Monday, April 17, 2006

My enduring love for Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan"

Growing up in a small town in the Upper Midwest, one of my only lifelines to the outside world was a well stocked video rental store. (The town couldn't support a bookstore, and the single-screen movie theater once screened "Ernest Saves Christmas" for six consecutive months.) When I was 13 or 14, I first rented Whit Stillman's Metropolitan, a movie about a group of very wealthy, very likeable prep school kids who come home to the Upper East Side for the Christmas break debutante season. They gossip, worry about declining social standards, and argue about Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.

An outsider, Tom Townshend, enters the group. Tom Townshend teeters between his distaste for the trappings of privilege and the comfort of hanging out with a group of people who are too nice to resist. He's from the Upper West Side, which is a reason for concern. Claiming to reject debutante balls and everything they symbolize, he politely espouses utopian socialism and the writings of Charles Fourier. Brook Farm, he insists, was not a failure: it merely ceased to exist, and if your definition of failure is ceasing to exist, all people are failures by definition. Gradually, though, he assimilates. The sweetest and kindest of the girls, Audrey Rouget, falls for him, while others question Tom's sincerity. Only the worst kind of hypocrite, they argue, could both despise the debutante season and attend the balls, not to mention the confused status of his relationship with notorious boarding school vixen Serena Slocum.

Metropolitan couldn't have been further removed from my own life, but I loved it. When I read last week that the Criterion Collection had issued a new DVD of the movie, I ran to J&R, and spent a good part of Friday night dreaming at my TV. It's a rare movie that convincingly depicts how friendships develop; here, it comes with a highly specific backdrop (New York's debutante season) that serves as a platform for the universal (what's the tradeoff between sticking to your ideals while seeking happiness?).

I was happy to see how well Metropolitan has aged, and how much of it has stayed with me. Although I've probably seen it 20 times, it had been awhile. Probably four or five years. It was still there, better than ever.

But this time, it was poignant. Though I've recently read on this site about how love multiplies, and I'm about to enter confessional territory, we're not going to be one of those sites about personal lives and emotions, because those things are for girls, and they're boring to boot. And this shouldn't be mistaken as self-pity so much as a rare moment of self-reflection triggered by a charming and sentimental movie. What was so striking about seeing Metropolitan this time was watching it and realizing that what's kept me interested in this movie for so many years wasn't just its hyper-articulate dialogue or the voyeur's peek into a faded world of WASP privilege, but Tom Townshend's endless ambivalence and displacement.

Like Tom, I'm always a half-step of the rhythm, generally slightly befuddled by the things that keep everyone else going. Like Tom, when the conversation turns to salacious gossip or emotional conversation, I'd rather step away from the group and have a conversation about the last book I read. Frequently, my befuddlement at human frailty leads to bruised feelings -- another strand that runs through the movie. I never know when I'm an anthropologist and when I'm a participant.

Sixteen years after falling in love with it, at a time when I lived in the middle of the woods and didn't know what the Upper East Side was, I've now figured out why I love a movie about a bunch of rich kids who go to deb parties and dread a future of downward mobility.

You must watch this movie.


Crunk Raconteur said...

I forgot to post this the other day, but I've always been very upset that both "Sally Fowler Rat Pack" and "Urban Haute Bourgeoisie" are too long to use as fantasy team names.

And I would go with the "Rick Von Slonekers" but that would denote my team as a bunch of cads who deserve to be thrashed.

CrimeNotes said...


You have really excellent taste.