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Love and Love and Friendship
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I like to belittle filmgoers who geek up for the latest installment of their favorite franchise by binge-watching previous movies in the series, but damned if that isn't what I'm doing for the latest Whit Stillman movie. Love and Friendship, Stillman's most recent, opens on May 13th, and to get ready for the big event I've been re-watching all of Stillman's previous movies. None of the other films are connected, really, except in tone, and that they were all made by Stillman, but still I want to reconnect with that distinctive voice before seeing the latest.
I should point out that binge-watching all of Stillman's movies isn't exactly the most daunting task in the world. Since 1990, when his first movie, Metropolitan opened, Stillman has made exactly five films. For comparison's sake, Woody Allen — who Stillman often gets compared to, unfairly or not — has made 26 feature films, though I'm not sure I can remember more than a handful of them. (Bullets over Broadway. The "Streetcar" one with Cate Blanchette. The one where Jesse Eisenberg tried, disconcertingly, to sound like Woody Allen.) After Metropolitan, Stillman took 4 years to make his follow-up, Barcelona (1994.) His next film, The Last Days of Disco, debuted in 1998. After that, Stillman must have decided that four years between films was just too frenzied, so he took another 13 years to make the fourth, Damsels in Distress (2011.) And now Love and Friendship, a relatively brisk five years later.
It's odd to discover a filmmaker with a distinctive voice who seems to have such a leisurely attitude about making movies. It reminds me of Terrence Malick, who made a huge splash with "Badlands" in 1973 and then followed up with "Days of Heaven" a full five years later. After that movie, Malick basically took a couple of decades off before returning with The Thin Red Line in 1998. Then seven more years ("The New World"), then six more years ("The Tree of Life.") I don't like to do too much digging into artists' lives, I don't really need to know what's going on with them, why the gaps are so long — I just would rather appreciate the product they put out independently. But it's curious, especially when compared to the furious output of other, more prolific filmmakers, who seem desperate to keep striking while the iron is out, and while they're still in the public eye.
Stillman's an independent filmmaker, so I imagine he probably has to perform the usual financial sleight-of-hands to get the budget squared away, but I'd like to think that he's rather disinterested in the whole process. Maybe that's why his films are so enjoyable to me. The movies feel free; they give off a wildly improvisational air though I'm certain everything is tightly scripted. Basically the four movies are about groups of oddball, off-center types who perform certain social customs and rites while engaging in playful and intellectual (and pseudo-intellectual) arguments. In spite of the long gaps between films Stillman maintains the same appealing tone; sometimes I feel like I'm watching the same movie, over and over again. This doesn't dilute the pleasure at all, by the way; I feel the same way when I read Thomas Berger and Balzac. They tell the same story, book after book, but it never gets old.
Love and Friendship — and I've already doped out where it's playing in my neighborhood, so I can get a baby-sitter lined up — is based on a Jane Austen story, and that immediately opens a fresh can of worms. Austen continues to be a popular source for filmmakers, and Austen fans get downright moony about any new production, so I imagine Stillman's relative anonymity will get taxed pretty strongly by the film's release. Many of the publicity stories for the movie point out the similarities between the two writers — they're both funny, they're both fascinated with cultural mores and social intricacies — but I'm hoping the movie will be more Stillman than Austen. And I like Austen, I recognize her stature, I like the books and I loved Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility and Colin Firth's Pride and Prejudice and Clueless — but Stillman's the filmmaker/writer that I relate to the most. The voices in Stillman's movies correspond nicely with the voices in my head, which I'm guessing is probably not the best recommendation I can come up with to get people inside the movie theatre.
But I'm rooting for Love and Friendship to become a big hit for Stillman. (The reviews are good, the trailer's hilarious.) He doesn't use big stars in his films, though Kate Beckinsale is on board here (she was also in The Last Days of Disco, before she started wearing black spandex), and the built-in Austen demographic will certainly make the box-office total for Love and Friendship the largest in Stillman's career. (His films haven't done badly — Barcelona, his biggest hit, made $7 million, which, for an independent film with a tiny budget, isn't insignificant. He probably makes enough money from his films to live on, and to make keep making movies, when he gets around to it.)
Of course, the total take for Love and Friendship will probably get eclipsed by the Friday matinee box-office of Captain America in its opening weekend, but I'm still hoping the movie will find its audience. Like most crazy fans I'm a little protective of my pet filmmaker, so I'm a bit anxious to see what people think of the new film. It's almost embarrassing to admit that if I have friends who'll see the movie and say they hate it, I'll probably take it personally. It'll feel like an utter rejection, for some reason. (I'm still bitter about a few friends who didn't get High Fidelity.) It's always troubling when people are determined to have their own opinions and refuse to think exactly like you do. I imagine I'll tell them, bitterly, scornfully, that they shouldn't worry, that a new Transformers or Fast and Furious is on the way. And then I'll come up with an intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) argument to prove that I'm right.