I arrived yesterday at Film Forum’s Whit Stillman retrospective dressed not unlike a character in one of his films — tweed Brooks jacket, button-down shirt with gently frayed collar, a general air of the shabby genteel. I hoped he’d approve. I was about to consume three Stillman films in a single sitting — more than five marathon hours of witty, high Protestant banter — and it was an intimidating prospect; surely my most gonzo undertaking yet.
With Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) — a loose trilogy Stillman has sometimes called his “Doomed. Bourgeois. In Love” sequence — the indie writer-director earned a cult reputation as a “WASP Woody Allen,” whose Jane Austen-inspired comedies of manners documented a dying preppy culture with the eye of an anthropologist but the sympathy of an insider.
The inhabitants of Stillman World are mainly young professionals of the class that one character in Metropolitan memorably proposed labeling the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” or UHB. They tend to subscribe to the credo a New Yorker cartoon once summarized as: “If you can’t say something nice, say something clever but devastating.” They argue about politics (“It’s a tiny bit arrogant of people to go around worrying about the less fortunate”); badmouth mutual acquaintances (“Rick Von Slonecker is tall, rich, good-looking, stupid, dishonest, conceited, a bully, liar, drunk and thief, an egomaniac, and probably psychotic”); fall in and out of love; and make dubious intellectual assertions (“There’s something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck”). They hook up, though mostly off-screen, and characters say “heck” and call each other “jerks.” They are self-absorbed, yet likeable. They are self-consciously privileged — and aware their privilege may not last forever.
In a typically Stillmanite dialogue, in Metropolitan, a character played by Chris Eigeman says, “I think the titled aristocracy are the scum of the earth.”
“You always say ‘titled’ aristocrats,” his friend says. “What about ‘untitled’ aristocrats?”
“Well, I could hardly despise them, could I?” Eigeman says, condescendingly. “That would be self-hatred. Which is unhealthy.”
Stillman’s sensibility is warm, empathetic, character- and dialogue-driven, and often hilarious. His films baffle some viewers — too “talky,” or, in the case of 2012’s Damsels in Distress, too twee — but the originality and pleasure of Stillman’s vision have earned him the kind of devoted fans who maintain unofficial websites meticulously cataloguing Stillman-related news and cultural mentions.
Those fans were surely pleased, as I was, to learn that Film Forum was screening Stillman’s three ’90s-era films as part of the cinema’s “trilogy”-themed festival series. The series includes work by a variety of directors — Satyajit Ray, John Ford, and Fassbinder, among others — but the Stillman screenings are the only ones to feature the presence of their creator, who provided an introduction and Q&A.
It felt like a bit of an occasion: though hardly reclusive, Stillman has made only five films in three decades, and has spent much of the past two decades in Paris. Before they got the Criterion treatment in 2016, his first three movies could be difficult to find. The Film Forum screenings were, Stillman mentioned during a Q&A with the film critic Farran Smith Nehme, possibly the only time all three of his ’90s movies have been shown together the same day, and also an extremely rare opportunity to see Barcelona — my favorite of his films — in cinema.
In the Q&A, Stillman described his handling of temporality; he tries to keep the time periods of his films deliberately vague, and avoids including technology that will too quickly date them. He said, however, that in filming Metropolitan he purposefully included New York icons that might disappear, like the exteriors of Scribner’s bookstore and the Bachrach photo agency.
He also discussed the famous ending of Last Days of Disco — exuberant and “life-affirming,” in Smith Nehme’s words — in which subway riders spontaneously break into dance to the joyful hit “Love Train,” which, near the very end of the credits, is replaced by the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
In response to an audience question about his faith, Stillman gave a carefully vague answer — “I never like to talk too sincerely” — but admitted that he hides Christian themes in his works. He also said that — as in the case of the Last Days of Disco ending — he is constantly trying to strike a tricky balance between plausibility and escapism in his works.
“I’m not a huge fan of absolute, total realism in cinema,” he said. “In fact, I think the idea of it is appalling. I think ‘cinéma vérité’ is a dirty word, or dirty two words.”
He also answered a particularly burning question: Why Scrooge McDuck?
“In our family we had a Scrooge McDuck cult,” he said. “For us, it wasn’t the Avengers, it wasn’t Marvel, it was Scrooge McDuck comic books.”
The director went on to offer a theory: “Maybe it’s because for bourgeois people there are not many characters to identify with.”