Posted tagged ‘Whit Stillman’

Muse of the “Metropolitan:” A (Short) Conversation with Whit Stillman

August 28, 2009

last days of disco

It wasn’t hard to track down Whit Stillman. Though it was hard to get a word in.

Before the screening of Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, I hoped to find the director, introduce myself and ask for a couple minutes after the screening for a “brief” interview.

But finding the chronicler of the so-called “urban haute-bougeoise” (his term), proved fairly easy: all I had to do was look for the man in the impeccable suit.

“Mr. Stillman,” I asked. “If I could grab a moment of your time, I’m Nicholas, I’m  a reporter for the filmlinc blog–”

“Ah, great.” He told me graciously. “So nice to meet you, Nicholas. This is Tara, she’s in the film.”

A blond woman curtsied. I shook her hand too.

“Ah yes, very nice to meet you, but Mr. Stillman–”

“And this is Mark, the composer.” Mr. Stillman put his hand on the shoulder of a shy gentleman who gave a wave.

I tried to interrupt again.

“And this is…”

And so it went.

This social etiquette is not just a function of Mr. Stillman’s personality, but also eminently of his films. In his Academy Award-nominated film Metropolitan and in the later Last Days of Disco (recently released on Criterion), Mr. Stillman produces portraits of sheltered WASP-y New Yorkers in their mid-twenties growing up on the Upper East Side (Indeed, in Metropolitan, the banishment of one of the characters to Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a source of great shame in the film). These characters, sometimes characterized as “debutantes”, sometimes as “yuppies,” all show impeccable good manners even when savaging each other verbally, as they often do throughout the films. Mr. Stillman’s style is extremely distinct, his films are truly unmistakable, and his characters qualities have more often been compared to the protagonists of Jane Austen novels than other filmic protagonists. His style incorporates both humor and compassion for the hapless/helpless Manhattan socialites he portrays.

And as I waited to speak to him, introduced to his filming companions, I realized that this was more of his style: that he introduces the characters and then let’s them speak for themselves.

When I got to him after a long line of adoring fans had approached for DVD signing, I managed to sneak in a few questions.

“You were popular in there,” I told him, as I snuck him out to the Walter Reade balcony.

“I wish I were that way in Hollywood,” he said modestly, drink in hand.

“I’ve heard you compared to Woody Allen, in terms of your style and intimacy with your well-to-do characters,” I informed him. “But then again, sir, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Jew in any of your movies.”

“Guilty as charged,” he replied. “I love Woody Allen and he’s certainly an influence. But he’s like a savant and I’m like a dyslexic; he keeps up the pace constantly creating, a movie a year, while I seem to come out with them on occasion. But Allen often seems to break reality in his films and I try to stay there”

He continued: “I’ve been accused of naturalism,” he said, as if naturalism were a crime. “But, I’d like to think that people who are “naturalistic” are often on the wrong side of things. When I was making one of my films, we had to have a scene through a car windshield and my director of photography asked me if I wanted to fake the glare that might be in the windshield to make it seem more ‘natural’. I told him no, I didn’t care about that, I wanted to see the actor’s faces. I feel that the stronger part of reality is the emotional truth of how we connect to people, to characters. The expressions on the actor’s faces, that’s reality to me, much more important than a glare on a car windshield.”

“But what about fiction, sir?” I asked. “You got your start there, much like some of the characters in The Last Days of Disco. What’s the difference between a story told in fiction and one in film?”

“Well I got to meet Tom Wolfe,” He said. “And he told me what he thought the difference was. That in fiction you cant talk about someone’s shoes. You can talk about someone’s mannerisms, while if you did that in a film, there’s no room for it, if you lingered on a pair of shoes, people would think you were weird.”

At this point, I was interrupted by more of Mr. Stillman’s guests who came to greet him and say good night, as I realized that he is very much a part of the social community still that he writes about, shoots about, and gently mocks.

“Before you’re swept away,” I asked. “Any advice for the writers and filmmakers of today?”

“Don’t watch too many movies.” He said. “After all, there’s life out there to live.”

At which he was taken away back into the crowd.

-Nicholas Feitel

On hipster-nihilsm, mumblecore and the proper way to drink sake: a conversation with Armond White

March 27, 2009

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Armond White, lead film critic for the New York Press, head of the New York Film Critics’ Circle and presenter of the Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan at the Critic’s Choice screening at ND/NF.

Mr. White is the sort of film critic both popular and occasionally reviled in circles of filmgoers and enthusiasts. Where all film critics might zig right, he zags left. He is as well known for his passionate defense of the art of film criticism as he is for his bombastic reviews of crowd favorites (recently Coraline, Hunger, Duplicity) often declaring “shit” where others might say masterpiece. And vice-versa. Films that he has championed included Meet Dave, Little Man, and most recently, The Transporter 2.

He is also famous for his coining of the term “hipster-nihilist,” a group he faults for many of the ills of American cinema, not-withstanding 2008’s The Dark Knight, a film he panned as “sentinel of our cultural abyss.” As a long-haired, relatively-bearded young-man with no particular religious tendencies, I had more than a thought for my safety as I sat down to speak with Mr. White.

I started off asking him why he chose Metropolitan.

“The same reason I write the way I write,” he told me. “I like individual voices, voices that haven’t been heard and that are authentic. You don’t see a lot of films from the perspective of privileged-WASP-20s debutantes and Whit portrays them sympathetically. It’s interesting to hear a different voice and I think that’s what I provide too.”

I asked him then about the New Directors/New Films festival (“Well, I’m presenting in it,” he told me.) and then is there were any New Directors he admired.

“I don’t know about ‘new directors.’ I like Jared Hess of Napoleon Dynamite better than Neil LaBute. Jared obviously speaks more from a moralistic Mormon experience, which is interesting and new, than LaBute,who presents himself as a Mormon, but who just likes to see people being awful to each other. I also like Charles Stone III of Drumline and Mr. 3000, some of the best American films in years.”

I told him that I too was a Neil LaBute hater, but that I hadn’t seen Drumline. But when I asked him about Kelly Reichardt or Lance Hammer or Ryan Fleck, he shut them down one by one, as “fakery”, admitting only of Ms. Reichardt that “at least she’s trying to have an aesthetic and hone it.”

Finally, I decided to ask him about a subject which I thought might get a kick out of him: the hipster-nihilist 20 and 30-somethings of the “mumblecore” movement.

“Those guys need to go watch some movies and grow up. There are only so many ideas for a movie. Instead of watching Eric Rohmer and finding some sort of aesthetic, they decide to make movies that are aesthetically vacant and boring. If they were at Columbia, where I teach, they might have learned something.”

“Am I a hipster-nihilist?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. Are you?” he replied.

I admitted I was at NYU Film School and that I also wrote criticism (in fact, that I had met him a couple times before). I asked him is he had any advice to young filmmakers or young critics like myself.

“Don’t make a movie until you’re 40,” he said.  “Then, you’ll have something to make a movie about. Of course, rules are meant to be broken. Also, no offense, but blogs aren’t film criticism. They’re a bunch of young people going on about things they’re not ready to talk about. I’ve been writing about movies since junior high. Did that make me a film critic then? No. You can’t put these kids on blogs in the same category as Pauline Kael or Andrew Sarris. You have to train at it, work at it. Till then, nope.”

And while a part of me felt a little downtrodden, being called “not a film critic”, another part of me saw the value in what he was saying. Because really, that’s what’s so fascinating about Armond White, what keeps my film-school-friends and I coming back week-after-week: even when you don’t like what he’s saying or disagree, well, he’s always got a point.

Our bottle of sake was almost out as I saw Mr. White with a full glass.

“Drink up,” I told him.

“You have to sip sake,” he told me, right after I’d downed a shot.

“Ah, man. Sorry,” I replied, embarrassed.

He shook his head, laughed and raised his glass. “Actually, forget that. Drink sake how you enjoy it,” he said and took his shot.


-Nicholas Feitel, ND/NF New Voice