Whit and the not-so-discreet charms of the bourgeoisie

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 08.12.2023

The Cinémathèque had an an early Christmas present in store last week and invited American director Whit Stillman. The filmmaker has made just a handful of feature films, but they gained him a cult following. His doomed bourgeois- in-love-trilogy Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco has wormed its way into many a cinephile's heart. He took part in two evenings of masterclass and question-and-answer sessions and provided insights into his work. We met with Whit Stillman and continued the exchange.

D’Land: How does it feel to be the subject of publications* and homages at film museums?

Whit Stillman: I mean, it’s just the best. It’s the happiest part of being in cinema. It’s like if to do a play, we’d have to have our producer here and we’d have to do a lot of rehearsal for weeks. But here I can come alone. The crew and the cast have already done their work. It’s in this little tiny digital file, and I can come here and we can all see it and I can talk about it and I can claim credit for it.

Speaking of the book – Nick Pinkerton remarks in his introductory essay that he’s never seen you appear in public other than immaculately done up and wearing a crisp natty blazer and tie, is that true?

It’s untrue. He said that about Sundance in 1990. He wasn’t there and I wasn’t that way then. I’m that way now. But not then. Some directors say you should always wear a suit. Hitchcock told John Landis that, for instance. And I always admired the way Scorsese dressed. So I became dressy after I started making films.

What were you wearing in the Sundance winter of 1990?

What people were wearing in a wintery place. A parka for instance.

Weather-appropriate clothing.

Well, I did have a fedora, but it looked sort of western. But I definitely wasn’t wearing a blazer or anything like that. I don’t wear blazers. You managed to do the good job of putting your finger on just the sentence I hated in that essay. Good for you. And you didn’t have to read very far to get that line.

Page two indeed. (Both snigger.) What are you wearing in the Luxembourg winter of 2023?

I am sort of overdressed now. And I kind of felt embarrassed last night that I was probably overdressed. And I’m overdressed tonight, too. I don’t have many clothes. It’s either dressed up or slob. So I have to go back and forth.

Are you – the Bryan Ferry of indie filmmaking –, the way you present yourself and your films, something akin to the last stand against the decline of a certain sense of style and elegance?

I think there are all kinds of things you try to put into a work. There are all kinds of influences and ideas that you try to let percolate into it. But yes, there’s definitely that. Who is Bryan Ferry?

The frontman of Roxy Music. Rocking suits and ties since the 1970s.



Good for him. I noticed the disappearance of ties in the past couple of years. And I think it’s a real shame. It’s embarrassing to see two heads of state, walking when they’re supposedly relaxed in the country just with their open, mediocre shirts. I mean, someone like Bernard-Henri Lévy, he has style when he doesn’t do a tie. He looks like something. But you just take off your tie and have a mediocre shirt and you’re president of your country? Try a little harder.

The next starting-off point might come across as a little geeky. DU, SDA, ALA, UHB, SFRP, AFL-CIA, and even Yuppie: What is it with all these acronyms throughout your filmography?

I don’t really know. They were sort of opportunities for jokes.

Is it true that someone from your family is responsible for the coining of the term WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant)?

Yeah, my godfather, E. Digby Baltzell, sociologist at Penn. He wrote some really great books, one of which was about the two religious strains of the Puritans and the Quakers. He was later writing a book on the business establishment in the United States. In there he created the acronym for white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant as part of a chart. Other people now claim to have invented it, but I’m not sure why they want to claim that.

Is your filmography a reaction to your family tree, which is a politically charged one?

I don’t think so. The most political film I did was my second film, Barcelona, and that was more about my personal experience of spending a lot of time in Spain in the early 1980s.

Your father was a major figure in the Democratic party and played a part in the progressive dynamics of the political landscape of the US. And then you come along and offer heavily nostalgic and backwards looking films. Where did that come from then?

My brother is kind of a violent communist and he was ahead of me in university. And the way I got in the university newspaper was through him. I knew a lot of the hardcore leftist groups and I could get news articles from them since I knew what was happening through my brother. It was a very radical time at university, a certain period in the Vietnam War, and these Marxist groups were pretty scary. And they did scare me. And I think I kind of reacted against that.

Your films seem to linger in a slightly abstract place between the end of something and a new beginning. Is that a comfortable space for you to create in?

It’s good for the sort of films we’re making, which are a little bit retro, but we don’t really want to do official period pieces. Those kind of films often become sort of ship in a bottle, airless and fake. In their attempt to be very authentic, they become kind of ersatz. When we did The Last Days of Disco, we shifted the period a little bit. There’s a certain level of cheating going on that I don’t think is that important. I don’t really like people being too literal about everything because I think it can lead to constipation. For example, we showed the anti disco riot from the summer of 1979 and our film is supposedly the very early 1980s. But the idea is there’s a montage, just showing the hostility to disco and the class warfare going on.

You’ve had empathy for a lot of people in your films over the years, also bourgeois people that usually get a bad rap in cinema history. The character Charlie Swan in Metropolitan, for instance, isn’t very kind to Luis Buñuel’s film Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie.

I don’t think it’s fair to say he’s unkind. He was attacked as a bourgeois by Buñuel. So he’s just responding to the attack. I think Buñuel would be very pleased by that. To think if someone’s a provocateur, they should be pleased if someone is provoked.

What do you make of contemporary filmmakers tackling class issues? Like Ruben Östlund and his Palme d’Or winning film Triangle of Sadness?

I don’t see them at all.

Your sense of rhythm and sensibility for oftentimes snappy dialogue is something that could be of some value in the theatre. Did you ever consider working in the theatre?

I’ve considered it again now. I started writing Love and Friendship as a play and I found the form very, very frustrating. I really hated it. It’s really stupid compared to cinema, because in cinema you have this wonderful freedom of editing. I hate it when people value long continuous shots. You don’t have to do that. You can just edit.

But you mentioned in your introduction to Top Hat, a film from you favourite era of cinema, the 1930s, that playwrights were hired when sound entered the movies. The theatre and the movies are intrinsically linked, whether you like it or not.

Yes, but that’s a progression of going from a backward medium, which is theatre to an advanced medium, which is cinema. (Stillman smirks.) But the great thing about theatre is that you can do it. Like, boom, you can do it. Cinema, on the other hand, is so encumbered with mechanics and money and capital.

Speaking of, boom, just doing it – do you still dance?

Yes, yes. We had such a fun dance at the Marseille Festival where this book came out. And they let me DJ for a night. I had so much fun dancing. I was thinking of trying to do a monthly dance night when I’m down in Palm Beach. I think it is the greatest thing. I just love dancing. And I think it’s something that has to come back.

*Whit Stillman: Not so long ago, published by Fireflies Press in September 2023, 17 euros (ISBN 9780645454772)

Tom Dockal
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