Time to catch up on yet more coverage of Damsels in Distress. I’ve skipped most of the reviews this time around as they’re becoming increasingly brief and repetitive. Most recent reviewers either find the film has good moments but they find it all a bit too fake or wordy, or else they love it, with a caveat or two (often the plot or, as they see it, lack of one).Let’s take a deep breath and kick off with a review from Felicia Feaster at Charleston City Paper that gives the movie two thumbs down, and a criticism I haven’t seen before:
Slight to the point of banality, Damsels in Distress is a fey stab at screwball that comes off as mind-numbingly precious and dull as dirt. Is this really the movie a 60-year-old preppy who should be playing golf decides to entertain himself with after a 13-year hiatus? Clearly still convinced that his college days were the best years of his life, Stillman traffics in the same stunted, adolescent imagination as the Gidget movies and offers the unpleasant, deeply unflattering sight of a grown man moony over the springtime loveliness of girls less than half his age. It’s like a creepy uncle rubbernecking on the activities of kids.
Well, everyone sees something different I guess. Eric Hynes in the Riverfront Times is more upbeat, and open to the ambiguities in the film:
Four features in, Whit Stillman’s cinematic sensibility is both plain as day and hard to pin down. In a Stillman film, a lost gentility is regularly romanticized but rarely ever properly defined, let alone reacquired. Rules are fetishized for the implication, if not the realization, of order. And in this, his most plainly satirical film that is also arguably his least cynical, a bunch of aspiring conformists reliably do the most abnormal of things — sniff bars of soap, conjugate the plural of doofus, choreograph the sambola. Dancing breaks out in all of Stillman’s films and usually just because. All the cardigans and brass-buttoned blazers in the world can’t cloak that kind of eccentricity.
In the Morning Sentinel, J.P. Devine (“a former stage and screen actor”) has an idea for what could be next:
Stillman’s dialogue is smart and sassy, but poorly delivered by a generation of young actors who think no one else is listening. The film takes too much time to get going, and beneath the snappy funny lines, there is an undertow of darkness that flows around Violet, and even in the finale when she channels Ginger Rogers, we wonder what post-college life holds for her.
That’s a movie I’d like to see.
At Indy Week David Fellerath draws an interesting distinction between being concerned with race and, maybe, class, in a broad sense:
…like [Woody] Allen, [Stillman's] not above dropping sight gags and one-liners for the sake of a guffaw. But with this film, we see an important difference: Allen’s movie world is notorious for its lack of non-white people. Black characters are conspicuous throughout Damsels in Distress. Stillman’s use of black actors, laudable in itself, also pre-empts a common misreading of his work as a fetishizing of rich Caucasians. Instead, his real concern is with sensibility and taste, of refinement in manner and intellect; the full name of his heroine, Violet Wister, suggests delicacy and nostalgic yearning. We may live in a fallen world, but the return of Whit Stillman to movie theaters gives us cause for hope.
Stephen Cooke at the Chronicle Herald briefly interviews Stillman, who outlines one of the themes that interests him, but which, I fear, is lost on most reviewers:
“Some people have been so incredibly square about the film, like they can’t enjoy the comedy because the subject matter sounds dumb when they read it on the page. To say that someone doesn’t know all the colours when they get to college sounds dumb is irrelevant, because it’s what happens to the subject matter that’s important.
“What’s cool is how the colour theme just grows, and you get into all of these things, like people who are really just unbelievably stupid, but do well because they’re scholarly and dedicated academically.
“Frankly, I ran into that quite a bit, people who are deadly serious about academics, but didn’t have a clue about the world.”
At We Are Movie Geeks, Barbie Snitzer has a lengthy article about Damsels. A self-confessed “snob (not a cynic)”, who manages to come across as relentlessly cynical. She seems confused by the movie, particularly by the lack of cell phones and computers. She paints Stillman as a deluded old man who thinks he has something to say because he was once a successful director. I just don’t know.
Finally, we have a post from Jason Busch at Spend Matters who sees some lessons for the workplace in Stillman’s movies, and particularly the verbose manner in which his characters speak:
[Stillman] can take the seemingly trivial and weave an extremely compelling exchange around it. And he does it, again and again and again, such that the broader plot matters almost less than the individual stories that push it along.
When modern conversations are shrinking into increasingly brief tweets, we should take our time to explain things properly:
I believe good dialogue matters when it comes to everything around us. But increasingly, it’s a rarity. Perhaps we can all do our small part to change that, not being afraid to foster an environment and workspaces where depth and exploration is valued over the dumbing down of ideas, not for the sake of simplicity alone, but because of an intellectually laziness that feels more and more common in an age of information and analysis where we consume more than ever but rarely take the time to digest at the level we should — or argue back with the right zinger just for the sake of putting our colleagues into an intellectual pickle from which they must untangle to prove their worth (and the worth of their ideas).
And that’s all for now. Have a good week!