Whit Stillman is a rare find – a man that actually enjoys disco. Stillman’s love for the much loathed genre runs deep, going as far as being the impetus for 1998′s, The Last Days of Disco. Following a group of friends as they spend their nights at the club, the film takes a look at the untold side of disco, those people, that like Stillman, not only enjoyed the music but lived for it. For these friends in the early 80′s they aren’t only watching their favorite music fade away, but they’re watching the death of their current social life. For Stillman, and for preps in general in this era, their world was changing. Their lifestyle was evolving and losing favor, forcing those that held fast to it to make a decision. As contrast collars and checked suits contrast with tee shirts and washed denim, The Last Days of Disco recognizes a shift in the American prep scene, leaving the old guard behind, and beginning to move toward a more casual aesthetic. Stillman recognizes this change as the characters seem to not only mourn the death of disco, but the death of their very style as well.
As Stillman’s second film, Barcelona continues to explore the preppy culture that was the focus of Metropolitan. Only this time, the characters are older, a bit experienced, equally as naive, and completely at odds with a foreign land. Barcelona follows Ted Boynton, a highly cerebral salesman, and his cousin Fred, a U.S. Naval Officer as they attempt to fit in with the Spanish culture. Both men, in Barcelona by assignment, and not by choice, consistently find themselves out of place in the city. Ted, struggles to understand the Barcelonian women that surround him, while Fred remains utterly confused as to why the U.S. is viewed so poorly by the Spanish.
From the first moment the two men appear on screen, their appearance tells the entire story. Looking like he’d been plucked directly from Metropolitan, Ted’s wardrobe consists mainly of blue blazers, OCBD’s, and dark brown loafers. At first, Fred only wears his military uniform, but slowly begins to adopt his cousins wardrobe of sack suits and ties. Against the Spanish backdrop the two men are unmistakably American, constantly conflicting with casual Barcelonian lifestyle. In their button down collars and ties, Ted and Fred appear stiff and out of touch, something indicative of the men’s relationship with Barcelona as a whole. Whit Stillman himself had spent several years working in Spain, and likely had a similar experience to his two characters. To Stillman and the two cousins, the way they dress and behave is just a part of who they are, but as a result they struggle in relating with the Barcelonian culture. Through the way the characters preppy aesthetic clashes with the Spanish culture, Barcelona examines what happens when a man is entirely out of his element.
Between interviews on A Continuous Lean and L Magazine, articles in the New York Times and NPR, as well as countless other write ups, Whit Stillman has been unavoidable over the past month. And with his first movie in thirteen years opening up just a few weeks ago it’s easy to see why. Much has been written on Whit Stillman over the years, he’s been called ” the wasp woody Allen,” his characters have been called “urban haute bourgeois,” and all the while he’s been celebrated for his presentation of young preppy culture. Despite all this recent buzz around him Stillman has just four remarkable yet spread out films under his belt, making far too easy to simply overlook his Influence as a director. I personally knew little of Stillman prior to this week, but what I’ve discovered has been a man that is a paragon of contemporary prep, both through his personal background and style as well as in the stories he presents within his films.
Stillman was born in Washington, D.C. in 1952, shortly thereafter his family moved to upstate New York as his father began an (unsuccessful) campaign for the New York State Senate. Throughout this period Stillman reveled in the atmosphere of upstate New York, taking in the natural setting, and generally growing up in a seemingly perfect 1950′s family. This all changed in the 60′s, first as Stillman’s father was appointed a member of JFK’s cabinet, relocating the family back to D.C., and then a few years later when Stillman’s parents divorced. With his life radically altered, Stillman found solace in books, acting, and dancing. In 1973, Stillman graduated from Harvard with two thousand dollars to his name and began working at Doubleday Publishing. In the 80′s Stillman worked as sales agent, selling well known Spanish films to the U.S. market, he even acted in a few of the films. But, it was not until 1990 that Stillman made his first movie: Metropolitan.
In regards to his personal style, consistency has always been a major theme for Stillman. Since college he has never worn blue jeans, he still likes Bass Weejuns, and through his attire he exemplifies prep from a period in which how you dressed was paramount. This attitude is what lead him to create Metropolitan in the first place. In his ACL interview, Stillman tells a story of how he wrote a letter to the New York Times in response to a quote about Fred Astaire that said, “People don’t wear clothes like this anymore.” Stillman disagreed entirely and intentionally dressed the characters in Metropolitan in opposition to this. Each character appears well groomed, formal, and thoughtful, yet they all have a touch of personality in the way they dress, expressing that people not only still dress like this today, but they know how to do it on their own terms. This symbolizes Stillman’s preppy style in Metropolitan – people not only dressing well, but also dressing for themselves.
Metropolitan explores debutante parties (social events Stillman attended during his time at Harvard) as a way of reflecting on preppy culture and style. At these affairs the characters are dressed in black ties, tuxedos, and long tailed overcoats. During the day Shetland sweaters, botton down collars, and repp ties prevail. The characters attire was not just about looking a certain way, it was about being a certain person. Just like Stillman’s own style, his characters illustrated that the way in which you dress speaks volumes about the type of person that you are.
“So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned by so called convenience.”