Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A Conversation with Whit Stillman: "She's Like a Perfume Herself"


For Joan's Digest, the new online feminist film quarterly founded by Miriam Bale, the Siren recently found herself interviewing director Whit Stillman, whose Damsels in Distress opens Friday, April 6. Miriam is known around cinephile circles as a curator and critic for the L Magazine, among many other hats. She knew that the Siren is a longtime Stillman devotee, having fallen in love with Metropolitan at an impressionable age and followed him through Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, and so Miriam arranged this meeting.

About three years ago, Dennis Cozzalio asked his readers which "living film director you most miss seeing on the cultural landscape regularly." Stillman's name was cited by at least a half-dozen of the hardcore cinephiles answering the quiz. Fourteen years have passed since The Last Days of Disco was released and (quite unjustly) failed to make back its money, a hiatus that's always mentioned whenever Stillman's name comes up. The Siren resolutely didn't ask him about that, on the grounds that he's discussed it in many other places, is no doubt heartily tired of the topic and at this point must have little to add to the sum of public knowledge about it.

Plus, to be honest, after seeing Damsels in Distress, the Siren had what she considered much better things to ask him about--like perfume, like Fred Astaire, like musicals. Damsels evokes all sorts of classic-film tropes, while maintaining its own surreal form of modernity.

The Siren thinks Stillman will strike most of her patient readers as a man after their own hearts, and as evidence she offers the following snippet from their conversation. For the rest of Stillman's musings on topics including who was Fred Astaire's best director and how Jean Brodie was ill-used, as well as why Stillman mimed putting a gun to his head when the Siren brought up A Damsel in Distress, you must click through to the article at Joan's.




Whit Stillman: ...The other thing I really love is from the Gold Diggers of 1935, and it's the original version of “Lullaby of Broadway.” It's just mind-boggling. And one of the things I'd like to do is The Gold Diggers of 2015. A Warner Brothers musical review set in the present day.

Joan's Digest: Oh yeah? Would you do wisecracking showgirls?

Whit Stillman: Of course, of course. You don't want any modern. There will be no punk rock.

JD: Wisecracking showgirls are one of my favorite things.

Whit Stillman: Well, I remember when we were getting a lot of grief for our talky films not being cinematic. And I remember favorite films, like Stage Door. And Stage Door is wall-to-wall dialogue.

JD: A lot of 30s movies are. So we have Sandrich, La Cava with Stage Door, probably My Man Godfrey too? Are there any other touchstones you go back to?

Whit Stillman: My Man Godfrey is actually not one of my favorites.

JD: Oh my god really? I love it. I'm so sorry.




Whit Stillman: No, I love the actors. I think they are better than the material. The material is a little subpar compared to other things. I wrote something in the Times in November about favorite holiday films, and I wrote about The Shop Around the Corner. I adore Margaret Sullavan, I like The Good Fairy also. There's so many films, even Three Comrades.

JD: Oh yeah. Margaret Sullavan is very big with the commenters on my blog.

Whit Stillman: Oh my gosh, she's so lovely. She's like a perfume herself.

JD: That voice.

Whit Stillman: Oh, the voice.

33 comments:

Oliver said...

Stillman has often been described, dismissively, as a Conservative. If the excellent 'Last Days of Disco' -- whose main male protagonist is a bipolar federal employee who highlights the misogyny of 'Lady and The Tramp', arrests the bad guys for tax evasion, and gets the girl -- is the work of a Conservative, I (a liberal) say we could do with more such 'Conservatism'.

Dave said...

I swear, when I read this headline, I thought it said "Whit Bissell," and I thought, "Well, he's an odd one to write a post about."

The Siren said...

HA! yes it would be odd, as I had to resort to Wikipedia to remember who he was (and had trouble even then).

Yojimboen said...

Me too, Dave.
I’ve always liked that
Whit Stillman guy.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Dear Mr. Stillman (I trust you're reading this) I'm Over the Moon about Damsels in Distress for a number of reasons. First and Foremost -- YOU'RE BACK! And with a film that expands in all sorts of directiosn different from your previous ones while keeping faith with their temperamental essentials.

What I've always loved about your films is that you'll never find a Whit Stillman character saying "I don't know why I'm doing this." Everyone in your films has their reasons. They may be bad reasons or misguioded ones but they're thought out in a deliberate way and therefore are worthy of serious respect. Much of the time things don't work out the way your heroes and heroines expect they should. But rather than whine or complain they regroup and start off afresh. Violet says she "went into a tailspin." but I think that's a tad too dramatic. Things weren't going as planned so she wiothdrew and rethought her ideas and her options. This is truly admirable and why, despite a first impressionn of her as a silly busysbody, she's worth taking seriously.

I can recall a number of young women -- and young men -- from my high school and college years much like your characters. I'm from New York original and attended The High School of Music and Art -- Class of '64. It was a public school but you had to audition to get in. I sang in the chorus (Tenor, then Bass then back up to tenor)and am proud to say we were the first people to appear on stage at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center doing the Stravinsky arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner.

While our school was decidedly left-wing in extremis with any number of "Red Diaper Babies" in attendance (we were the real "Comminist Martyrs High") we were alos fashionable. Any number of upper-class ids went as well. And none of them were snobs. I well recall a girl named Darcy who traipsed about in an old racood coat exactly like the one Tippi Walker wears in The World of Henry Orient (a very accurate picture of some of the kids I knew.) Darcy invited Julian Beck to her birthday party to explain anarchism to us all. Rivetting.

Anyhow, being gay I also came to know another strain of upper-class New Yorkers including the set that revolved around Tony Bakeland (of Savage Grace infame) Most of these dudes were a lot like Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley -- cocksure that everyone was madly in love with them. And they were right. Needless to say they used this knowledge ruthlessly.

But I'm getting a tad far afield as that's not you genre. (Though I adored Charlie's line about preferring to be gay in another era cause now it's just muscle guys in T-shirts hitting on each other.

What I'd like to say is I'm delighted with your notion of doing Golddigers of 2012 or thereabouts. The "Things Are Looking Up" number in Damsels in Distress shows you have genuine talent in this regard. In fact I think you'd be ideal to adapt Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along to the movies.

Oh and another thing you underrate George Stevens

In any event, keep up the good work.

D Cairns said...

Yeah, I think Mark Sandrich did direct the two perfect Astaire-Rogers films, but on the debit side it took him an amazing number of films to realize that you didn't need to cut away from Fred, that his dancing could hold the eye for an entire number.

Stevens' films may be less perfect, but Swing Time has superb numbers and I like Damsel in Distress, damnit. Joan can't dance, and George was sleeping with her, and so I guess it's his fault, but the rest of the movie is a delight, the best Wodehouse on screen.

The Siren said...

Hello D.! I love your comment about Sandrich's shooting Astaire, so true. Swing Time is pretty awesome (and you know how I feel about Stevens in general). But Damsel in Distress to me has lousy pacing and I grieve for the way they just sort of toss away A Foggy Day in London Town (not unlike what happened to They Can't Take That Away From Me in Shall We Dance).

X. Trapnel said...

I'd like to put in a modest word of praise for Whit Bissell who managed the transition from mousy victim to drily officious authority figure with a certain unobtrusive there-ness, a small if necessary link in the great chain of being that is cinema.

rcocean said...

I skipped some comments because liberals seem poison everything with politics. Anyhoo, I love Stillman's movies especially "Last Days of Disco". And the man has great taste, he agrees with me about Sullivan, Stage Door, and Shop Around the Corner.

Vanwall said...

Perhaps that's Whit Bissell over there on the left in that crowd scene in "Metropolitan", or the shadowed figure in the back of rhe dance floor in "The Last Days of Disco"...oh wait, it might be that guy that follows Eigeman around in a stiff-necked manner. I was sure I'd seen him in the faculty lounge at Seven Oaks...mebbe. Bissell is just the kinda guy Stillman would cast somewhere tho. Dead or alive.

X. Trapnel said...

Whit B. may not have been perfume itself, but he had an essence of gray elan.

Jeff Gee said...

Whit Bissell was an integral part of "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," which is by far the most Stillmanesque film in the American International teenage monster movie cycle of the late fifties. Plus, he was born Whitner Nutting Bissell, and it doesn't get more Stillmanish than that.

rcocean said...

Loved the comment on "Prime of Miss Jean Brodie".

"I adore that movie. One of the things I don’t like about it is that once again, this incredibly magical, dynamic character has to get her comeuppance. She has to be revealed to be sad, and misguided, and all these other things. And I just think there’s this form of movie, where they have an incredibly charismatic character, and they think the interesting, modern thing is to show the unhappiness and despair behind the mask, blah blah blah. I think that’s become a hoary cliche."

Damn smart fellow that Whit Stillman.

The Siren said...

Play nice, guys. Admittedly, Stillman brought his own views to the fore back in the day, as I recall, by writing some unexceptionally conservative pieces along the lines of "stop demonizing business" or some such. That's been quite a while and these days he could be anonymously commenting at Big Hollywood or trying to blend in at OWS, I have no earthly idea. I don't think Damsels is going to strike anyone as overtly political and that's why I didn't ask. In my view, he makes good movies, period.

I myself always had a feeling that Brodie was hard done by in the movie, and even with her fascist leanings (which seem more linked to her Great Man/Artist view of life than any desire to run out and oppress people) she's a more appealing figure than conniving, self-righteous Sandy. Stillman's point about the modern desire to "show the despair and unhappiness behind the mask" is well taken, and I think the fact that Violet refuses to succumb to her own problems or to buckle under and conform is one of the new movie's great strengths.

As for Whit Bissell, all I remember him from is the dinner scenes in The Time Machine, which I always liked better than any other part of the movie. Perhaps the fact that I find a bunch of Victorian gentlemen discussing science to be much more interesting than someone landing in a future dystopia explains why I'm so drawn to Stillman.

Oliver said...

"In my view, he makes good movies, period."

Indeed and agreed, which is why my initial comments were not a criticism of Stillman's Conservatism, but rather directed at those, hipsters and otherwise, who'd ignore his films solely because of it.

The Siren said...

I understood, Oliver, and no worries at all. I was just heading things off at the pass, a longstanding habit and policy. To me there's a difference between a spirited discussion of a movie with political themes or resonance, and going toe-to-toe on current events. I don't discourage the latter because I am apolitical; I discourage it because I'm highly opinionated and once started my ranting could take over the blog, like the Blob. "HEAD FOR THE HILLS! IT'S FARRAN'S POLITICAL BELIEFS, THEY'RE ABOUT TO BLOW UP THE DAM!"

DavidEhrenstein said...

Or "Fasten Your Seat Belts It's Going To Be a Bumpy Siren!"

Shamus said...

Siren, it is only in the movie that Sandy sanctimoniously justifies her decision to denounce Jean (calling her, in effect, a kindermorder).

The novel is a good deal more ambiguous- Brodie never knows who denounces her. And Sandy does not smugly walk away in a flurry of ineptly executed zooms- she becomes a nun, atoning in silence for the her words which destroy Brodie.

Truth is, the movie is magical in the early scenes when it follows the novel very closely. Then novel adopts a radical time structure in the second half and the movie, unable to follow (although made a good ten years after Hiroshima, Mon Amour), becomes a sort of sex farce, only in deadly earnest (and without the sex)- with a strong "message". Filmed theatre at its most banal.

Yojimboen said...

This, believe it or not dear lady, is me playing nice. On the topic of Mr. Stillman, I’ve resolved to stay far away from Mrs. Roosevelt’s couch; suffice it to say that if anyone looked me in the eye and said a word against My Man Godfrey, I would instantly seek out the nearest exit. But that’s just me.

On the topic of Jean Brodie, I can grant myself some expertise, educated as I was, like Muriel Spark, via the poison of Calvinism which permeated (and no doubt still does – Calvinism is harder to kill than the T-1000) Scottish education.

The secret truth about Miss Jean Brodie isn’t her uniqueness in that system, but her absolute ordinariness. Every teacher I ever had - male or female, boy’s grammar or co-ed – was a version of Jean Brodie, unfortunately either approaching or past, but never exactly at, their prime.

Presage: I think Maggie Smith is currently the best actress breathing; however, many years ago I was lucky enough to see a very different Jean Brodie on stage in London. Vanessa Redgrave played Brodie distinctly coloured by the singular phenomenon of being the tallest woman/person on stage. I’ll explain. In that odd, distant British society, tall girls were taught by their mothers to hide it – to shrink, wear flats and hunch their shoulders – how else to find a husband? I’m certain Redgrave endured some of that growing up, and she used it to create a Miss Jean Brodie as different from Maggie Smith’s as chalk is from cheese. I don’t ever expect to see a more intelligently moving performance by any actor in any play or film.

The Prime of Miss V Redgrave
(with a future Juliet in her class)

Trish said...

I have always steered clear of Stillman's films, but not because he's a conservative. Whenever I read reviews, it seems to me that the films are about a modern day lost generation. Not exactly original, and if they have everything, why should I care?

Now I see the sense in them. The world has become so illiterate that I welcome a movie that reminds me of a more gracious time, without taking me through a time warp. Off to the video store...

DavidEhrenstein said...

Stillmann's a small c 'conservative" in the tradition of Eric Rohmer.

I saw The Prime of Miss Jean Broide on Broadway with Zoe Caldwell, and -- as the girl who betrayes her

(wait for it !)

Amy Taubin

gmoke said...

I think it was Thanksgiving Day 1968 that I saw Maggie Smith walking in Greenwich Village. Went up to her and thanked her for her work and then walked on. Glad I had a chance to do it.

Yojimboen said...

(With your permission, chère Madame, I’ll move this up from the below stream - because I think it’s important):

If it seemed I was disrespecting Miss Zasu Pitts, my heartfelt apologies to her admirers (among whom, count me). I adore the lady, mostly, obviously, for her unique talent - she created a character accessible to every audience, which was in every sense of the word, inimitable; not an easy thing to achieve.

I got Mrs. Wiggs down off the shelf last night to reconnect with her… My goodness! I think she may have been the only actress not intimidated by Fields. I’ve always felt that in My Little Chickadee Fields and West had some private off-screen agreement not to upstage each other, and it shows on-screen.

Not so with Mrs. Wiggs; while Fields is throwing every bit of vaudevillian business to grab the viewer’s eye, Zasu quietly rolls hers more effectively than Cantor ever did and adds to the mix a pair of fluttering hands (sometimes you’d swear they have a life of their own) that Horowitz would envy. It’s a remarkable display.
Sorry, W.C., no contest.

(Besides all that, how could I not adore Zasu Pitts, she used to swim in my pool.)

VP81955 said...

This is sort of OT, but it does concern one of the stars of "My Man Godfrey": Sony/Columbia, in conjunction with TCM, is issuing a 5-film pre-Code set July 2, which is great news for fans of Carole Lombard ("Virtue"), Barbara Stanwyck ("Ten Cents A Dance," "Shopworn") and Jean Harlow, Mae Clarke and Marie Prevost ("Three Wise Girls"). The fifth film in the set is called "Arizona" and stars John Wayne...but it's not a western. Rather, it's a romantic melodrama from 1931 with Wayne and Laura La Plante, from the period when John was trying to make it as an all-around leading man before being relegated to western programmers for much of the decade. Find out more, including a link to where you can order this, at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/502827.html.

kasino indobettors said...
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Ron Dionne said...

His mention of the fragrant (!) Margaret Sullavan makes me wish he could do a biopic of her, perhaps focusing on what I've heard tell of Jimmy Stewart never being able to win her hand off screen. It could be called "Dear Friend," referencing SHOP AROUND THE CORNER. Man, I might write a spec treatment myself...

X. Trapnel said...

Hard to imagine a biopic about these two; who could "be" them in a way that would not be mannered and annoying? And I'm not sure that W. Stillman is the man for the job; too far out of his emotional range. The story transcends w(h)istful comedy of manners. (Or maybe it's just the sight of the Young Adorables at the top of the post that makes me doubtful).

Shamus said...

Making biopics of actors strike me a dubious proposition: why (pay to) watch pale imitations, (full of self-conscious "tics" and "mannerisms"), when you can see (having your own copy of) the real thing?

X. Trapnel said...

Is it conceivable that thirty or forty years on anyone will think of making a biopic about any contemporary actor however talented?

Shamus said...

Biopics have been around for a long time, XT: they may persist for a time yet. MGM made a lot of them, I think (although, granted, not necessarily those of actors): if I'm not mistaken, one of the conceits of Great Ziegfeld is that it features cameos and walk-on roles by "stars" (including, horrors!, "Will Rogers").

Not sure that it is not sophomoric, though- it's like asking us to read a pastiche of Dashiell Hammett, rather than Red Harvest. Or, something...

brencahill said...

X Trapnel - "The Schwarzenegger Story" (2052) a look back into a bizarre period of American history.

X. Trapnel said...

Yes; if he isn't quite perfume he does suggest fumes of some sort.

Jette said...

Reading this late -- we get movies a bit later in Austin -- but the "Stage Door" reference tickled me because, totally unintentionally (I was in a hotel room with cable), I had "Stage Door" on the TV while finishing my "Damsels in Distress" review, and thought it was a nice accompaniment. Apparently it was more apt than I thought.