Whit Stillman: "A Breath of Fresh Air"

 


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The art of film making in American society today gives directors an abundance of options to enhance their films with technologically advanced techniques, such as sound, graphic, and special effects. While these techniques can often augment the work of various film makers and the way they their story unfolds, the filmic technique of director Whit Stillman relies on the witty repartees of the main character’s dialogue to add comedic and dramatic impact. Rather than presenting his viewers with shocking and distracting visual “eye candy", Stillman takes ordinarily universal situations about the social interaction of adults, and turns them into a sharp and amusing storyline that resembles the style of Jane Austin’s work in many ways. Through his educational background and experience in the New York City social scene, Whit Stillman presents viewers with a refreshingly different kind of film, and was able to make one of his best contributions with the film The Last Days of Disco.

John Whitney Stillman, a Harvard graduate from upstate New York, started out post college life working as a journalist in New York City. While on an assignment in Barcelona, Spain, he was introduced to the film producers Fernando Trueba and Fernando Colomo from Madrid, and eventually began working as a sales agent for Spanish films. While in Spain, he was married to a Spanish woman and starred as a comedic American in the films The Sky Line and Sal Gorda, two of the films he was promoting in 1984. Back from Spain, Stillman ran an illustrating agency in New York that had once belonged to an uncle. He then started writing the screenplay for his first film Metropolitan, an extremely low budget film about a group of waspish New York debutantes, which he financed from the $50,000 he earned from selling his apartment in the city, and other endorsements from friends and relatives. Turning out to be a marketable and critical success earning over 8 million dollars, Metropolitan won him a nomination for best script, and gave him the leverage to finance his two additional films, Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). All of Stillman’s films are semi-autobiographical, based on his experiences of living in Spain and socializing in the “disco movement" era in the early 1980’s.

The three films written and directed by Stillman are not necessarily innovative in today’s industry so much as retro. His style relies on a very well developed script because the dialogue of the characters is the focus and subject of the movies. Through this dialogue, Stillman reaches character development by drawing out each one, and showing them evolve as the films progresses. Though most of the films’ progression shows the actors conversing in clever conversation, the pacing is well planned, and leaves viewers with unique ideas that are lightly amusing and thought provoking. What makes Whit Stillman films distinctive, memorable, and set apart from most high budget films that come out of Hollywood today is the reverse idea of focusing solely on character development and conversation to tell a story, rather than using special effects, highly paid actors, and erotic sex scenes to dazzle a viewer. Instead, he relies on dry humor, intellectual and somewhat ironic conversations to pull in a viewer’s attention and provoke thought. In going outside of the standard Hollywood formulas of filmmaking, Stillman gives viewers a break from the latest epic, sci-fi, or romantic comedy and presents his way of showing that the medium of film can still be used as a way of communicating ideas and takes emphasis off of the sole effectiveness of a high cost picture.

The Last Days of Disco, a satirically humorous film about a set of recent college graduates just starting out in the working and nightlife scene of early 80’s New York City, is a distinct look into a time period that arouses many viewers’, and filmmaker’s interests. Having most of the film take place in a flashy nightclub that is implied to be studio 54, the focus is again shifted away from the less than discreet world of drugs going on in the club scene during this time. Instead, the focus is on a set of young women, and their world of insecurities, social tension, and competition for the same man; a story that all women can relate to. He portrays the club and actors in a way that it actually might have really looked like, rather than what Hollywood sometimes makes it into. The way that Stillman puts these events together in such a way that is very true to life, and still manages to make a charming and witty subject appealed very much to me as a viewer. Having seen films such as Studio 54, Saturday Night Fever, and The Summer of Sam, I was impressed to find a film that is able to use the disco era as a setting without continually showing the typical and somewhat overdone story of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The hilariously dry humor from the character’s conversations and the amazingly appropriate soundtrack made The Last Days of Disco a successful approach to a great film.

The small but significant number of Whit Stillman’s films is a refreshingly unique and lighthearted advance in the art of filmmaking in a “type"- ridden film society. The intelligently comedic scripts that exceptionally portray true to life situations in these films had an imprinting effect on me, and let me identify with such situations rather than distracting me with over the top effects. I believe the style of Whit Stillman’s work to be a unique and bright move toward original filmmaking today.

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