Conversation: Whit Stillman

BY Arts Desk  August 25, 2009 at 10:27 AM EDT

Credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection Before the re-release of Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco,” obscure copies of the cult auteur’s film were selling on the Internet for as much as $150.

Stillman, writer and director of a triptych of films chronicling the Fitzgerraldian adventures of the young haute bourgeoisie, broke onto the scene with “Metropolitan,” a verbose set piece about the debutante scene of 1980s Manhattan. While the film looks at the upper echelon of New York society, its main character is actually a young man who doesn’t quite fit the bill. “‘Metropolitan’ is one of the few films that shows someone worrying about money,” Stillman explained when asked about the privileged life of some of his characters. “I think it’s actually one area where cinema has fallen down, in the realities of daily life … there is a sort of suspense and tension and interest there that generally cinema evades entirely.”

That tension over class, status and money resurfaced in “The Last Days of Disco,” Stillman’s 1998 movie (and his latest to date), which is now being re-issued by Criterion Collection in a deluxe edition. Though Stillman frequented Studio 54 and credits the disco era as the time when he finally felt in tune with the trends of the day, the film is not entirely homage. It is, like his other films, a story of social groups. Two young “friends” (emphasis on the quotation marks) coy yet cruel brunette Charlotte (played by Kate Beckinsale), and her blonde foil, the quiet and curious Alice (played by an equally enchanting Chloe Sevigny) explore adulthood among the Harvard and Hampshire crowds in New York in the early 1980s. Competitive in the workplace and at the club, the girls work in publishing, live in a railroad apartment and pass the time debating social mores with their male counterparts. “This is a whole new era in music and social models. We’re in complete control,” Charlotte lectures Alice on the balcony of the dance floor. “There are a lot of choices out there.”

Disco

Stillman himself came from privilege — his great-grandfather was a president of First National City Bank (now Citibank), and his godfather E. Digby Balzell, sociologist and author of ‘‘The Protestant Establishment,” actually coined the term “WASP.” But his ability to render that world with fine anthropological precision — his ear for dialogue earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1990 for best original screenplay — proves his comedies are often less pretension than they are pop culture, like when one character indicts Disney’s “Lady and The Tramp” as an inappropriate primer on love (for the rakish tramp) in a long monologue.

Using lesser-known actors is a staple of the Stillman oeuvre, including Matt Keeslar, and Stillman regular (and the director’s onscreen stand-in or alter-ego), the pitch-perfect Chris Eigeman (whose commentary appears on the Criterion DVD with Stillman and actress Chloe Sevigny). “When ‘Disco’ was made and when it came out, it was sort of the last really rich period in independent filmmaking,” Stillman told Art Beat, “when we were given a lot of leeway and quite big budgets and not obliged to cast it up as much as people would have to do later.”

But as many studios have closed their specialty and independent divisions within the last couple of years, he believes his original brand of filmmaking has come full circle. The current return to scaled-down productions among emerging and independent filmmakers harkens to the longer history of independent and art-house cinema in America.

“When independent American cinema started being made, there were distributors to buy them and cinemas to show them in, and cinema subculture to support them. And we rode kind of on the back of French and European film.” The Criterion Collection, he says, is a continuation of that same commitment that allowed American independent cinema to grow in the first place. Stillman has already secured a place in the canon and in the consciousness of the cinema subculture; the director of only three films, two of them have been released by Criterion.

Stillman is currently working on getting a variety of projects off the ground, including a Jamaican love story set in gospel churches called “Dancing Mood,” which has almost secured financing. Now that Stillman is back permanently in the U.S. (after a 10-year hiatus in France and Spain following the premiere of “The Last Days of Disco”), he is optimistic about the prospects for future projects.

But he is less optimistic about certain other developments since the disco era: “The music has changed and it’s definitely not as good.”