Saturday, April 28, 2012

Surrender to the dance

So I was writing last week about The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ first narrative feature film in twelve years, and coincidentally the subject this time is Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman’s first film of any kind in fourteen years. Although Davies is likely the greater artist of the two, I’ve missed Stillman more: I’ve loved all his films. Barcelona, in particular, focusing on the entanglements of two American cousins working in Spain, seemed like a near-revelation at the time (1994), very funny and full of astoundingly engaging dialogue (I remember being stunned at the notion of a movie where the characters talked so much about management theory), engaging deftly with real politics and personal frictions while simultaneously conveying a sensibility way beyond the here and now. Last Days of Disco, made in 1997, was a little narrower in its scope, focusing on a small Manhattan clique and their sense of entitlement and predestination, somewhat deferred while they toil in rather menial jobs (it’s no surprise Lena Dunham of Girls loves the movie), perceiving themselves at the heart of a great social phenomenon but barely capable of meaningful action except in relation to each other. Again, it’s a joy to watch and to listen to, with a deep sense of loss and idealism, all the more so in hindsight for the silence that followed from the director.

Damsels in Distress

 Much like Davies, Stillman doesn’t try to gloss over the difficulty of his time away: he tried and failed to get several projects off the ground, his marriage ended, he became homeless (albeit a genteel, well-connected kind of homelessness it seems). Interviewed in the Star, he said: “It’s terribly frustrating and terribly humiliating and impoverishing. I’ve been away with my daughters — they got scholarships — but yeah, it’s just terrible. I don’t know how other people do it. I was really badly humiliated.” Damsels in Distress seems to evidence this regret, underneath a proud and slightly cranky defiance. At one point a character mentions Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, and you can’t help but make a regretful connection; Truffaut was able throughout his career to make a lighter movie in the knowledge that he could turn to a heavier one next time. I liked Damsels in Distress a lot, but it ought to be Stillman’s Stolen Kisses, not his, well, everything.

The film takes place on the Seven Oaks college campus, in more or less the present day (someone refers to the prevalence of electronic communication, but I don’t think we ever actually glimpse a smartphone in the film). A new transfer student, Lily, quickly falls into the orbit of Violet (Greta Gerwig) and two others, a trio dedicated to improving the local environment: it’s a multi-faceted project involving volunteering at the suicide prevention centre (attempting suicide seems to be a popular activity thereabouts), dating men less intelligent than themselves, promoting better hygiene and in Violet’s case, trying to devise a new international dance craze in the tradition of the Charleston or the Twist. While admiring the group in some ways, Lily also maintains her distance, dating another student who lies about working in “strategic development” and then another who claims to be in an obscure religious cult, entailing particular sexual demands (and celebrating the Sabbath on Tuesdays). Violet experiences a “tailspin” when her manifestly unworthy boyfriend cheats on her (his main positive point seems to be that he’s at least a bit quicker than his roommate, who has to strain to remember the names of primary colours), but she comes out of it when she checks into a cheap motel room that turns out to have an unusually satisfying brand of soap. And so it goes.

Dignified unity

 I made that plot summary a bit longer than I usually do, as the best way of conveying the film’s considerable strangeness, and – let’s say – its distance from the pressing issues of our times. If you‘ve never seen a Stillman film, the above might suggest a fast-moving screwball farce, but actually his pacing is extremely deliberate, with each utterance occupying a carefully delineated space (it’s a rare movie where someone asks “how” something happens and the response is “How, or in what ways?”) As in the previous films, he likes framing groups walking together, moving in the same direction in a somewhat stately fashion, preserving a certain dignified unity despite whatever tension might exist in the exchanges. Stillman also likes the idea that even a brief interaction between two people might place them in some kind of spiritual alignment; Damsels in Distress has a constant sense of people connecting, reflecting on how they relate to one another, checking their frames of reference, readjusting.

 Even those dumb guys I mentioned preserve some dignity; they may be impeded, but their desire to attain clarity seems sincere (the most dubious people, it seems, are those who might be labeled “operators”). And one person’s point of eye-rolling obviousness is another’s unchartered revelation. At one point Lily stares at artichokes cooking on the burner, seemingly having never come across them before. The limitation of all this though is that Stillman’s deconstruction and strangifying doesn’t always seem to amount to much more than that: the broader resonances of the earlier films don’t flow as easily here. In fact, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to comment that the movie doesn’t arrive somewhere so much as happily dissolve itself, ending in two consecutive musical numbers (one of them accompanied by captions to facilitate audience participation).

Love Train

 The Last Days of Disco also ended with a dance, with Manhattan subway riders surrendering to the O’Jays’ “Love Train,” but it seemed there like a fanciful postscript: in Damsels in Distress by comparison the dancing seems, in itself, to be the main arrival point. The choice of the Gershwins’ “Things are Looking Up,” following right from a scene in which a seeming suicidal dash turns out to be instead a rush to appreciate a rainbow, seems like the sign of a fundamentally optimistic filmmaker, especially when he then so explicitly extends the offer of the dance to all of us. But it can’t be taken as more than a transient or contingent arrival point: it seems clear the characters will continue to lie and stumble and screw up. Whether they’re learning anything remotely helpful or lasting at Seven Oaks is a question firmly outside the scope of the movie.

  There’s hardly a person over thirty in the mix, and several of those who do appear seem primarily intended as brief echoes of the earlier films. For a director who’s somehow found himself hitting sixty, that might be viewed as charming and progressive, or as a sign of denial. Damsels in Distress suggests both are applicable, but pushes you a bit too much toward the latter interpretation. And the film is so plainly marooned on its own little artistic island, it provides little reason to think we won’t have to wait as long again for Stillman’s next work. And that’s nothing to dance about.

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