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Whit Stillman and MetropolitanUnhappy is anyone whose favorite artist is a creator of plodding diligence.  These men produce such little output of such exquisite quality that to fall under their spell is to remain forever tantalized and intrigued:  there is never enough of their work to satisfy.  The frustration is amplified when their work falls outside the normal run of tastes so as to forego imitation or progression beyond the artist's own efforts.  It is like reading the first chapter or hearing the first movement* of some extraordinary work, only to have its completion denied to one.  The memory of its beauty both soothes and stings.

 

Thus the slavish preoccupation with what little makes its way to the devotee.  But then as is so common in life, one would rather cling to this sort of unhappiness, the chafing dissatisfaction with the ridiculous and imperfect inadequacy of the world, than return to one's former ignorance.

 

"That was really embarrassing.  Thank you for including me."

 

Disregarding the imprudence of making such a warm introduction to an appreciation of a largely unheralded and unnoticed film, I was quite happy when I recently received the Criterion DVD for Whit Stillman's MetropolitanMetropolitan's orgins are humble (ironically so as we shall see shortly).  Originally shot guerilla-style in 1990 for about $100,000, then cleaned up with an additional $300,000 from New Line, the movie follows the experiences of a small group of upper class youths through debutante season in Manhattan.  Their small, insular world is at once a microcosm of a society undergoing transformative change and also an enclave from which such change is temporarily and tenuously resisted.  It is a world at once comfortable and clearly in decline, hence a source of great anxiety -- particularly as the characters emerge into a forboding adult world for which they are even more unprepared than others of their age.

 

Metropolitan's preppy class

The adult world which they are about to join fails them in lesser and greater ways.  It provides them little guidance -- there are only three adult characters in the movie, one of them threatening and the other two ineffectual.  Their social manners depend upon traditions that the adult world has grown disinterested in (if not antipathic toward), therefore they find themselves worse than unprepared to deal with what is to come.  Their conception of virtue and intellectualism is seriously misled by the frivolous concerns of modernity, which would rather amuse itself than set an example.  Their inherited station is itself an obstacle -- it has provided them opportunity, education, and manners which are now useless or worse than useless.  In a final mockery, the adult world imprints upon them values which it then discards or subverts or otherwise makes impossible to uphold -- laughing under its hand, one supposes, at the absurdity it has thus rendered.

 

Strangely it is the lightness and ease of the movie which makes the plight of these characters -- and the indifference of the world to them -- all the more affecting.  While it is easy to tell such a story with a caustic or bitter tone (as for example a far more extreme rendition of it is told in Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero), such a tone puts the audience safely on the other side of the glass from the events being depicted.  In Metropolitan most of the audience is already removed somewhat by social and economic distance from the characters, so it is more important that its milieu be a probable, convincing one, not melodramatic.

 

 "You don't have to have read a book to have an opinion on it.
I haven't read the Bible either."

 

Metropolitan's lightness is much in the style of Jane Austen, so it will come as no surprise to the attentive viewer when Austen's novels become a source of argument and conflict between the characters.  Nor will it be surprising that the movie is capable of equally sharp observations of its own.  What novel more apropos for seeding the dissension than Mansfield Park, with which there are several important parallels in the film.**

 

Jane Austen's guiding influence

Metropolitan concerns itself with four main characters.  Tom Townsend, a quiet young man whose parents' divorce has reduced his circumstances and estranged him from his wealthy father, is pulled into the social circle of a group of preppies who spend their evenings attending debutante balls and after-parties.  One of them, Nick Smith, takes it upon himself to mentor Tom in the ways of the preppy (to Tom's mild resistance), and Tom discovers a gradual appreciation for the gatherings and his new friends in spite of his objection on principle to the idea behind it all.  Meanwhile Audrey Rouget has unbeknownst to Tom developed a very big crush on him through the course of reading the discarded letters he wrote to his former girlfriend.  Unfortunately for Audrey, Tom remains clueless as to her affection (which takes some doing, it is so painfully apparent) and is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend, a fickle and unserious boyfriend-magnet.  In his ignorance Tom slights Audrey multiple times, raising the protective ire of Charlie Black, another of the group who is enamored of Audrey but who prefers theorizing about the generational doom facing the entire preppy class to expressing his feelings.

 

"When you're an egoist, none of the harm you do is intentional."

 

Audrey sees in Tom's epistolary effusions to his ex-girlfriend an earnestness and sensitivity that are not readily apparent in his person; although a nice enough fellow, he can be unbearably callow.  When Audrey mentions her love of Jane Austen and in particular the novel Mansfield Park, Tom counters with disbelief that she could like such a preposterous book, then astounds even the adoring Audrey with the admission that he hasn't actually read it but believes it to be preposterous anyway because Lionel Trilling said so once.  (As Stillman points out in the commentary, he used the occasion of making Metropolitan to win some old arguments.)

 

A rather more severe test of Audrey's affection comes when Tom thoughtlessly abandons her at a ball after his ex-girlfriend comes back to him.  This humiliation does not go unnoticed by Audrey's friends.  Still she perseveres even through this, proof that her love is beyond reason -- a most un-Austen-like condition.  When her friends warn her about him -- "Be careful, Audrey, there's something dubious about Tom" -- she proves impervious to good counsel and waits for the next opportunity to be in his company; her unanswerable reply is that he's the only boy she's ever liked.

 

However Audrey is not completely without dignity; she is not so servile that she will murmer assent to Tom's inanities, and on more than one occasion warmly protests his blithe, pseudo-intellectual assertions -- although they do not hurt his standing with her much.  Tom allows her attentive doting and Nick's mock-fatherly mentorship to fix his place within the small group of friends, soon feeling complacently at ease in company he has only enjoyed for a few days.

 

"The surrealists were just a lot of social climbers."

 

Chris Eigeman as Nick Smith

Nick, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the evils of the titled aristocracy, which he deplores at length, and one evil in particular:  Baron Rick Von Sloneker, a member of the larger social set that attends the debutante balls.  He is, as Nick has it, a caddish womanizer guilty of all sorts of unstated crimes against decency.  In his campaign to poison Von Sloneker's reputation among his fellow preppies, Nick recounts a story of a psychologically fragile young woman corrupted by Von Sloneker and then cast aside, her life so destroyed by Von Sloneker's depredations that she kills herself in a horse's stable.  The main problem with Nick's campaign is that his story is largely fabricated, or as Nick explains later, "a composite, like New York magazine does".  Nick's attempt to justify himself using the adult world's perverse values (prizing embellished facts over ordinary ones) does not impress his friends, who upbraid him with more of a sense of principle than New York magazine exhibits.

 

Led to compromise the standards of the preppy class of which he considers himself representative, Nick goes into symbolic exile, boarding a train from Grand Central Station to visit his father, where he imagines an uncertain fate at the hands of his step-mother, a figure nearly as sinister in his mind as Von Sloneker.  Only Tom, Nick's protege and convert, accompanies his departure from their group and the film.

 

To Tom's dismay, the group thereupon collapses, each retreating to his or her own personal affairs.  Into this void a rumor concerning Audrey swirls -- that she has joined a friend at Von Sloneker's Southampton estate -- and Tom snaps to a realization of her importance to him, still believing there is a least some truth in Nick's dire portryal.  He confides in Charlie and the two of them fumble to come up with a plan to rescue their friend from the melodramatic fate they have imagined for her.  In a comical demonstration of their ineptness in the adult world, the two, unable to obtain other transportation, wind up taking a checkered cab to Southampton, where they find that Von Sloneker does not quite rise to his reputation.  He is loutish and vulgar but eager to let them abscond with the annoyingly virtuous Audrey.  The movie ends with the three of them reunited, attempting to hitchhike home, in yet another demonstration of their awkward and unguided navigation into adulthood.

 

"You're one of those public transportation snobs." 

 

The movie's exceptional and understated coming-of-age story is supported by three pillars:  the interesting and penetrating dialogue, its documentary verisimilitude, and a profoundly talented young cast.  Foremost among the last are Chris Eigeman as Nick and Carolyn Farina as Audrey.  Eigeman's smooth performance as a slightly snobby yet complex and revealing character who both evokes and betrays the values he defends is key, and his gravity is felt in numerous scenes, which gives his departure added significance.  Like Austen, Stillman is adept at creating a strong character and showing the effects that character has both in his presence and his absence from the story.

 

Carolyn Farina as Audrey Rouget

Farina is simply a treasure.  Her gifted and real performance as Audrey lends the story nearly all its consequence.  She shapes not only Audrey's identity but that of the characters who respond to her.  On repeated viewings her sweetness and un-self-consciousness grow even more appealing as one discovers in her performance further glimpses into the character -- her face has that malleable quality which expresses the exact mixture of emotion that her character feels.  That she was discovered for the part at a perfume counter and had no prior acting experience makes this brilliant portrayal all the more impressive -- one is hard pressed to recall another actress of her generation or subsequent generations who belongs in the same class.  As Stillman mentions in the film's commentary, there is a depressing footnote to this performance:  Farina was typecast by the film, assumed to have been playing herself, and was subsequently unable to find work beyond a few minor film parts immediately thereafter.  "I expected to see her everywhere," Stillman recalls, but it was not to be; casting directors saw her only as an upper class Connecticut girl (Farina is actually from Queens).  If there is a silver lining to this, it can only be that her work in this movie survives unspoiled by efforts in lesser films.  Farina can be seen playing Daniel Day-Lewis' sister in the inept and monumentally tedious Scorcese movie The Age of Innocence although believe me it's not worth it.***

 

"Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms of
French phrases to make ourselves understood?"  "Yes."

 

In City Journal, Julia Magnet gets to the heart of Metropolitan's enduring appeal, its defense of conventions which, as so often in Austen's novels, are not merely conventions but the boundaries of acceptable society as discovered over multiple generations:

 

"There are good reasons people don't go around telling people their most intimate thoughts," Audrey sensibly objects. "Games like this can be really dangerous." Their hostess, Sally, scoffs: "I don't see what's so dangerous about it." And, in a truly conservative reply, Audrey articulates the moral role of convention: "You don't have to. Other people did; that's how it became a convention: people saw the harm that excessive candor could do." Cynthia leaps on this: "You admit that it's basically just a social convention then. . . . Basically what this game requires is complete candor, openness—I don't see how that can be bad."

 

As with the play in Mansfield Park, it can be assumed that most people today (the confessional and narcissistic culture has grown still worse) would fail to be moved by Audrey's defense of conventions that guard intimacy.  Their concept of privacy is reduced to personal license; as Von Sloneker says, "I can do whatever I want here."  In the modern age, we are to respect the privacy of others not by refusing to gaze into their lives (now practically impossible) but by refusing to care about what we see.

 

It is a testament to Stillman's deftness as a writer and director that he draws out his theme without relying on melodrama.  Despite fears among some of the characters, no one's life is to be ruined by candor, only steadily degraded without their awareness.

 

"She'd remain silent for hours and then talk obsessively about Paul McCartney."

 

It having been seven years since Stillman's last film, this new release of Metropolitan is evidence why we wait patiently for another.  It is that rare work of art with something extra in it, and while not proof (as Holmes would have it) of a benevolent Providence, it is surely our good luck that it exists. Sunday, February 19, 2006 - 4:24 PM  

 

* In this case I have in mind Mahler's 10th symphony, which was never finished but (more or less) for its opening movement.  It may well be a perfect piece of music.

 

** Mansfield Park's heroine, Fanny Price, is sent away while young to live with wealthy relatives.  These relatives however are insufferable creatures who are vain, idle, and stupid with the one exception:  Fanny's cousin Edmund, whose serious and thoughtful character wins him Fanny's undying affection.  Fanny's character is tested not only by the numerous slights and insults she receives from her relatives but by having to watch her beloved Edmund succumb to the charms of Mary Crawford, an attractive but weak-charactered young woman.  Mary trifles with Edmund even though she realizes that his situation (he is destined for the clergy) will never be enough to satisfy her vanity; Edmund is too lovestruck to see through her.  Much of the story unfolds as Sir Thomas, head of the household, is away on business, and during this absence the novel's pivotal scene unfolds:  Fanny's cousins propose to put on a play during Christmas break, and furthermore a play with a romantic plot.  Fanny disapproves of the scheme because she believes it will promote a dangerous familiarity among them; they are not mature enough to be cast opposite themselves in romantic intrigues.  It is a belief made reasonable by the involvement of Mary's brother Henry, who has been egregiously flirting with Edmund's sisters, one of whom is engaged to be married.  Ultimately Fanny's misgivings are proven correct and Edmund comes to realize that it is she and not Mary who is truly deserving of his love.

 

*** Only Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, and Will Kempe found much success after Metropolitan, Eigeman and Nichols chiefly in Stillman's own follow-ups.  For most of the rest of the cast, this is the only feature on their resumes.

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