This is a short text about a beautiful failure. It also serves as an intro for the sound file below. Whit Stillman, one of my favourite artists in the world, has agreed to be interviewed for the first recording of my podcast – a podcast which, in a way, I’ve created mostly in order to have an excuse to meet him. Monsieur Stillman said yes – unwisely, as some might argue – partly based on the fact that I am the owner of the twitter fan account dedicated to his gem The Cosmopolitans. There’s a certain chance that this also played a small part, or somehow this. Whatever his reasons may be, the fact is that the dream was realized one Friday morning in grey Paris.
There’s a famous motto stating “don’t meet your idols”: however, when it comes to this realized dream, I would say that this is definitely a case of “do everything you can to meet your idols, and when you do, don’t be an idiot”. Almost every sentence to come out of my mouth was awkward, hazed, and maybe worst of all, everything was executed excruciatingly slow. Three different languages got mixed up in my head, all the supposedly half-intelligent sentiments which I wanted to present as questions got terribly tangled up, until it actually got to a point where the two most lucid questions I managed to ask were about twitter and fashion, or how I most eloquently chose to put it, “people wearing stuff”. TWITTER AND FASHION. OH MY GOD.
So the devastating news: I was an idiot. This is the failure part. The extremely good news: Monsieur Stillman is, beyond a master of the rare kind where each of his works is unmissable, also someone who excels in the art of conversation and thus succeeded to say genuinely interesting things albeit my shortcomings. Below the sound file of our conversation you’ll find some of these things in writing, in case you wish to seize his astuteness without my interruptions.
In case that you do choose to listen to the conversation, you’ll find: a memory of watching Flashdance in Helsinki, different ideas about how the Metropolitan story could have been told, the augmentation of noses and asses, a blueberry tart which was able to find its way to Isaac Bashevis Singer, a claim regarding the superiority of Dior’s new look, and how the first months of 2019 might see The Cosmopolitans get the official go for 7 more episodes.
Whit Stillman in Le Peloton, Paris, January 2019
Being guided by the material
I don’t like the standard process that some people push for, which is to have sort of an idea of everything that’s happening in a story before you write: the idea of having a treatment, or an outline which you start with, and then you fill in the blanks with a screenplay. I find that our initial ideas tend to be very cliché, and very familiar, and very much derived from what we’ve seen before and what we think we’re supposed to do. And so I think, sometimes, you get to the better material when you go off the rails with an original idea and have to fix it: you know, have to sort of go with what the material, or the characters, are doing somewhat autonomously. When you’re guided by the material, rather than trying to shape and form the material too much, or manipulate it, or jerk it around like a marionette.
Defending the inside
In the case of Metropolitan, I think I probably started it with the idea of Tom Townsend being the protagonist, being the outsider character who comes into the group and all that: but I had had that experience, and at the end of the experience, I ended up being an insider and not an outsider. So I was writing from an insider perspective, defending the inside, and I couldn’t honestly take the outsider’s perspective and do the conventional thing. One of the weaknesses of popular cinema is that it is always trying to flatter the preconceptions and the biases of the audience, and it’s never in any way really educating the audience or bringing the audience into a different world, beyond their prejudices. In Metropolitan the prejudice that everyone would have going in is to hate the insiders’ group – the debutante types – and to like the outsider Fourrier socialist. But in the course of doing the story, I saw that I was in a situation where the Audrey character was much more sympathetic than the Tom Townsend character. He’s kind of thick, preoccupied with the wrong girl and ignoring the right girl, not being very nice to her. And the seemingly obnoxious Chris Eigeman character was really getting all the funny lines and all the insights. And the heart character was the Charlie – Taylor Nichols – character, who’s also the sociologist. And so, at one point I said, well, it’s really Audrey’s story, I’ll make it about her – and I tried to make it about her, but I had already done so much with Tom. So I said, well, I just have to let this be the way it is. It’s four protagonist characters with their different points of view.
The people who are least enjoying debutante parties are the debutantes
The Gossip Girl version of the debutante would be these heartless rich girls, where in fact the people who are least enjoying debutante parties are the debutantes. So a lot of the girls are having the party under the misconception that it’s about them, and that they’re the centre of attention, and they’re embarrassed, and awkward, and unhappy. And it’s not that, you know, you could also just be, well, it’s a party, get over yourselves.
You have to have a lack in order to have something else
Sometimes when a film is not being well received by critics, in where I feel it should have been better received by critics, let’s say, I find that their approach isn’t really to actually get involved in what happens in the film, but it’s like they have a checklist. Like, maybe there’s some interesting dialogue, and some funny jokes, but there’s no forward momentum, or there’s no “plot”, or there’s no tension. And the thing is, everything that you have is also going to be a lack. And you have to have a lack, in order to have something else. So, generally, if you have jokes or something funny happening, then you’re not gonna have tension, and plot, and forward momentum. You sort of can’t. I mean, I think that there are a few cases when people have been able to do that, and it’s really wonderful – I admit it’s wonderful. But generally, if you have one thing you’re not gonna have the other. So I think that this idea, this sort of checklist approach to evaluating something, is a misfire.
Oh yes. Well, I try just to ignore it [it = identity politics] as much as I can.
The great thing is really just loving people completely different
You know, I find it very, very strange, people saying how important it is for them to have all their artists from the same background as themselves. Occasionally, you do hit upon a writer who’s sort of close to you in certain ways, but the great thing is really just loving people completely different.
She’s the only writer where I can’t think of a sentence she wrote that I don’t feel close to
Jane Austen is the writer who with I identify the most, and so, what is my connection to an 18th century British maiden woman? She’s the only writer where I can’t think of a sentence she wrote that I don’t feel close to. With almost every other writer it’s… I guess the first writer who affected me a lot was these very romantic, early novels and stories of S. Scott Fitzgerald. It really affected me because I was fifteen, I had known how the world was, so this fantasy was very appealing; and at the same time, I was meeting people from that world, and so it created my interest in it. But now I can’t really read those anymore. The early works I find really, really flawed. His first novel is nonsense. It’s really nonsense.
I don’t see realism, naturalism, as particular virtues. They’re without moral aesthetic content
One of the tensions I find in doing films is that I like formality, and I like uniforms, and traditional outfits of various kinds, and I’m living in a very, very informal, casual world. So casualness, informality, grunginess, are really dominant – but I don’t like to show it. So, how can I get away from that? How can I do the kind of world I like looking at – in the present day? And so everything is changed, stylized. I mean, I don’t see realism, naturalism, as particular virtues. They’re without moral aesthetic content. The worship of various ideas of vérité – I find that very misplaced.