In 1991—a bad year for culture, what with grunge, Oliver Stone’s JFK, and Boyz N the Hood—American filmmaker Whit Stillman, then 39, quietly released Metropolitan, the first of three witty, articulate social comedies that will prove as immortal as Hollywood’s golden comedies of the 1930s. Invoking the nineteenth-century social novel—where the drama lies in the nuance of etiquette, and words and conversations matter—these three comedies of manners articulate a coherent worldview: conservative (in the way that Jane Austen is conservative), rooted in traditional Western values and social attitudes, and elaborating a good-humored critique of the 1960s social revolution. Never curmudgeonly or didactic, Stillman is gently devastating on the folly of that era’s cult of personal, especially sexual, liberation. His is a humanistic, but withering, critique of a utopian modernity that would jettison the traditions of the past and remake the world anew.
The strongly marked young adults who people Stillman’s films have an intensely moral inner life, as they earnestly try to define the good and behave correctly. And that good consists of civility, restraint, thoughtfulness, and the conventions of social life. Stillman’s own moral code, recognizably descending from Alexander Pope or Jane Austen, is not grand or metaphysical but fitted to the human realm of social interaction; it transforms atomized individuals into a civil society. For Hollywood, such a code is deeply countercultural, and it makes Stillman—writer, producer, and director rolled into one—a filmmaker conservatives can love.
In Metropolitan, Stillman presents the stylized world of New York’s Wasp elite at the moment before the sixties cultural revolution turned it upside down. So, you might say, good riddance to an insular, unproductive class. But what Stillman shows in the course of this movie is what laudable moral values are contained within the admittedly slightly silly conventions of this class.
The movie focuses on a group of Park Avenue college freshmen attending formal dances and “after-parties” during one Christmas break in the late 1960s. Archaic, sure. But just compare this dating scene with that of modern colleges: here convention codifies relations between the sexes. The ballroom dancing is a formalizing of desire—a far cry from the isolated gyrating and deafening beats that my generation calls dancing. Couples converse. Like the ritualized steps of a dance, all the conventions of these parties humanize basic instincts into social graces and incorporate atomized individuals into a civilized community.
Each girl’s escort is responsible for her, at least for an evening, a convention that forces college boys to see themselves as protectors and to act chivalrously. It is the antithesis of our culture of random hook-ups, in which the time to figure out how you feel about a boy is after you’ve slept with him. When Tom, a hero of sophomorically socialist political beliefs, “shirks his duties as an escort,” the chivalrous Charlie upbraids him and rejects his attempt to excuse himself. “When you’re an egoist,” he remarks sarcastically, “none of the harm you do is intentional.” There is no moral relativism here; Tom, like every Stillman character, is expected to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions.
In this world of right and wrong, even the characters’ quips contain moral judgment. “Rick Von Sloneker and Serena Slocum—still together. It seems like it’s been months,” sneers Nick, Stillman’s ironic alter ego. “Well, one thing’s for certain: she’s lost her virginity by now.” “How can you say that?” Jane cries, outraged at the slur on the girl’s honor. Both the insult and the response are inconceivable post–sexual revolution. In London, where I live, a study just showed that the average girl loses her virginity at 15. Good, one (older, male) columnist wrote in the Observer: their sexuality will “empower” these children, especially as they notice that they attract older men—the columnist spent a worrying amount of time on “nubile, lithe bodies.” And sex will be a healthy and pleasant diversion from studying—it was over-testing that really worried him. Well, in Metropolitan, the highest praise isn’t to be nubile: it is to be principled.
Stillman’s characters talk about virtue and mean something. Charlie, who loves our heroine Audrey unrequitedly, sighs: “Audrey has a rare largeness of mind. She’s good-looking, smart, charming, principled—it’s an unusual combination.” Earlier he tells her: “You know, everyone likes you a lot—and it’s because they can see that you’re a good person.” Audrey herself indignantly defends Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park against a Lionel Trilling essay—which “goes on and on about how we modern people of today, with our modern attitudes, bitterly resent Mansfield Park because its heroine is virtuous. What’s wrong with having a virtuous heroine?” What, indeed?
In fact, the spirit of Jane Austen, Audrey’s favorite novelist, animates Metropolitan. Austen understands profoundly that manners are a kind of morals. She extols conventions that make civilized society possible. Stillman adopts not just her estimation of society but also her novelistic conventions, even down to the plot device of handwritten letters. His characters speak with a wit and articulateness that echo Austen’s seamless irony. Obviously, this is not photo-realism: even the best-educated private-school girl can’t get through a conversation without the occasional “like.” But Stillman’s slightly archaic, novelistic dialogue is a moral assertion—that you create meaning through polite and thoughtful discourse, which draws from the traditions of literature.
Though it is a paean to the value of traditional Wasp conventions, Metropolitan shows the Wasp elite losing confidence in itself and its way of life. The earnest Charlie sums up this fatalism in an emblematic Stillman speech: “I think that we are all, in a sense, doomed. . . . Downward social mobility: we hear a lot about the great social mobility of America with the focus, usually, on the comparative ease of moving upward, but what’s less discussed is how easy it is to go down. And I think that is the direction that we’re all heading in, and I think that the downward fall is going to be very fast, not just for us as individuals, but for the whole preppy class. . . . Take those of our fathers who grew up very well-off. I mean, maybe their careers started out well enough, but just as their contemporaries really began accomplishing things, they started quitting—'I’m rising above office politics,' or refusing to compete and risk open failure . . . or gradually spending more and more time on . . . conservation or the arts, where even if they were total failures no one would know it.” Replies Nick: “I can’t deny your point, but unlike you I always assumed I’d be a failure anyway.”
Here is a class declining in power—not just because of the Great Inflation or the influx of talented newcomers to Wall Street—but because, like our heroes’ fathers, they no longer feel obliged or able to be active participants in the modern world; no longer think that their traditions or conventions—much less their values—are worth defending; no longer believe that “to whom much is given, much will be required.” But retreat is a moral act. This collective loss of self-confidence opened the gates for the sixties counterculture to capture the elites without so much as a struggle. Stillman sees such failure of nerve as deeply irresponsible: these values are worth defending.
Even in Metropolitan, the notions that made the sixties are already eroding bourgeois values. Tom, Nick, and Charlie all have divorced parents; and the characters of Cynthia and Rick Von Sloneker embody and proselytize for the sexual revolution. Wastrel Rick affects a leveling cynicism, runs around with record producers and Euro-trash, and “keeps a collection of the panties of the girls he’s seduced.” The fact that one of his conquests subsequently kills herself hardly affects him. As for Cynthia, let’s put aside her indiscriminate promiscuity, her attraction to “the worst scoundrels imaginable,” and her fashionably blasé acceptance of drugs. Consider only her game of “Truth,” in which players must answer painfully personal questions. “Sometimes you can find out the most amazing things,” Cynthia simpers.
“There are good reasons people don’t go around telling people their most intimate thoughts,” Audrey sensibly objects. “Games like this can be really dangerous.” Their hostess, Sally, scoffs: “I don’t see what’s so dangerous about it.” And, in a truly conservative reply, Audrey articulates the moral role of convention: “You don’t have to. Other people did; that’s how it became a convention: people saw the harm that excessive candor could do.” Cynthia leaps on this: “You admit that it’s basically just a social convention then. . . . Basically what this game requires is complete candor, openness—I don’t see how that can be bad.”
Audrey loses the argument and learns something that wounds her deeply. Here is an effect of the sixties social revolution—in the name of openness and personal expression, Cynthia brushes aside the wisdom of convention as repressive and meaningless. And her friend gets hurt.
Metropolitan resists this new dispensation. As Audrey says in defense of Jane Austen’s world: “Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective would look much worse than ridiculous?” And most of Stillman’s young protagonists are engaged in a last stand to uphold the traditions and values of their class against modernity’s cultural vandalism. “So many things that were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience,” explains Nick. “Our parents’ generation were never interested in keeping up standards. . . . Ours is far worse. Our generation is probably the worst since the Protestant Reformation, far barer. . . . But now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.” Welcome to the world of multiculti relativism, which resents every facet of Western bourgeois culture as political or class oppression.
Against such postmodern radicalism, this movie asserts the worth of the bourgeoisie. “The term 'bourgeois' has almost always been one of contempt,” says Charlie, “yet it is precisely the bourgeoisie that is responsible, well, for nearly everything good in the world for the last four centuries. Do you know the French film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie? When I first heard that title I thought, finally, someone is going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie. What a disappointment.” This is a big claim—one that is as historically accurate as it is unfashionable.
The action of the film builds to a confrontation between the new sixties ethic and the high bourgeois values, which, like everything in this movie, is both tongue-in-cheek and profound. Audrey, still nursing the hurt she received in the game of Truth, has allowed herself to be talked into going to a house party at Rick’s summer place in the Hamptons. In a moment at once silly and heroic, Tom and Charlie rush to Southampton, desperate to save her from—they imagine—Rick’s evil clutches. They stay up all night worrying about Audrey’s honor, and Charlie delivers one of Stillman’s finest ripostes to the sexual revolution: “It may sound melodramatic to say [Rick’s] ruined girls; I mean, what does that really mean today? But it’s true.”
Being Manhattanites and unable to drive (“perhaps this is where the failure starts,” Tom considers), they hail a taxi to the Hamptons. They storm onto Rick’s lawn, find panties scattered around, and hammer on a door, behind which rock music blares—a first, in a film whose soundtrack consists primarily of classical music or big-band jazz. They find Rick shirtless and another boy is in his boxers; Cynthia, topless and druggy, is lying on the floor, swinging her legs to the music; Audrey, of course, is fully clothed—turtleneck, sweater, pearls, and all—and is reading.
And here the boys deliver the two greatest conservative comebacks in the film. “This is so embarrassing,” huffs Cynthia. “A little embarrassment might do you some good,” responds Charlie, a rousing bid for the power of conventional restraint. “This is my house,” rages Rick. “I can do whatever I want here.” “That’s not true,” Tom objects: values and standards apply even behind closed doors.
What a difference a decade makes. Stillman’s third film, The Last Days of Disco, set in Studio 54 in the early eighties, is in a sense Metropolitan II, presenting the same sort of articulate, upper-middle-class urbanites, now graduated from Hampshire and Harvard, where they have ditched their conventions and restraint to enlist in the sexual revolution and embrace a new set of values—if they can be called that—of experience, choice, openness, and fulfillment. But these values, far from being protective, hurry the new Me Generation into precocious sophistication before it is able to make the right choices in an adult world—with predictable consequences.
Stillman’s full-bore critique of the sexual revolution, this film embodies the new era’s allure in the character of Charlotte—and then debunks her every shallow notion. Elegant, sophisticated, and shameless, Charlotte seems able to remake reality according to her desires—from conjuring a relationship with another woman’s crush to arranging a dinner party, though she lives in a singles residence and must find the necessary apartment that day. Of course, she does. The movie contrasts her with Alice, an Audrey-like young woman of principle and earnestness in the looking-glass world of the sexual revolution. Alice is touchingly self-conscious, just venturing into her adult self; she spends half of the film ordering “weirdo drinks,” after deciding that the vodka tonic is a post-college cliché.
The most important of the “new social models” is the discotheque, and Stillman lavishly recreates Studio 54 as a place you’d want to go. Like Charlotte, the club is gorgeous, seductive, and fun. But whereas Metropolitan’s holiday balls were a social ritual that unified the city’s elite, the club creates a false elite of those cool enough, attractive enough, or just plain pushy enough to get in. The club’s thuggish managers define the rules—arbitrary, superficial, and capricious.
The disco dancing on the floor is a paradigm of modern sexual relations: there are no known steps, no clear partners—characters dance fluidly, in groups, shifting their attention from one person to another at random, or simply concentrating on themselves. No one touches for long, and yet there are no boundaries: anyone can knock into you (poor Alice spends one dance getting crashed about) or approach you sexually. Yes, dancing still formalizes desire—but compared with Metropolitan’s courtly ballroom steps, the form here is noncommittal, ever changing, and ultimately rather isolated.
It’s easy to think that the sixties revolution simply destroyed all values; it didn’t—it installed its own rights and wrongs, goods and bads. Charlotte’s credo articulates part of this new code: “I just think it’s so important to be in control of your own destiny, not to fall into the fifties cliché of waiting by the phone for guys to call,” she declares. “We’re in complete control. Look down: there’s a lot of choices out there.” Sure—but how do you know which is the right choice? The formlessness of infinite choice hobbles relationships: you can’t commit if there is always a better option. Nor can you be truly free if you have to worry about the results of your self-expression—hence an irresponsible and entitled generation.
In the new code, one of the highest goods is to be “nonjudgmental”—not a smart virtue, if you have limitless choices but can’t weigh one against the other. “One thing I’ve noticed is that people hate being criticized,” Charlotte tells Alice. “It’s one of the great truths of human nature.” In fact, she confides, “in college I really hated you; you seemed so moralistic and judgmental.”
What really riles Charlotte is the fact that Alice still has standards, judges people, and rejects postmodern equivalency. “I’m sorry,” Alice unhesitatingly pronounces, “but I don’t consider the guy who did the Spider-Man comics to be a serious author.” In Stillman’s eyes, what makes Alice so attractive is just this refined capacity for judgment. Charlotte, for her part, seems not to notice that she is being rather critical—but then, a sense of entitlement leads you to think that anything you say is your right.
A moral universe in which being nonjudgmental is a preeminent good—in which everything is simply a personal choice and there is nothing to be ashamed of—must produce a shameless society. So much so that Charlotte feels entitled to expose Alice’s most personal secrets to their friends. “Alice isn’t drinking,” she observes with surprise. “Omigod,” she surmises, “you have the clap! You’re on antibiotics, and the doctor told you not to drink.” After Alice—who, counterculturally, still has a sense of shame—runs off in tears, Charlotte assures her that “VD’s not all bad. I think you’ll find it will actually improve your reputation with these guys enormously. You’ll be more popular than ever—watch.”
Alice gets VD by following Charlotte’s advice on dating: “For most men, sexual repressiveness is a turnoff. . . . You’re a good conversationalist, but there’s something of the kindergarten teacher about you. . . . It can get pretty far from any sort of physicality.” In other words, stop the Audrey-like intellectual flirtation and make yourself a sexual predator, since in this topsy-turvy world, promiscuity has become a virtue.
As Alice follows Charlotte’s advice, Stillman dramatizes fully the harm that the new conventions do. Alice meets Tom, whom she liked in college, at the club, and walks home with him, sweetly having an Audreyesque discussion about the environmental movement. They are both charming, intelligent young people—and another set of conventions would have allowed them to fall in love—but, bound by the code of their times, they go home together.
Once in Tom’s house, Alice follows Charlotte’s seduction formula to the letter. “Do you smoke?” Tom asks. “When I drink or go out at night I usually smoke,” she replies. “I live dangerously, on the edge. I’m no kindergarten teacher.” She’s acting by the book; it’s just the wrong book. Even following Charlotte’s advice to “try putting the word 'sexy' into a sentence—it’s kind of like a signal: like, 'this fabric is really sexy,' ” she dutifully purrs over Tom’s comic-book collection, “There’s something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck.” It’s silly, but she is so adorable, and her seduction is inspired with such grace, that it makes a touching and subtle scene.
Tom puts on a record and she dances with him, in measured movements—slightly turning her head away when he tries to kiss her, looking down demurely, half glancing up to smile. Then she looks toward the bedroom, hesitates for a minute on the threshold, and with the most winsome expression dances in, inviting him to follow her. Who wouldn’t? She’s not promiscuous, not a slut—she’s initiating what she thinks will be the right beginning of a relationship.
But since she acts like a slut, Tom perceives her as one. Though a nice boy, he acts like a cad when he next meets her. “I was curious if the sexual revolution went as far as everyone said it had—but emotionally I couldn’t handle it,” he tells her. “I got so depressed, but when I saw you that night, you were a vision, not just of loveliness but of virtue and sanity. . . . You’re very sexy, and modern, and hot. But what I was craving was the sort of sentient individual who wouldn’t abandon her principles to hop into bed with every guy she meets in a nightclub. Why is it that, when people have sex with strangers on their mind, their IQ just drops, like, 20 points? . . . 'Uncle Scrooge is sexy'—I mean, my God, is there no limit? Do you think I’m an idiot? I’m so sick of all the lies and nonsense.”
He is being truly awful; yet it is easy to relate to his disgust and hopelessness, faced with a world devoid of romance. He participated in the cheapening of relations and—no surprise—felt cheapened. Even while scorning the new mores, Tom sticks to their conventions of “openness,” in a speech that is psychologically true and utterly lacerating. Though he isn’t cruel, he nevertheless breaks Alice’s heart. The let-it-all-hang-out conventions of the sexual revolution, which coarsen life rather than enhance and refine it, have turned both these nice kids into worse people and have deprived them of the commitment they long for.
Alice’s misadventures demolish Charlotte’s opening statements. Here is the Catch-22 of the sexual revolution: you diminish rather than fulfill yourself when you separate sex from love. To give our lives meaning, we make commitments to each other, which commitments then define us. Sexual mores and manners have everything to do with what distinguishes us as human.
No amount of political programming can deny that we have higher desires than those of the body. The rhetoric of the sexual revolution has created generations with twisted emotional wiring—now further warped by an education that teaches you, at 12, how to put a condom on a banana but never what sex means emotionally, never why to wait or how to behave in a chivalrous and modest manner with members of the opposite sex. My peers started their quest for experience even earlier than Alice: around 15, I was getting graphic lessons, again with bananas, on the steps of East 83rd Street. The result: a group of girls whose emotional ability to form relationships with good men is stunted, whose sense of self is cheapened, and who, at my age, have had experience galore and never once been in love.
The adherents of the sexual revolution presented a world without consequences. Freed from the restrictions of convention, we would satisfy our every desire and increase the store of human happiness. This proved to be a lie: sex has profound consequences—emotional, moral, and physical—as Stillman dramatizes in the final twist he gives to Alice’s story. Her one encounter scars Alice for life—Tom gives her herpes. Though Tom imagines himself a critic of the sexual revolution, in this instance he embodies its wounding irresponsibility: he knew he had a venereal disease but took no precautions, assuming that Alice’s promiscuity excused his carelessness. When Alice tells him she has gonorrhea—she’s as yet unaware that he’s given her herpes, too—he ungallantly tries to blame her. “So you think I gave it to you—how can you be sure? Well, you were a lot more active than I was: you were obviously very experienced.” No, she says; she was a virgin until that night. Flabbergasted, Tom asks, “How did you know all that?” She responds demurely, the Audrey of the sexual revolution: “Well, I read—a lot.”
As her devastating naiveté becomes clear—and for all her faux sophistication, she must turn to Tom for the facts of life—Tom realizes the horror of what he has done: “I can’t believe it. The first time you make love, I give you both G and an H infection.” Here the scene ends. There is nothing Tom can say to atone—the era’s conventional irresponsibility has led him to do something unforgivable—and Stillman banishes him from the movie. But, tellingly, this is the only place in the film where someone uses the phrase “making love.” Tom’s better self reasserts what sex should be—a union of two people committed to each other by love and duty.
No wonder Alice yearns for the order and restraint of traditional social forms. This is a lonely new world. “I’m beginning to think,” she says poignantly in the next scene, “that maybe the old system, of people getting married based on mutual respect and shared aspirations, and slowly, over time, earning each other’s love and admiration, worked the best.” “Well,” quips Charlotte crisply, “we’ll never know.” Alice’s yearning is Stillman’s social vision—his movies are a plea for measured, romantic restraint.
However worried Stillman may be about changes in American culture, they fade to insignificance when contrasted with Euro-nonsense. That contrast is the focus of his second film, Barcelona, which places two American cousins, Ted and Fred, in that city in the “last decade of the Cold War.” It’s a city where “the sexual revolution . . . went far beyond [the U.S.]. . . . The world was turned upside down and stayed there.” To their sexual irresponsibility, Barcelona’s Europeans add a full measure of political irresponsibility, making the film’s American characters seem idealistic and earnest by comparison. Here, Stillman’s ironic send-up of American culture plays off against his appreciation of its preeminent value.
The comedy concedes throughout that the film’s American protagonists are peculiar, in many of the ways that Europeans say we are. Ted, a junior sales executive for a Chicago-based multinational, embraces the earnestly optimistic self-help model of Ben Franklin and Dale Carnegie. “The classic literature of self-improvement really was improving,” he proclaims. It may be a naive and simplistic view, Stillman allows, but in a country of self-made men, it is effective, and it certainly allows us to be successful abroad.
Stillman is gently satirical about Ted’s religious zeal for the “culture of sales”: Ted asks his new girlfriend, “You know how, at parties, everyone always talks about marketing?” “No,” replies the beautiful Spanish Montserrat, “I have never heard anyone talking about marketing at a party.” Though Stillman is no cheerleader for corporate life—he dramatizes elite American culture’s disdain for the world of business with a quick shot of a stilted high-school production of Death of a Salesman—he understands both the moral worth of the Dale Carnegie model and the power of American business to make the world a richer, freer place.
Ted is also, in Fred’s term, a “Bible-dancing goody-goody,” a parody of the European stereotype of American religiosity. Fred and his date, Marta, walk in on a hilarious scene, typical of Stillman’s wry tone: Ted, blasting Glenn Miller, is reading a dog-eared Bible while Charlestoning with wild abandon, doing a high kick on every third step. Marta asks incredulously, “This is what the Protestant Church is like?” Mortified, Ted stops in mid-kick. “Pretty much,” quips Fred.
But how did Ted find religion? “An incredibly sad and guilt-ridden breakup led pretty directly to the Old Testament,” he explains in a voice-over, as Stillman shows a young woman talking intensely, though soundlessly, with furrowed brow—an ironically brief, pitch-perfect summation of every breakup. But Ted is too irrepressible to stay gloomy, hence Glenn Miller—the height of fun Americana—and his accomplished swing dancing, both so at odds with Old Testament rigor. Stillman wittily and affectionately captures the opposite forces, puritanism and pop, at play in American culture. Yes, to say we’re weirdly religious might be true, but it’s a gross simplification, forgetting American society’s fun and pep.
Ted’s cousin Fred is a navy lieutenant (j.g.) and patriotic, though like Ted a bit peculiar. He is a hero in military dress (shocking in 1994 to the Vietnam-obsessed elites). Proud of his uniform, he spouts what he terms the “fighting-for-freedom, defending-democracy, shining-city-on-the-hill stuff—which, as you know, I really buy.”
He fits the European stereotype of Americans as pushy and monomaniacal. Uninvited, he moves in to Ted’s house and won’t take Ted’s graceful hint to leave. He likes to “borrow” things without asking, often returning them less than intact. Though patriotic, he is shockingly ignorant of American history. And he loves being provocative. Many might find him obnoxious—but he’s too funny and ironic. Here is the best and the worst of America.
Fred is the ultimate B.S. detector, puncturing European faux sophistication and prejudices with sardonic élan. Europeans may say that we’re naive, compared with their seen-it-all worldliness, but Fred sends up their own credulousness with a ludicrous story about Ted that plays on their stereotypical illusions. Ted “may seem like a typical American, like a big, unsophisticated child,” Fred whispers to some Spanish girls, watching Ted dance, “but he’s far more complex than that. . . . Ted’s a great admirer of de Sade and a follower of Dr. Johnson’s. . . . You see that odd expression on his face? . . . Well, underneath the apparently normal clothes he’s wearing are these narrow leather straps, drawn taut, so that when he dances. . . . ” The girls lap it up and, when Ted returns, snuggle close.
For all their naiveté, Barcelona’s American heroes are, in Stillman’s view, forces for good, serving freedom and free markets. But the illusions of the movie’s Europeans are a darker matter, for they help create a pervasive, reflexive anti-Americanism that is ultimately extremely dangerous.
Remarkably prescient, Barcelona could easily be set in modern-day Old Europe. Fred and Ted are up against the clichéd condescension that I recognize from life in London. There’s the usual damning with faint praise—“You’re very intelligent for an American”—and the endless drivel in the foreign media. “The things they say about us,” Fred exclaims over the papers. “I know we’re not supposed to take it seriously, but after a while it really hurts.”
Barcelona’s ironically dismissive depiction of anti-Americanism’s irrationality amusingly deflates it. Fred deals summarily with political nonsense. “I think it’s well known that anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence,” he opines, “at least in Europe.” As he walks down the street with Ted, wearing his uniform, a scruffy group accosts him with “facha”—fascist. Really, Ted explains, this abuse is just an immature platitude: “You comb your hair, you wear a coat and tie—you’re facha; military uniform, definitely facha.” To no avail. Fred is overwrought: “So facha is something good then,” he replies sarcastically, “because if they were referring to the political movement Benito Mussolini led, I would be very offended. Men wearing this uniform died ridding Europe of fascism.”
Ted explains with good, nonjudgmental multilateralism: “This is not our country; we’re guests here. . . . There’s a lot of anti-NATO feeling here. . . . Actually here it’s OTAN.” Fred cuts straight through such wimpiness to assert the worth of American foreign policy. “They’re against OTAN? What are they for—Soviet troops racing across Europe, eating all the croissants?” As Stillman notes, there really are only two choices.
Stillman treats this anti-Americanism, initially, as the foible of irresponsible, decadent people. Marta, Fred’s erstwhile girlfriend, is one case study. Gorgeous and charming at first, in a ditzy, bombshell way, Marta ingenuously buys the anti-U.S. rubbish that Stillman says he was “pickled in” when he lived in Barcelona for a few years in the mid-eighties. Not terribly bright—she assumes Fred’s navy uniform is a fancy-dress costume—she spouts every contradictory anti-American cliché with word-perfect stupidity: “What would it be like to live in America, with all its crime, consumerism, and vulgarity—all those loud, badly dressed, fat people, watching their 80 channels of television and visiting shopping malls? The plastic, throw-everything-away society, with its notorious violence and racism and, finally, the total lack of culture.”
The fact that she’s dating a thin, dashing American doesn’t figure in her calculations. Nor, it seems, does her own experience of America, where she studied English. Fred asks her, “When you lived in Rhode Island, was the crime and vulgarity really so bad?” She simply smokes and shrugs—which I take as a no. Her anti-Americanism is just a fashionable attitude, irresponsible and unrelated to fact or observation.
But, for all her charm, Marta is a rather dangerous dope, and her irresponsibility causes harm. As much as The Last Days of Disco’s Charlotte, Marta is shameless entitlement embodied, stealing Ted’s petty cash—for, after all, would a rich American really miss it, and why isn’t she just as entitled to it as he? When Fred finds the money and Ted confronts her with the theft, she shows not a twinge of guilt, brazenly asking Ted for change, insisting that part of the cash Fred recovered was hers. “I need that money. It is mine. I am going away to lead an exemplary life.” The gall! Me, mine, I need. Further, because Marta’s intentions are good (she intends to live a good life), her past actions are blameless—though presumably she earned her own money dubiously, as Fred found it on a table strewn with drugs and Baggies.
In a shrewd if unflattering character assessment, Fred knows he will find the stolen money at Marta’s house. When he goes to collect it, he hears noises above the blasting rock music and walks into the bedroom, to find Marta astride another man. It’s the only sexually explicit scene in any Whit Stillman movie—and Stillman’s abrupt breach of his own conventions emphasizes how much he condemns her behavior. Though Marta later calls the incident “shameful,” she clearly has already forgiven herself. And she’s just as quick to exonerate herself when she breaks Ted’s confidence and scares off his Spanish girlfriend by telling her that he wanted to marry her. Unrepentant and self-righteous, she huffs that she had to warn her friend about Ted’s “extremist views. . . . I think there is something fascist about a boy who immediately talks about marrying a girl he likes.”
What Stillman notices in Barcelona is that irresponsible politics and irresponsible sexual behavior spring from the same ideology. The moral relativism that informs post–sexual revolution mores also undergirds European anti-Americanism. To a relativist, there is no difference between Soviet Russia and NATO; the Americans are no better than the fascists—what they all really want is power, which, like judgment, is one of the only postmodern vices.
Stillman makes this connection fully with European Exhibit B: Ramón, Montserrat’s truly despicable live-in lover since she was just 16. A stream of other women traipse in and out of Ramón and Montserrat’s bed. She’s not supposed to mind—they’re far too sophisticated—but she does: we see her disconsolately picking another woman’s hair from her sheets.
Ramón is a journalist; and when he’s not writing fashion pieces about the “beauty of the female face and form,” he spews out such rubbish as an exposé of the “AFL-CIA.” In case you’re wondering, the AFL-CIA is an organization “sent to Europe to crush progressive unionism . . . terribly right-wing and facha.” “It’s amazing what Americans don’t know about their own country,” Marta twitters after listening, rapt, to Ramón’s twaddle.
But like Marta, Ramón has little time for finding out the truth or the facts. That the Europeans are sincere in their belief in the AFL-CIA, or any other rubbish, matters to them—not whether such an organization exists or not. Later Ramón will argue: “I don’t think a journalist should be blamed for writing what he believes to be true.” But one is responsible for finding out the truth of an assertion; intentions count for nothing.
In Ramón, Stillman’s deftly ironic depiction of anti-Americanism turns darker, conceding the possibility of evil. Anti-Americanism isn’t a harmless pose: because of Ramón’s front-page scoop that Fred is a member of the CIA—he isn’t—which has covert operations in Barcelona—it doesn’t—Fred is shot, the victim of an attempted assassination by radicals. For the rest of the movie, Fred teeters between life and death in the hospital. Coming out of a coma to contradict Ted, he resumes his usual charmingly obnoxious tone, and Stillman gives us a happy ending—though in the first draft of the screenplay there was yet another terrorist attack. But the core of Stillman’s critique of sixties ideology, both political and sexual, is that its irresponsibility hurts people, even kills them.
Indeed, anti-American terrorism punctuates this film, which opens on an anarchist smashing the American Library’s window, and includes a bombing of the USO, in which an American serviceman dies. Fred, Ted, and another American sailor—a teenager—sit with the coffin until it is loaded on a plane home. They read the navy burial service over it. The scene is profoundly moving: children play-acting grown-ups, trying to create a makeshift sacrament and ritual in an industrial warehouse, where the coffin eventually gets forklifted away like freight. Fred brings a bottle of Old Crow; they drink to the Brooklyn sailor, and the other sailor reminisces that he “saw himself as a Brooklyn Johnny Cash.” “Oh, Yonny Cash?” pipes up a Spanish policeman (American popular culture is universal, and universally fun, despite all the European chatter about its vulgarity). The disjunction between the industrial scene and the service for burial of sailors at sea evokes a profound sense of displacement, intensified by these American boys drinking their bourbon and talking about country music in a hostile, foreign land that they are trying to protect. While defending European freedom, Americans aren’t just subjected to risible anti-American drivel; they are being killed by it.
At a party, Ramón lengthily argues that the USO bombing was perpetrated by Americans. “There is actually a long history of bloody American provocations of this kind,” he drawls. Sound familiar? Today, 19 percent of Germans, according to a Die Zeit poll, think that America masterminded the September 11 atrocities, and as I write 100,000 protesters are raining on Bush’s state visit to the U.K., reenacting the toppling of Saddam’s statue, except with an image of Bush, “the global terrorist.” Indeed, the U.K.’s former environmental secretary, Michael Meacher, who sat on Blair’s war cabinet, wrote in the Guardian that the U.S. “let 9/11 happen.” Why? Because the attacks provided a convenient pretext for pre-planned wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, part of Bush’s master plan for “U.S. world domination.” How lucky for the administration, then, that 3,000 Americans were slaughtered, and the costly wars went ahead to protect the West, including Old Europe, from Muslim terrorism. As Ted says of Ramón’s USO fantasy, it is a tissue of “disgusting lies.” It is greatly to Stillman’s credit that he understood with such canny prescience the destructiveness of anti-Americanism long before 9/11.
Barcelona is an affirmation of American culture in opposition to this very un-American outlook on life. American-led global capitalism, of the Dale Carnegie kind, creates widespread prosperity, and American “shining-city-on-the-hill stuff” inspires us to defend Europe, to ensure freedom, and to make the world a safer place. In the end, of course, Fred and Ted marry those Spanish girls who are worth something—those who help Ted during Fred’s convalescence, and who despise Ramón—and bring them back to the States. The movie closes with the ultimate affirmation of the American way of life: a country barbecue. For Stillman doesn’t espouse just the values of a particular class—as we might have guessed in Metropolitan—but the value of America.
Although Hollywood, post-9/11, is now edging toward patriotism, it is still at the simplistic level of the action film—usually a war film set in the past. Stillman stands for the America we want to see—of traditional mores, aesthetic sophistication, wry patriotism and wit—and does so with a style and intelligence that put to shame European babble about America’s “total lack of culture.”