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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. 

Critic Philip Lopate delivered an appropriately concise "Titanic" takedown when he wrote that "never was there a greater disjunction between elegance of visuals and inelegance of language." While "American Pie" relishes the inelegance of language through awkward expressions of teen sexuality, it also caters to rather simplistic (if generally agreeable) sense of humor. "The Last Days of Disco" -- and Stillman's films in general -- reach higher than that. 

Whit Stillman Returns At Last With Amusing But Tame "Damsels in Distress"
Sony Pictures Classics Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress."

In "Disco," Stillman exaggerated elegance of language to a point of magical realism. His characters inhabit a different sort of fantasy rooted in the processes through which real people pretend to see themselves. His conceited, frustrated, endlessly garrulous Ivy League grads vainly try to eke out fulfilling lives at the beginning of the eighties while speaking in the refined patterns of literary creations. There's a greater tragic dimension to Alice, the character played by Chloe Sevigny in "Disco," than Kate Winslet's similarly alienated Rose DeWitt Bukater in "Titanic," because Alice faces very real challenges to which many young American women can relate, even if they don't sound quite like her. (How many young women could actually relate to Rose? Certainly many *wished* they could.)

On the whole, "Disco" conveys a more insightful portrait of aimless youth than "American Pie" and a deeper look at romantic confusion among a restless, affluent upper class than "Titanic." Although technically a period piece set 17 years earlier, "Disco" delivered a universal statement on the impact of time on any aging generation vaulting into young adulthood without the proper tools to tackle it. "American Pie" did this with sex jokes and "Titanic" did it with doomed star-crossed lovers, tactics that practically make Stillman look like a realist director.

The major themes of "Disco" place it in a grand literary tradition. In liner notes for the recent Criterion release of "Disco," David Schickler compares Stillman's comedy of manners to "The Importance of Being Ernest." Taking the emphasis off plot specifics and instead infiltrating the mentality of young adulthood, Stillman anticipated many of the talky microbudget films that currently dominate the indie scene. (One could probably make the case that the first three episodes of the forthcoming Lena Dunham HBO show "Girls" form a relatively faithful remake of "Disco," but that's a piece for another time.) 

If "Titanic" and "American Pie" pointed to one prominent tradition in American cinema, then "Disco" provided an essential alternative that has yet to wane. "Damsels in Distress" brings Stillman's uniquely whimsical perspective on the experiences of young people back to the table -- if not in top form, then certainly in good company. Hollywood still thinks big, but countless filmmakers have turned away from the studio route in favor of telling personal stories with limited resources. 

The influx of intimate, soul-searching youth filmmaking means that, for every new summer tentpole, a few more Stillmans have blossomed, with filmmakers like Rick Alverson ("The Comedy") Zeina Durra ("The Imperialists Are Still Alive!"), Aaron Katz ("Cold Weather"), Adam Leon ("Gimme the Loot"), Mike Ott ("Littlerock"), Dee Rees ("Pariah"), Josh and Benny Safdie ("Daddy Longlegs"), Lynn Shelton ("Your Sister's Sister"), Joe Swanberg (where to begin?), Sophia Takal ("Green") and Ry Russo Young ("Nobody Walks") constructing truly distinctive portraits of young Americans. Sometimes they aim for accuracy, other times they lean on genres for representational purposes, and they don't always succeed. But collectively they display an attempt to comprehend what it means to grow older and come to terms with the relentless pressure of time. 

That was the core takeaway from "Disco," a feat that places it among the most significant reflections of fin de siécle anxieties released when they reached an all-time high. In "Disco," nobody stowed away on a lavish cruise ship or screwed a pie; these characters came of age simply because they had no other choice, and they still don't. 

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