Whit Stillman’s Parabolic Career Trajectory

I’ve been a fan of Whit Stillman for a long time and he’s a particularly easy director to follow, especially considering the meager nature of his oeuvre. The only complaint that I have about him is that he doesn’t work as consistently as I would like and I don’t seem to be the only one who feels that way. But part of the reason he doesn’t work as often has to do with the way that he works. It seems to me that, despite not making much, he gets a great deal of control over every project that he works on. To some people, myself included, that sounds pretty damn appealing. These projects are his babies after all and studios aren’t always the best in taking care of these “babies” (just ask Martin McDonaugh). All that in context, Stillman is a pretty talented director. Helming just five films in a span of twenty-six years, yet earning an Oscar nod round one? Sounds like one hell of a filmmaker! Let’s look at the interesting career path he chose.

His first film, Metropolitan (1990), chronicled the lives of New York’s haute-couture young adults as they prepared for the upcoming debutante ball. It’s an oddity of a film, whose complex, SAT-word ridden dialogue requires quite a bit of work on the part of the audience member. It was a biting social criticism, following an outsider named Tom Townsend (Edward Clements). It went on to get nominated for the best original screenplay Oscar and a lot of critical acclaim, deservedly. Naturally, this is a great place to start for both Stillman and the audience member. It was a fresh, beautiful film that wreaked of aristocratic haughtiness, which is exactly his point. Few guys breaking into the industry start off on such a high note and it sure helps when you’re looking to get round two started.

The cast of Metropolitan looking for Mr. Stillman with their beautiful, wealthy, young faces.

His next piece, Barcelona (1994), followed a young group of Americans abroad looking for love amid a sea of beautiful, young people. It too was funny, witty and had something intriguing to say about the state of young love. It followed an American businessman named Ted (Taylor Nichols), living in Barcelona, hosting his naval officer cousin (Chris Eigeman) who is there on a public relations mission. The boys get matched up with two gorgeous women (Mira Sorvino and Tushka Bergen) and try their hand at the game of love. Though it had a great cast and a beautiful backdrop of a city to work with, it wasn’t quite what Metropolitan was. Nonetheless, it was a great movie with interesting romantic tension amongst beautiful, rich youngsters – motifs which Stillman would touch on for the rest of his career.

Good-looking, rich and cultured? Sometimes I feel like the characters in Stillman’s movies (like Barcelona here) are the precursors to ‘first-world problems’.

Then came The Last Days of Disco (1998), which followed young collegiate graduates exploring the world for the first time, set against the backdrop of the final days of disco. This one boasted a fantastic cast with a younger Kate Beckinsdale AND Chloë Sevigny in the lead roles, two actresses which would become major assets to him later on. The Last Days of Disco was a pretty good movie, but it didn’t really contribute anything new to the conversation that Metropolitan and Barcelona hadn’t already covered. It was definitely the least great of a darn great trilogy.

All these movies are interesting, well-respected portraits of a particular part of society, which lost a bit of their luster as they went on. By the time Stillman got to Last Days of Disco, he had more or less exhausted every angle he could take on the lives of the privileged; his work had become a little stale. And again, none of these movies are bad. But evidently, Stillman decided that he too needed some inspiration, which is when he disappeared for the better part of fourteen years.

The Last Days of Disco cast looking at Whit as he runs away from the movies for over a decade.

After 1998, it was like Stillman was done with movies! The idea of a few projects floated around, but he remained quiet. Stillman took a queue from Barcelona and spent some time abroad, reassessing where his career had taken him and where he was headed. One major contributing factor to this hiatus could have been the fact that his movies weren’t super profitable. It seems that, while swatting the long-reaching arm of the studio may have its creative perks, it certainly poses a bit of a financial challenge. It would prove difficult for a man who spent so much of his time capturing the lives of the elite to continue to persuade studios to fund these ‘art pieces’ pro bono, especially considering the slight decline in critical acclaim.

Nonetheless, every artist has their base (even though some are a bit more outlandish) and Whit Stillman’s backers for his second and third film, Castle Rock, agreed to step up to the plate again when his next project was finished. But damn did Whit take his sweet-ass time with that fourth film. It would be one thing to take thirteen years off and then buckle down for the last year, but he decided to let the writing process be the major hold-up in this film, reportedly taking up to a year to get 23 pages. Damn. Now if that isn’t an ideal pace to live your life? It definitely affirms the suspicion that Whit Stillman lives in the bougie world he creates for his characters.

Whit Stillman
In these non-candid pictures, Whit Stillman always looks like he’s waiting to lecture me for coming home late.

After all the (unnecessary) suspense, Stillman made Damsels in Distress (2012), a film about young adults (check) at a WASPy (check) east coast liberal arts school (check), who are strung out in a web of complex relationships (check), where they begin to understand how the real world works (check). Add in a quirky lead actress (Greta Gerwig – check) and a dance number (an homage to Last Days of Disco – check) and you have the staple motifs in a Whit Stillman film. Normally this would seem like another extension of his older work, but there was one big element that worked in his favor: the 2010’s. The 80’s/90’s backdrop that became so familiar for the first three Stillman pictures had disappeared and had been replaced with an updated, new world which housed the same aristocratic bunch of kids. This minute change was just the beginning of a series of changes which really reinvigorated Stillman’s career.

The film just felt really fresh. I remember seeing it by chance at the local theater in college merely because I had no idea what this film was about, but I was so freaking glad I saw it. I was able to relate to the characters in the movie, feeling that same collegiate anxiety and excitement as I was ending my freshman year. It was magical in a very cinematic way and showed that this old director was willing to take new risks. The level of magic realism, the musical numbers and the range of characters were new elements for one of his movies and they all really paid off. If there’s any good reason for taking fourteen years to make a movie, “I want to make sure it’s good ” is a damn great one, even though I know the producers probably wanted to fork their eyeballs out with spoon waiting for this film.

Mr. Steal yo time himself. If he spent half as much time picking scarves as he does making movies…

After Damsels, I was sure Whit was going to take another seventeen-year sabbatical on Oléron to concoct a new labor of love, featuring a new set of sesquipedalian-wielding teenagers on the cusp of entering the real world. He didn’t do that. In fact, it was just earlier this year that I saw his most recent film, Love and Friendship, which was different – and for the better. This wait wasn’t nearly as long and he actually stayed pretty busy in between. The short wait was really worth it because, I can confidently say, it’s his best piece of work yet. Yes, it retains a few elements that have become part of Stillman’s style: a focus on aristocracy, witty dialogue and a series of complex relationships. But Whit took a lot of risks with this one and included a lot of new elements: he didn’t write the source material, it’s set in the 18th Century, and it focuses on a more mature group of individuals, with the ‘young adults’ present in a more supporting way. The film is a sharp turn in his career and just in time. For a man who was at risk of getting stale at a time where film was reaching its tackiest, he inadvertently skipped to an era where innovation was in full swing. Bravo, my friend, bravo. Stillman capitalized on his talented cast, witty dialogue and beautiful locations to do something new and interesting in a genre that is associated with Monday matinee showings my grandmother would go to.

A beautifully shot mash-up of Barry Lyndon and Arrested Development.

Throughout his brief and yet lengthy career, Stillman has managed an interesting trajectory in the quality of his films. Starting with Metropolitan and ending up most recently with Love and Friendship tells the story of a career that took a few interesting turns. Most directors hope for the career trajectory of Peter Jackson, where you end up being so talented, your early work becomes a niche interest for the real fans who are excited at the opportunity to bring up Meet the FeeblesUnfortunately, a lot tend to trend in the other direction, the, ahem, “M. Night Shyamalan” direction. But Whit Stillman managed to evade this horrible fate and keep it fresh. Perhaps more directors should implement a lengthy hiatus to their work as soon as it seems it’s slipping.

An artists’ perfect self-assessment of their creative struggles.

It’s hard to start out with such a unique, engaging film like Metroplitan and expect to follow it up with something equally as interesting. That first film sets up a huge expectation about the rest of a directors career and when the next film made is just good, it looks like a let down. Barcelona was not as good as Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco straddles the line of just being ‘decent’. The first film said so much already, the second and third ones felt like a natural regression and most directors will keep going on this downward trend until they’ve worn out an idea, making it nothing but a dull, overwrought version of the first “good” one. But Stillman bounced back in a big way. His return fourteen years later was a daring one in the arthouse cinema scene. And he didn’t let our curiosity swell to see if this was a random, mid-life crisis fueled return. As good as Damsels in Distress was, Love and Friendship is even better. That makes for a parabola of an oeuvre.

I hope that there is only more to come from Whit Stillman. From his fairly active Twitter feed and his embrace of the new networking opportunities, I suspect he won’t exactly be able to disappear anytime soon. I also recognize that he won’t keep making better and better movies – they can’t all be Kubrick! But if there’s anything we can learn from looking back at Stillman’s career, it’s that when your career begins to slump, sometimes it’s best to step back for a bit and let the changes in society inspire your work. That way, you keep things classy, something Stillman can teach us all about.

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