In retrospect the Classical Hollywood studio era now seems to have been a Golden Age of American comedy, a period in which many of the most popular comedies were defined by a kind of scintillating dialogue and urbane, philosophical nuance frequently prominent within even the most antic slapstick. Figures such as Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey and the Marx Brothers seem so distant yet meaningful today precisely because of the increasing scarcity of sophisticated adult screen comedies in contemporary American cinema. An important and gratifying exception is Whit Stillman (b. 1952) who brought a new and unexpected energy into independent cinema with his celebrated screenwriting and directorial debut, Metropolitan, a portrait of young, privileged Manhattanites at the bubbly height of the debutante season and poised quizzically on the edge of reluctant adulthood. With its brisk New Yorker cartoon style dialogue and precociously self-aware characters, Metropolitan’s affectionately ironic portrait of Upper West Side gentry immediately defined the melding of wry comedy and political innuendo that would remain an important signature of Stillman’s cinema. Less remarked upon is Metropolitan’s cool postmodern undertone that effortlessly marries the end of the Jazz Age world weariness of F. Scott Fitzgerald with the stage-bound earnestness of early sound-era talkies to imbue the film, and its characters, with a quality of floating, with poignant awkwardness, somehow out of time.
The critical acclaim of the shoe-string budget Metropolitan won Stillman the backing for the two films that would complete his now classic and beloved trilogy about the loves and lives of young urban almost-professionals – Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, whose title evokes the autumnal, fin-de-siècle nostalgia shared by the films. Running throughout the three films is also a detached yet pointedly autobiographical thread that draws creatively from Stillman’s own background as a son of privilege, a Harvard graduate and an expatriate professional working in Spain. Indeed, many have gone so far as to read the hilariously impetuous and dogmatic Yankee naïf played by Chris Eigeman in the three films as a comic stand-in for Stillman himself. After the extended silence of thirteen years that followed The Last Days of Disco and that drove his growing cult audience to increasing despair, Stillman at last completed his long-awaited fourth feature, Damsels in Distress.
The Harvard Film Archive is elated to welcome back Whit Stillman to his alma mater for this celebratory showcase of his extraordinary films. – Haden Guest
Special thanks: Tom Prassis, Sony Pictures Classics
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Haden Guest
Directed by Whit Stillman, Appearing in Person. With Carolyn Farina,
Edward Clements, Taylor Nichols
US 1990, 35mm, color, 99 min
In a time “not so long ago,” the discreet charms of the self-described “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie” imbue the debutante after-party scene of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Beguiled by the clique of collegiate preppies known as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, Socialist-turned-socialite Tom Townsend finds their unpredictable banter and adherence to an old-fashioned sense of civility curiously admirable. With adult role models ineffectual or absent, this “doomed” class looks instead to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen. They replace large emotions with an over-intellectualization of every social misstep and amuse themselves with cruel manipulations, yet their insular microcosm also possesses its own variety of camaraderie, profundity and eventually, love. In his directorial debut, Stillman brings a witty and wistful edge to his sympathetic portrayal of neurotic teenage aristocrats facing obsolescence.
Directed by Whit Stillman, Appearing in Person. With Greta Gerwig,
Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton
US 2011, digital video, color, 99 min
An off-beat, giddy and Laura Ashley colored send-up of smug liberal college Americana, Stillman’s latest filmworks within a bolder mode of satiric caricature than his earlier trilogy. Starring mumblecore icon Greta Gerwig as the overzealous leader of an all-girl suicide prevention club, Damsels in Distress gleefully skewers dominant college stereotypes, from jock machismo and sorority cattiness, to playfully suggest the inflexible socio-cultural and class hierarchies that hold up academia’s ivory tower.
Directed by Whit Stillman. With Taylor Nichols, Chris Eigeman,
US 1994, 35mm, color, 101 min
Two actors from Metropolitan reprise similar roles as Americans abroad fumbling through the languages of love and politics during the “last decade of the Cold War.” Running his company’s foreign sales office, Ted agrees to host his cousin Fred, a young officer in the Navy who quickly confronts Leftist Spain with an ardent, ostentatious patriotism. Between Ted’s pragmatic intellectualism and Fred’s lies and obfuscation, they both appear anxious and insecure compared to the flowing architecture and sexual liberation of Barcelona. Once again finding themselves in a tenuous limbo, Stillman’s uncomfortable bourgeoisie search for their souls and soulmates amid increasingly volatile ideological clashes. With a humorously-verbose script as quirky as its characters, Barcelona obliquely outlines truth and beauty forming in collusion with imperfection, difference and complete misinterpretation.
Directed by Whit Stillman, Appearing in Person. With Chloë Sevigny,
Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman
US 1997, 35mm, color, 114 min
With his characteristically wry dispassion and clever attention to detail, Stillman introduces characters and actors from his established clique into the ultra-exclusive Manhattan disco club scene. As they struggle to maintain their inherited social status, the recent Ivy League grads pursue careers and relationships amid the remains of free love and radical politics in “the very early 1980s.” Rather than face their moral emptiness and looming decline, they indulge in endless pop culture analyzing, sexual politicking and elegant masquerading in a Studio 54 era wonderland. At times as malicious and superficial as Bret Easton Ellis characters, yet more ordinary, contradictory and embarrassingly human, Stillman’s broken proto-yuppies hold out for a strange kind of redemption in disco’s glamorous wake.