Posted by: markfender | February 18, 2015

Whit Stillman

Do you enjoy talking movies? Do you find that you can’t consciously support Woody Allen’s films anymore, but still have a hankering for New York elites? Do I have the filmmaker for you.


Whit Stillman films hit the same beats – there will be philosophical talk, there will be well-dressed young people, they will probably feature Chris Eigeman, there won’t be much plot, someone will tell a made-up story about someone not in the room, and there will be dancing. Stilman’s films look like what would happen if New Yorker cartoons came to life. So, obviously, you’ve got to care about that sort of thing to be engaged at all.

But, if you do think that dry wit is the height of humor, there’s a lot to like in Stillman’s work. From the discussions on Jane Austen in Metropolitan, to the screwed-up love lives in Barcelona, to impassioned arguments about the sanctity of disco music in The Last Days of Disco, there’s enough comedy of manners to go around.

barcelonaMetropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco all take place in the same universe, a point made clear in The Last Days of Disco with its cameos from characters from the other films. And those three, at least, feature some of the same actors, most notably Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols. Taylor Nichols is the slightly nebbish, overly philosophical character. As he’s the main character in Barcelona (and appears in a cameo in The Last Days of Disco), that’s the primary film if you’re interested in watching a less-geeky Woody Allen analogue. I actually think Barcelona is Stillman’s weakest film, so I can’t say I’m a big fan of Nichols, especially his occasional stutter. Chris Eigeman is the smarmy asshole character in all three films. Eigeman has described himself as Stillman’s evil alter-ego, the guy who says all the awful things Stillman would if he weren’t so polite. Stillman has likewise described the characters and Eigeman as having the smarter, cooler, older guy affect he aspired to but could never pull off. I like Eigeman, although his characters tend to be the jerk that you don’t understand why anyone is friends with him.

last_days_discoOf the trilogy, I think I like The Last Days of Disco the best. Granted, there’s not much plot movement in any of his films, but I think Kate Beckinsale’s character elevates that one above the others. She’s a variation on the character Eigeman usually plays and since they’re both in the same movie, it’s like you get two doses of jerk! What a treat!

Damsels in Distress is Stillman’s most absurdist film. Taking place at Seven Oaks, the college referenced in the other films, its as close as Stillman is gonna get to a frat movie. It’s as if Slackers took place in upstate New York. The dumb fraternities are dumber and more absurdist than is normal for Stillman (the standout has to be Thor, who isn’t aware of colors. He can see them. He’s just not aware of them.), while the girls of the Suicide Prevention Center remain more in-line with Stillman’s normal characters (even if they seem strangely super-aware of smell). There’s plenty of weird philosophizing as well, including someone who follows the Cathari Movement. In that regard, Damsels in Distress is Stillman’s broadest film and probably his most accessible.

damselsNot all the films age well. Some of the philosophizing has fallen apart in the two decades since Stillman first started working (The conversation about marketing not being a science because it’s inherently unmeasurable falls apart in the world of Google AdWords), but it’s still enjoyable on an intellectual level. Stillman also recently made an Amazon pilot that did not get picked up (which, honestly, isn’t that surprising. I think he’s amusing, but even I wouldn’t say I openly laughed at any of his films). But, since I secretly want to live in a universe where all my sport coats have patches on the elbows and everyone vacations in the Hamptons, I can’t not like Stillman.


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