How Whit Stillman Humanized Privilege

A director explores the people behind the label.

Medieval morality plays had vice; Marxists, the bourgeoisie; and my English professors, dead white males. (They also worried about power, brainchild of Foucault’s bald pate.) But these days, we cross our index fingers in the face of privilege. This trendiest of stock villains tends to lurk in the wings of our cultural conversations, only to caper onto stage under a hail of hisses. He sometimes assumes the form of a man-sized Ivy League crest with legs. It’s best not to be seen with him.

No one, however, has done more to humanize poor old two-dimensional Privilege than the filmmaker Whit Stillman. His ‘90s triptych — Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998), newly reissued in a box set by the Criterion Collection — is populated by people it’s tempting to hate: the sons and daughters of old money; young men dilating on the matter of female beauty; disco partisans. They revere Carl Barks (as opposed to Marx), and say things like, “That’s a great moment in life when you can start sending all your shirts out for laundering.” And yet Stillman has a lot of affection for his preppies and yuppies, despite the flaws they display like Lacoste gators.

Unsurprisingly, this seems to trouble his critics, who seem obliged to underscore his flaws. As a writer in Salon once explained, “You can’t always tell at whom he’s poking fun, or why, and it becomes unfortunately easy to typecast him as the WASP answer to Woody Allen and conclude that his movies are insufferably irritating documents of privilege.”

Clearly, Stillman’s comedies of manners make culture writers uncomfortable. In poking fun at characters on both the right and left, they register with no clear party or position — which might strike some of us, at a time when there’s support for masonry on the Mexican border, as unthinkable. But what Stillman ultimately sides with is stylish wit. His apolitical movies dare to prize a well-turned one-liner over social justice; they challenge us to embrace aestheticism and check our politics. (“His sense of rigorous style is a way to right the world,” is how The New Yorker’s Richard Brody has it.) In our sweltering microclimate of outrage and hot takes, Stillman’s work — equal parts guilty pleasure and hydrating tonic — can feel unnervingly, irresponsibly cool.

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Stillman’s first feature, Metropolitan, follows ersatz-socialist Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), who takes up with a group of wealthy young New Yorkers following a debutante ball. They urge Tom to split a cab, and then duly sweep him off to their afterparty — and his reeducation. It’s deb season, and most of the movie takes place during the afterparties, which are set in a Park Avenue apartment. No parent ever pokes a head in, but then these are reactionaries, not radicals: they tend to play bridge, debate the merits of Mansfield Park, and worry about their extinction, all in formal evening wear. Nick, played by Chris Eigeman (who would go on to become a Stillman regular), is the group’s glue: a critic whose beat is kids these days. “Our generation’s probably the worst since the Protestant Reformation,” he complains. Then there’s Charlie (Taylor Nichols), the group’s in-house anthropologist, who comes up with the acronym “UHB,” Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, to tag his endangered tribe. Theirs aren’t first-world problems so much as one-percent problems.

But these also aren’t the lethargic elites in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), who laze about like statuary. Failings aside, the UHBs are a fount of outrageous verbal energy. (Stillman’s screenplay received an Oscar nomination.) At one point, Audrey (played memorably by Carolyn Farina) politely asks Tom why he bothers attending UHB functions in the first place, given his “vehement opposition to deb parties and to conventional society in general.” Nick, as full of Wilde as he is wind, swiftly supplies the answer: “He got an invitation.” Tom can only concede. “He’s right. I got an invitation and didn’t particularly have anything else to do.” Another UHB helpfully chimes in and chisels a universal truth: “I think that’s the case with almost everybody.”

In Stillman’s movies, an entrenched ideologue is often buoyed up and out of his trench by the overflowing charisma of characters who would be charmless villains in other films. Take Taylor Nichol’s tightly wound salesman in Barcelona, who finds his life disrupted by his freeloading cousin, a Navy lieutenant and staunch defender of American exceptionalism. Then there’s Dan, the left-wing editor in The Last Days of Disco. When his colleagues, Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloë Sevigny), seize upon a tip sheet for manufacturing bestsellers, he scoffs:

Dan: That stuff is such crap.
Alice: This does describe a lot of bestsellers, it’s true.
Dan (scowling): It’s completely formulaic.
Charlotte: Of course it’s formulaic. It’s a formula.

Dan — who aspires to organize labor — snorts in the face of the girls’ apartment-hunting woes. “Aren’t your fathers heavily subsidizing your living expenses with big allowances?” But he soon falls for one of their friends, and finds himself a convert to the disco culture he previously decried. (Eventually he confesses to having “reactionary thoughts, too.”) Like Tom in Metropolitan, Dan is full of recently acquired opinions he would like others, usually women, to acquire, too. (His contemporary analogue would be the aggressive mansplainer.)

“He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” What T.S. Eliot (privileged) said about Henry James (ditto) could apply to Stillman or, at least, his movies, in which ideas, like the hollow balls preferred for squash, are mostly just dumb media for bandying about. (It’s the bandying that’s the point.) Stillman’s celebrated dialogue moves at a quick clip, and he tends to hold his shots; in other words, a Stillman movie works at the level of the set piece, the perfect court in which overeducated characters can spar. They “have clever mouths with which to say foolish things,” observes the critic Troy Patterson. “However, they are not fools.” They acquit themselves stylishly, and complete their sentences.

Stillman, an aesthete, doesn’t carbon date his movies too carefully. “Not so long ago,” declares a card at the start of Metropolitan, in type once reserved for party invitations. “The last decade of the Cold War,” declares text at the start of Barcelona. Stillman is happily careless with history, and promotes content from his own, well, privileged life. (As a young man, he really did fall in with UHBs during a season of debutante balls; he worked for Doubleday, adored disco, and spent time in Spain.) Stillman is ultimately — unfashionably — after universal truths about love and friendship. Although the movies have their grounding in particular milieus, they have their top-hatted heads in Platonic cumuli, and the audience’s pleasure, top of mind.

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“I’m sort of anti-modern,” Stillman told Vanity Fair recently — and it’s true that a director who has blocked both a limbo and a cha-cha-cha is probably out of step with our moment. He has a small repertory of actors he tends to resort to, and few films to his IMDb page. The Last Days of Disco was followed by 14 years of silence. When he broke it, with his 2011 picture Damsels in Distress — in which young people lament the decline of decadence, and dream of inventing dance crazes — he attracted the kind of vitriol once directed at Dadaists and Beats.

But then we’ve long since metabolized the official, approved methods of the aspiring rebel — disjunction, dissonance, and the like. Stillman, the new Criterion boxset reminds us, is radical precisely because he remains unfashionable. He takes a sympathetic stance towards unsympathetic subjects, and also liberates audiences from the tyranny of ideas, through a commitment to aesthetic pleasure: style, wit, and humor. “Don’t think what you have to say is important,” warns poet and critic William Logan. “The way you say it is what’s important. What you have to say is rubbish.” Or as Stillman’s Alice explains to her love interest, who has just pitched the editor an idea for a book, “Like everything, it all depends on execution.”

Jason Guriel’s writing has recently appeared in The New Republic and The Walrus. He is the author of The Pigheaded Soul: Essays and Reviews on Poetry and Culture (2013). Twitter: @jasonguriel