Saturday, December 17, 2011


I'll admit that when I first discovered the work of Whit Stillman I was young and a little ignorant to the writing & dialogue, and I didn't have the same taste that I do now. Call me ignorant or uncultured or whatever you want, but when I was in my very early 20's, Stillman's films just seemed WAY to "high class" or "uppity" for me. The way his actors spoke, the way they delivered their lines, the scenarios they found themselves in, etc. It all just bugged the shit outta me. I mean, movies about debutante balls in the 1990's ('Metropolitain') and Yuppies trying to get in to nightclubs ('Last Days Of Disco') is the last thing I wanted to watch. Sometimes I hesitate or even cringe when I have to revert to race but I imagine the way I looked at Stillman's work 10 years ago (actually, 'Metropolitain' was the only thing I'd seen at that point) is the same way white people probably look at Tyler Perry movies (sorry for comparing Stillman to Tyler Perry but I had to make my point).
Over the years I've come to understand and appreciate Stillman's unique style thanks to my love of Hal Hartley (specifically 'Surviving Desire', 'Simple Men' and 'Henry Fool'). There's something about Hartley's style, writing, dialogue and choreography that always reminds me of Stillman. As I was watching 'Surviving Desire' for the hundredth time last year (one of my most treasured DVD's), I asked myself; "Why do I love Hal Hartley but HATE Whit Stillman SO much?" It didn't make sense. So in this last week I've been warming up and giving him another chance (I rented both; 'Barcelona' and 'Last Days Of Disco). Thank god for maturity. 'Metropolitain' still isn't my thing, but I'm not THAT stubborn to ignore its impact and importance on the American Independent film scene.

Hopefully you can see what I'm talking about in these clips below from Stillman (Metropolitan & Last Days Of Disco) versus Hartley (Surviving Desire). Generally speaking, Hartley's style is more dramatic, theatrical and choreographed than Stillman, but I'm sure you all can see similarities in the dialogue and acting between the two directors.

dance sequence in
'Damsels in Distress' (Stillman)

dance sequence in
'Surviving Desire' (Hartley)

The ONLY thing that got me to even sit through Stillman's new film was because Alia Shawkat was in it (and we'll get to how disappointing that was later). 'Damsels In Distress' is about a clique of prissy girls (led by Greta Gerwig) on a self righteous mission to make college life "better" for the student body. They work at a suicide prevention center, try to spread the good word of hygiene through out the smelly college dorms, don't believe in talking about others behind their backs and their leader (Gerwig) is absolutely convinced that dancing can cure anything (one of the subplots of the film is about her mission to create a new dance craze). The only problem is that the girls are some of the most condescending people on campus and hardly anyone likes them. At the beginning of the fall semester, they take a new girl ("Lily") under their wing (similar to how the Heathers took Winona Rider under their wing) to make her part of their clique. The problem is that she isn't really like them, which starts to cause tension (even more so when men are thrown in to the mix).
Just like Stillman's other work, he centers the film around youth/young adults and their struggles with romantic relationships. And the dialogue is just as sharp and witty as anything else he's ever done. The casting of Gerwig was only one of two complaints I had about the movie. As the leader of a prissy all-girl clique, I think she needed to be a little more mean like the lead Heather or Rachel McAdams in 'Mean Girls' and less boring like she usually is. My next complaint is about the misuse of Alia Shawkat and her two minute part. Seriously, why waste her time? Her role could have been played by anyone. Other than that I had no complaints. Adam Brody was actually somewhat reminiscent of Chris Eigeman in my opinion (Whit Stillman's most commonly used actor). Coming from someone who hated college, Damsels In Distress (which couldn't have looked more different than my Alma mater of Hampton University) made college look like a fun time (even with all the drama we see in the film). Basically, Whit Stillman put a unique and somewhat original twist on college life. I'd see it again for sure.
It looks like my review of  'We Need To Talk About Kevin' and this has started a 2nd round of TIFF highlights. Look out for write-ups of 'Alps' and 'Faust' coming soon-ish...


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