine, speaking truth but without caring
about its damage when spoken, criticizing the three single fellows for not
having “figured things out” yet. Freddy Asblom plays Fritz, a shifty,
bottomlessly wealthy young snot whose life revolves around cocktail parties,
philandering, romantic entanglements; he quite memorably loses his poise as he throws Sandro out of a party at his home for bringing drug dealers there, all of his previous oily delivery reduced to some barked
monosyllables. And Carrie MacLemore brings us Aubrey, a young woman on her own from Alabama, living
with a passive-aggressive boyfriend, or perhaps not living with him, or maybe
both; she’s played openly and with memorable plainness here by MacLemore, though she is a type who has appeared in
Stillman’s films before, moneyed, intelligent, not quite sure of herself, and
yet challenging enough to hold her own against Stillman’s young,
hyper-articulate bucks.

The second comment Stillman’s work makes me think of was one
I received much earlier, and which is perhaps more relevant to the work at
hand. During a discussion of class in fiction, the teacher suggested that one shouldn’t
be biased towards a writer’s work because the writer might be wealthy and might
depict people who are young, happy, and wealthy; neither the writer nor the
characters can help being that way. A sage observation: one can learn a lot by appreciating a work’s virtues before deriding it for characteristics which may set you off in some private, personal way. Stillman’s films are aggressively, steadily clever and perceptive, and this pilot is no different. They move forward less than they burrow in, one comment leading to another comment, until a final insight is reached that may be surprisingly dark but still somewhat profound. After all is through, the class of these characters, their sameness, their lack of what many people would consider to be real problems, bcomes beside the point. The wit of Stillman’s scripts, as well as the sense of introspection that wit creates, becomes sufficiently moving on its own, and the rest is just gravy, or in this case, jus.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

Breaking the Silence, Sort Of: Whit Stillman’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

Breaking the Silence, Sort Of: Whit Stillman’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

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Wherefore art thou, O Whit Stillman? Though never exactly a blur in motion, the minor auteur managed to generate three hyper-stylized, hyper-talky meditations on manners, morality and money throughout the ‘90s—the last of which, Last Days of Disco, proved his best known and arguably finest. After that, rumors about him licking his wounds in Europe swirled for years, though little was definitively known about his goings-on. Now, after a nearly decade-and-a-half gap in his curriculum vitae, Damsels in Distress marks his first venture back into cinema. And lo! what an odd re-entry it is.

It’s not that this series of vignettes about a year at Seven Oaks University, a fictional liberal arts college, is terrible. Nor does it mark much of a departure in form or function for Stillman, who’s always liked to focus on old-fogeyish young people. It’s just that, despite its many clever bits and terrific cast, including mumblecore siren Greta Gerwig, this film sounds a wan echo of Stillman’s earlier work. Intentionally or not, he has fashioned here an auto-valentine to his already-established tropes (a murky mentor and her ingénue; the watered-down Kool-Aid of an elite subculture; the questionable merits of nostalgia; the healing power of dance), and it comes with less certitude and many more protestations than does his previous work.

Take the film’s opening minutes, in which 50s-style elevator music swells while big-co-ed-on-campus Violet (Gerwig), flanked by her lackeys Heather and Rose (all three clad in floral prints, lest we not get the flowergirl motif), approaches transfer student Lily (Crazy Stupid Love’s rubbery faced Analeigh Tipton).  “You were unhappy at your old school,” Violet says. “Would you prefer our guidance or to sink or swim on your own?” Predictably, Lily opts for the former, and she preens and then bristles under their tutelage as she stumbles through the university’s rarified ecosystem of body-odor-afflicted education majors, aggressively moronic fraternity brothers, tap-dancing depressives, anal-sex-fixated foreign grad students, and, yes, damsels in distress.

Like all of Stillman’s characters, the girls and boys of this world speak in a halting schoolmarm-ese (no contractions, no cussing, no colloquialisms) that betrays the vehemence of their fastidiously parsed paragraphs. On topics ranging from the acceptable plural of doofus (doofi? doofuses?) to the human tendency to seek those cooler than ourselves, Violet and her peers deliver speeches and aphorisms with strangely ineffective hand gestures and a minimum of flair. Says eighth-year ed student Fred (Adam Brody, whose apparent nose job reinforces his blank, tabula rasa demeanor): “I do romanticize the past. It’s gone, so we may as well romanticize it.” Says Lily: “We value idiosyncrasies and uniqueness but really such people are pains in the asses.”

As you watch, you get the sense that Stillman has been chomping at the bit for years to serve up these unique, idiosyncratic, pain-in-the-ass gems, and so he wishes them as unadulterated as possible.  To that end, these kids are oddly indistinguishable, although each bears one branding characteristic. Rose is haughty (and black! With this film, Stillman has finally broken his racial barrier); Heather is cheerily dimwitted; Lily is a reluctant ingénue; and Violet, who, as Stillman’s most overt stand-in, is also most fully fleshed out, prevails as an earnestly flawed Jane Austen-style heroine. Say what you will about Stillman, he does know his Austen.

The girls’ stances and passions, if they have them, seem to spring from nowhere and just as quickly evaporate, while their many beaus prove interchangeable—liars or dolts, all of them. Even such marginal characters as campus policemen and waitresses utter Whitticisms in the writer-director’s patented cadences. Obviously cats like David Mamet feature a similar homogeneity in tone, but Mamet Stillman is not. And I don’t even like Mamet.

The problem is that since all these kids are so blank, only Stillman, as the narrative voice, is in on his many jokes (“I fled to a Hotel 4, even more economical than a Hotel 6,” states Violet flatly in an account of post-breakup despair.) It’s a pat-himself-on-the-back device that quickly rings hollow: Characters as cogs.  The fact that, as a technician, he doesn’t produce much to write home about here doesn’t help. Pastel and bracingly bright, the film often resembles a Lifetime TV movie—sun-splashed is the name of the game—and its pacing is as ungainly and stiff-legged as these young people’s gaits. (Sharp editing proved a saving grace in his earlier trifecta.)

Near the end, Damsels abruptly transforms into a paean to Fred Astaire, complete with a few inexpert ensemble musical dance numbers. At that point, not uncharmed, I threw up my hands. Just like the paper-thin storylines of Astaire’s movies always functioned as mere filler between his dance numbers, plot and character are apparently mere conduits for Stillman’s signature shouts and murmurs. Lest this connection not be fully drawn, one morose Seven Oaks student even insists upon being referred to as Freak Astaire. Fuck subtext, Stillman seems to be saying. Whit Disney world is my oyster, and herein lie my pearls.

As I left the screening, I described myself to a colleague as feeling “vexed.” “Now you’re talking like the movie,” he replied drily and, indeed (even in the paragraphs above), I’ve fallen prey to its sticky vernacular. Despite myself, I have to admit that I’ll probably be happily charmed by this world for years to come—albeit most likely, and most preferably, in 15-minute snatches on 2 AM cable. Just the gems, ma’am.

Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.