Tuesday, October 9, 2012

"This scent and this soap is what gives me hope": a discussion about Damsels in Distress

After enjoying a crab cake dinner at home, B. smeared Nutella on some Moravian sugar cookies and I sipped some tea as we attempted to come to terms with Whit Stillman's latest. 

FD: What did you think of Damsels in Distress?

B: I was looking forward to a new Whit Stillman film because I enjoy the smart banter of his other movies.

FD: Something was off about it, though.

B: After rewatching the Criterion edition of The Last Days of Disco (1998) last night, I realized that the most problematic thing about Damsels is its lack of realism. Everything in Last Days was plausible, but Damsels was uneven.  For instance, Violet (Greta Gerwig) has fun discussions about language that sound like the previous films, but then there's this ridiculous thing about Thor (Billy Magnussen), one of the fraternity brothers, not knowing colors. It's almost as if Stillman decided to take surreal leaps, but I couldn't figure out why they were there. The end of the film reminded me of the end of Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You (1996).

FD: At times, though, Stillman takes an absurd conceit, such as Violet's love of scented soap, and stretches it so far, it becomes funny.

B: But that did not seem so absurd to me. As she says, "This scent and this soap is what gives me hope." A scent can pull you out of a depression. I couldn't figure out what weird animosity Violet and her gang has towards men who tend to lie, smell bad, or behave stupidly. Whole dorms do not stink.

FD: The movie takes place at a make-believe Seven Oaks college that appears to be patterned off of one of the seven sisters, a once all-female but now co-ed Ivy League school. The story principally involves the romantic travails of a tight-knit group of young women who work for a suicide preventation center. As in Metropolitan (1990), they admit an outsider, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), into their midst (they have all names of flowers--Rose, Heather, etc.). Bunched together, they tend to walk in a group back and forth across the neo-classical campus with much overt backlighting emphasizing their hair.

B: The seven sisters may a reference to the Pleiades, which goes along with the neo-classical aspect. I believe that there are 7 girls and 7 guys emphasized in the storyline, and I just kept feeling like I was missing something.  I don't think a school would allow a group of girls to run a suicide center without training.

FD: I've read that Whit Stillman suffers from depression, so perhaps the girls try out cures that work for him, such as dancing, smelling scents, eating donuts, watching New Wave films, and so on.

B: But those are ridiculous.

FD: Terms like "ridiculous" are way harsh, Tai.

B: Yet, I liked the mood of Damsels a lot. As in Stillman's previous trilogy, Damsels is intelligent, often philosophical, with much talk about relationships. There were good set pieces with Violet, such as her journey to the Hotel 4 to ultimately find soap.

FD: Violet kept heading into the woods in the rain, or to the Hotel 4, like Jesus going off to the wilderness to learn some new truth.

B: Ironically, even though she tries to help people the most, Violet is often the most depressed. She's also acerbic like Kate Beckinsale's character Charlotte in The Last Days of Disco. I like that about Stillman's movies in general. His characters tend to say the wrong things.

FD: I was bothered by the therapeutic bent of Damsels. It's as if the movie kept exhorting us to cheer up. Also, I missed Chris Eigeman, who I understand is too old now, and, besides, he had a role in Gilmore Girls.

B: Don't you dare denigrate The Gilmore Girls.

FD: With his ironic smart-ass manner, Chris anchors the trilogy of earlier films. In Damsels, Stillman includes a Chris-like tough-talking editor named Rick DeWolfe (Zach Woods) of The Daily Complainer as one person who sees through Violet's pretensions, but such figures are in short supply.

B: Rick gets lost in the movie.  He shows up as a foil, but then he goes away.

FD: What did you think of the beanball keepsake scene? [Violet hangs on to a beanbag and a rare misspelled handwritten note as she mourns a lost romance with Frank (Ryan Metcalf).]

B: It's the kind of things that girls do. They keep stupid things to evoke a relationship. Other aspects of the film I didn't like--I didn't get the whole suicide theme. Why did people keep jumping off Robertson Hall?

FD: The jump will not kill you. It will only maims you. [At this point, B. leaves the dining room. She returns with an emory board, a cuticle trimmer, and a nail file. For some reason, she starts to give herself a manicure.] The two-story Robertson Hall provides the scene of one of the movie's more problematic epiphanies.  In this scene, Thor suddenly runs across campus, leading Heather (Carrie MacLemore) to think that he will commit suicide.  So, the gang runs after Thor (another example of the relentless side-to-side movement of the characters) as he dashes up the stairs of Robertson Hall, and then bursts out onto the balcony to find . . . a rainbow.  Thor has finally learned to distinguish the various colors that he never knew before because his parents had him skip kindergarten, so he says, ecstatic: "Red, orange, yellow, blue! Hallelujah, Lord God thank you! Education! We can set out to learn the topics that we find difficult. Thank you!" He weeps with joy as Heather cuddles up to him. So, what's wrong with this scene?

1) It's not believable.
2) The implied Biblical reference to the rainbow as a covenant from God is pretentious.
3) The rainbow itself looks like a cheap special effect imposed on a neo-classical landscape.
4) One still can't tell just how much of an idiot Thor is.
5) Consequently, it's hard to share in his religious joy and thanksgiving.
6) One is left with the impression of a movie straining mightily for its characters' redemption with this scene's uneasy mixture of intellectual contempt and wonder.

B: Yes. I kept thinking that there was some joke there that I wasn't getting.

FD: Why is The Last Days of Disco (1998) so much better?

B: Every character introduced is there for a reason.  The ad guy brings clients into the disco, and it turns out that he was supplying info for the assistant District Attorney. All of the characters return. All loose ends were covered. There's foreshadowing and preparation, but in Damsels I couldn't tell what the plot points were.  Why was Jimbo (Jermaine Crawford) in the movie?  What was the point of including the editor of the newspaper? In The Last Days of Disco, even the minor characters like the leopard woman mattered. Last Days had an elegiac feel, but I don't understand the tone of Damsels. It starts with Violet wanting to start a dance craze, and much later she succeeds. Is that what the movie is really about?

FD: Also, you can tell that the dialogue is much sharper in Last Days.  It's a delight now to see Kate Beckinsale's ferocity and Chloe Sevigny's sleepy soulful quality so early in their careers. Also, the disco music neatly contrasts with Stillman's erudite approach. His cool intellectualized aesthetic benefits from the flash and shallow propulsiveness of the strobe lights and the disco beat.

B: I agree. The vapid lyrics juxtapose well with the intelligence of the characters. Also, each film of the trilogy (including Barcelona (1994)) mostly sticks to a narrowly defined time. Disco takes place in the early 80s. Stillman structures Metropolitan around one debutante season.  For Damsels, we have no sense of the seasons.  It's timeless but not in a good way.

FD: It's backlit and very preppy.

B: That's all we know.

FD: Still, Metropolitan is one of my favorite films.

B: I agree, but Damsels lacks focus. It's like a bunch of colorful fragments that don't coalesce into a coherent design.

FD: Distress suffers from the extraordinarily high expectations raised by the rest of Whit Stillman's oeuvre.

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