HomeVideodrome: Stillman's Early Gems Flash Auteur's Conservative Streak

HomeVideodrome: Stillman's Early Gems Flash Auteur's Conservative Streak

Criterion is re-releasing two of director Whit Stillman’s gems thats decorate their prestigious collection on Blu-ray this week, “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco.”

“Metropolitan” is a film that feels as though it could’ve been written by J.D. Salinger, with its preppy debutante setting (or “urban haute bourgeoisie,” as they like to be called in the movie) and misfit lead character. Yet Stillman’s voice is decidedly his own, with dialogue as dry as a martini and wit as delicious as Woody Allen’s best work. It’s no wonder Stillman’s little indie debut snagged him an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay.

“Metropolitan” comes off as fresh today as it did over 20 years ago upon its release. Normally a movie focusing on young upper-class characters would serve as a cynical class critique, not unlike the work of Luis Buñuel, who is invoked in the film as Taylor Nichols’ character, Charlie, discusses “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”

Charlie says that before watching it, he was hoping for a film that would “finally tell the truth about the bourgeoise,” based on his impression of the title. Anyone who has seen that film, or any Buñuel film for that matter, can attest that this is not the case. When Buñuel wasn’t attacking the Catholic church, he was busy skewering the upper-class (Members of the surrealist movement, like Buñuel, are subsequently dismissed as “social climbers” by another character, which is probably true). Charlie laments that their class has been unfairly maligned in cinema, a sentiment that was imparted by Stillman himself in essays prior to his career as a filmmaker.

Stillman’s characters are hyper-aware of class status, and while the film’s protagonist, Tom (Edward Clements), doesn’t fit in or approve of debutante activities, he participates anyway and holds socialist leanings out of guilt. His character lives in a world of academic theory, stating that he never reads novels, but enjoys reading literary criticism. This explains his appreciation for a political philosophy as incompatible with human nature as socialism.

Tom’s cerebral theorizing also makes him nostalgic for bygone days, whether it be with his unattainable ex-girlfriend Serena (Ellia Thompson), or the sorrow the sight of toys from his generation being thrown own inspires. His nostalgia blinds him to the joy of the present, the fleeting moments with friends in the debutante season that pens a chapter he’ll also look back on with regret, instead of cherishing in the moment. He sadly remarks that he wishes someone would’ve told him that the debutante season was finite, not something they’d be doing as a group indefinitely. We know his character has achieved an arc and learned his lesson when he describes his favorite socialist theorist’s ideas as “unworkable” during the film’s final act.

Like “Metropolitan,” “The Last Days of Disco” deals in fleeting, finite moments. As the title suggests, the film hits right before Disco’s death knell in the early eighties, with Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale starring as a pair of friends frequenting a popular New York disco club reminiscent of Studio 54. The disco club here feels like the debutante season in “Metropolitan,” in that it’s a group of people that come together because of a social setting that will soon part ways because that social setting will soon cease to exist, whether or not the characters know it.

Disco culture seems even more decadent than the debutante balls of “Metropolitan,” not only is the exclusivity of the club they dance at a factor, but so is the music itself. Rock n’ roll, the victorious nemesis of disco, is pleasure-seeking music, but it’s also hard-edged stuff. Disco is like a sweet alcoholic beverage, concerned only with loading your taste buds with sugar while eliciting a buzz, eventually leading to sex with someone you’ve been dancing the night away with. 

Speaking of casual sexual encounters, movies often feature young co-eds pairing off and subsequently getting it on, but the reality of venereal disease is rarely a factor in reel life. This separates “Last Days of Disco” from the pack, the characters here actually deal with STDs as a result of their dancing and screwing, wringing their hands over it the way the characters in “Metropolitan” do over class.  Stillman’s characters are just as dry and humorous here as they are in “Metropolitan,” and their humor is merely a lace to go with their utter sincerity.

Both Blu-rays are worthy of your shelf, though if you own the DVD to “Metropolitan” already, upgrading isn’t necessary. The indie-look of “Metropolitan” doesn’t lend itself to the format as well as the sheen of “Last Days of Disco” does. Both films feature commentaries with Stillman and various members of the cast and crew, but “Last Days of Disco” has the edge in regard to features, containing an audio clip of Stillman reading the epilogue from his novelization of the film, adding a coda to the story.

Stillman has made two other films, “Barcelona” and “Damsels in Distress.” “Damsels” is his latest, and comes to video next week. “Barcelona,” his sophomore feature, is currently out of print.

Hear that, Criterion?  Get on it!

Both Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco are available on Blu-ray.

Other Noteworthy Releases

“Star Trek: The Next Generation – Season One”:  Trekkies rejoice (or Trekkers, to be politically correct), for Captain Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise have arrived on Blu-ray with restored special effects.  I prefer the scrappy James T. Kirk to the deathly serious dome of Picard, but that’s just me. It’s a seminal sci-fi show nonetheless, and gave another life to Gene Roddenberry’s idealistic cult property.

Available on Blu-ray

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”:  This is one of those titles that catches your attention. This documentary covers a small sushi joint run by the eighty-something man in the title, who has devoted his life to the craft of making delicious sushi. His tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant’s appearance is deceiving, as it sports an astounding three-star Michelin rating, and foodies travel from far and wide to pay top-dollar for his top-shelf sushi.  A good pick if the Food Network is your pornography.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

“Footnote”: A film from Israel about an elderly, grumpy Jewish scholar of the Talmud, whose only claim to fame is a footnote in an influential work by a more prominent scholar of bygone days.  While his work is otherwise dismissed, his son, also a Talmudic scholar, is up for a prestigious award, however a mix-up causes his father to get the nomination. Familial strain bubbles to the surface as a result once the controversy comes to a head. Recommending a movie about the world of Jewish academia may be a tough sell, but the film is a dry, intriguing pleasure.

Available on Blu-rayDVD, and Amazon Instant

“Silent House”: Elizabeth Olsen knocked me on my ass with her performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” so her presence alone is enough to make “Silent House” one to consider seeing. The one-shot gimmick advertised for this horror film, though, raises a skeptical eyebrow. Then again, Hitchcock faked it nicely with “Rope,” but also few directors come close to Hitch’s pedigree.

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

“The Deep Blue Sea”: Terrence Davies is a director I’ve been meaning to explore, mainly because BBC Radio 5 film critic Mark Kermode trumpets his praises whenever the opportunity presents itself. “Deep Blue Sea” features a strong cast with the likes of Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston, as well as what appears to be lush photography and period set design. Looks like a good place for me to start.

Available on Blu-rayDVD, and Amazon Instant

“The Island of Dr. Moreau – Director’s Cut”: John Frankenheimer famously stepped in at the last minute to replace Richard Stanley as director, the result is a hot mess featuring wacky performances from Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando. It still has cult appeal all these years later as it comes to Blu-ray, featuring a director’s cut, as well as a commentary from the late Frankenheimer.

Available on Blu-ray