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Critic's Notebook: Why Whit Stillman, not 'Titanic,' Defines the '90s

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 6, 2012 at 11:04AM

The nineties are back! That's the general takeaway from a crop of trend pieces responding to two new releases this week, one that piggybacks on the popularity of a late nineties hit and another that is one. As all sentient beings know by now, James Cameron's "Titanic" reemerges in theaters for its 15th anniversary with a spiffy 3-D makeover, while "American Reunion" resurrects the horny franchise that first made its mark with "American Pie" in 1999.
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"The Last Days of Disco."
"The Last Days of Disco."

The nineties are back! That's the general takeaway from a crop of trend pieces responding to two new releases this week, one that piggybacks on the popularity of a late nineties hit and another that is one. As all sentient beings know by now, James Cameron's "Titanic" reemerges in theaters for its 15th anniversary with a spiffy 3-D makeover, while "American Reunion" resurrects the horny franchise that first made its mark with "American Pie" in 1999. 

The cheerful perseverance of both "Titanic" and "American Pie" suggest that Hollywood output was especially strong during the final quarter of the Clinton era. However, the attention being paid to these two stalwarts has yet to acknowledge a third artifact of the nineties whose resilience is evident in theaters: A supremely distinctive creative force known as Whit Stillman. 

Until Stillman finally returned to directing with his fourth and latest feature, "Damsels in Distress," his entire output was defined by the nineties, culminating with his most refined and insightful work, "The Last Days of Disco," released in 1998. Sandwiched on the release calendar between "Titanic" and "American Pie," the third entry in Stillman's loose trilogy of overpriviledged young Americans bemoaning their existence proved far more prescient than the other two movies. 

"Titanic" and "American Pie" are predicated on the search to make movies with mass audience appeal.

Whereas "Disco" touches on specific generational yearning, it made no grand statements about the filmmaking practice itself. By contrast, "Titanic" and "American Pie" are predicated on the search to make movies with mass audience appeal. 

"Titanic" can be seen as a culmination of several Hollywood traditions from multiple eras, from the glory days of large-scale Cecil B. DeMille epics to the glamorous production design of MGM musicals and explosive disaster pictures of the late 1970s. Lumping it all together into a single, spectacular whole, "Titanic" signaled a major moment in the evolution of the blockbuster by typifying so many versions of it. Virtually every studio tentpole since then has fought to replicate its success. 

Although not a tragic romance with A-list stars and Oscar validation, "American Pie" also helped establish a certain kind of studio model for its genre: raunchy escapism with the clumsy embodiment of the male libido rendered as the ultimate anti-hero -- a tradition that later evolved into the bromance.  

"Titanic" and "American Pie" achieved the consumerist goals driving their creation. In the memories of young adults first exposed to the movies as teenagers (many of whom have contributed to the wave of nostalgic remembrances published this week), the two movies were major historical moments. Studios continue to exploit their lasting effects, but that should not erase their flaws. 

This article is related to: Critic's Notebook, Whit Stillman, Damsels in Distress, Titanic, American Reunion, American Pie, James Cameron





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