HE reader Sean Whiteman wrote this morning with a piece about Whit Stillman‘s Damels in Distress, which he says “has lingered in a very beautiful way for me, and I thought I’d see if I could articulate how it was able to do that.
“Stillman’s return to film has been kicking around for a while now without making more than a dainty impression on audiences, but the film has shown remarkable staying power in my head. I felt smitten by a strange vitality that I hadn’t expected to find. And I’m still mulling over a number of surprisingly resonant approaches the film brings to the fight against the type of life-fatigue that my generation often wallows in.
“I wouldn’t call myself an ardent fan of Stillman’s first three films — Metropolitan, Barcelona and Last Days of Disco. To me they felt like carefully composed pieces of conversational pomp and mannered circumstance. I’d have to find myself in a very rare mood to re-watch any one of them again. That’s not a dismissal — each felt genuinely peculiar to me and, even though I haven’t had the urge to revisit them since, the element of peculiarity was enough to earn my respect. One must respect the presence of the peculiar, especially when so many contemporary films fail to even strive for the distinction.
“It was with this respect for Stillman’s work, if not true admiration, that I caught Damsels In Distress with. The surprise, for me, is that Stillman shows a wild imagination I didn’t think he possessed. He still writes characters who speak with an oddly subtle and stylized rigidity, but he seems to have finally allowed this stilted volley of quips to indulge in an absurdity that lends a poignant goofiness to the subject matter. In a story that centers much of the narrative thrust on the subject of depression, it is a thrilling decision to instill a levity to the proceedings.
“He seems to be suggesting that yes, sure, depression is a busted bag of fucks to carry around with you, but it really, truly, doesn’t have to be the end of the world.
“‘There’s something very funny about people who think they’re in extremities with their lives,’ Stillman told the AV Club. ‘And part of the problem, I think, of this sort of teetering danger toward suicidal thoughts in that age group, is an overdramatization of their situation, a sort of hopelessness, very present — focused, so the salutary affects of the passage of time aren’t being taken into consideration. And also in this overdramatization, the total lack of humorous perspective. So the tiny bit of therapeutic stuff we can do to change that dynamic.
“I mean, I’ve heard some of these stories of people who were put into some horribly humiliating situation and then did or might have attempted to do themselves harm, because of thinking how horrible this was, and that everybody was laughing at them or criticizing them. And actually, you know, not. And you have to think if they’d just waited two months, nothing would have happened.’
“I currently reside in one of those coveted youth demographics, which is composed of a people who were raised to believe in the internet’s ability to offer us a vast array of experience. While generations above my own had to travel on wheels in order to find and gather experience, my generation doesn’t feel the obligation to leave our rooms. Like, ever.
“I’m not ragging on the internet and bemoaning those who were able to live without its support, I’m just pointing out an unfortunate side effect of being the internet’s guinea pigs. There is a general malaise that comes with having access to everything and sharing a button-click connectivity with everyone around you. When we write our histories daily on Facebook, and agonize over mis-wrote comments, mis-liked pictures and mis-spent twitter handles I can see, and have seen, peers fall into the same type of ego-trap that Stillman warned of in the AV Club interview. He warns of not considering the context for their minor sufferings.
“The narrative thrust of Damsels in Distress, through its bizarre lens of casual character complexity, re-affirms our general ability to adapt and move past the unfortunate. If we so choose, that is. This is a valuable takeaway.
“As frivolous as it appears when Greta Gerwig‘s character suggests the healing powers of smelling a certain bar of soap, it doesn’t feel frivolous when I catch myself sniffing my Irish Spring as part of my morning routine. Stillman goes through extraordinary lengths to paint in absurdly broad strokes with the picture. For instance, he stages a group of suicidal youths to take part in a dance rehearsal together. The scene warrants a minor chuckle, but the shit behind the chuckle is where the value truly lies. After all, almost anyone can attest that a little dance, a little movement of body in a time of stagnation, can help fend off demons.
“The airy tone of the film seduced me into lowering my guard and, as soon as I had, I realized that gesture was necessary for me to allow Stillman’s softball thesis to land with unsuspecting force. Damsels In Distress doesn’t stick all of its jokes, but boredom never struck and it was far more peculiar than I expected. A starving cinephile gets a meal. I will likely have seconds this time out.”