George Justice, Editor

Austen’s Cinematic Admirer      

Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman

Edited by Mark C. Henrie.

ISI Books, 2001. 176 pages.
Paper. $14.95.

Reviewed by Elsa A. Solender.

Comic genius Whit Stillman has written and directed a scant three films, but what films they are! Distinctive enough to qualify him for cult status and for this adulatory volume, which has been produced by nine academicians and editors who write clear, entertaining, informative prose entirely free of academic jargon and critical cant.

Stillman’s debut film, Metropolitan, an homage to Jane Austen, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1990. In Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) he continued his examination of the young people characterized (ironically) in Metropolitan as the “Urban Haute Bourgeois” or UHBs. These same types have been more commonly labeled “Preppies” and “Yuppies” in America. They have also been scorned as “WASPS” and the people who write about them have been derided by some as Dead White European Males. Mark Henrie, editor of the volume, observes in his fine introduction that people of this class “were known in ‘better’ days simply as the gentlefolk.”

He might have called them Jane Austen’s sorts of people.

James Bowman, in “Whit Stillman: Poet of Broken Branches,” wonders whether such a class actually ever existed in America, except perhaps as “orphans of the sexual and, at least partly, political revolutions of the 1960s.”

While no other American filmmaker is quite like Whit Stillman, the playwright A. R. Gurney (Love Letters) similarly focuses his satiric, yet sympathetic eye on the American gentry, and the late cartoonist Charles Schulz had a similar capacity to invest seemingly ordinary figures with archetypal possibilities.

The book, like Stillman, has an “ambiguously conservative” tilt, as Peter Augustine Lawler, a professor of government, observes in “Nature, Grace and The Last Days of Disco.” Stillman is also, Lawler tells us wistfully, Socratic and Christian.

All nine essays, as well as four previously published reviews, should interest Janeites given the filmmaker’s affinities to Austen as far as “subject,” tone, and style are concerned. R. V. Young, a professor of English, makes a persuasive case in “From Mansfield to Manhattan: The Abandoned Generation of Metropolitan” for the analogous relationships among characters in Mansfield Park and Metropolitan as they confront the perils faced by “young adults abandoned to their own injudicious devices” by absent parents. 
Joseph Alulis, a political scientist, recognizes in his essay, “In Defense of Virtue,” that Metropolitan  may be distinguished from all other films in the popular “coming of age” genre by the “earnest class-consciousness of its characters.” Within that consciousness are included a tragi-comic exploration of the meaning of success, a “very witty” defense of chastity, and some bittersweet ruminations on “two particular aspects of practical wisdom: respect for convention and initiative.”

While Mary P. Nichols, a professor of history, makes some good points about “Whit Stillman’s Comic Art,” her essay is marred by an overly restrictive definition of satire:

“Satire arises when an author places an outsider among those who take the fashions, customs, and attitudes of their class for granted, allowing the audience to see conventional society from the outsider’s perspective.”

Well, yes, satire may arise in this way. It does, for instance, in all the novels of Alice Hoffman. But if we accept this as the sole formula by which satire is achieved, we may be obliged (as Nichols is) to classify as “outsiders” such characters as Elizabeth Bennet and her father. We may argue forever about the definition of an outsider (everyone is outside some circle). Mr. Bennet, the sole male in his family, might be labeled an outsider in it, but, given his authority over all the others, this seems farfetched. Elizabeth may temporarily be an outsider in the Netherfield circle, but she is never less than “a gentleman’s daughter,” as she forcefully asserts to Lady Catherine.

Much better to broaden the definition of the satire by introducing the concept of the narrator as satirist, thus enabling both Elizabeth and her father to fit in comfortably as “insiders” in the circles to which they clearly belong.

An interesting revelation by Lawler is that Stillman, the most literary of filmmakers, passed up an offer to direct a film version of Sense and Sensibility as “unchallenging.” He is, it should be observed, uncompromisingly original and a rather courageous figure in this era of political correctness (towards some, but not all) and the elevation of multi-ethnicity (except for some specifically proscribed groups).

I wish the editor had included a complete list of credits for the three movies because it is annoying to have to flip back to the first mention of each character to see which actor played him or her. I wish I could read an essay in this book by an analyst of the cinematic qualities of Stillman’s work as well as its social, literary, political, and moral qualities. I would like to know more about the casting, particularly because Chris Eigeman, a fine actor, appears in all three films and Taylor Nichols, another distinctive presence, has prominent roles in two. I wish a proofreader had caught the dangling “3” on page 74 that (frustratingly) suggests an absent footnote.

Otherwise, however, the book made for happy reading and I highly recommend it.

Elsa A. Solender, an independent scholar and Past President of JASNA, spoke as the 2003 JASNA North American Scholar on “Recreating Jane Austen’s World on Film” at the Toronto AGM.

JASNA News v.19, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 17

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