A little short of two decades ago, I served with Whit Stillman on the Dramatic Competition jury at the Sundance Film Festival, alongside actor Samuel Jackson and directors Atom Egoyan and Darnell Martin. During voting meetings, we were a fractious bunch, but otherwise we all got along great. Never had jury duty been so much fun — when I wasn't fretting about whether Stillman had seen my surly review of his 1990 first feature, Metropolitan.
As one of the debutantes in that film might say, Stillman remained a perfect gentleman throughout. He said nothing about the review until awards night, when we stood at the podium, ready to hand out prizes. Then he hissed, in a stage whisper: "So why didn't you like Metropolitan?"
Revisiting the film after a recent screening of Stillman's new movie, Damsels in Distress -- a delightfully giddy comedy about a bevy of college coeds striving to spread hygiene and happiness at a third-tier East Coast university — I asked myself the same question.
So here I am now in the restaurant of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, revisiting my pan of Metropolitan and trying to explain that at the time I was a novice critic — and likely motivated by class hostility to the upper-crust young things who people his films.
"Oh, yes," says Stillman, nodding briskly. "The sociology is pretty antagonizing."
Stillman is one of those filmmakers who attracts cult followers and detractors in roughly equal measure. His protagonists come from backgrounds like his own — well-born but financially embarrassed and willfully eccentric WASPs, at odds with the modernity that surrounds them.
Stillman comes from oldish money but has none himself; went to Harvard and, at 60 years old, still dresses like an unreconstructed preppie; defends bourgeois values in a world that scorns them; loves disco but hates hip-hop.
"Everyone came down so hard on disco; it only lasted four or five years," he grumbles. "No one criticizes hip-hop, and it goes on forever."
That may be why his previous film, The Last Days of Disco, flopped at the box office, why it took him another 13 years to make another, and why Damsels in Distress features a new dance, the sambola. The name, if not the moves, is a hybrid of the samba and the bolero. He hopes it will catch on.
Chronic anachronism is the lifeblood of Stillman's ensemble comedies. From Metropolitan through Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco to Damsels, every movie is built around gabby fish out of water, old souls in fetching young bodies who are driven by a crusading zeal and whacked-out ideals.
They never shut up, theorizing endlessly in arcane but perfectly turned prose. They burst unpredictably into song and dance that owes more to Fred Astaire and the brothers Gershwin than to Glee. They founder on the condescension or betrayal of others, or on their own self-regard — or, in Damsels, on a sheer sincerity that keeps them bouncing back with irrepressible buoyancy.
In the new movie, fledgling indie queen Greta Gerwig plays Violet Wister, a compulsive rescuer in full-skirted frocks who sets up a campus suicide prevention center in which she ministers to depressive black-clad nymphs and neanderthal frat boys with coffee, doughnuts and musical numbers. For all her take-charge manner and high-minded principles, Violet is an innocent who deflates like a pricked balloon when she's betrayed, then blooms anew without much ado.
"In all the years I've been away, I've become more aware of aspects of comedy I really love," says Stillman. "I saw Elf with my daughters in Paris, and loved everything about Will Ferrell's innocent naivete. This film gave us the chance to do that in the college fraternity."
There's a lot going on in Damsels, but not much that you could call a coherent plot. Titled in sly homage to George Stevens' 1937 musical comedy A Damsel in Distress — written by the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse, with whom Stillman must surely share genetic material — the film careens between girls in pearls and manic frat boys whose odor must be dispatched with fragrant soaps. The campus boasts an Anal Love Association and a newspaper, The Daily Complainer, but love and beauty and hope blossom in odd places.
No wonder Stillman's detractors accuse him of whimsy. And though he calls his movie "a comedy of ideas, even if they're lame ones," he won't discuss them. My own sweaty efforts to pick out the thematic flow of his films elicit a faraway look, somewhere between amused and bemused or — when, in desperation, I blurt out some bromide about friends with benefits — something very like alarm.
"When you make a film, you can put in — or exclude — what you want. It's a utopian thrill to exclude all kinds of things in a film that you can't take out in the world," he says. "You get something that works, and then you put it in without thinking about it, and you hope it comes from some logical place and is not pointlessly absurd."
He pauses, then adds wickedly, "You want it to be pointfully absurd."
Though he has a powerful intellect and a ready wit, Stillman is more switched on by what he calls extravagance of character than by intellect per se. One of his favorite courses at Harvard examined the role of the dandy in literature, and he interrupts himself to admire an elderly man in full military regalia who makes an entrance into a restaurant full of Hollywood suits.
Like all his films, Damsels is stuffed with quixotic types striving after ideals they're ill-equipped to achieve.
"I do find something touching about a sincerely scholarly idiot," he says — "these people who are wound up and have aspirations, but they're not intelligent at all, and their sensory apparatus is limited, but they're determined to prove themselves in this way. To be an intelligent barbarian is kind of awful. But someone who is unintelligent, and aspiring to scholarly achievement, it's really touching and encouraging. It's a utopian thing, I think."
There's not a mean girl in sight in Damsels, no teen jargon or anything remotely cool. Instead, there's a ton of infectiously cockamamie optimism, high spirits more suited to 1930s screwball than to the low-key sensibilities of mumblecore. (Stillman hired several under-25 veterans of that lo-fi film movement to run the Damsels set after a fortuitous meeting with Lena Dunham, the creative force behind Tiny Furniture and the new HBO comedy Girls.)
With careful nurturing from distributor Sony Pictures Classics — not known for comedies until it saw unexpected success last year with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris -- Damsels may be the vehicle that carries Stillman from neglected indie auteur to crossover success; it's a lure, dangled for graying boomers old enough to sing along with Gershwin — and for youngsters struggling to define themselves in a world that has made no room for them.
"Weirdly. Weirdly," says Stillman when I suggest that he may, at last, achieve hipness with a new generation of clever young things with ill-fitting lives. Then he says, grinning, "Damsels is mumblecore, with clearer diction."