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Whit Stillman in New York

As Damsels in Distress opens, Stillman crisscrosses the City for revivals and Qs&As.
The DailyMetropolitan

Here's Whit Stillman's schedule for the next few days: This evening, following a screening of Barcelona (1994), he and Chris Eigeman will be chatting at the Museum of the Moving Image. Tomorrow, he'll be at the Museum again to introduce his new film, Damsels in Distress, before heading over to BAMcinématek for a Q&A with Eigeman and Lena Dunham following a screening of The Last Days of Disco (1998). And then on Friday, following its premiere in Venice (see the roundup) and screening in Toronto (see Dan Sallitt's take), Damsels, Stillman's first feature in 14 years, finally opens in theaters.

Let's take this more or less chronologically, beginning with Colin Beckett, writing for Moving Image Source:

The three films that Whit Stillman made in the 1990s are neither the paradigmatic indie comedies they would appear in summary nor the traditionalist allegories his conservative fans have claimed. Though Stillman released these formally unambitious, talky, ironic comedies of romance and manners in a decade lousy with them, they were unusual [then] and have only come to seem stranger with time. The first, most glaring difference between Stillman and his contemporaries lies in the kind of people and places he portrays. While all three films concern groups of wealthy, young, white people — a demographic explored with encyclopedic breadth and microscopic detail in the 90s wave of independent narratives — Stillman's protagonists are too wealthy, too white, and too resolutely unsubcultural to fit in with the bohemians and quasi-bohemians that populated most of the decade's low- and mid-budget films. His characters come from classes of people who have appeared in American films almost exclusively as stock villains for decades: East Side old money preppies in Metropolitan (1990); chauvinistic Americans abroad, a salesman and a naval officer, in Barcelona (1994); and New York disco's straightest, squarest, least fabulous habitués in The Last Days of Disco (1998). Stillman travesties these characters with a sharp, familiar eye, but the parody is gentle, one component of an affectionate portrait. But while his benign comedy does not excoriate them, neither does it extol their virtue, as some of his fans on the Right would have it.
The Last Days of Disco

At this point, you'll want to see Alt Screen's terrific roundup on Disco — which, it has to be said, got beat up at the box office and in the papers and Stillman all but disappeared. Karina Longworth at the top of her profile for the Voice: "Projects were announced — an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's political satire Little Green Men, a period piece set in Jamaica called Dancing Mood — and then… nothing." Turns out, he'd moved to Paris, "wrote TV pilots for paychecks" and "turned down an offer to direct episodes of Sex and the City, out of squeamishness over the explicit sexual content," and watched those afore-mentioned projects fall apart.

Then, the turnaround: "While his directing hiatus had long been a subject of cinephile curiosity, a cult of Whit began to coalesce in recent years. Stillman moved back to the States; Disco, long unavailable on DVD, was released by Criterion, and beautiful new prints of that film and of Metropolitan gave venues like New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center and LA's Cinefamily an excuse to celebrate him. A Disco dance party at the Walter Reade in 2009 gave Damsels an unexpected push." Turns out, Greta Gerwig was at that party. "And," Stillman tells Karina, "to have someone who was just breaking as a star so enthusiastic about the project was enormously helpful." A year later, Lena Dunham "introduced Stillman to Tiny Furniture producer Alicia Van Couvering, who helped organize Damsels as a relatively cheap endeavor."

That's the short version. For the long one, see Chip Brown's profile for the New York Times Magazine. Further interviews with Stillman: Tyler Coates (BlackBook), David Fear (Time Out New York), Malcolm Jones (Newsweek), John Lopez (Grantland), Farran Smith Nehme, Jeff Otto (Playlist), Keith Phipps (AV Club), Stephen Saito, Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE), Ella Taylor (NPR), Andi Teran (Letter to Jane) and Jada Yuan (Vulture).

Damsels in Distress

"I am happy to report," writes Paul Felten in the Brooklyn Rail, "that Stillman's new film Damsels in Distress is rather deranged, and sad to say that I don't imagine it'll win him any new fans. It is, on the surface, a pastel-hued campus comedy, peopled with characters who seem to have learned to converse either by watching Whit Stillman's previous movies or (in the case of the knuckle-headed 'fraternity boys') by reading Tucker Max. It is so aggressively 'light' and 'airy' — and so aggressively, unapologetically a Whit Stillman movie — that the film's dark undercurrents are likely to go unnoticed by viewers already primed to dismiss Stillman as a trivial comedian of manners. But those who dig the Stillman weather will find that it's never been stormier than it is here; the candy-colored artifice works to accentuate the existential fears at the movie's core, and the result is nearly hallucinogenic."

New York's David Edelstein finds Damsels to be "wobbly and borderline twee, but it deepens as it goes along and becomes rich. The initial conceit is a beaut: to upend Heathers and Mean Girls by turning the central trio of insouciant alpha-hotties into do-gooders who march into dorms, pull students off their suicidal ledges, and put them in tap shoes to sing and dance…. Each of these ­philosopher-flibbertigibbets bears the name of a flower: Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and their laser-willed leader, Violet (Greta Gerwig), who has formulated a design for living. She counsels incoming student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) that falling in love with handsome and intelligent boys is a sure path to suicide. By dating Frank (Ryan Metcalf), who is neither good-looking nor smart, Violet is both making a difference in his life and protecting herself from heartbreak. Or so she believes — until he dumps her for a girl she 'rescued' after a bad breakup. Stillman has hold of one of the best of all high-comedy themes: what Henry James, writing about Ibsen (not, admittedly, a laugh riot), called 'the individual caught in the fact.'"

"Where earlier works like Metropolitan and Barcelona regarded the real world from within a Stillman-tinted bubble — satirizing it without necessarily being of it and transmuting realistic speech into poetic folly — this latest is all bubble: self-contained, unstably buoyant, and ardently frivolous." Eric Hynes in the Voice: "Stillman delineates his filmic vocabulary like a serial cartoonist, reusing musical cues and tracking shots — left to right, over and over, the pasteled posse promenades past the same strip of neoclassical buildings — and ascribing Peanuts-worthy tics and catchphrases to his characters…. Within the left-leaning context of American independent cinema, the conservative streak in Stillman's films can feel defiant, even liberating. But considering the socioeconomic moment into which Damsels arrives — we're not in the go-go Clinton era anymore, Toto — it's relieving how scarcely Stillman's reactionary subtext bubbles to the surface. The old world order is lionized, but more as an oblique, impersonal idea — atypical for Stillman, parentage never really comes up — while the past is pined after for its politesse, not politics."

Damsels in Distress

More from Sam Adams (Los Angeles Times), Miriam Bale (Slant, 3.5/4), Xan Brooks (Guardian, 4/5), Jeannette Catsoulis (NPR), Noel Murray (AV Club, A-), Elise Nakhnikian (L), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Mary Pols (Time), Vadim Rizov (GreenCine Daily), Lisa Rosman (Press Play), AO Scott (New York Times), Sarah Silver (Reverse Shot), Dana Stevens (Slate), Onur Tukel (Hammer to Nail), Keith Uhlich (Time Out New York, 4/5) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 6/10). And Alt Screen posts a roundup.

Interviews with Greta Gerwig: Mark Asch (L), Darla Murray (Vulture), Jeff Otto (Playlist) and Keith Phipps (AV Club). And Jada Yuan profiles Analeigh Tipton for New York. Update, 4/5: Yuan also talks with Adam Brody for Vulture.

Updates, 4/6: J Hoberman for Artinfo: "Admired for the naturalism of her non-acting (see AO Scott's 'No Method to Her Method'), Gerwig delivers her lines as though playing one of the more dicty characters in an Oscar Micheaux talkie. Still, her often ungainly, impossibly mannered Violet is the most authentic element in Damsel. Based on first-hand knowledge, Stillman's first two features — the exotic prep-and-deb fest Metropolitan (1990), and his wry account of yuppie expats Barcelona (1994) — had a certain ethnographic interest. Even The Last Days of Disco appeared to draw on the filmmaker's familiarity of haute bourgeois clique formation. But the 60-year-old Harvard man hasn't a clue when it comes to even imaginary college juniors. If you're wondering what a 1930s college musical might look like today, check out Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, an insouciant low-budget black-and-white pop bop and tap musical made by a bunch of under or recent grads from Stillman's alma mater."

The New Yorker's Richard Brody: "Stillman's dialogue is even more confected than ever, and Gerwig's rapid-fire delivery spins it audaciously, like plates on sticks, with her reliably surprising personal inflections and expressions. The director found the actress's inner Katharine Hepburn; and that very fact is, in effect, the movie's subject."

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