Monday, October 28, 2013
Damsels in Distress (2011)
Personal style. Why does it annoy people so much? Walt Stillman's Damsels in Distress really got up people's noses if the reviews are anything to go by. The one on the IMdb gives it a single star out of ten. To put that into context, Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space, often cited as the worst film ever made, gets two. At the London Film Festival there were mass walk-outs when it was shown. The reaction was even more extreme than what we usually see towards Woody Allen or Wes Anderson. (Allen is so toxic they edit out any mention of him in the advertising for his own films. Or in the case of Paris/Manhattan, a film about a woman's love for Woody Allen, the trailer has no place for a single mention of him). Why is this? Well, firstly, I think audiences have become so schooled in what to expect from a film they get impatient/outraged when it fails to adhere to these conventions, openly flaunts them, or, worst of all, seems blissfully unaware of them. Damsels in Distress seems guilty of all of these crimes. Stillman has no idea/or interest in how to pace a film, that's clear, the actresses struggle at times with the archly witty dialogue, the university setting has little connection to any reality, the narrative arc has no (artificial) drive. What's worse, the audience can see most of this is deliberate. Stillman doesn't care. He sets up a typical dynamic. Girl declares handsome men insufferable. Cue handsome editor of campus newspaper. They get into a public disagreement. It would be reasonable for the audience to expect this relationship to develop along a Hepburn/Tracy they-hate-each-other-but-really-love-each-other formulaic way. But having set up this plot avenue, he just drops it. The film isn't about that. It's counter-intuitive. It's in love with simple pleasures (dancing) and honest responses (the almost child-like frat boys). This knowing contrariness is the second reason certain people respond badly to the film. They instinctively resent films that display a bookish sensibility that is a subtle put-down to those not in the know. Stillman has read books and isn't ashamed to show it. He doesn't modulate his references because most people won't know them. He expects you to know/find out/not care. So the film doesn't hide its literary, oddball heart, its sophisticated, flippant disregard for seriousness. And then there's Greta Gerwig. Her Violet is like a space alien's idea of a Jane Austen character. Her desire to help those less fortunate than herself, the suicidal especially, is epically condescending, but her gawky/beautiful earnestness is mesmerising. Her heart is good and behind it all she's not what she seems. (Several of the characters are hiding behind made-up personas, re-inventing themselves, casually refuting notions of authenticity). When her doofus boyfriend Frank (a hilariously dim-witted Ryan Metcalf) cheats on her Violet becomes depressed, but soon discovers the restorative powers of nice-smelling soap and sets about inventing a new dance craze. The film hangs on Gerwig's ability to be both arrogant/sincere, knowing/naive, delusional/practical, to deadpan the humour with deliciously slow responses. So yes, it's whimsical, sweet-hearted, cleverer than it looks and ends with a show-stopping dance number to Things Are Looking Up (originally sung by Fred Astaire in the 1937 film Damsels in Distress). In short, all the things that annoyed people are the things I liked.