Whit Stillman, Poet Of Young Lovers

A Gentle View Of Middlebrow Democracy

I just recorded my 4th Whit Stillman podcast & 2th with my friend Sam Goldman: Barcelona (1994), a story all about Americans & Europeans—two young men looking for love, manliness, & God—the fading away & the endurance of the American gentleman. It’s a conversation divided, like the two protagonists, between sharp comments & gentle comments, like Stillman’s work, between romance & comedy, as best we could manage it as admirers, indeed students of Whit Stillman, & it’s coming soon to PoMoCon. So subscribe, first of all, then watch the movie, friends, & be delighted!

Meanwhile, let me acquaint you with our podcasts so far, starting with the most recent, on Stillman’s Oscar-nominated debut, Metropolitan (1990)—Sam has the perfect introduction to Stillman’s characters & conversation, their worries about work & social class: These young men & women are natural democrats, like all Americans, although more self-conscious about fitting in, given their “Urban Haut Bourgeois” descent—WASPs, to use a waspish term… But they’re also not sure that love & decency have a place in what we euphemistically call the fast-paced modern world. One turns arch-reactionary & befriends another Romantic socialist, since after all both may be said to be nostalgic; a young lady turns to Jane Austen’s good taste & sure judgment, her friend to the fashionable ambition of celebrity, getting attention through a career in music; a young man turns sociologist out of a passion for moral clarity, squaring with the defects, not to say fate of his class. A broad range of middle class American kids today feel likewise, share the same temptations that answer to the need to grow up & do well!

We PoMoCons, Flagg Taylor & Carl Eric Scott, at the ACF have also talked about Stillman’s third movie, Last Days Of Disco (1998), where he shows the graduates of the Ivy League trying to find love, or at least survive with their wits intact, the Disco era, Stillman’s favorite popular music after the mid-century, because it was gentle & invited love through dancing, trying to dress beautifully, & being intoxicated by the dreams of youth—so you see another half-dozen young men & women facing democracy in all its diversity & wild freedom, which gets them worked up, but also confused. In a middlebrow way, they’re open to everything from complicated sexual identities to God!

Finally, Damsels In Distress (2011), my favorite, the most complete comedy Stillman has directed, perhaps the least understood of his movies, the one where he really went out of his way not just to move his study of youthful love & longing for adult certainties about life from the yuppie era into the 21st c., but to move from observations of a social class to a more general view of American youth. Everyone’s in college & that means the dull & the sensitive, the stupid & the clever, the delicate & the deranged—it’s funny to see how awkward American youth is, but it’s also very touching, & can even be heartbreaking, since behind the boisterous eagerness for experience there are fragile kids who might never experience beauty—might never see what their souls really long for. In a way, it’s a very discreet & middlebrow comedy that enacts much of the drama of philosophy in Allan Bloom’s Closing Of The American Mind

This only leaves Love & Friendship, Stillman’s 2016 Austen adaptation, which might be his most revealing work—not autobiographical, but by comparing Austen & Stillman, one can finally judge accurately his abilities & the desires that animate him as an artist. But that’s a podcast for another time. Meanwhile, consider buying his novels, too: The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards & Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated.

If you want more discussions of culture, recommendations for reading, listening, or viewing, & to participate in conversations: