Monday, May 16, 2016

Whit Stillman

Whit Stillman, New York City, August 1990

WHIT STILLMAN IS PROBABLY MY FAVORITE LIVING DIRECTOR, a status doubtless enhanced by how few movies he's actually made. His latest film, a Jane Austen adaptation called Love & Friendship, opened this weekend, which seems as good a time as any to revisit my two portrait shoots with him, the first done at the very beginning of his career.

I'm sure I must have seen Metropolitan at the film festival, because I was already a fan when I arranged to shoot him in Manhattan for a possible NOW cover story, in the summer of 1990. I have a memory - which might be false - that I shot these in a stairwell of the Puck Building, or somewhere very near there.

Stillman is not, at least from my experience, a relaxed subject in front of the camera, so I had to choose my locations carefully and shoot several frames in succession in the hope of catching an interesting expression. I was terribly nervous going into the shoot, and agonized about my choice of frames when it came time to send prints along to the paper. The colour shot below is an outtake from the colour slides I took for the cover, while the frame just below it is a good idea of what I chose for the inside shot.

The frame at the top of the post, however, is one that I agonized over and rejected. One of my biggest problems as an editorial photographer was a lack of confidence in my intuition and taste. It wasn't something my friend Chris Buck suffered from, and I envied him for it. Today, of course, this frame seems obvious, but back then I dithered and left it unprinted until today.

Whit Stillman, New York City, August 1990

I was even more unsure about the photo below. I loved the background and the dim light in the corridor by freight elevator, and carefully posed Stillman to look away from the light source. I knew there was something there when I looked at the contacts but was overcome with doubt once again, unsure if I had the skill as a printer to pull it off, so this frame has also been unseen for over twenty-five years.

I've often wondered why I responded so strongly to Stillman's movies, especially considering the milieu in which they're set - what was called "preppy" when Metropolitan came out, became "yuppie" by Last Days of Disco and has become the even more politically-charged "one percent" today. I went to a private school, to be sure, but an all-boys Catholic one, hardly an elite institution at the time, and nothing like the prep schools that make up the background of Stillman and his characters.

I love how unapologetic he's been about the peculiar virtues of America, a country I'd always admired for its energy and creativity (especially in comparison to my own,) and how there was always some festering violence beneath that comedy of manners; in his first "trilogy" of films there are fistfights and even the (non-fatal) shooting of a main character in Barcelona, where Stillman's sympathies never wavered from his feckless but well-intentioned American protagonists, who have their final triumph at the end of the film by introducing their Spanish girlfriends to the simple pleasure of a hamburger fresh off the barbecue.

What I cherish about Stillman is how mannered his characters are, even the loutish ones, as they banter upstream, trying to articulate their life crises and social dilemmas. Coming from a country that has never been rhetorically equipped to talk about class, Stillman's films are unprecedented in that they're all about the subject; the poster for Metropolitan actually used the phrase "downwardly mobile" to describe itself, one of the first times I'd ever encountered this very prophetic concept.

I've always hoped that someone would come along who'd do for the working class what Stillman had done for the upper-middle. It only occurred to me lately that perhaps that was supposed to be my job, but I never got that memo, and nobody ever tells people like myself what we need to know.

Whit Stillman, New York City, August 1990

True story: Several years ago I was flipping through the channels when I came across The Last Days of Disco playing on Bravo. I put down the remote and started watching. It took me at least fifteen minutes before I noticed that there was a sonorous female voiceover describing the character's actions and facial expressions between lines of dialogue, and a few more to realize that this wasn't in the film when I'd seen it a couple times previous.

It turns out I was watching a "described video" version of the film, made for blind viewers. It made Stillman's movie feel even more novelistic than it was, with narration like "Alice said to Tom, with a nervous look." It would have been ridiculous in any other movie but with Stillman it was plausible. It's no surprise that he wrote a novelization of Disco, and has done another for his latest film - expanding on the obscure and posthumously published Jane Austen story after adapting it into a screenplay.

"I really felt there was another story there, so I tricked Little, Brown into committing to the novel," Stillman told the New York Times. "It gave me the opportunity to dramatize what was in this archaic form that didn’t suit her genius."

(Incidentally, the two books are things I'm dying to read, and my birthday is coming up. Amazon links below.)

Whit Stillman, Toronto, June 1998

I'd shoot Stillman again for NOW, eight years later and just before the release of Last Days of Disco. This was shot at the usual downtown hotel - probably the Four Seasons in Yorkville - and just before I was about to fly off to Barcelona to meet up with my new girlfriend (and future wife), to a city I mostly knew about from one of his movies.

He looks a lot more tired than he did on that day in Lower Manhattan when I'd met him last, but it had taken him eight years to make three films, and just before his "terrible period" began, it would take him another eighteen to make just two more. I was feeling a bit frustrated and worn-out myself by this point in my career, so I guess our moods bounced off of each other in this portrait. The good news is that Stillman has discovered his stride again after years in the wilderness; I can't help but look at it as a hopeful sign.


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