Writer-Director Whit Stillman on ’Damsels in Distress’

by David Lamble

Bay Area Reporter

Wednesday April 18, 2012

Suppose you were given a Woody Allen-style Midnight in Paris time machine and were allowed to pick a famous wit from the past for a one-on-one gab-fest about some shockingly retro topic, let's say "The Decline in Decadence," as illustrated by modes of expression in contemporary homosexuality.

Whit Stillman enjoys the unique privilege of being a celebrated writer/director wit whose three-film body of work (Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco) is unrivaled in showcasing a slice of the population: debutants, preppies and young people to the manor born who face a drastic decline in their social status without abandoning their ideals. Back in the turbulent 90s, when he was turning out a polished social film comedy every four years, it seemed impossible to imagine that it would all suddenly grind to a halt; that, like one of his fabled predecessors, Preston Sturges, or equally august contemporaries, Woody Allen, Whit Stillman would be forced into exile. Yes, it has been 12 years since The Last Days of Disco provided an elegant farewell to a musical/dance genre that just never seemed to get any respect, and here he is, sitting down with me in a fancy-schmancy downtown hotel, celebrating his fourth and possibly best social misfit comedy, Damsels in Distress.

Remember our tease about the decline of decadence as illustrated by contemporary homosexuality? Well, a high point in Damsels comes when one of Stillman's most appealing lost souls, Violet (the incomparably spirited Greta Gerwig), has an amazing chat with a boy she may or may not be pursuing, Charles Walker, or his alter ego, the Sturges-like Fred Packenstacker (The O.C.'s Adam Brody, in what will hopefully be a breakout film comedy turn). Violet, who is leading a trio of young ladies in a drive to rescue their small East Coast college Seven Oaks from the stench of boorish male styles like grunge, frat-boy drunken orgy parties, and all manner of declasse values, quizzes the slippery Charles/Fred about his core values.

"You think decadence has declined?"

"Definitely, big time!"

"How?"

"What?"

"Homosexuality - it's gone completely downhill, right down the tubes. Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, sublimated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts. It's pretty disillusioning."

"Are you gay?"

"Not especially, but in another era, it would have had more appeal. Now, I just don't see the point."

Stillman explains that Sony Pictures Classics didn't want the scene in the Damsels trailer for the sake of copping a commercially more appealing PG-13 rating. Another piece of "Stillmania" that gets short shrift is the obsession briefly pursued by Hugo Becker's character Xavier for a very retro form of hetero lovemaking, "Cathar love." "We're not allowed to explain it because of PG-13, but it's not from the front, it's from the other side, the side from which there can't be procreation."

From its fudging on the time period (there are veiled allusions to texting and various forms of techno effluvia) and its sprightly soundtrack including Violet's theme for "The Sambola! International Dance Craze" to its heroines' passion for rescuing "losers" for their dating pool, Damsels in Distress has all the makings of the season's first off-beat adult-comedy hit.

My "time machine" chat with Stillman - attired in the preppie uniform of striped dress shirt, sleeves rolled up, no tie - is a true conversation. Here's one celebrity who's listening to the questions, not merely dispensing prefab replies.

David Lamble: Discuss Adam Brody's obsession with "The Decline in Decadence."

Whit Stillman: I think there was a higher decadence in the past. I don't know Jersey Shore, but that is like true decadence. Before, the decadents were trying to get by the obstacle course of respectable society, and the tension led to the creation of these artistic personas that were so interesting. I'm not sure what Max Beerbohm's relationship to that group was, he was very close to the Oscar Wilde group, but when everything became controversial, he exiled himself to Italy and stayed there. It was an interesting dynamic of camouflage and daring, and it led to some really interesting comic creations.

You fall right into the tradition of terrific film comedy writer/directors: Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, and your protege, Burr Steers.

It's interesting that you mention those names because, in a sense, we all came out of 80s filmmaking, and it's odd now that the 80s are back. Jim Jarmusch was a big inspiration, making Strangers in Paradise so disciplined and so funny on a tight budget.

Greta Gerwig is such a delight. In my chat with her about the Noah Baumbach comedy Greenberg, we compared notes on our favorite leading men.

What kind of men does Greta like?

Oh, the kind of boyish types I like, like Adam Brody.

She introduced us to one of her friends, he was very good and boyish.

Adam Brody is marvelous as the misfit Charlie/Fred.

He had a wonderful scene that I had to cut, talking about his first crush on a girl when he was six.

How did you meet Burr Steers, the haughty bouncer from The Last Days of Disco, whose debut film Igby Goes Down feels like a sequel to one of your trilogy?

He was very good as the "door Nazi," he has that wonderful accent. He's Gore Vidal's nephew.

And Gore Vidal has a cameo as one of Igby's disgusted headmasters.

Burr's had a terrific career.

Is it true that your parents' traumatic divorce has provided a career's worth of material from a hard-earned perspective?

There are people who tear their hair out about divorce in America, not me. It can be quite liberating to have your parents divorce. For me, the divorce was good, the remarriage was bad.

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