Whit Stillman: Auteur of the Expat

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Aug 13, 2014 in Rat News | Subscribe

*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Stillman’s new series will debut on Netflix. It will appear on Amazon streaming.

We’ve been lucky in our send-ups of prejudice. Sidney Poitier had only to turn up for a meal in a white household in San Francisco in 1967 to show just how enlightened the most well-meaning liberals are in matters of interracial relationships. Middle America’s perception of the New York Jew is forever enshrined by Grammy Hall’s imagined thought-picture of Woody Allen as a shtetl-sprung Hasid dining at her Easter dinner table. Screenwriter Paul Rudnick made a condition for the marketing of In Out that the audience not be told in advance whether or not the Kevin Kline character was gay—that movie being as much a commentary on the assumptions of sexuality as about the awkward, bumbling realities of whom one ultimately takes to bed. 

While racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia are all worthwhile quarries, nicely hunted and filleted by such master sportsmen, there’s a slightly unfair advantage in mocking the homegrown and familiar. It’s impossible to imagine American political comedians like Norman Lear or Jon Stewart doing something interesting in, say, Cairo or Moscow. This is all the more bizarre given that that anti-Americanism is the last acceptable form of modern bigotry and should therefore be a subject of intrinsic interest to our domestic satirists.

Re-enter Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, the funniest film ever made about the violent hatred of Americans, which turned 20 this month. The timing couldn’t be better. Violent hatred of Americans is, after all, again trading at an inflated rate in Cairo and Moscow and pretty much everywhere else.  So when I meet Stillman at Arte Around the Corner on the Upper West Side to discuss what I consider a landmark anniversary in independent cinema, he starts by explaining what made his second feature his most commercially successful in the United States. “There’s something that puts people off from the characters in our other projects,” the auteur of the downwardly mobile says, referring to Metropolitan, his portrayal of New York high society, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay in 1990, and The Last Days of Disco, which is about what it sounds like, and debuted in 1998. Both bookend Barcelona in Stillman’s “doomed, bourgeois, in love” trilogy, not chronologically but thematically; neither is so black in its comedy, or so populist in its appeal. “It’s not that the other films are snobbish, but they have that effect on people, so people get their noses out of joint over the characters,” Stillman says. “What made Barcelona a little more popular and acceptable in the U.S. was that this is about a club we’re all not getting into—the European club. We’re all together outside the velvet rope.”

Set in “the last decade of the Cold War,” as its opening title card informs us, Barcelona starts uncharacteristically for a romantic comedy—with a terrorist attack. The American Library in the Catalonian capital is bombed, an I.B.M. showroom has a brick tossed through its front window. Held in contempt and suspicion over their nationality, two American cousins—and Stillman archetypes—Ted and Fred Boynton attempt square geopolitics and sex, with predictably mixed results.  Ted is a straight-laced and earnest salesman from Chicago, for whom the Paseo de Gracia is the “Michigan Avenue of Barcelona,” and Carnegie and Bettger are sages of pragmatic philosophy. He’s recently broken up with Betty, a long-time girlfriend, and is having something of a WASP’s answer to the quarter-life crisis, dancing to Glenn Miller while reading the Old Testament, which he furtively tucks inside the latest issue of The Economist. 

Like all Stillman protagonists, Ted (played by Taylor Nichols, a Metropolitan holdover) formulates a theory on romantic entanglements and proceeds to test it against a resistant reality. “This thing of always falling in love with incredibly attractive girls—really bad,” he says early on. “I resolve to only go out with plain or even rather homely girls.” Presbyterian deprivation, however, is easier said than done in 1980s Catalonia, where smartly dressed trade-fair girls who look like Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino are hard to miss and even harder not to fall in love with.

Ted’s big theory, and his solemn disposition in general, are derided by Fred (played by Chris Eigeman, who inhabited a similar role in Metropolitan), a mischievous naval officer visiting Barcelona as an “advance man” for the Sixth Fleet. Fred’s unannounced arrival inconveniences not only his “Bible-dancing goody-goody” of a host, whom he tells strangers is a closet sadomasochist encased in black leather underwear to make Ted seem more interesting to people, but also domestic opinion. Spain is set to accede to NATO, and the Spanish are uneasy. Ted informs Fred of the fact, and right away we’re given to understand that the id of Stillman’s comedy is also its superego, a sympathetic defender of homeland security and the dawning New World Order:

FRED: “Anti-What?”

TED: “Anti-NATO.”

FRED: “Anti-NATO?!

TED:“Well, here it’s OTAN.”

FRED: “They’re against OTAN? What are they for, Soviet troops racing through Europe, eating all the croissants?”

In the original screenplay for Barcelona, which was published by Faber Faber in 1994, Fred follows up the above comment by indicating that NATO has “been around for thirty years and hasn’t done anything. Actually, it’s quite pathetic.” It’s an interesting elision in light of the contemporary debate about whether or not the alliance has undertaken too many adventures outside of its original purview of Europe and should thus return to “first principles.” Because he refuses to change out of his uniform, disobeying instructions from the U.S. consul, Fred becomes the immediate target of hostile action, at first only rhetorical. A group of hip-looking Spaniards passes by him and derides him as “facha,” or “fascist,” which, as Orwell first pointed out in 1946, has come to mean everything and nothing. So once again it falls to the more acculturated Ted to explain how to avoid trouble abroad as a quiet American:

TED: “Don’t worry, they call everyone that. I mean, you comb your hair, or wear a coat and tie, and you’re ‘facha.’ A military uniform—definitely ‘facha.’”

FRED: “So ‘facha’ is something good, then … Because if they were referring to the political movement led by Benito Mussolini, I’d be really offended. Men wearing this uniform died ridding Europe of Fascism.”

You’re meant to laugh, but also agree, which is characteristic of Stillman’s style. No other filmmaker manages to wittily affirm the discrete charms of the bourgeoisie while making his audience think that, like everyone else in Hollywood, he’s out to skewer them. And for someone who had great fun toying with the notion of character composites in Metropolitan, Stillman almost always ensures that his protagonists, Ted and Fred included, are obvious echoes of his own worldview.

“I think my favorite two words are ‘true blue,’” Stillman tells me. “I think those words are really important, and the spirit of them has been lost. So, okay, some people come from families with problems, they’re not getting along with a parent or sibling or something. You should be loyal to your family. You’re loyal to your country, you stick up for it, in a good way. You’re true blue. The whole thing has been lost as a virtue.” 

Virtue is seldom anyone’s favorite word anymore; nor does it appear much outside of inverted commas in print or celluloid. It’s all-too-literal deployment here reminds me of why Stillman is often compared to one of his artistic heroines, Jane Austen. His forthcoming novel, in fact, has as its full title, Love Friendship:An Adaptation of Jane Austens Unfinished Novella Concerning the Beautiful Lady Susan Vernon, Her Loves and Friendships, and the Strange Antagonism of the DeCourcy Family. This will be the second novel Stillman has written; the first was a clever meta-adaptation of The Last Days of Disco as told through the point of view of Jimmy Steinway, one of that film’s minor characters who flees New York for Spain to put a “definitive break” between himself and his neurotic, hospitalized girlfriend Charlotte. Stillman won’t go into detail about what he plans to do with Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan (and it’s probably better that way), other than to say that Twitter, of all media, helped secure the commission. But the parallels between his cinema and the author of Pride and Prejudice are clear enough; both smuggle in defenses of custom and tradition via the Trojan horse of subversive comedy. In his poem “Letter to Lord Byron,” W.H. Auden nicely captured the appeal of the 18th-century mannerist, who, like Stillman, has also inspired a cultish devotion among her admirers:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of brass,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society…”

Getting the class-conscious to come away guiltily, if quietly, championing the most misunderstood and disarming beneficiaries of “the economic basis of society” takes a deft hand indeed. Tom Townsend, the pompous socialist welcomed into a circle of the young elites in Metropolitan, finds something redemptive about debutante balls, evening wear, and the “urban haute bourgeoisie” (or “U.H.B.”) of the Upper East Side, to say nothing of Mansfield Park, a book he hasn’t read but professes to dislike on the basis of Lionel Trilling’s criticism of it. Tom’s virginal love interest, Stillman’s Elizabeth Bennett stand-in Audrey Rouget, expounds on the merits of Mansfield Park, convinces Tom to give it a chance, and ends up converting him to both Austen and high society in a single stroke. (Eigeman’s Nick Smith, a more acerbic and self-aware Bertie Wooster, games the odds nicely, too.) In The Last Days of Disco, a much-maligned musical genre, which acts as a lodestar for incipient yuppie culture, gets its most heartfelt paean by a manic-depressive assistant district attorney, whose loyalty to those least deserving of it is meant to remind us of the stalwart Scotty dog from Lady and the Tramp and who leaves us wondering if there wasn’t perhaps more to Studio 54 than blow, gonorrhea and tax evasion.  In Barcelona, Stillman performs the same trick, only this time it isn’t just preppies getting their licks in—it’s an entire nation and way of life.

Stereotypes about philistine “Yanqui pigs”are both indulged and ironized, making the purveyors of them look bigger fools than their supposedly uncouth foils. “Take hamburgers,” Ted says at one point, touching upon a culinary cliche that is meant to stand in for all that is ugly and vulgar about America. “Here ‘hamburgesas’ are really bad; it’s known Americans like hamburgers—so again—we’re idiots. They have no idea how delicious hamburgers can be, and it’s this ideal burger of memory we crave, not the disgusting burgers you get abroad.”  Ideal burger of memory could be the name of an Andy Warhol silk screen, but the point is hammered home by Stillman in the last scene when even the nostril-wrinkling trade-fair girls are forced to admit that the patties taste better stateside.

Now a young-looking 62, Stillman has always operated at an angle to the movie business. His conservatism, which is more of a cultural than political kidney, seems to fascinate, delight or detract critics. True, he was once New York editor of The American Spectator, but his columns were hardly partisan, and he maintains a wary disregard for what both Ted and he refer to as “matters of public controversy.” He sees politics as something to be gotten over, or around, in order to get down to the real business of pursuing an active and healthy social life. “My family was entirely political, all the time, on the left,” he tells me. “The opposite of that is not to be political on the right. It’s trying not to be—politics is not everything. There’s life other than politics. Politics intrudes.”

It certainly did in the Stillman household. The filmmaker’s father, John, was in John F. Kennedy’s class at Harvard in 1940 and very active in progressive politics. He was also deeply loyal to the U.S. Navy, having joined the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) at Harvard in the late, pacifist 1930s and having taken heat from his progressive friends for having done so. When, in the Vietnam era, Harvard threw NROTC off campus, Stillman says, “my father was very upset.” The son remains deeply moved by military service, and regrets not joining up himself. “At the New York Harvard Club they’ve moved the memorial for those who died in World Wars I and II up to an obscure little hallway; they used to be in the main hall, in the most prominent location. The sacrifice of those young people I always found so stunning and so admirable. And many didn’t just wait to get drafted. A lot of them joined the Canadian or British armed forces early. At Harvard I belonged to one of the clubs and a whole wall was devoted to the graduates who had died in the two wars, brothers or uncles of people I knew. There used to be a service dedication in the American upper middle class. They would go over and volunteer, and they’d die first.” 

That service tradition is obliquely honored in Barcelona in the unlikely figure of Fred, who, like John Stillman, joined Naval ROTC at school, and falls victim to a terrorist attack he narrowly survives. While anxiously awaiting his cousin’s recovery from a coma, Ted is at one point shown reading on his couch, and a copy of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, which Stillman calls “one of the greatest books ever written,” is visible on the coffee table. It’s clear that Fred, who insists that he takes his military career seriously and did not enlist on a lark after “washing out” on Wall Street, had been thumbing this volume while waiting for the Fleet to arrive.

The injury or death of an American serviceman abroad is an easy lure for binding an audience, although Stillman wisely avoids playing at sentimentality: even Fred’s incapacitation is mordantly rendered and acts as a catalyst for the inevitable happy ending. Rather, the universality of Barcelona lies in the common experience shared by all Americans who spend time abroad. They necessarily become nostalgists in the antique Greek sense of the term (homesick), learning to miss what they can no longer have and impelled, however reluctantly and whatever their politics, into occasional bouts of flag-flapping patriotism because of the hysterical invective they’ll be subjected to about their country. By the end of Barcelona, only the truly humorless can fail to appreciate what Fred calls “all the fighting-for-freedom, defending-democracy, shining-city-on-a-hill stuff, which as you know, I really buy.” And even when wounded national pride turns a bit sour, it still seems winning. One of the more hilarious exchanges features Fred debating an unnamed Spanish woman at a party:

WOMAN: “You cannot say Americans are not more violent than other people.”

FRED: “No.”

WOMAN: “All those people killed in shootings in America?”

FRED: “Oh, the shootings. Yes, but that doesn’t mean Americans are more violent than other people. We’re just better shots.”

The smile this would have put on Oscar Wilde’s face is almost as gratifying as the scowl it must have put on Michael Moore’s. Anyone given to political correctness will slip through a trap-door built right into the film’s plot: Fred’s coma is caused by a gunshot—by a putatively less violent Spaniard.

If Barcelona has a villain, then it is Ramon, a left-wing, Eurotrashy newspaper and television commentator who sport-fucks under the guise of exalting the “perfect” female form, cites Philip Agee as an authority, and mixes admittedly sorry episodes in American history, such as the sinking of the Maine, with a feverish understanding of current events. Marta, one of the more venal trade-fair girls who’s been sleeping with Fred (“you seem very intelligent for an American”) and who will later announce her decision to move to the Maldives to lead an “exemplary life” and probably take the veil, relays to the Boyntons that Ramon is able to persuade the Catalan intelligentsia of the perfidies of superpower. He explains “how after World War II representatives of the American labor union, the AFL-CIA, were sent to Europe to crush progressive unionism.”

TED: How’d they do that?

MARTA: With sacks of money and the anti-Communist tactics of your Senator Jzo-ay McCarthy.


MARA: America’s largest union, terribly right-wing and facha—you have not heard of it?… It’s amazing the things Americans don’t know about their own country.

Except that Ted, the Chicago transplant, knows a great deal about the history of the American labor movement and tries to explicate its ideological colorations to his own love interest, Monserrat. Stillman is probably the only filmmaker alive to drop a reference to Jay Lovestone into his dialogue, which actually adds another fold of irony to his treatment of anti-Americanism. Lovestone, the former Bukharinist communist turned American Federation of Labor Free Trade Union Committee member, did connive with the CIA to stop the rise of Soviet influence in international trade unionism—what Ramon naturally calls “progressive.” But Monserrat’s insistence on conflating America’s clandestine services with the Congress of Industrial Organizations shows that even when the herd of independent minds lands a hit, it’s never quite as palpable as they think.

Ramon’s polemics, meanwhile, continue undeterred by fatal acts of anti-American violence, culminating in Fred’s shooting. Halfway through the film, another terrorist attack occurs, this time against the U.S.O. office in Barcelona, killing a U.S. serviceman from Brooklyn. (The Faber Faber script features more carnage than ultimately made it onto the screen.) Ramon insists that the whole atrocity was a false-flag operation staged by gringos themselves and he instructs his eager constituency to expect more provocations because U.S. elections are approaching and the Sixth Fleet is sailing the South Mediterranean in search of “some foreign ‘bogeyman’—Libya or Iran” to attack. Ted, who initially loses his composure at this, violating one of the cardinal rules of sales—never to get “involved in matters of public controversy”—later tries to explain containment strategy to the disbelieving conspiracy theorist and his co-thinkers at a picnic:

TED: The U.S. policy is—Well, let me put it this way… Maybe an analogy will help. Take these ants. In the U.S. view a small group—or cadre—of fierce red ants have taken power and are opposing the black-ant majority. The stated U.S. policy is to aid those black ants opposing the red ants in the hope of restoring democracy, and to impede the red ants from assisting their red ant comrades in neighboring ant colonies—

RAMON: That is the clearest and most disgusting description of U.S. policy I have ever heard! The Third World is just a lot of ants to you!

JORGEN: (Really upset) Those are people dying, not ants!

TED: No, you don’t understand. I was reducing everything to ant scale, the U.S. included—an ant White House, an ant CIA, an ant Congress, an ant Pentagon.

RAMON: (Seething with contempt) Secret ant landing strips, illegally established on foreign soil.

Abruptly Fred comes out of his sullen trance.

FRED: Where are the red ants?

TED: There.

Ted points out a small patch in the grass where there are some red ants. Fred raises his arm with a rock in his hand and slams it down on top of them.

I was lucky to catch Stillman in New York while he was here briefly going over the music for his forthcoming Amazon series, The Cosmopolitans, which debuts at the end of August. Like Barcelona, it’s all about Americans abroad—in this case, Paris. Some details about the series, which stars Adam Brody and Chloë Sevigny (the virtuous Alice in The Last Days of Disco) have leaked online but, as with his upcoming Austen novel, he doesn’t want to disclose anything beyond noting that it’s a much more magnanimous in its depiction of native-expat dynamics. “Just as I don’t like it when Americans go abroad and ‘go native,’ deprecating everything back home—generally, the things I like—I want to understand and appreciate the country I’m in,” he says.

Partly this owes to Stillman’s own dubious residency status. “I don’t know where I live,” he says. “I think I might be living in Paris. I might be living between there and Ireland.” Wherever home is, France, he insists, has his profound respect. “There’s something really admirable about French culture and an attraction in how independent it is from our own. So, it’s odd that in other countries that are very American-influenced—who seem to care more about the Oscars than anyone here does—there’s both anti-Americanism and also too much America. What I especially hate is when people mock the French for the tragedy of 1940. The officer corps in France, the percentage who died in 1940 was extraordinary. All these people mocking them were not standing in front of oncoming Panzers because their leaders had been asleep.”

Stillman describes Barcelona as “the one film I’ve done that I don’t have the same point of view now as I did then.” Why? “I was taking the American point of view on everything and when we did the Castillan-dubbed version, I tried to make it more fair.” Strangely, he did this by diluting the sting of the ant scene. “[Jorgen] in the picnic about the ants—he’s actually Swiss-German and he was saying all that stuff with a German accent. I didn’t want to just show that it was Spaniards being anti-American. It’s a European thing. So in the dubbing I had a Spanish friend whose grandmother was German—he does the Spanish-dubbed version with this very funny German accent. It makes it more a jokey, European anti-American sort of thing.”

It was actually noted lefty activist Rob Reiner who backed Barcelona more than anyone else, and who loved the film, barring its more plangent political overtones. “Rob was at the screening for it and he was great, he was laughing, really enjoying himself,” Stillman says. “Then he went silent. And he kind of reamed me, coming out, for all the anti-Americanism.” Reiner objected in particular to the first-cut ending which featured yet another terrorist attack, this time interrupting the classic rom-com denouement of a wedding. “So Rob was really severe about the ending. It was really funny because we had this friend of my wife’s, this American woman, who’d been living over there and she was at the screening too. And he was saying, ‘This can’t be true, it can’t be like this.’ She came—it was like the Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall. ‘Yes, I’ve just been living over there and it’s just amazing, I couldn’t believe it, the film is absolutely true.’ But I took it out anyway, there was too much politics, too much terrorism, too much violence.”

All of which had a grounding in verisimilitude. Stillman lived in Madrid and Barcelona for several years as a sales agent for Spanish films, also as a sometime actor, around the time Barcelona was set. He remembers watching Yeltsin stand up to a Communist coup attempt in Moscow from the Spanish coast and being “electrified by the whole thing.” But he also remembers what Iberian anti-Americanism looked like up close. “There was a bombing at the consulate when I was in Barcelona. And the consul told me, ‘We never said this. But the bomb was really, really serious and he could have killed a lot more people.’ It exploded during lunch hour, when no one’s around. Then there was a bomb on a ship.”

What struck Stillman most as an exile, however, was the night-and-day alterations of newspaper editorial lines, depending on which made the United States look worse. “This was at the time when the Nicaragua stuff was going on. And I remember once there was a Nicaraguan Sandinista incursion in Honduras and the Nicaraguans denied it. And the Spanish media was full of denials of this, and just attacking Honduras and the U.S. for it. And it’s kind of funny because newspapers have an Easter holiday for several days. So they close their issues on a Wednesday at like 9 o’clock. And at midnight Spanish time, the Nicaraguans said, ‘Okay, we had an incursion, but it was justified.’ And the newspapers came out on Saturday totally on the Sandinista side and against Honduras and the U.S.—four days after the Sandinistas denied it.”

American and British foreign policies were often conflated and condemned—and never mind that Thatcher’s decision to intervene in the Falklands, which happened during Stillman’s time in Spain, was treated with extreme skepticism by the Reagan administration. “When you’re in Spain and Portugal, they often talk about Anglo-American imperialism and the Anglo-American empire. Since American imperialism doesn’t have that long of a genealogy, they lump it in with decades and decades of English imperialism. A little bit like the Iranians who still say, ‘It’s all really the British.’”

This may account for why Barcelona did best abroad in the United Kingdom and Canada, making it something of an Anglophone triumph. Our commonwealth neighbor to the north also had its own geopolitical motives for turning out at the box office. “One of the publicists who worked on Barcelona was from Canada—based in London but from Canada,” Stillman says. “And shortly after the film came out, he was in Spain when there was some fishing controversy—there were Spanish fishing boats off the Canadian coast. And there’s almost a war between Spain and Canada about these fishing rights, and he felt this incredible hostility in Spain about this.”

In the intervening decades, though, Stillman’s oeuvre has gained a global audience, even as America’s stature has oscillated. A year ago, he was in Moscow to exhibit all of his films, including his last one, Damsels in Distress, as part of the AmFest Film Festival put on at the Gorizont Theatre. The entire event was sponsored by the U.S. embassy, a contingency that might be more difficult to repeat with Crimea annexed, east Ukraine poised for a Russian invasion, and a suite of U.S. sanctions passed against the Kremlin and state-owned institutions. “It was the first time I’d been to Russia since ’83. The people were absolutely lovely, really warm and wonderful. I went to the one of the film schools where there was an athletic young Putin type who seemed like a plant. He asked about American policy in Syria before it had become clear what the policy was. It was still the ‘red line’ period, right when things were tense. So I got to say, ‘I don’t comment on matters of public controversy.’ He seemed like a provocateur, but he was the only person of that stripe that I ran into.”

The joys of exhibiting one’s work abroad compete with the frustrations of creating that work, but even the latter has its artistic reward.The inconveniences of a European shoot for Barcelona lent greater authenticity to the portrayal of disgruntled or alienated Americans. The added “sourness” in Fred’s disposition, for instance, came from Eigeman’s decision to quit smoking mid-production and also his desire to get back to his fiancé, with whom “he was absolutely lovesick and upset at being away from. And he was such the non-traveling American.” Taylor Nichols, meanwhile, took the Henry James route and went native, marrying one of extras. “Her father was a Viscount, so Taylor married into the Catalan aristocracy.”

Meanwhile, Mira Sorvino, who would go on to win her Oscar for Best Actress the following year for Mighty Aphrodite, needed to learn how to speak Catalan convincingly. Here, too, the locals were all too willing to oblige. “My wife put her in touch with this guy—this total playboy guy. And I said to her, ‘What are you doing?’ My wife said: ‘No, he’s been in this terrible car accident, he almost died. He’s totally reformed.’ Well, he hadn’t reformed at all. But Mira learned good Spanish.”

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