Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Whit Stillman breaks his filmmaking fast with the precious DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

What a treat, what an unalloyed delight is this new work from the of-late, a-movie-every-thirteen-years filmmaker Whit Stillman (shown below). His output may be small -- Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco -- but nobody makes movies like this guy's. Love 'em or hate 'em, you must admit that they're special.

In a unparalleled juxtaposition, due to a previously-scheduled movie outing with friends, TrustMovies ended up seeing The Hunger Games immediately after viewing DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. And while he knows that Damsels will take in maybe 1/10,000 of the box-office that Games does worldwide, he wouldn’t trade the former for all of the latter’s shlocky, mainstream movie-making ideas and effects. Damsels is so special and funny, sweet and smart, that it seems particularly odd, I think, that Stillman is still learning how to make movies. You can criticize everything from his 30-year-old-looking college students to the barely so-so dancing sequences, but that’s not the point. Nobody else is doing anything like what he does -- warts and all. (And sometimes those warts are there just so the filmmaker can sand them down by movie's end.)

It's his screenplay, and in particular his dialog, that is usually so trenchant -- and bizarre. In Damsels, more than in any of his other movies, he has created a kind of alternate universe that is quite unlike anything that exists: a college campus where frat boys are not simply crazy/stupid. Oh, they're that, but they are also sweet and kind and, without knowing it, longing for... so many things: intelligence, love, better hygiene and being able to know the differences between (and the names of) colors. Yes.

People talk a lot here (that's Hugo Becker, above, left, with Analeigh Tipton), and they say some very peculiar things. But in Stillman's universe, these things often begin to make sense. Imagine: People acting in their own best interests and accepting -- no, welcoming -- criticism. They're even able to bend a bit and change their ideas. They also understand that initiating a new dance craze may well be the pinnacle of their achievement, while offering the world something really useful. Well, you have to be there. And I hope you will. In my headline, I called this movie "precious." While it sometimes comes close to reflecting the negative use of that word, in the end  it is only the positive use, as in gem, that remains.

Stillman has always had a talent for using up-and-coming actors extremely well -- remember Chris Eigeman, Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny from his earlier work? Here he gives plum roles to the likes of Greta Gerwig,(above, left) Adam Brody (above, right) and Billy Magnussen (below, as Troy, pointing, with Carrie MacLemore). To say that they, and the rest of his choice cast, do his dialog and imagination justice is to praise them highly. And though Ms. Gerwig speaks that dialog as if it were all rather new to her, this has the effect of thoughts forming as the synapses snap. It works, and the actress emerges as a kind of conquering heroine, finding her way one step, and one phrase, at a time.

Oddly enough, I find much in common between Stillman and another director you'd probably never guess: Bobcat Goldthwaite. You could hardly ask for two more dissimilar movies than Damsels and God Bless America (Goldthwaite's latest, which arrives next month and will be covered here at length), but both these guys are true individualist moviemakers, with very definite ideas on the world and how it works (or how it ought to work). I would love to sit the two of them down together over coffee and hear what they talk about. (I wonder if either knows the other’s films?)

Megalyn Echikunwoke, as Rose, in Damsels in Distress

These two filmmakers could not be more different in many ways, and yet they’re telling us, I believe, some similar things. Whit creates the world he'd like to see, while Bobcat gets rid of the present one, for which he doesn't much care. While both have things to learn about film-making, both are also wonderful originals with something to say that's worth hearing. They make movie-going a surprise, a joy, and a jolt. Intellectually speaking, where humor is concerned, it doesn't get much better than that.

Caitlin Fitzgerald (left, as Priss), with Ryan Metcalf, as Frank 

Damsels in Distress, from Sony Pictures Classics -- which, in a "first" (if I'm not mistaken), has allowed its famous blue logo to take on an entirely different hue for this movie (Troy and Frank: Can you name the color, please?) -- opens this Friday, April 6, in New York (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Landmark's Sunshine Cinema) and in Los Angeles (at The Landmark, and later in the month at various Laemmle theaters). There will a limited nationwide roll-out over the weeks to come. Check the movie's web site during that time to discover where it might be playing near you.

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