If Whit Stillman were a blogger, I believe he’d be a contributor at Maggie’s Farm.
Ivy League conservatives rejoiced twenty years ago when Metropolitan opened in the art houses. Here, at last, was a directorial voice speaking for us, someone sharing our appreciation for the surviving remnants of the belle monde, a sophisticated storyteller focused on the lifestyles of urban haute bourgeoisie of old family and private school background, recounting the minor scale epics and tragedies of the younger part of Upper East Side society with rueful and self-deprecating wit.
He moved location, in his second film Barcelona, exposing his American Innocents Abroad to deeply-entrenched-in-European-culture Anti-American prejudices, and seemed to be proceeding from strength to strength artistically.
But then, in 1998, came Last Days of Disco. Whit Stillman’s cynical, frivolous, and preppified personal world view somehow successfully crossed political and social barriers to appeal to a broad-based audience in his first two films, but Last Days of Disco seemed overly subjective and repelled audiences. No one in the late 1990s, other than Stillman it seems, lamented the passing of the Disco music era (most people were happy to participate in Disco record bonfires) or the demise of Studio 54.
The negative reception received by Last Days caused its director to vanish for twelve years, but as Mara Altman learns in an interview with Stillman appearing in First Things, rejoicing is in order. Whit Stillman is currently shooting another film due to be released next year.
[W]hen Disco didnâ€™t earn the accolades Stillman had come to expect, he decided to retreat from New York, his wife, two daughters, and wounded feelings in tow.
Mostly, though, Stillman just wanted to live somewhere cheaper. But he also had another problem: His trunk was empty. To him, a trunk means a body of material or manuscripts that a writer keeps around and, over time, can come back to rewrite and reconceive. He took his first stab at Barcelona in 1983. It took more than ten years and multiple rewrites before it hit the screen. â€œAfter I finished Disco, I had no trunk,â€ he says. â€œSince then, I have been recreating my trunk.â€ …
[T]he wait is almost over. Under the cloak of secrecy, Stillman has at last returned to the role of director. He has just finished shooting his first movie in twelve years, on the streets of New York, his home again after several years of self-imposed European exile. Its working title is Damsels in Distress, and itâ€™s about a group of perfume-obsessed college girlsâ€”some suffer from nasal-shock syndrome at the faintest sniff of B.O.â€”who run a suicide-prevention center. Stillman has raised the money and written the script, which has a honed Whitonian perspective and Whit-icisms galore. And although the film offers the possibility of a cameo appearance by Stillman staple Chris Eigeman, who has appeared in all three of his movies, it will not make a quadrilogy of his trilogy. â€œThis film is different,â€ Stillman says. â€œCompletely different. Okay, not completely different, but itâ€™s different.â€
I didn’t think much of Last Days when I saw it the first few times, but recently one of the cable networks was playing it and replaying it for several weeks. I not only grew fonder of the film. I found myself watching it over and over without tiring of it. Several individual performances, particularly Kate Beckinsale’s, inspired admiration, and the cad’s wronging of the sweet and intelligent Alice (ChloÃ« Sevigny) increasingly moved this viewer.
Let’s hope that the years in exile have refilled the Stillman steamer trunk to overflowing, and that Damsels in Distress marks the beginning of a long and productive second career stage. Whit Stillman working in Dunkin’ Doughnuts. Whit Stillman frequenting diners. That just isn’t right. Hopefully Damsels will be a hit, and his Cobb Salads will be henceforward ordered in the Harvard Club.
Hat tip to Susan Vigilante via Walter Olson.