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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, June 26, 2020

entry arrow10:00 AM | The Film Meme No. 62

[62nd of 100]. Whit Stillman's Barcelona [1994] is tighter as a film, and his Love and Friendship [2016] is more accomplished, but his freshman effort, part of the cohort that defined American independent filmmaking in the early 1990s, is the most compelling, and more than 25 years after its premiere in 1990, it has remained the landmark title in his filmography. It is also pretty much a miracle. Because it shouldn't exist the way it is. A comedic exploration of class triumphs and tragedies, it investigates, coddles, and skewers, all in equal measure, the comforts and malaise of a very particular class of the American 1%, the young and idle rich, which the movie lovingly dubs as the "urban haute bourgeoisie." We follow them closely -- this group which calls itself the Sally Fowler Rat Pack -- as they spend one Christmas season attending debutante balls in New York City and spending company in extensive after-parties, and admitting into their rarified ranks a young man named Tom Townsend, an outsider from the Upper West Side, essentially New York's version of the wrong side of the tracks. Tom becomes the audience's surrogate into this strange, closed up world, and we succumbed to it as much as Tom finds himself equally seduced. This look into the moneyed class was the reason why the Sundance Film Festival rejected it in the first place, because its focus on the rich made it stand out too much in a festival populated with regional titles and films about minority voices -- to which Stillman gave a counter-argument: that the film, ironically, is about a minority. Sundance reversed its decision, and the film became an unlikely hit, earning millions upon its budget of about $200,000. It shouldn't be a hit since its largely defined by its academic dialogue, its young stars -- all of them new to film -- hanging around in posh living rooms in their gowns and tuxedos, talking in a hyper-articulate way about deep topics such as public transportation snobbery, opposition to conventional society, the appeal of Jane Austen, the phenomenology of religion, the illusion of popular imagination, the supremacy of literary criticism over fiction, and economic theory. They drop names such as Thorstein Veblen, Charles Fourier, Averell Harriman, and Lionel Trilling with nary a sweat, or missed beats by those listening, and they drop conversational witticisms such as in this exchange: "The titled aristocracy are the scum of the earth." "You always say 'titled' aristocrats. What about 'untitled' aristocrats?" "Well, I could hardly despise them, could I? That would be self-hatred." And yet not a single scene feels forced or contrived, a quality I responded to when I first saw it in the mid-1990s, my great epoch of discovering movies. You actually feel as if you're in the company of authentic upper-class denizens who just happen to be too intellectual for people their age, very much like the teenagers in Dawson's Creek on TV, or films like Cruel Intentions and Scream did. [Hyper-articulate, hyper-aware teenagers in pop culture is very much a 90s thing.] You soon feel however that they are using language both as a weapon and a mask because they really cannot bring themselves to articulate their real feelings and intentions. Questions like: Will I make something of myself or am I destined to be a failure? How do I tell someone I like them? Will we still be friends after this whole season is over? How do I get over someone? In their earnest debates standing in for unsaid existential dilemmas, I found myself drawn in. What's the film?

For the introduction to this meme, read here.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich