Back in the 1990s, Whit Stillman wrote and directed what might be regarded as three modern American classics. While independent cinema grew saturated with dysfunctional Sundance dramas and pop culture solipsism, Stillman’s so-called “yuppie trilogy” — Metropolitan (1990),
Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco
(1998) — instead offered comedic portraits of hyper-literate, obsessive preppy types negotiating a world of social etiquette that felt extracted from another time. Before Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach or Lena Dunham — and indeed, Christian Bale’s take on Patrick Bateman — Stillman was indie film’s premier chronicler of the young, privileged and neurotic.
Which is all to say, it’s great to have him back. Fourteen years (and several aborted projects) after Disco, Stillman at last returns with
Damsels in Distress, which opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this week. The director’s take on the campus comedy — in so much as the film can be confined to a genre — it stars Analeigh Tipton as a freshman recruited by a clique of female students plotting a minor social revolution (and a major dance craze) at a school overrun with boorish frathouses. Not unlike an alternate universe Clueless populated with the urban haute bourgeoisie (and better cardigans), it’s an unmistakably Stillman piece: dry of wit, whimsical in the most beguiling sense, and refreshingly counter-cultural placed next to the endless, formula-joke bromances of the era.
While on the press rounds for the film this week, Stillman took some time out to write about his five favorite films. “These are just five of a possible 55 faves — or more,” he says. “But one has to start somewhere.”
The Gay Divorcee (Mark Sandrich, 1934; 100% Tomatometer)
Mark Sandrich was the superlative director of Fred Astaire musicals, strikingly more successful at this demanding (though charming) form than the better known George Stevens. It’s very funny, chock-a-block with great character actors, and with wonderful music (Cole Porter) and choreography (Astaire with Hermes Pan). There’s something about works at the beginning of a form or style of cinema, even if rough and lacking couth, that I find more lovable and compelling than that form perfected (which in this case would be the gorgeous Top Hat made by Sandrich the next year).
Ernst Lubitsch’s profoundly moving and charming recreation of a microcosm of commerce-hunting humanity in an idealized, bygone Budapest. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are brilliant in their roles as the letterwriting non-lovers — but it’s Frank Morgan’s plight as the lovelorn, betrayed shop owner which gives the film its heart and weight.
Directors going independent to make precisely the film they want was not begun — as we sometimes think — by the latterday Johns (Cassavetes and Sayles). After World War Two John Ford formed an indie with the legendary producer (war hero also) Merian C. Cooper: Wagon Master was the lovely result, a film that seems like folk art. The stirring score and brilliant diagonals of Ford’s composition greatly inspired us in the Barcelona edit room — though I’m not sure if any trace of that influence could be found in our film.
The American title — Big Deal on Madonna Street — must be the worst of the international variants for Mario Monicelli’s brilliant incompetent-caper comedy, said to be the absurd version of Rififi. The direct translation — Persons Unknown — used elsewhere, seems funnier once you’ve seen the film; the Spanish distributor had the wit to call it Rufufu and there it’s a treasured classic. The shooting style — the great use of the so-called “curtain effect” — has also been something we always try to put to use.
Damsels in Distress opens in New York and Los Angeles this week.