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The Sensibilities of ‘The WASP Woody Allen’

The Sensibilities of 'The WASP Woody Allen'Whit Stillman, his movies, and his sensibilities are the subjects of Chip Brown’s “Whit Stillman and the Song of the Preppy,” in the March 19 New York Times Magazine.

Brown interviews Stillman (a Milbrook School alumnus) as he’s concluding filming his first movie in twelve years, “Damsels in Distress.”

But the bulk of the profile is biographical- much about how Stillman came to be Stillman- and how his movies are an extension of his sensibilities.

“… wry self-deprecation is one of the hallmarks of the well-bred WASP, and Stillman is a museum-quality specimen. Which you might expect of a man whose godfather, the sociology professor E. Digby Baltzell, always gets credit (inaccurately) for coining the term “WASP,” Even in unbuttoned Los Angeles, Stillman adheres to the preppy uniform of loafers, jacket and tie.”(NYT)

This the world Stillman knows and through which he finds and makes meaning. Brown again:

“Damsels in Distress” follows four college girls, Heather, Lily, Rose and Violet, as they grapple with problems ranging from love troubles to toxic frat-house odors and suicide attempts by education majors who insist on throwing themselves off two-story buildings. (‘If they can’t even destroy themselves, how are they going to teach America’s youth?’ Rose asks.) The students at Seven Oaks, the fictional college, have a lot in common with the preppies and patricians of ‘Metropolitan’ (1990), ‘Barcelona’ (1994) and ‘The Last Days of Disco’ (1998), the autobiographical trilogy that prompted reviewers to call Stillman ‘the WASP Woody Allen’ and ‘the Dickens of people with too much inner life.’ They grope for direction but are seldom lost for words, and beneath their barmy crotchets and pretentious dissertations there’s heartache and yearning. Stillman is the knight-errant of sneered-at bourgeois values. He extols the overlooked merits of convention and the hidden virtues of the status quo. Inveighing against ‘cool people’ and the social cachet of ‘uniqueness, eccentricity, independence,’ the transfer student Lily asks: ‘Does the world really want or need more of such traits? Aren’t such people usually terrible pains in the neck? What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people — I’d like to be one those.’

Even the frat-house dolts who provide a counterweight of broad comedy — the character Thor can’t identify colors because he skipped kindergarten — aren’t belittled for their simple-minded aspirations. What Stillman captures best are people who aren’t quite adults but are no longer children: bewildered fledglings of beleaguered traditions who have a mostly abstract grasp of suffering, an often-preposterous belief in their own moral integrity and an optimistic faith that their destiny is part of a divine plan — ideally one of God’s.”(NYT)

It’s interesting to see how much a public figure is/and can be an ongoing extension of his background.

Stillman’s background certainly has been privileged and well off. But, I think Stillman’s reconciliation and care for his father is one of the most important pieces of the story. A vignette about Stillman’s dedication to his aging and dying father makes me wonder, just how much transcendence is one capable of? I think Stillman believes a good deal.

Ron Reed elucidates Stillman’s tendency toward transcenence in “Whit Stillman, Poet of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (Part I): Metropolitan (1990)“:

“It is a truism universally acknowledged, that Whit Stillman is the Jane Austen of indie film. But truisms only become truisms because they’re at least partly true, and this one most certainly is. Both Austen and Stillman bring an affectionate irony to their carefully observed studies of romance and social ritual among the young and privileged, whether in rural Britain around the turn of the eighteenth century or in uptown Manhattan at the end of the twentieth.

We don’t want to like these people: they have too much, they are too full of themselves. We delight in the author’s gentle skewering of their pretensions, the understated portrayal of their follies and the quietly relentless exposure of their casual cruelties. All too eager to see the high and mighty fall, we intuitively trust Stillman and Austen to be our guides in these exotic locales: their knowing attention to detail proves them to be insiders, their ironic distance shows them to be like us.

Little do we know, it’s all authorial strategy. These writers love the worlds they describe, love the characters they create, and in spite of ourselves we find before long that we’ve been won over. That sort of affection is contagious, and we end up bigger-hearted people for the experience.”(TOJ)

Can Stillman make us bigger hearted and move us toward transcendence by telling stories through the WASPy world he knows? I know that I’m sometimes not too happy that I like certain characters.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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