Thursday, September 10, 2009

Independents Days

I’ve had few good things to say about The Esteemed School of Art. For most of the three years I thought I had made a big mistake being there and the tutors pretty soon made it clear that they too thought it was a big mistake me being there too. Still, there were always upsides. With the first year tutors trying their damnedest to make my life there as uncomfortable as possible, even when I wasn’t directly their responsibility, I had fun ticking them off by simply hanging on in there.

When I tired of sticking in their craw I’d duck out and catch a movie. Writing a few bits and pieces at the time, I was invited along to a fair number of press screenings during the morning. Then one or two afternoons a week I’d scoot off to catch a current release or some old classic at one of the many rep cinemas. In both instances I usually went for the kind of films that most probably wouldn’t have made it west ways until they appeared, boxed up, on the shelves of a local video rental store.

Apart from the more familiar mainstream releases that were readily embracing the new “high concept” formula of filmmaking, smaller, cheaper, and more unusual American movies started to appear, made by writer-directors who hadn’t simply gone cap in hand to Hollywood. Looking back now, these people were obviously the next generation on from the movie brats of the 1970s who conquered Hollywood by tearing up the old studio system rulebook only to just as spectacularly destroy their careers before the decade was out through a mixture of drugs and rampant ego.

With the emergence of film distributors like Nik Powell and Steve Woolley’s Palace Pictures these more idiosyncratic feature films, which were less likely to show up on screens across the country in the days before the arrival of the first multiplexes, began to appear in London’s collection of arthouse cinemas. With little information to go on, sometimes I made the wrong choice when it came to picking which film to see. I never really got Jim Jarmusch until the arrival of 1989’s Mystery Train, and there was a Greek film about two young sisters searching for their missing father that was one of the most tedious movies I’ve ever seen.

But to compensate for the films that I remember as failures or the films that, after all these years gone by, I don’t remember at all, there were the delights of Mark Romanek’s wonderfully offbeat Static, Alex Cox’s downright weird Repo Man and the thoroughly demented Re-Animator. Although the chronology regarding release dates probably doesn’t exactly fit, they were all loosely bracketed by The Coen brothers’ Noir-influenced Blood Simple, which I saw at one of the local Chelsea cinemas early on in my first year at The Esteemed School of Art, and their slapstick follow-up Raising Arizona, which arrived just before graduation and freedom.

As entertaining as those varied movies were, my favourite came a year after Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and just before the rise of Miramax as a distribution and production company turned Independent Film into a going concern. That film was Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, released in late 1990. I mentioned back on the It’s Only a Movie Meme that the film was one I was really pleased to finally be able to get on DVD, although calling it, “a tale of adolescent angst that takes place against the backdrop of New York’s debutante society,” was a rather glib way of describing it.

Made on a shoestring budget of $210,000, a good portion of which came from Stillman selling his apartment, Metropolitan takes place over a Christmas break in New York and follows a Princetown student of limited means falling in with a group of well-heeled Upper East Side preppies known as the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack”, making the rounds of the season’s debutante balls. Obviously this may not to be everyone’s tastes, especially if they’re after mindless fistfights and car chases, but as a sublime comedy of (sometimes bad) manners, Stillman’s film is an absolute treat.

Four years later Stillman was back with the equally charming Barcelona. Financed this time by studio money and influenced by his own experiences of living in Spain a decade earlier, the film follows an American salesman residing in Catalonia and his visiting naval officer cousin negotiating the awkwardness of love and anti-American sentiment. Another four years on and the director was back in Manhattan with The Last Days of Disco.

A gloriously sardonic comedy, The Last Days of Disco followed the lives of two young women working as lowly publishing assistants and their circle of Ivy League graduate friends, set against the backdrop of the last dying gasps of the disco craze. The third film in a series that Stillman described as, “Doomed Bourgeois in Love”, it was further evidence that these movies were in a similar vein to the most acerbic Woody Allen comedies, but without the distraction of having a creepy old guy repeatedly chasing after nubile young girls.

If that regularity had continued Stillman should have made two more movies by now, with a third just around the corner. Alas, he returned to Europe, residing in Paris for the next nine years, where he found a very different system of filmmaking in place, which made it far more difficult to raise finance in what is essentially a subsidized industry. Now that he’s back in America maybe there is hope for another film. That would certainly be a breath of fresh air now that independent film has become a brand that too often get entangled between the worst aspects of Kevin Smith and the emptiness of that arch cine-thief Tarantino.

A couple of evenings ago I was watching The Last Days of Disco again, which has recently been reissued on DVD as one of the latest additions to The Criterion Collection. The last entry in what has become a loose trilogy recording the lives of – as one character in Metropolitan attempts to identify themselves – the “urban haute bourgeoisie”, to link the films Stillman playfully includes cameo appearances from Taylor Nichols’ Ted Boynton, stopping off in the Studio 54-like on his way through town from Barcelona, and members of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack reliving debutante season on the dance floor.

An hour in, Carolyn Farina’s Audrey Rouget appears with other characters from Metropolitan (including, rather bizarrely Taylor Nichols’ Charlie Black, giving him two roles in the film). A few scenes later she pops up again, dancing just in front of the film’s lead actresses, Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. Suddenly I found myself reaching for the remote, scanning back to where she is ensconced on one of the club’s plush banquettes and hitting the pause button.

What is it that attracts you to a movie? Is it because a favourite actor is in the lead role, or the director behind the camera, or the attendant hype lures you in, or you’re simply looking for easy entertainment? For me it’s story first and foremost, although I have to admit I am occasionally taken in by these other temptations. Whit Stillman’s films had become favourites due of his wry observations of social dynamics, which I’m always trying to get my head around as they both fascinate and infuriate me to this day.

But in that instance, staring at the still frame of Audrey Rouget on the television, I was struck by just how much she reminded me of The One That Got Away. Obviously she wasn’t a true doppelgänger. The hairstyle was different and The One That Got Away had a more ample bosom, but it was the posture and demeanour on screen that made her appear so familiar. Ultimately, I was shocked not just by the sudden awareness but that it had taken this long to actually notice the similarity.

Last night, rather tentatively, I watched Metropolitan again, buffered by the audio commentary that Metrodome, the DVD’s UK distributor, had specially brought the director over here to record. In the final scenes, the sideways glances the character gives in a beach house out in The Hamptons and then her stance on the Long Island shore certainly confirmed my earlier reaction and I was left wondering how I could have been blind to it over all these years.

It would take far too long to explain what The One That Got Away meant to me. She wasn’t my first love. That would be far too sappy. But the time we had together, which started just after I had graduated, was working for The Mouse and was about to be published, was probably the happiest in my life. All this happened before Metropolitan was released and then a year after I’d seen the film for the first time our paths crossed again. Rather tentatively we’d meet up over the course of the next couple of months, culminating in an extraordinary night of passion, after which she sent me an invitation to her wedding.

Clearly that’s never the best way for a romance to end, at least from my perspective. Since then she has gone on to haunt every relationship I’ve been involved in since, from the Fertile Psychopath through to The Blonde with the Butterfly Tattoo and beyond. And if a day goes by where I don’t think of her at some point, then I figure it has been a good day. You’re long gone but I can’t move on, indeed. Still, this late and unexpected realization didn’t diminish my enjoyment of Stillman’s films. So I suppose in the end you just have to count your blessings and carry on.


At 1:50 am, Blogger wcdixon said...

You had me at "...more ample bosom"

Very nice post...and thanks for the update on Stillman, I've always been fond of his 'trilogy'.

At 1:28 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


Initially I described her as “voluptuous” and then figured, that’s not really right either. “Curves in all the right places”, maybe. “A nice rack” that was “real, and spectacular!” sounded too glib. I was purposefully making the effort to compare her to the character Audrey Rouget, rather than the actress Carolyn Farina, because it was the looks and demeanour of the person I was seeing on the television screen that reminded me so much of Lindsay.

Because we were together (initially) just over twenty years ago, before pocket-sized digital cameras or the easy availability of mobile phones that had picture-taking functions, I have just one photograph of her – taken for her graduation, in which she’s striking a businesslike pose – to base the looks on. With no snaps of her dressed for our evenings at the theatre, opera or ballet, sitting in restaurants or strolling along the Embankment or through Whitehall at night, spending Christmas with her parents, or just hanging out and enjoying each other’s company, I have to rely on memory, which is never that reliable at the best of times and mixes the good with the bad in equal measure.

...Twenty years ago?! Jesus! How many relationships since then faltered simply because I couldn’t admit to the girl, “You’re not her!” Thank goodness The Blonde with the Butterfly Tattoo didn’t look like Chloë Sevigny.

Anyway, back to Stillman’s movies. It looks like The Criterion Collection is in the process of securing the DVD rights to Barcelona so all three films will finally be available, which is a good thing. And maybe sometime soon he’ll get the funding sorted for Dancing Mood, inspired the rocksteady and ska music of 1960’s Jamaica.

And maybe sometime soon


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