Unlike the microcosm where Metropolitan(1990), Whit Stillman‘s charming, pastel-coloured portrait of the waning demimonde of old-money New York’s debutante Park Avenue scene, is set, captured in its heyday by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his book This Side of Paradise, the film has elegantly survived the test of time. Metropolitan has the look of those illustrations published by vintage high society magazines, which seem to have miraculously escaped the one-dimensional confines of paper and transposed themselves to the three-dimensional world of film – think of those elegant illustrations that the New Yorker carries and you’ll get an idea. It’s also loosely based on Jane Austen´s Mansfield Park and her name actually comes up in the film a couple of times.
But this is Cinema and not just literature in celluloid clothing because there are moments when Whitman explores the exclusive properties of the medium to save it from becoming too stage-y, affected and anaemic like those awful-looking Merchant Ivory films. Furthermore, the ensemble cast is flawless, both for their acting skills and their physical types.
Rich in classy irony, the film is a succession of meetings amongst a group of young socialites who gather nightly to talk about their lives, the changing world into which they were born and to play games. They invite a socialist outsider into their group (Tom Townsend, played by Edward Clements), who lives in the West Side of Manhattan (the wrong side, on their terms). Although a dissonant note, Tom is welcomed by Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman), the ringleader, and by the intelligent-looking Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina). After this initial set-up, you spend the rest of the film like an invisible gatecrasher in a posh flat, so believable and evocative the film is. Whitman is an expert in films dealing with milieus in transformation, a topic he tackled with equal wit in The Last Days of Disco (1998), which looked at the arrival of yuppie culture in the early 1980s. Metropolitan is a subtle, authorial film, and surprisingly universal despite the boxed-in universe wherein it is set.
Speaking of twilights, Tell Them Who You Are is a documentary about one person’s twilight, namely legendary cinematographer and verity cinema pioneer Haskell Wexler, the man behind the camera in films such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966), American Graffiti (1973), Coming Home (1978), Bound for Glory(1976) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Wexler, who is now pushing 80, created during his long career a fiery reputation which has left no love lost between him and former collaborators such as Milos Forman.
Tell Them Who You Are was made by Wexler’ son Mark Wexler, who blends autobiography with biopic. The unintentional results of this film are: a)it shows that Wexler father, despite widespread recognition as a legend, is not really that fascinating; b)a talent for good cinematography is not hereditary; c)the New Hollywood generation is not aging well.
There is a lot of archival footage that makes Tell Them Who You Are worthwhile but the film suffers from its rambling structure that undermines some of its good moments. Wexler son was keen on carving out a strong father/neglected son type of drama and meditate on the nature of film, but the overall impression is that he is not sophisticated enough to achieve more than hinting at his artistic intentions.
Wexler father comes across as a rebel born into guilty privilege who would have loved to direct the films he phographed. But his forays as a director never really panned out (the film explores Wexler-the-failed-director to add an element of pain to an otherwise quite blessed life). But it’s hard to be convinced to care. The premise of the film is hinged on the assumption that the films he photographed are extremely important, that the New Hollywood generation that film critic Pauline Kael canonised really represented an aesthetic and political revolution, an opinion that the consistently diminishing quality of the films of the surviving members of that generation (Scorcese, Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, Bogdanovich and even Altman) has put into question in recent years.
One of the best moments in Tell Them Who You Are is the segment when Jane Fonda is interviewed (Wexler photographed Coming Home, which Fonda starred in). Fonda has remained a charismatic film persona who has aged extremely well. To be fair, Wexler is likeable at points and his legacy surely has a place in film history, but Tell Them Who You Are looks more like a reality TV-style filial revenge than proper homage or profile.
Metropolitan and Tell Them Who You Are are out now. Please follow the links provided on the sidebar to purchase them and support Kamera.