Whit Stillman comes out of hiding

While I expect to maintain a long and happy friendship with all the films in my Top 10 of 2011, there’s one title I’m pretty confident I’ll revisit more often than the others. I’ve already seen Whit Stillman’s deliciously off-kilter campus comedy “Damsels in Distress” twice, and still I’m itching for a revisit when it lands in theaters next month. Verbatim quoting of vast chunks of its hilarious, verbally lacy script seems an inevitability; apologies in advance to those who have to be around me.

I’m intrigued to see how the film plays when it finally surfaces outside the festival ghetto. My two viewings of the film, at the Venice and London fests, couldn’t have been more atmospherically opposed. At Venice, where it premiered as the closing film (my review), it was warmly greeted at the press screening by a riotously cackling crowd of critics who couldn’t have been more game for Stillman’s breezy humor after a festival dominated by grim-faced fare.

In London, however, it was a funky but arguably misguided choice of Surprise Film: wincingly stony silence greeted its barrage of kooky-smart jokes, the majority of the audience presumably unfamiliar with Stillman’s brand, and probably in the mood for something a little less dainty and rarefied. The general sense of bewilderment also seemed to infect some of the critics who caught it there: several London colleagues professed astonishment when I placed it on my year-end list.

The lesson learned here might be that the film isn’t sure to convert vast numbers of fans outside the Stillman faithful: after the writer-director’s 13-year absence since 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco,” however, the question is how large, and how loyal, that club remains. I recently revisited Stillman’s three previous features, and pleased to observe how beautifully they stand up, even as they double as exemplary fodder for a 1990s time capsule.

Around the time of his Oscar-nominated 1990 debut “Metropolitan,” critics reached for Woody Allen comparisons to describe his gently arch, observational takedowns of the East Coast upper classes; those meeting his work for the first time now would possibly make vague Wes Anderson references on the basis of his faintly heightened tone and flannel-soft visuals. Neither is really on the mark: kinder than one, pricklier than the other and more tweedily academic than either, Stillman’s voice was an authentically peculiar one from the start, and only seems more so in the current climate of American independent cinema, dominated as it is by earnest grit and ersatz preciosity. 

All of which is an over-extended introduction to a must-read profile of Stillman in — where else? — the New York Times, which follows the director through the production of “Damsels in Distress” and paints a portrait of a predictably erudite but somewhat elusive figure. His extended hiatus is explained partly by noting that he “doesn’t work very fast” — after first proposing the script idea to producers in 2006, it took him a year to write the first 23 pages — though clearly the sting of “The Last Days of Disco”‘s financial failure lingers. (He sings the praises of “cheap” filmmaking, with the $3 million budget of “Damsels” less than half that of his last feature.)

I particularly like Stillman’s take on his own writing, which fly in the face of so much screenwriting theology and critical instincts: 

“What I like and find liberating in dialogue comedy is that the characters, and what they say, are not me… These are fleeting thoughts and observations and not presented as truths but as something that illuminates the character and the dynamic between the characters. This kind of dialogue is thesis and antithesis – and we never get to a synthesis.”

That cockeyed lack of synthesis is what may have flummoxed so many of the audience members at the London screening of the film I attended; here’s hoping enough people get it next month (take note, AMPAS writers’ branch) to encourage him to take slightly less time over his fifth feature. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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