July 1, 2007

Whit Stillman, the anti-John Hughes

I finally got around to seeing Metropolitan, and since there are already good reviews of it here and here (the latter covering other of Stillman's movies as well), I won't expound on the plot much here. It's about the tension a group of 20 year-olds senses, as conventions that promote social cohesion begin to break down and they must grope their way forward into adulthood. It is set a little while after the start of the cultural revolution of the late '60s. *

To continue some points I touched on in two previous posts (here and here) on how well teen movies manage to capture reality, one recurrent theme in bad coming of age movies -- as exemplified by John Hughes' The Breakfast Club -- is that much of the conflict in the characters' lives stems from clashes with their parents, or perhaps from poor parenting. In reality, adolescents and young adults socialize themselves, and the only adults who matter are those who can break into the youth culture -- not the adults one lives with, in other words. Judith Rich Harris has nicely summarized the research to this effect in The Nurture Assumption, which shows that parents have no detectable influence on their children's adult personalities beyond what is expected from the parents' genetic contribution. And obviously, children don't dress or talk like their parents, nor listen to the same music or watch the same movies and TV shows.

In case you forgot, most teenagers don't bitterly resent everything their parents stand for, but instead pay them no mind, as though their parents were clueless and thus had little valuable advice. And that's true for a lot of things: a 40-something is (fortunately) incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of their teenage child who's debating whether or not to ask their crush to Homecoming. Since their worlds don't overlap much, the teen plays it smart and takes advice from those in a better position to know what the current weather conditions are. (And so, they'll only listen to their parents on matters that are invariant across the decades, assuming the parents can come up with a good solution.) This is one aspect of teenage life that both Heathers and Mean Girls got right: in both, the parents are portrayed as dopes in the background, all of the conflict stemming from the Lord of the Flies dynamic that prevails among teenagers themselves.

Incidentally, one cause of the greater breakdown of guidance of youngsters is the prevailing generation-time among well-off people, many of whom tend to have kids when the mother is about 35, so that the parents are 50 by the time their kid is in high school -- talk about non-overlapping worlds. This delayed age-at-first-child also offers another reason why the children of accomplished parents, like Charlie in Metropolitan, might dread not measuring up: the children would have been better off developmentally had the mother given birth at 25 instead of 35, even neglecting the effect of regression to the mean. And as I've pointed out before, it seems that 20-somethings spend much less time around little kids and teenagers than before, squandering an opportunity to impart what wisdom they've learned the hard way. Teenagers are far more open to what 20-somethings say than 50-somethings, and are thus more suitable as Trojan horses.

So, why all the melodrama about evil, overly demanding parents in "real life" teen movies like The Breakfast Club? For one thing, most of these movies were created by Baby Boomers, including Hughes (b. 1950), and theirs was the first generation in recent times to view any demand that a kid push themselves to excel as a violation of the right to "do what you feel like." Stillman (b. 1952) is an exception that proves the rule: Metropolitan documents the decadence that results from young people not being pushed hard enough. It is pretty clear that Stillman is not laying blame for this failure at the feet of the characters' individual parents, but rather of the larger cultural revolution that their parents' generation created in the late '60s and early '70s.

This produces, on the one hand, vapid nobodies like Cynthia, and on the other ineffectuals like Charlie who are stuck in theorizing about their own impending doom. Those in the top percentile of work ethic may not need a kick in the ass, but that's what conventions like pushing kids are for: to get the other 99% of young people where they need to go. If you've ever wondered why there are so many smart, promising people working at Barnes & Noble and Starbucks, when they should be doing research or making art, now you have your answer. (Clearly, I'm not talking about those for whom B&N is just their bill-paying job while they're going to school part-time, etc.) **

Another key scene involves a game similar to Truth or Dare, which the conservative Audrey objects to on the basis that revealing your intimate secrets could be dangerous. Sally, the party host, says she doesn't see what the big deal is, and Audrey responds that it's not important whether you see it or not -- keeping some things secret has probably served a useful social function if the convention has survived this long. Audrey loses the argument, and of course, someone gets emotionally hurt and publicly humiliated by the game. Contrast this with the many confessional scenes from The Breakfast Club, the most ludicrous of which is the nerd's confession that he had attempted suicide after failing to get an A. He should have told a counselor of this in private. Now, if someone like his character had tried the John Hughes idea in real life, his social status would plummet even further as the story inevitably spread, even if the initial spreaders were only concerned about him. Moreover, those who he confessed his secret to would look on him with pity, and that would make him feel even worse. And needless to say, whatever miniscule chance he may have had of getting a girlfriend would have dissipated to zero. (At least the movie got the "rules of attraction" part right: an attractive, conceited bitch falls for an ambitionless quasi-sociopath.)

Finally, there are no sappy Kumbayah moments in Metropolitan (or Heathers) as in The Breakfast Club or Mean Girls, wherein all individuals from all social cliques share their feelings and realize how much they have in common -- get real. In the former two movies, Cynthia is a hopelessly one-dimensional slut; Rick Von Sloneker would treat women properly only if threatened with jail time; and J.D. is at root a demented egomaniac. If I recall correctly, at the end of Heathers, J.D. says something to the effect of "nobody ever loved me" -- a cowardly excuse that Hughes and his characters would have swallowed whole. *** No, there really are individuals and cliques of individuals who are jerks and scum, and no amount of group feeling-sharing will make a civilized person feel much sympathy for them.

The only thing I worry about is whether high schoolers or even college students will easily appreciate Metropolitan's message, in the same way that they instantly get Heathers and Mean Girls. I doubt it could reach and instruct the group being depicted (college freshmen), but it could reach slightly older viewers who aren't quite so set in their ways, and who could pass the wisdom along in any mentoring capacity they may have.

* At the Rotten Tomatoes website, it seems that while most critics enjoyed Stillman's movies, those from San Francisco reliably detested them. No surprise from the City of Eternal Bratty Adolescence.

** As a personal aside, at my tutoring center, I came this close to successfully bullying three students into taking pre-calculus during the summer in order to get more done by the end of high school, but their schedules wouldn't permit it. One in fact felt disappointed, like he'd let down the coach (he is a smart jock), and I'd only worked with him for three or four months. As a 26 year-old, it's easier for me to establish a friendly, informal rapport with them, which makes pushing them much easier: no teenager likes being ordered around by someone old enough to be their parent. In a bad world, that may be a last-resort measure, but in an easily attainable world, 20-somethings would spend a small amount of time mentoring teenagers and accomplish a lot more with a lot less toil.

*** I'm reminded of the scene in Bowling for Columbine in which Marilyn Manson responds to the question "What would you have told the killers?" with "Nothing. I would've listened to what they had to say, and that's what nobody did." (I'm closely paraphrasing.) Yeah, that's all it takes to cure violent sociopathy -- a little listening.


  1. Whit Stillman's portrayal of moneyed WASPy youth is a bit too over-worked, over-mannered, and stilted (I think that this is all intentionally done as style), but none-the-less, he's an outstanding writer and director.

  2. Yo, Agnostic! Do you do requests? If so, I would be interested in your response to this (and he responds to criticisms here).

  3. Isn't this one of your crushes?

    From Reuters:

    The 3-year marriage of author Salman Rushdie and TV's Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi has ended, according to his rep.

    "Salman Rushdie has agreed to divorce his wife, Padma Lakshmi, because of her desire to end their marriage," spokeswoman Jin Auh said in a statement issued to Reuters.

  4. I didn't read all the way through that "nerd popularity" stuff, but my initial reaction is that intelligence isn't sufficient to determine nerdiness. Nerdiness requires personality traits on top of smarts, and that's what geeks won't admit: the reason graduates from Harvard Law, Wharton Business, and Harvard Med are popular and desirable as mates is that they're really smart but not socially retarded, short, and wimpy.

    So, nerds are unpopular for the same reasons any group of socially retarded, short, wimpy people will be, smart or not. (Note that intelligence & personality traits do not correlate.)

    Isn't this one of your crushes?

    What, just because she's hot and Brown, I must be crushing on her? Heh, no, not really. (Her face is too East Asian-y -- like a lion's.) Now, that singer Aneela who I've blogged on before...


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