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Five Reasons To Cherish Whit Stillman

Posted on Wednesday April 25, 2012, 11:50 by Phil de Semlyen in Empire States
Five Reasons To Cherish Whit Stillman

As The Guardian’s Michael Newton pointed out in a lovely piece on the filmmaker last weekend, it’s impossible to imagine anyone turning out the kind of film Whit Stillman makes in England. All those upwardly mobile, thesaurus-swallowing Oxbridge types? It'd end up like Bullingdon Club: The Movie or Oxford Blues, but with Rob Lowe replaced by Spencer from Made In Chelsea or a puppy-fat David Cameron. Filmgoers would queue up just to blow raspberries at their local cinema.

That’s not to say that class isn’t polarising on the other side of the Pond too, only perhaps not as polarising. Stillman is one of a realm of American filmmakers who’ve set up their cameras inside the ivy-clad walls of preppiedom without, to the best of our knowledge, a single raspberry blown. Still, it’s instructive that he’s much happier to hear people comparing Damsels In Distress, his new college-set comedy of manners, with Animal House than The Social Network (a film set at Harvard, his alma mater, and one he doesn’t much care for).

Damsels is out this Friday and it’s safe to say that it won’t be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey. We love it, though, as much for its uniqueness and charm as its eccentricity. And it is eccentric. The undergrads are called things like ‘Thor’ (a man so dim he doesn’t know his colours), they clump around campus like Gant-clad neanderthals and emphatically don’t set up Facebook in their spare time.

It all adds up to the most singular comedy of 2012. You may not adore it first time, but you'll want to watch it again. Here’s five other reasons to cherish Whit Stillman...

He always does his own thing

The term ‘auteur’ gets bandied about a lot these days, but there’s a distinct Stillman tone flowing through his films. Damsels is broader than Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days Of Disco – and there’s no Chris Eigeman this time - but it’s unmistakeable in its Stillmanic nostalgia. There’s bits that feel like Rushmore with (Hons) and bits that carry the influence of Woody Allen (look out for a visual gag with a ‘Suicide Prevention Center’ sign), but no-one else could make a movie like this. Mind you, it did take him a decade.

He’s filling a Woody Allen-shaped gap
Not that Allen has gone straight exactly, but for those moments of sheer, fourth-wall-busting lunacy you need to look elsewhere nowadays, because helium-squeaking shootouts, Marshall McLuhan cameos and opera-house flirty bits are a little thinner on the ground. Step forward Stillman. His characters can be always be relied upon for inadequate understanding of the rules of social engagement and a leftfield turn of phrase. Current favourite? Greta Gerwig’s earnest do-gooder (“You know how they say prevention is 9/10ths of the cure? Well, in the case of suicide it’s 10/10ths”).

He writes Chris Eigeman’s pay-off lines
Exhibit (a) from Metropolitan
Jane Clark: “Why should we believe you over Rick? We know you're a hypocrite. We know your ‘Polly Perkins’ story was a fabrication...”
Nick Smith: “A composite.”
Clark: “Whatever. And, that you’re completely impossible and out of control, with some sort of drug problem and a fixation on what you consider Rick Von Sloneker’s wickedness. You're a snob, a sexist, totally obnoxious, and tiresome. And lately, you've gotten just weird. Why should we believe anything you say?”
Smith: “I’m not tiresome.”

Exhibit (b) from Barcelona
Spanish woman: “You can’t say that Americans are not more violent than other people.”
Fred Boynton (Eigeman): “No.”
Spanish woman: “All those shootings?”
Boynton: “Oh shootings, yes. But that doesn’t mean that Americans are more violent than other people. We’re just better shots.”

He loves Elf
Yup, Whit Stillman loves Will Ferrell’s supersized manchild as much as we do.

He wants YOU for his international dance craze
We’ve had the Lambada. We’ve had the Macarena. We’ve had whatever it is you do when 'The Fast Food Song' comes on (run?). Now prepare for the Sambola, Damsels In Distress’s very own international dance craze. The director has grand plans for the uptempo jigskreig that plays out his movie, including, if necessary, flashmobbing it into existence. This is not the kind of threat you get from Edward Zwick.

So where do you stand on Stillman? Indie saviour or Marmite moviemaker? Share your thoughts below...

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