March 18, 2012


Whit Stillman and the Song of the Preppy (CHIP BROWN, 3/16/12, NY Times)

"Damsels in Distress" follows four college girls, Heather, Lily, Rose and Violet, as they grapple with problems ranging from love troubles to toxic frat-house odors and suicide attempts by education majors who insist on throwing themselves off two-story buildings. ("If they can't even destroy themselves, how are they going to teach America's youth?" Rose asks.) The students at Seven Oaks, the fictional college, have a lot in common with the preppies and patricians of "Metropolitan" (1990), "Barcelona" (1994) and "The Last Days of Disco" (1998), the autobiographical trilogy that prompted reviewers to call Stillman "the WASP Woody Allen" and "the Dickens of people with too much inner life." They grope for direction but are seldom lost for words, and beneath their barmy crotchets and pretentious dissertations there's heartache and yearning. Stillman is the knight-errant of sneered-at bourgeois values. He extols the overlooked merits of convention and the hidden virtues of the status quo. Inveighing against "cool people" and the social cachet of "uniqueness, eccentricity, independence," the transfer student Lily asks: "Does the world really want or need more of such traits? Aren't such people usually terrible pains in the neck? What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people -- I'd like to be one those."

Even the frat-house dolts who provide a counterweight of broad comedy -- the character Thor can't identify colors because he skipped kindergarten -- aren't belittled for their simple-minded aspirations. What Stillman captures best are people who aren't quite adults but are no longer children: bewildered fledglings of beleaguered traditions who have a mostly abstract grasp of suffering, an often-preposterous belief in their own moral integrity and an optimistic faith that their destiny is part of a divine plan -- ideally one of God's.

Stillman watched as Scene 24 unfolded on the monitor. The film's main character, Violet, played by the lauded young star Greta Gerwig, was defending a guy at a bar who'd sent drinks over to Lily and another student.

"He was probably just yearning for some intelligent discourse," Gerwig said. "He could see that Alice and Lily are college students. College students are well known for their interesting conversation. After all, they can talk about their courses. That's probably what attracted him -- "

"Nonsense," said Megalyn Echikunwoke, who was playing Rose with a fluty British accent.

"His aspirations were perhaps even loftier -- to court Lily, with a view to matrimony. We're in the North, but occasionally a Southern gentleman will wander into these parts."


When the scene finished, Stillman said: "That's really great. Can we do it again?" He asked Echikunwoke: "Can you do a 'nonsense' with more oomph? More like your 'rubbish.' "

She nodded.

"Quiet," Curtis Smith shouted.

On the brink of action, Stillman spotted a hair malfunction on one of the actresses and sprang up to fix it, plantar fascia be damned. He began to plump one of the bunk-bed duvets. That glare on the top bunk -- could someone black it out with a Sharpie please? And then he took after a fly on the set, trying to bat it out of the scene with some wild forehands. He limped back to the monitor, shaking his head.

"Chasing flies, fixing hair -- I think I'm showing off," he confessed. "Normally on my movies there's no direction at all."

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but wry self-deprecation is one of the hallmarks of the well-bred WASP, and Stillman is a museum-quality specimen. 

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Posted by at March 18, 2012 8:35 AM

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