Sunday, April 29, 2012

Highly-Anticipated Movie Reviews: "Damsels in Distress"

The latest in an occasional series comparing my anticipation of a movie with the post-viewing reality...

Title of movie: Damsels in Distress 

Reason(s) for anticipation: NEW WHIT STILLMAN MOVIE! His first in 14 years!

All right, technically speaking, I didn't wait a full 14 years for this film. I first saw a Stillman movie (Metropolitan) just two and a half years ago -- but it was love at first sight. Since then, I've discovered that several of my playwright friends are equally as enamored of Stillman's screenwriting as I am, and I even co-hosted a Metropolitan-viewing party earlier this year. (We ate deviled eggs, dressed up in 1980s prom gowns, and danced the cha-cha.) I was thrilled to learn that Stillman would have a new movie coming out and interested to see what kind of story he would tell about young women of my generation. And of course, with the release of this movie, I'm loving the renewed attention paid to Stillman's filmmaking and all of the new interviews with him that are being published.

The premise: At a third-rate private university, three female students -- ringleader Violet, imperious Rose, and dippy Heather -- are on a self-imposed mission to bring good cheer and old-fashioned sociability to the benighted student body. The girls befriend Lily, a transfer student, and include her in their schemes, such as tap-dancing lessons for depressed students and scented soap for stinky boys. (It is typical of Stillman's deadpan humor that none of the characters ever point out that all of the girls are named after flowers.) But their attempts to impose order on the world run up against a host of problems, mainly male ones: dumb and smelly frat boys or disreputable "playboy-operator types." Lily also turns out to be more skeptical, less tractable, than foreseen.

My reaction: Has Whit Stillman been reading my mind? How has he possibly put so many of my pet preoccupations into one film?  Here's a movie where the characters wear sundresses with full circle skirts, worship Fred Astaire, read "flit lit" (dandy literature like Waugh and Wilde), hang Paris maps on their walls, and use Truffaut's Stolen Kisses as a seduction technique.

So many of the movie's little details resonated with me in an almost spooky way. In an early scene, the girls are at a frat party, where the '90s song "Another Night" by The Real McCoy is playing. "Ooh, a golden oldie! I love these!" cries Violet. Now, I have a very powerful Proustian-terpsichorean reaction to "Another Night," because when I was in fifth grade, some friends and I made up a dance routine to that song for a gym class assignment. This is the closest I have ever come to trying to start a dance craze. (This was the year that the Macarena came out and I feel like the gym teacher's assignment, as well as my dance moves, were vaguely Macarena-inspired.) And, later in the movie, Violet reveals that her greatest ambition is to start a dance craze. Odd, right? Out of all of the '90s golden oldies that Stillman could have chosen, why did he pick "Another Night"?

And it went on from there: a joke (I won't spoil it) that will make me and my parents laugh for an entirely different reason than it will make everyone else laugh; a revelation that one of the principal characters is from Portland, Oregon (my home town)... Of course, because I enjoy Stillman's sensibility, I'd expected that I would enjoy Damsels in Distress. But I had not expected to feel like Whit Stillman had been reading my mind!

So, here's the conundrum. Damsels in Distress is an extremely strange movie: it's Stillman's broadest comedy, presenting lots of preposterous characters and situations with a straight face. Many reviews have remarked that it seems to be set in some kind of idiosyncratic fantasy world. It's utterly sui generis, and yet it felt like it had been made for me. It's not even that Damsels in Distress reflected my own college experience to any significant degree -- just that it's chock-full of the material signifiers and abstract themes that tend to preoccupy me.

And, furthermore, it's decidedly odd for me to feel this way about a movie made by a man my parents' age, and not, you know, by Lena Dunham.  On the other hand, I was quite pleased to be confirmed in my feeling (which I've had ever since watching Metropolitan) that I am a half-step away from being a Whit Stillman character myself.

So what does that mean, "a Whit Stillman character"? Perfectionists, idealists. People who believe and say utterly ridiculous things, but with great conviction and impeccable grammar. People who are concerned with the viability of virtuousness in the modern world. (I once said to a friend of mine in college, "I feel like I am on a constant quest for self-improvement." "Oh yes, me too," my friend replied, and I remember thinking No, it's not the same thing. Because she meant it in a New Age, spiritual-growth sense, and I meant it in an old-fashioned Protestant Work Ethic sense.) Stillman may gently mock his characters' more outlandish theories, but unlike so many other American filmmakers, he will not mock anyone for being too intellectual, too idealistic, too exacting. In a typical romantic comedy, Violet would be demonized as a prig in need of a comeuppance, but in Damsels, she's the heroine. Indeed, the movie could be subtitled "The Vindication of Violet." She gets the only guy in the movie who's worth having (no spoilers, but I will say that many American movies would demonize him, too), and gets to start her dance craze, the Sambola. The Sambola scene, shot in shades of red, gold, and black, might be the most visually lovely thing Stillman has ever filmed.

Violet is the sort of person who'd rather light a (scented) candle than curse the darkness. The movie's comedy arises from her failure to understand that some people just don't like candles, and from her tendency to singe her own fingers when lighting the match, but the point stands: she has an optimistic, generous, can-do spirit. I strive to be this way, and it seems like Whit Stillman does, too. If you read between the lines of interviews with him, you can tell that he doesn't like much modern cinema, but he's too much of a gentleman to go off on some curmudgeonly rant about "kids these days and their sex and violence." Rather (after fourteen years of struggling with matches that won't light), he's made the kind of film that he'd like to see. Which, as it turns out, is just the kind of film that I'd like to see. Anyone want to Sambola with me?

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