Consider this an All Points Bulletin for a talented film maker who made three films before disappearing from view.
Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) made Stillman’s "yuppie trilogy." They broke a cardinal rule of film making: they treated creatures of privilege without mocking them. What’s more, they treated preppies and yuppies without mocking them.
By the 1990s, preppies were close to becoming the "villains of the piece." In the iconography of filmland, they were the self centered, self important, self aggrandizing creatures who made high school and then adulthood a living hell for everyone else. By the end of the decade, even acts of violence against them were ok (see Heathers, 1989, and Sophie Coppolas Lick the Star, 1989).
But Stillman’s trilogy broke a larger rule of filmmaking. After all, preppies and yuppies were bourgeois, and all "serious filmmakers" were charged with an avant garde mission: epater les bourgeoisie (and what’s more shocking than mocking?).
The trilogy took up residence in the excluded middle of filmmaking. As long as film making defined itself as a commercial artform, it could be said to pander to its audience. This meant that anyone who wished to make a show of their independence and their seriousness was obliged to make very clear that they were not pandering. What better way to do this than to mock the audience for whom other filmmakers slavishly worked? In the simple minded logic of a post war culture, you were either for the bourgeoisie or against them. Stillman managed to find a middle ground. (And this is harder than it looks. With Election, Alexander Payne found this middle ground. With Sideways, he lost it.)
Stillman’s trilogy was not a celebration of preppies. In fact, it is more successfully satiric than the broadside approach. There’s a nice scene in Barcelona in which a male character is admiring himself in the mirror. He asks, "why is it you always look so much better in the mirror than in photographs?"
Your reaction (my reaction, anyhow) was to fly into a paniced reflection: what is the difference between a mirror image and a photographic one? And then you noticed that the speaker actually turns the angle of his face, as people do, so to change his image in the mirror.
"Asked and answered, your honor!" The filmmaker supplies the answer to his question: we control the image in the mirror in a way we cannot in a photograph (or film). A good deal of the Stillman trilogy is a careful, unstinting and affectionate study of this process…a photographic image of a mirrored one, as it were.
So where did Stillman go? The oeuvre has done well. Metropolitans gross is six times investment ($3 million from $430,000). Barcelona doubled ($7.2 m. on $3.2 m.). The figures for The Last Days of Disco are not clear. (It made $3 million, but the budget is not unspecified.) (All figures from http://www.imdbpro.com.)
The critical reception was strong. Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post said Stillman "seems like a David Mamet who actually paid attention during English class and learned a thing or two. Yet he’s always amusing in his sly way, and this film [Last Days?] is in its own way a near epic." The awards were forthcoming. Stillman won nominations at the Academy Awards and Sundance, and prizes from Deuville, Independent Spirit, and the New York Film Critics Circle.
In 1998, Stillman decided to turn his last film into a novel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. This too was very well received.
And it may well be that this guy is just so obscenely talented that he can do anything he wants. But if he has decided never again to make a film, contemporary culture has lost it’s most anthropological film maker.
For reviews of Last Days of Disco:
The biographic note on Whit Stillman from imdb.com, written by Matt Patay.
Whit Stillman was born in 1952 and raised in Cornwall in upstate New York, the son of a impoverished debutante from Philadelphia and a Democratic politician from Washington D.C. Stillman graduated from Harvard in 1973 and started out as a journalist in Manhattan, New York City. In 1980 he met and married his Spanish wife while on an assignment in Barcelona, where he was introduced to some film producers from Madrid and persuaded them that he could sell their films to Spanish-language television in the USA. He worked for the next few years in Barcelona and Madrid as a sales agent for directors Fernando Trueba and Fernando Colomo, and acting in their films playing comic Americans as in Trueba’s SAL GORDA. Stillman wrote the screenplay for METROPOLITAN between 1984 and 1988 while running an illustrating agency in New York and financed the film from the proceeds of selling his apartment for $50,000 as well as contributions from friends and relatives. BARCELONA was inspired by his own experiences in Spain during the early 1980’s, which was his first studio financed film. For THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO was losely based on his travels and experiences in various nightclubs in Manhattan, and posibily at the Studio 54. Written by: Matt Patay
This came up recently on Ask Metafilter – the thread is ask.metafilter.com/mefi/17765 and one response pointed to this article http://www.gyford.com/whitstillman/archive/2005/fadein_vol8_no2.html with info that Stillman is “busy adapting Winchester Races, a project with British producer Stephen Evans that would combine two unfinished Jane Austen novels, The Watsons and Sanditon, into a single script.”
Steve, thanks, Austen is the patron (literary) saint of the anthropologist, so this works. If anyone can erase the filmic damage done to Austin by Rosema it’s our man Stillman. Thanks, Grant
10 months later, another update (I guess this is a month old but I missed it) – he mentions the Austen thing but didn’t obviously stick with it – but a good interview with some little tidbits about what he is doing now…