Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011) & the Crisis of Subscendence

Damsels in Distress CD COVER

Filmmaker Whit Stillman has managed with considerable aplomb to avoid the clichés of the romantic comedy, a genre within whose parameters he nevertheless works, not least in his fourth film of five, Damsels in Distress (2011).  In addition to being a romantic comedy, to the extent of transforming itself in its denouement into a 1930s guy-gets-girl musical number, with Fred Astaire’s voice patched into the soundtrack, Damsels in Distress is a college film.  Because Stillman understands the meaning and function of college, his college film is also a film about civilization – or rather about the current degeneracy of what used to be Western Civilization, as made manifest by the decline of higher education.  In Damsels in Distress, Stillman has undertaken to represent what I once, in a casual essay, half-jokingly called subscendence, a kind of active anti-transcendence that seeks the lowest level in everything; but Stillman has also created a set of characters, in his eponymous damsels, who, discerning subscendence and judging it repellent, rally themselves to mount resistance against it.

Left to Right Heather Lily Rose Violet

Left to Right: Heather, Lily, Rose, & Violet

Greta Gerwig, Annaleigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie MacLemore play the young women “in distress”: Violet, the leader and speaker of the group; Lily, the newcomer; Rose, the resident cynic; and Heather, the paradigm of the cute girl.  All four of Stillman’s actresses are strikingly beautiful, but in quirky ways that defy the parameters of “starlet” beauty.  Even Tipton, who had a career in modeling before Stillman cast her as Lily, is beautiful in an odd but piquant way.  The quality of beauty emerges already as a theme in Stillman’s second film, Barcelona (1994).  Ted Boynton, as played by Taylor Nichols, tells his cousin Fred Boynton, as played by Chris Eigeman, that, “I’m beginning to reconsider my attitude toward female beauty.”  The Nichols character has come to think of such beauty as “very bad” because, “You see a beautiful girl and you’re subject to all these emotions… some… very powerful, almost uncontrollable.”  He ends up, all the same, married to an exceptionally attractive Spanish girl.

Gerwig’s Violet in Damsels echoes Nichol’s Boynton in Barcelona.  Violet explains to Lily, once Lily has been inducted into the group on the first day of the semester, that, as romantic prospects, she prefers “sad sacks” and “losers.”  Violet believes that “the major problem in contemporary social life” is “the tendency, very widespread, to always seek someone ‘cooler’ than yourself,” and “it’s always a stretch, often a big stretch.”  Drawing her own conclusion, she asks rhetorically, “Why not find someone who’s frankly inferior?”  Violet means by her criterion of inferiority a lack of maturity and a degree of mental dullness, as summed up in her current boyfriend, Frank, as played by Ryan Metcalf.  That is not all that she means, however: Later, in conversation with Priss, as played by Caitlin Fitzgerald, Violet says that, “In my view, handsome men are to be avoided.”  She continues: “I don’t even consider good looks to be flattering in a man.”  In Violet’s opinion, “good-looking guys” are invariably “full of themselves, getting everything they want, never suffering.”

Violet, like Ted Boynton, seems to see the self-exploitation of natural good looks as a species of vicious conformism, a lapse into original sin and total selfishness.  Because the social environment to which the conformist conforms is a narcissistic one to conform is to merge oneself with the morally insipid, egoistic, and selfish mass.  Yet from another perspective, Violet defends conformism.  In a discussion with her three dorm-mates about romantic clichés, Violet confesses that, “I love clichés and hackneyed expressions of every kind.”  She reasons that, after all, “They’re largely true.”  Moreover: “The hundreds, perhaps thousands of such clichés and hackneyed expressions our language has bequeathed to us are, in fact, a treasure-trove of human insight and understanding… During these formative college years we should try to learn as many hackneyed thoughts and expressions as possible.”

The two kinds of conformism differ starkly from one another.  Most especially, Violet’s conformism has a traditional cast: It looks to the past, and to “human insight and understanding,” from which the metastatic narcissism stupidly seeks a divorce.  Indeed, Violet’s theory of clichés and hackneyed phrase resembles nothing more than Plato’s theory of right opinion.  That resemblance should not come as a surprise.  It is consistent with Stillman’s interest in beauty, his view of which likewise runs to the Platonic.  Both Violet in Damsels and Ted in Barcelona experience in the cosmetic beauty of the opposite sex the powerful disturbance in the soul provoked by Eros.  The disturbance reaches deeply; it represents an urgent and frightening demand to participate in something transcendent.  In its primary earthly manifestation, moreover, beauty bodies itself forth; it appears as carnality, and can strike the smitten as tempting him or her to the spiritual abasement of mere fornication.  That would be a misinterpretation, as Plato taught, but it is a misinterpretation that is difficult for the novice to avoid.  The initiation of novices into higher orders of awareness provides Damsels in Distress, like its precursor Barcelona, with another important theme.

Walking on Campus

Left to Right: Lily, Priss, Rose, Heather, & Violet

Violet distinguishes herself from Lily, Rose, and Heather by the degree of her aspiration, just as all four of them together distinguish themselves from the rest of the student body at Stillman’s fictional Seven Oaks College.  In absolute terms, Violet’s aspirations rank in a middle position, but in relation to her environment they possess a degree of altitude.  Stillman represents that environment with considerable concern for its subscendent details.  In an early scene, when Violet has recruited Lily and the four girls are returning to their dormitory, they encounter a sudden rush of slovenly male students storming the sidewalk.  Rose falls into a swoon.  Violet explains to Lily that Rose is subject to “nasal shock syndrome,” which the unwashed musk of the male rush has triggered.  “Seven Oaks is notorious for its b-o,” Violet adds; “it was the last of the ‘Select Seven’ to go co-ed,” and in it “an atmosphere of male barbarism predominates – but we’re going to change all that.”

The stench of male sweat allowed to age is about as subscendent as it is possible to get.  It is against this baseline of de-civilization that Violet’s hopes and plans must be measured. Violet tells Lily, “I know that people can have useful careers in many areas – government, law, finance… even education!”  Violet, however, would like to exercise her talent in another direction: “I’d like to do something especially significant in my lifetime, the sort of thing that could change the course of human history – such as starting a new dance-craze.”  Violet’s justification of her project is that a dance-craze would qualify as “something that could improve the lives of every person,” but much more importantly, of “every couple.”  Violet’s reasoning unites the themes of Eros and civilization.  Dance, after all, is a genre of artistic performance.  As such, dance possesses a ritual character.  Dance demands discipline, it encourages grace, and it draws the committed dancer toward an ideal of perfected movement.

Violet, in her role as volunteer leader of the Seven Oaks Suicide Prevention Center, has organized the clinically depressed, potentially suicidal students who come under her supervision to produce, for therapeutic purposes, a musical production involving tap dance and items from the Classic American Songbook.  Violet is herself an enthusiastic tap-dancer although an awkward one.  Damsels in Distress will find its way, in its last reel, quite logically and charmingly, to a double dance-finale, but of that – more to come later.  As to Violet, her rebellion against vulgarity and low standards at Seven Oaks is by no means diminished, but rather is made all the more poignant and admirable, through Stillman’s measured but relentless revelation of her flaws, inconsistencies, and peccadilloes.

It emerges, for example, although subtly, that Violet is a casual – but not a malicious – liar.  In one scene, about two-thirds of the way through the story, Stillman puts Violet in a classroom seminar led by Professor Black, as played by Taylor Nichols, whom the screenplay characterizes as “wise and elegant.”  Black has presumably asked each of his students to work up a list of three important people who deserve admiration.  Before Black calls on Violet, he queries another coed, who responds with the names of Madame Curie, Simone de Beauvoir, and, Margaret Sanger.  Violet’s list could not be more different from her classmate’s list: “I would say: Rickard [sic] Strauss, Roderick Charleston, and Chubbert Checker.”  Black knows who Richard Strauss is, but has never heard of Roderick Charleston and Chubbert Checker.

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From Left to Right: Rose, Heather, Lily, Violet, & Fred

Violet replies, without batting an eye or hesitating for so much as a syllable: “Each one of these men started an international dance-craze – Rickard Strauss, the Waltz; Roderick Charleston, the Charleston, and Chubbert Checker, better known as ‘Chubby,’ the dance we know as the Twist.”  Gerwig delivers with a guilelessness that accentuates its hilarious mélange of ignorance and mendacity.  It was not “Rickard” Strauss – whose name correctly spelled, is Richard – but rather Johann Strauss Jr., who popularized the waltz.  Then again there is no “Roderick Charleston”; and Chubby Checker was born Ernest Evans Checker.  Despite its comic absurdity, Violet’s list stands in serious tension with the previous student’s list.  Marie Curie is a genuinely admirable woman, and a contributor to scientific knowledge.  Simone de Beauvoir, however, was a formulator of feminist ideology and an enabling mistress of that subscendent man Jean-Paul Sartre.  Margaret Sanger organized Planned Parenthood to eradicate selected racial strains and stymie fertility through a combination of positive and negative eugenics.  De Beauvoir and Sanger are heroines of the Left.

The classmate’s list thus represents a morally downwards or subscendent movement.  It might be objected that Violet’s list only does the same, but Chubby Checker is in no way the equivalent of Margaret Sanger; his activity has harmed no one.  If only we could return to the innocence of the Twist!  A close viewing of Stillman’s film will catch Violet in two or three other white lies.  (See below)

At one point in the story, Rose tells Lily about Violet’s childhood: She was orphaned at nine or ten; many neuroses afflicted her, and when she transferred to a private school where Rose was in her class, the other girls teased her ruthlessly because of her actual name – Emily Tweeter.  Much earlier than this revelation, when Violet is expositing her theory of the inevitable narcissism of the “good-looking guy,” she adds that among his repellent attributes is that he has “never suffered.”  Lily interrupts to ask, in defense, one supposes, of the chiseled chin, “Have we suffered?”  Violet responds that she is not talking about us girls and that Lily’s comment is therefore irrelevant.  Violet has indeed suffered.  How goes it with Lily, Rose, and Heather?

Tipton on Campus

Annaleigh Tipton as Lily

Lily has transferred to Seven Oaks from her first, unnamed college.  In various scenes Lily makes statements in passing that suggest her provenance to be a “Dry State” somewhere in the American South.  As Violet candidly and rather rudely informs the boys of the D.U. House where her boyfriend Frank lives, Lily either “failed or was unhappy at her last school but we’re sure she is going to adapt beautifully here.”  To “adapt beautifully,” is not an accidental, but a highly motivated phrase in context.  An outsider, Lily is anomalous to the group in other ways.  Stillman’s screenplay hints at a sexual past for Lily, not any kind of promiscuity, but having more experience than Violet, Rose, or Heather has; the story also directly implicates Lily in active sexuality, which it never does for Violet, Rose, or Heather although it puts all three in romantic situations.  Tipton’s movements, as Lily, are erotic: She undulates while she walks; she pirouettes in flirty conversation with a college boy, and presents herself more boldly than her room mates.  To sort out the film’s romances, it is necessary to introduce the male characters.

First comes Frank – Violet’s current crush, as the film begins.  Stillman, rightly judging that the college-film genre might be poignant, has carefully and deliberately set out not to transform his characters into caricatures, as is the writerly and directorial tendency of the genre.  (Think Animal House.)  Under Stillman’s direction and in Metcalf’s performance, however, Frank edges rather close to parody.  A brother of the D.U. Fraternity (Seven Oaks has Roman-letter societies rather than the usual Greek-letter ones) – Frank is non-intellectual to the point of moronism.  He is a “doufus.”  When Priss compliments him on his blue eyes, he tells her that his eyes have no color.  If they were blue, he argues, everything would look blue to him.  He can barely spell, he speaks goofily, and Stillman never shows him in a classroom.  Frank has a house-brother, Thor, as played by Billy Magnussen, whose parents, wanting to brag about him, pushed him prematurely into the first grade.  Missing pre-school and Kindergarten, Thor never learned the colors, a failure that becomes a running joke in the script.  He too is a bit moronic.  Yet Unlike Frank, Thor, who dresses in shirt-and-necktie, and is clean-cut, expresses an appetite for learning, even if he must begin with the colors.

Thor’s speech to Priss during her visit to the D.U. House is worth quoting in full because it contains something like an actual definition of learning:

I don’t know about you but I don’t think anyone should feel embarrassed about not knowing stuff. What’s embarrassing is pretending to know what you don’t – or putting other people down just because you think they don’t know as much as you. I’m happy to admit I’m completely ignorant. That’s why I’m here and plan to really hit the books. So, the next time you see me, I’ll know more than I do now.  I’ll be older, but also wiser – or at least know more stuff. For me, that’s education.

Fred Packenstacker, as played by Adam Brody, is an “eighth-year education student,” whose inability to matriculate in a timely way embarrasses him into adopting a false persona as “Charlie,” an “Associate” of “Strategic Development Associates,” a firm, as he says, with an office in the same town as Seven Oaks. This way he hopes to disguise the fact that he is a superannuated undergraduate.  Violet claims to have a cousin in “Strategic Development,” in Philadelphia, another one of her white lies.  Fred first appears in a scene with Lily that takes place in a bar.  Fred, as “Charlie,” sends a round of drinks to the table where Lily sits with two companions, a male graduate student and his girlfriend.  Violet soon recognizes “Charlie” as a fellow student in her “Flit Lit” course (a study of the Dandy Tradition of novelistic writing) although he denies it.  Violet tells her friends that she plans to stop cutting class in order that she might follow up her suspicion.  Fred is intelligent and reads books.  In connection with the “Flit Lit” course, the audience sees him, during a library study-date with Violet, reading Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean in the Penguin edition.  Fred seems to be pulled two ways romantically – to Violet and to Lily.

Charlie has a counterpart, not exactly an antagonist, but an anti-type: Xavier, as played by Hugo Becker, a graduate student  Xavier has had his rather predatory eye on Lily since the semester began.  Despite his German name, Becker is French.  He plays Xavier as – vaguely, but unspecifiedly – French.  The adjective “predatory” justly applies to Xavier, who instantiates Violet’s worst predictions about “good-looking guys.”  Xavier has one girlfriend already, Alice, as played by Meredith Hagner.  He is clearly trying to set up a sexual ménage-à-trois with the two girls.  Lily naively sees nothing amiss.  Confessing to her suave seducer that she has never traveled, she is foolishly impressed by his foreignness, his knowledge, and his status as a graduate student.  Alice, smarter than lily, drops Xavier, who quickly proceeds to consummate his desire for Lily physically.  In the narrative structure of Stillman’s story, that consummation is the lowest point of subscendence and the moment of dramatic reversal.

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Xavier seduces Lily

Xavier claims to be a Cathar.  Lily has, of course, never heard of the Cathars.  As he maneuvers Lily to his couch, he disquisits concerning how, “Cathars dissent radically from Catholic teaching regarding procreative sex.”  According to Xavier, “In the Cathar view the highest form of love-making avoids procreation entirely.”  Lily thinks that Xavier means condoms, but Xavier replies that, “sex with condoms is just a parody of the procreative act.”  He continues: “The standard, cliché, form of sexual intercourse is for the man to… approach the woman… from ‘the front.’ In Cathar love-making – which, I think you’ll find very fulfilling – it’s from the other side…  It’ll be a new experience for you but one which I think you’ll find brings an inexpressible closeness.”  The scene cuts to an exterior of the house where Xavier lives.  It is early morning.  Lily leaves the premises looking disheveled and awkward.  Much later, when gossip about the encounter has spread, a minor character, Jimbo, who socializes with the damsels, sums up everyone’s judgment: “That’s terrible. What he obliged Lily to do.”  (Jimbo is played by Jermaine Crawford.)

Stillman postpones the resolution of Lily’s sexual humblement to a much later scene, in a confrontation of sorts between Fred and Xavier.  Meanwhile, viewers have learned something about Rose, on the one hand, and Heather, on the other.  Rose has known Violet since childhood; like Violet, she inclines to telling white lies, one of which is her posh-sounding British accent.  In fact, she is as American as Violet, but she spent six weeks in London recently and now argues that she is from London.  “I was there,” she says; “and now I’m here,” so “I’m ‘from’ London.”  Rose is nervous about men.  She is always ready to detect what she calls “the playboy or operator type.”  She wrongly accuses Fred of being such a type.  He is not.  As for Heather – she is the most self-effacing of the foursome, the least intellectual, and, by her own statement, the one who cares least about moral principles.  It is appropriate that she ends up with Thor.

A number of crises have continued to build.  The editor of the Daily Complainer – Seven Oaks’ student newspaper – has been campaigning to have the fraternities ejected from campus.  The editor and his followers argue that fraternities are “elitist,” so of course they should be banned.  Violet asks him whether he knows any of these elitists and rejoins his “no” with her argument that they are, in fact, morons and thus by definition cannot be elitists.   In a Spring Outdoor Fraternity Festival called “Roman Holidays,” which celebrates “Beerus, Bacchus, and Blotto,” the fraternities behave so drunkenly and crassly that the administration caves in and proscribes them.  The D.U. boys, including Frank, take up temporary residence in the Suicide Prevention Center.  The damsels have sided charitably with the actual injured parties.

Wonder Bar

Violet Reveals the Wonder Bar

Having earlier in the story caught Frank in a make-out session with Priss, at the D.U. House, Violet suffers a belated breakdown and leaves campus to spend a day in the nearby town of Villafranca in a cheap room at “Motel 4.” There, she discovers a perfumed soap whose scent revives her.  Returning to Seven Oaks, she shares the “Wonder Bar” with her roommates and they conceive the idea of mailing a sample of it to every resident of Doar Dorm, the residence hall where Seven Oaks’ noteworthy b-o problem is at its worst.  Heather hopes that “Doar Dorm will become Dior Dorm.”  Not quite – but after some confusion, the Doar dwellers actually use the soap to bathe and they begin to spruce up in other ways.  The damsels have won a minor battle.  Thor wins a battle, too: When a rainbow appears, he correctly names its colors!  It is a true epiphany.  Heather embraces him.

Spring signifying the end of the academic year, viewers learn from Rose that failing education majors are trying to commit suicide by jumping from Robertson Hall, the Ed School.  Violet remarks, “But, it’s only two stories.”  Rose replies, “Yes, I know, it’s terrible – not high enough to kill but high enough to maim, and particularly dangerous for anyone below.”  There is a commotion in the soundtrack.  Suddenly Stillman shows us one of these attempted suicides, when a demoralized oaf steps into the air and breaks his leg on landing.  Rose comments, via a rhetorical question: “What concerns me is – if they can’t even destroy themselves, how are they going to teach America’s Youth?”  About this time Fred confronts Xavier, whom Lily has now rejected.  Xavier appears contrite and informs Fred that he no longer adheres to Catharism.  In a brilliant usage of verbal displacement, Fred tells Xavier that while he usually refrains from criticizing anyone’s religion, he feels compelled to say that, “I could never take seriously a religion that worships on Tuesdays.”  Xavier affirms that, as he is no longer a Cathar, he no longer “worships on Tuesdays.”

When Violet’s attempt to start a dance-craze turns into a fiasco (no one shows up), a great disappointment to her, Stillman provides the first item of his double dance-finale.  Stillman lifts the first of these dance-episodes from the George Stevens’ 1937 RKO musical A Damsel in Distress, starring Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine.  First viewers see a rehearsal in the Suicide Prevention Center of the Damsel-in-Distress number “Things Are Looking Up,” based on a song by George Gershwin.  Fred has been recruited by Violet to sing and dance the Astaire part, with Violet herself as the Fontaine substitute.  When the music starts, the audience hears the original 1937 soundtrack for a few seconds, but a new recording supervenes performed apparently by Brody, singing the Astaire part.  Stillman links the soundtrack splice with a visual splice – to the outdoors of the Seven Oaks campus.  The men wear jackets and ties.  The young women wear brilliantly colored dresses.  Fred is paired with Violet, Lily with Xavier, Rose with “Freak,” a minor character, and Heather with Thor.  Priss is there, too, dancing with Jimbo.  Music and dance have reconciled differences.

Is it a fantasy – maybe Violet’s wishful vision, her Platonic ideal, of how things should be, or does it reflect the film’s internal reality?  The “Things are Looking Up” number is consistent with the rest of the film in several ways.  With Xavier repentant and Lily reconciling with him, as it appears, Fred is free to associate himself once again with Violet, to whom it is clear he feels attracted, and who seems to have gotten over Frank, at last.  A line from the parlando lead-in to Astaire’s performance of “Things Are Looking Up” in A Damsel in Distress provides a clue for interpreting Stillman’s lift from that film and for deciphering Violet’s psychological state.  Just before the routine begins, Astaire explains to Fontaine that he is a changed man, having, earlier, literally been slapped by her in response to his presumptions and arrogance.  She was not rejecting him, however; she was correcting him.  Apparently, as Astaire says, “Slapping me made you love me.”  Slapping, at any rate, by correcting him, made him lovable.  Fontaine says, “Yes,” and Astaire rejoins with, “Darling, slap me again.”

Violet has suffered many slaps, but has interpreted them wrongly, as aimed by Fate or Providence especially and unjustly at her, and then accepting her misery in a passive way, as though there was nothing to do about it.  The accurate interpretation of the many slaps, however, is that they represent instances of grace, and that, far from being arbitrarily punitive, they are corrective.  Violet should know this because she herself has articulated the proposition earlier in the story, in responding to a rebuke by Lily for being arrogant and self-righteous.  On that occasion, Violet says: “It’s terrible how I’ve acted,” and she expresses her embarrassment.  She continues: “We’re all Christians – or, I should say ‘Judeo-Christians’: humility should be our watchword, the essence of being a good person.”  Violet understands the principle of correction, but has not really internalized it, until the end of the film.

The essentially comedic paring up in the song-and-dance signifies at once Violet’s accession to a new level of maturity, to reach which she has had to recognize Fred as an intellectual equal, rather than a “doufus,” like Frank, the type of boy to whom she has previously assigned herself, with disastrous results.  Because Violet, despite her deficiencies, has been the de facto leader of her group – not only the foursome in which she is one, but those who come into the orbit of the foursome – her resolve and her acceptance bring them along with her.  After the experience of grace comes the experience of communion.  Viewers even get a brief glimpse of the Doar Dorm men, now sporting shirts and ties and noticeably cleaned up, adding their chorus to the refrain:

Things are looking up

It’s a great little world we live in

Oh I’m happy as a pup

Since love looked up at me.

Damsels in Distress is a study of the prevailing subscendence.  The directionality of Gershwin’s refrain, and of the song as a whole, is up; that is to say, pointing to transcendence.  The choreographic beauty of the scene, including the natty jackets and ties of the men and the colorful dresses of the women, belongs to the ideal to which the young people may now properly attune their lives.  It is meaningful that, during the film, the audience almost never sees any adults, with the exception of two professors.  Now, however, the audience at last sees adults, or at least hopefully incipient adults who still partake in the cosmetic beauty of their adolescence.  In the last frame of “Things are Looking Up,” Violet and Fred are dancing on water, bathed in sunlight.  Stillman now offers his second finale.

The second finale is another dance number – “The Sambola.”  The sequence opens with a close-up of Violet, who speaks directly to the audience: “Do the Sambola!”  The Sambola is Violet’s hoped-for dance-craze.  To its infectious, Caribbean rhythms, the well-dressed collegians dance – with the exception of Rose, who remains unwilling to commit to the celebration.  She tells Jimbo that it “looks to me like just another Devil Dance.”  She says, “I’m waiting for a dance of truth, and beauty, and righteousness – a dance that glorifies, not the body, but the Lord.”  When “Freak’s” partner tires, he beckons Rose, who, after some hesitation, joins him and begins to dance beautifully.  Marriage is a glorification of the Lord, after all: It is the Dance of Life.  The reality of men and women, of love and procreation, also glorifies the Lord.

Even the subscendence of Damsels in Distress is idealized, if that were possible.  Many features of actual college-campus life that are well-known to people who teach and associate with college students are missing from the Seven Oaks environment.  Stillman permits no profanity into his script whereas actual college students, including young women, seem unable to utter more than two sentences without lacing one of them with f-bombs and s-bombs.  Professor Black is serious – he does not seem to want to deconstruct anything or impose radical agendas on students.  The professor of the “Flit Lit” course, part of whose lecture the audience hears, treats his subject with knowledge and seriousness, and he assigns Marius the Epicurean, which at least one student reads.  Actual college students avoid reading with noticeable commitment.  Seven Oaks students seem never to have acquired the cell phones and other beeping, flashing devices that perpetually distract and absorb actual college students, rendering them spiritless and autistic.

A Footnote

A few semesters ago, after screening Damsels in Distress for my Western Heritage class, I issued a challenge to the students to dress up, just for one day, as though they were participants in the story of Stillman’s film.  I give the results below:

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Front Right: My Colleague Leigh Wilson; Front Left: TFB; Behind Them: The Students

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Someone Might Actually Be Moved To Hire These Students

16 thoughts on “Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011) & the Crisis of Subscendence

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  3. Great review. Not many critics “got” this movie. I think it helps if you understand the particular significance of catharism. I saw that as a voegelinian wink at the discerning viewer, while most reviews I have seen thought it just signified pretension.

    • At the very least, Stillman grants that some ideas are heretical, that is, perniciously contrary to the nature of things. Another significant detail of the film’s story is that Xavier can be readmitted into the society of the damsels only through Fred. Careful viewers will have caught that Fred is reading Marius the Epicurean by Pater. In Pater’s book, the eponymous Marius undergoes two conversions, first from Epicureanism to Platonism and then from Platonism to Christianity. Damsels in Distress is replete with moments of conversion.

  4. This movie made me laugh out loud in a couple of places, and it began very well and seemed to promise a lot – but (like so many movies, by my estimation) it lost its way and fizzled-out so that it has left almost nothing behind in my memory. My feeling with regard to Stillman – having seen all his movies at least once – is that he is certainly talented and very witty (or, gets witty improvisation from his well-chosen cast), but that fundamentally he has nothing to say – no positive, life-enhancing ‘message’. He is, at bottom, a mainstream nihilist, I’m afraid.

    • I have watched Damsels twenty times and not once have I failed to find something new in it. Stillman is the opposite of a nihilist. You should watch more closely and particularly you should listen more carefully to his dialogue, which is rich, philosophical, and allusive. (What other director would make an allusion to Marius the Epicurean?) Perhaps you think that Stillman’s cinema is nihilistic because it so perfectly represents the prevailing cultural wasteland. But it is always clear in his story line that adapting to the wasteland is the origin of his characters’ miseries – and that taking a stand against it is the way of redemption. Redemption is a very clear and consistent theme in all of Stillman’s films. He never ham-handedly and directly says this because like every competent artist he prefers indirection, but the implication is never less than clear.

  5. It is useful to know that the quartet of co-eds at the heart of the movie is based on an actual group of young women who turned around Whit Stillman’s college, serving as a positive mimetic model for the other students – wearing fine dresses and perfume. They set out to raise the class and standards of the college and succeeded in inspiring admiration and thus imitation. It’s an unusual thing to do so it makes sense that Violet in particular behaves and talks in a way removed from the commonplace.

    Some of the dialog and the manner of its delivery may seem stylized, suggesting the possibility of irony, but in fact sincerity is the theme of the movie. Violet is nothing if not earnest. Adam Brody who played Fred said he has never played a character more sincere and who is never ironic.

    Since the film is funny, and its themes unexpected, it may be tempting to imagine that the movie is some kind of parody involving ironic comment. If instead one recognizes that the film and its director is as sincere as the characters, then the charge of nihilism seems groundless.

    Instead, the movie is a tribute to an inspiring, transforming group of young women and to the values and styles of the fairly recent past as a rather joyful alternative to slovenly dress and low standards.

  6. Richard is right: The film is sincere, not ironic; it is, however, witty, and a casual viewer might mistake its wittiness for some kind of moral insouciance. That would be, precisely, a mistake. Another aspect of Damsels that I notice is its total lack of interest in pandering to any of the “pets” of liberalism. Consider this (quite witty) exchange between Fred and Violet, the context of which is the “Flit Lit” course that they are both taking –

    VIOLET: Have you chosen a topic for your final paper?
    FRED: Uh, “The Decline of Decadence.”
    VIOLET: You think decadence has declined?
    FRED: Definitely. Big time. Major, major decline.
    VIOLET: How?
    FRED: “How” or “in what ways?”
    [Violet shrugs and shakes her head.]
    VIOLET: Either.
    FRED: Okay, take the flit movement in literature, or homosexuality: It’s gone completely downhill. Right down the tubes.
    [He makes the sound: “Whchht.”]
    VIOLET: What do you mean?
    FRED: Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, sublimated, aspiring to the highest levels of creativity and expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts.
    [Violet pauses in thought for a long moment.]
    VIOLET: Are you gay?
    FRED: Not especially but in another era, it might of had some appeal. Now, I just don’t see the point.
    VIOLET: I think you might be romanticizing the past.
    FRED: We’ll never know. The past is… gone – so we might as well romanticize it.
    VIOLET: Hunh. You could be right.

  7. Bruce’s post raises a question worthy of debate. Is wit – or is Whit (Stillman) – incompatible with moral seriousness? I say that wit is by no means incompatible with moral seriousness. Bruce seems to argue the opposite.

    Or again, is irony incompatible with moral seriousness? I say it is not, and I cite Kierkegaard and Eliot.

    • I cite Shakespeare, CS Lewis, and George Carlin. And Tolkien.

      That said, I didn’t read Bruce as arguing that wit or irony are incompatible with moral seriousness.

      It seems to me that they can be quite compatible with moral seriousness, but that this is the case only with thinkers who are themselves extraordinarily serious men, who are also gifted writers. In their hands, almost anything can be morally serious – can be, as it were, supremely hilist – no matter how light or silly, or even debased. E.g., Bottom, for silliness; or Bilbo.

      In the hands of lesser men, on the other hand, or of lesser talents, wit and irony are usually empty. But the emptiness is due to the men, rather than to the rhetorical device.

      • George Carlin, with whom I had a number of conversations at the Shakey’s Pizza franchise in Malibu in the early 1980s, was an obnoxious left-winger who was also an awesomely ethical person, a family man who loved his children. And even then, thirty-five years ago, he could see that comedy was becoming impossible. I honestly believe that, were he still alive, he would be profoundly sympathetic to The Orthosphere.

        Kristor – I’d really like you to watch Damsels in Distress, supposing that you have not already done so. (Tom)

      • My impression of Carlin is that while he was *from* the Left, his basic attitude was hatred of evil & respect for the Good. In other words, that he was morally serious. I can’t hold his original credo against him; I, too, am from the Left. I, too, think that if he were still alive he would find himself more and more attracted to reaction against the modern, as the madness he was so quick to notice and to mock has ramified beyond all comprehension.

        Have not seen Damsels, and won’t have an opportunity to do so for a couple weeks. But you’ve added it to the top of my very short list.

    • The answer to the question whether irony is compatible with moral seriousness will turn, of course, on our definition of irony. As I recall, its proper definition in rhetoric is to seem to say one thing while saying another, as when a compliment is, in fact, a condemnation. If one woman says to another, “Oh, what a lovely dress,” and by that means the dress is hideous, she is speaking ironically.

      From here we can see irony going in two directions. The first is the absolute unseriousness of unremitting double-talk, the “irony” of the prematurely jaded twenty-something who is cultivating a reputation for world-weary superiority. The second is morally serious because it mouths conventional wisdom and platitudes to expose their falsity. The woman commenting on the “lovely dress” would be ironic in the first sense if she thought all dresses were hideous (or really didn’t care about dresses). She would be ironic in the second sense if she believed some dresses really were lovely, there should be more such dresses in the world, and that irony was a way to open people’s eyes to the hideousness of some dresses.

      An example of morally-serious that is often mentioned in the Alt Right is the rhetoric of “agree and amplify.” Here the agreement is ironic, and the amplification serves to expose the falsehood, indeed absurdity, of the proposition one seems to be agreeing with.

      I see sarcasm as “broad” irony, which is to say irony that is so obvious that it will be lost on no one. This serves mainly as a device to shame the object of the sarcastic comment–say the woman in the “lovely” dress. Irony differs from sarcasm in the fact that it is subtle, and therefore “goes over the head” of its object, and perhaps many bystanders. But this is precisely why it awakens or enlightens the bystanders who do get it. It triggers a direct experience of falsehood, absurdity, vileness, etc. It doesn’t simply tell a person that such and such is a sham. It makes them see it.

  8. Carlin lent himself instinctively to any number of obnoxious causes, but you are right that his fundamental commitment was to decency, or the Good, as opposed to indecency, or Evil. His confusion wasn’t moral; it was epistemological. This is the case with many decent left-wingers. Even Carlin’s “Seven Banned Words” routine was proto-anti-politically-correct. In conversation, he used profanity insouciantly, but my impression was that he was not a profane person. Carlin was a visitor to the Pizza Joint with his family, after all. And he did not disdain to join conversation with ordinary people. He had a natural recognition of honest speech.

    My disagreement with Bruce regarding Damsels in Distresss has to do with his assertion that the second half of the film is morally incoherent. No way! Stillman’s script is the paradigm of moral coherency. Richard Cocks and I are aficionados of Stillman. We talk about him, as we did today, at Old City Hall, the pub where we hold our session on Sunday afternoons. Stillman’s latest (fifth) film is an adaptation of Jane Austen, whose wit is difficult to underestimate. Jane Austen was not a nihilist.

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