Return of the WASP Woody Allen

March 22, 2012

Multiple Pages
Return of the WASP Woody Allen

Metropolitan, the 1990 dramedy about a group of chivalrous preppies whose debutante ball after-parties are so articulate and decorous that they might have driven J. Alfred Prufrock to throw a TV out the window like Keith Moon trashing a hotel suite, earned auteur Whit Stillman the appellation “the WASP Woody Allen.”

Stillman, who wrote for The American Spectator when young, developed a cult following among some rightist intellectuals because of his out-of-the-closet political and cultural conservatism.

Even more unusual in romantic comedies is his ethnic and class loyalty. At least since The Graduate, privileged Protestant characters have been the default bad guys who always lose the girls to the spunky outsiders. But Stillman, the godson of Princeton sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, who popularized the term “WASP,” took a pedantic pride in his country-club caste’s genteel virtues. As one Upper East Side youth notes in Metropolitan:

“Stillman’s perspective is a cross between Jane Austen’s level-headed moralism and the absurdism of Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde.”

The term ‘bourgeois’ has almost always been one of contempt. Yet it is precisely the bourgeoisie that is responsible, well, for nearly everything good in the world for the last four centuries. Do you know the French film “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”? When I first heard that title I thought, finally, someone is going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie. What a disappointment.

Stillman followed up with two more movies in which People Like Us are the good guys. In Barcelona, two Reaganites joust with leftist Euro-weenies during the Cold War: “I think it’s well-known that anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence.…” And in the The Last Days of Disco, when Chris Eigeman’s nightclub flunky is accused of being a yuppie, he retorts: “I wish we were yuppies. Young, upwardly mobile, professional. Those are good things, not bad things.”

Since 1990, however, the indefatigable Woody Allen—who famously claimed that eighty percent of success is showing up—has released twenty-one films versus the defatigable Stillman’s three. Finally, though, Stillman’s first movie in almost fourteen years,  Damsels in Distress, will be arriving with April’s flowers. It’s a sunny, strange, and occasionally exquisite comedy about four sorority sisters with floral names: Violet, Rose, Heather, and Lily. “You probably think we’re frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds,” says their self-critical leader Violet (Greta Gerwig). “You’re probably right.”

In anybody else’s collegiate comedy, they’d be the mean girls, but Stillman makes them his heroines as they battle a campus suicide epidemic by teaching the lovelorn to tap dance: “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Prevention is nine-tenths the cure?’ Well, in the case of suicide, it’s actually ten-tenths.” Earnest, eccentric, and old-fashioned, Violet is as intensely opinionated as only young people without much experience can be. Yet she also has a little of Stillman’s self-aware sadness.

Stillman’s perspective is a cross between Jane Austen’s level-headed moralism and the absurdism of Lewis Carroll  and Oscar Wilde, who delighted in elaborate manners as almost abstract works of art. Stillman was married for 22 years and has two daughters. But as with two other high-class conservative icons, Evelyn Waugh and William F. Buckley, his canon can seem a bit, well, gay. A boy in whom Violet is interested explains to her that his term paper for their English class, “Flit Lit: The Dandy in Literature,” is about the decline of decadence:

Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, sublimated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts.

When a worried Violet asks, “Are you gay?” he replies, “Not especially, but in another era, it would have had more appeal. Now, I just don’t see the point.”

While not quite as delightful as Woody’s Midnight in Paris, Stillman’s first movie since 1998 is better than most of the thirteen films Allen has directed in the meantime. I liked it a lot, but it’s hard to convey the film’s tone. Fortunately, the two-minute trailer does a fine job of letting you figure out if this film is for you.

Why hadn’t Stillman made a movie in this century? Judging by how often his movies are about depression (or, as Violet explains, “I don’t like the word ‘depressed.’ I prefer to say that I’m in a tailspin”), perhaps he’s been a little blue. His theme from Metropolitan about WASPs losing their energy may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moreover, obtaining financing for his various screenplays has been a problem since the failure of Disco, with its $8-million budget. (Damsels cost $3 million.) While Woody Allen has been helped through his long dry spells by investors who admire what he represents, rich WASPs would apparently never dream of investing in Whit Stillman movies as an expression of ethnic pride.


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