Vulgarity Is Blasphemous: Why Whit Stillman Doesn’t Hate Episcopalians

When I heard The NY Times Magazine was about to run a lengthy profile of […]

David Zahl / 3.19.12

When I heard The NY Times Magazine was about to run a lengthy profile of filmmaker/author/all-around inspiration Whit Stillman, my first thought was, “About time!” Stillman’s return to directing after a 13-year silence, Damsels in Distress (out in NYC and LA on April 6), deserves the widest possible reception. Then I read the thing, which appeared in this past Sunday’s issue, and I’m afraid to report that they missed an opportunity. The author, Chip Brown, spends far too much of the article trying to shunt Whit into an ideological box, and far too little of it discussing the work itself, and specifically, the new movie. To be fair, Stillman’s background is pretty interesting–there simply aren’t many filmmakers out there with a similar pedigree. Yet the social class dimension and overt WASP trappings of Whit’s films are, by and large, a facade. A legitimately uncontrived way for the director to get at the more universal subject matter that interests him: fluctuating personal identity, men in relation to women, children in relation to (largely absent) parents, irony in relation to reality, and definitely at points, religion. If you asked any of the many independent filmmakers who have been so obviously influenced by Whit’s sensibility (Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Lena Dunham, etc), I believe they would say the same thing.

No serious artist should (or can ultimately be) reduced to their context, especially not one as subversive and multifaceted, not to mention as outspokenly uninterested in political categories, as Whit Stillman, and Brown does moviegoers a disservice in that respect (I suppose you could say I found his projections distracting!). Fortunately, the piece is not a complete wash. When allowed to speak for himself, everything Whit says is interesting and fresh–and delightfully at odds with the straightjacketing posture of the piece. The details about his father in particular were both illuminating and touching, especially as they relate to Metropolitan:

[The characters in Stillman’s films] 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 [ed note: that characterization is one of the reductionist half-truths I’m talking about]. Inveighing against “cool people” and the social cachet of “uniqueness, eccentricity, independence,” the transfer student Lily asks [in Damsels]: “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.”

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.

“What I like and find liberating in dialogue comedy is that the characters, and what they say, are not me,” he explained in a recent e-mail. “These are fleeting thoughts and observations and not presented as truths but as something that illuminates the character and the dynamic between the characters. This kind of dialogue is thesis and antithesis — and we never get to a synthesis.”

What’s striking when Stillman talks about his father is the tenacity of love and idealization in a gray-haired son still seemingly determined to put the best face on the moral frailty of an adored figure. It seems almost as if his refusal to condemn reflects the long reach of the wisdom embedded in a confession Stillman’s great-grandfather, the Scrooge McDuck of what is today Citibank, is said to have made late in his life: “I ought to have praised more; I ought to have been kinder.” Friends of Stillman’s have speculated in print that his conservative views were forged in a Freudian crucible that drove him to reject the liberalism of the father who rejected him. “I just wanted to form my own identity,” Stillman said, dismissing the interpretation. “I didn’t want to hate Republicans, Episcopalians or country-club types out of some rigid, schematic anger. I wanted to go with my own associations and not judge people based on their political or economic views.”

[On the final day of shooting Damsels] Stillman had drafted a scene that morning to clarify Rose’s back story, to pre-empt complaints from sticklers who might object to Echikunwoke’s accent when the film was released in Britain, and to provide the film with its “theology.”

“Action!” he said.

“I just miss my nice American friend,” said Gerwig.

“ ‘Nice,’ ” said Rose, caricaturing a nasal American as Stillman requested. “ ‘Nice.’ I want to be nice. ‘Fine.’ Those are not the adjectives I like to use. The Lord gave us abilities — he requires that we use them: ‘Good. Better. Best. Excelsior! Higher!’ Only excellence can glorify the Lord. Vulgarity is, in essence, blasphemous.”

Perhaps better than the article itself is the trip Whit takes through his family album, available on the NY Times website. The line about Harry Truman-related dating advice is an absolute gem.

P.S. Don’t forget about the group outing to see Damsels in NYC next month the night before the Mockingbird conference (Weds 4/18)! Email us at to reserve your ticket.