Can you remember when you last heard a cinema audience laugh together at the same joke?
Whit Stillman, an American director of but a handful of feature films, has gathered quite a following over the years, much of it based on the perception of him as a genuine counter-cultural conservative, or at least as somebody who has had the temerity to swim upstream in a river otherwise gushing with liberal assumptions. Just three films from the 1990s — Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco — established him, among his admirers at least, as a distinctive voice dealing with people — Upper East Side Wasps and preppies — who were otherwise unfashionable and mocked, and themes — the vacuity of Sixties “liberation”, the harmful stupidity of European anti-Americanism — which are rarely if ever given an outing in mainstream US cinema.
These films are enjoyable, subtle comedies of manners, full of small pleasures, but there remains the suspicion that they are celebrated by their admirers simply for existing rather than for their especially razor-sharp wit or observations. They appeal mostly to that (rather diminished) band of Woody Allen fans who like their characters to talk not just about their actions but their ideas, and who display internal lives not necessarily related simply to the narrative. Stillman, however, is not really in the same league as vintage Allen — his lines will never make it into a compendium of great movie quotes. And also like Allen, the people who most interest him feel increasingly peripheral and irrelevant, for better or worse, to the dominant culture.
The paucity of his output has also meant that there has been no real momentum behind what, initially, might have appeared to be a real alternative to mainstream movie values. His new film, Damsels in Distress, comes a full 14 years after Disco, and indeed feels like an afterthought. It centres around a group of girls (none of them played by well-known names) at a liberal arts college who, determined to do good, run a suicide prevention centre, and live by a schematic philosophy of self-improvement which they attempt to apply not just to themselves but to all those who come into contact with them. If this feels familiar, that’s because it is — Amy Heckerling’s brilliant updating of Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless, did the same sort of thing back in 1995. That was set in a rich kids’ Beverly Hills high school, and was so cleverly written and funny it managed to transcend the mainstream teenage market it was otherwise aimed at.
Damsels in Distress is, I imagine, aiming higher. You can tell this by the stylised, stilted way in which the girls communicate with each other, and the slightly retro way in which they dress — they seem to be living in some kind of alternative universe. Something is being claimed here, something surely being said. Each exchange feels like a read-through at a theatre rehearsal — emotionless, flat, almost robotic. Some might mistake this affectation for charm, although I think it likely that Stillman probably had droll and deadpan in mind. But deadpan only works if there is a sense of life existing under the world-weariness. At some point or another, you have to start caring. But here, the mood never lifts, and as the film grinds on through the girls’ minor emotional entanglements and narrative non sequiturs, it dawns on you that there are no questions being asked, let alone any answers given, and that there is nothing really on show here other than a kind of cultural exhaustion.
It is generally a bad time for comedy at the movies. Vanity Fair devoted much of its latest issue to the triumph of television over film in both drama and comedy, and with the quality blip provided by the Oscars now well and truly over, it is hard to disagree. There is little big-screen evidence of the smartness of such US TV shows as The Big Bang Theory or 30 Rock, which give the lie to the notion that a mass audience automatically requires a lowering of the common denominator. We movie fans are instead palmed off with the kind of gross-out humour which involves copious amounts of body fluids — presumably because this very modern form of slapstick will be understood equally by Mexican and Malaysian teenage boys, Hollywood now being reliant on the global market for its income.
When film-makers try to make us laugh with something other than toilet gags, the comedy is, like Damsels in Distress, tepid at the very most. The mainstream has become frightened of wit. Another example is the just-released Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an adaptation of the novel by Paul Torday. Starring Ewan McGregor as a fogeyish government scientist, who is reluctantly enticed into helping an Anglophile, fly-fishing sheikh introduce salmon into the wadis of the Yemen, it’s an oddly old-fashioned film. Although set in the present day, its twinkly charm has to be shoe-horned in by having people dress and indeed converse in a slightly out-of-date way: McGregor and his (eventual) love interest Emily Blunt remain on formal Mr and Miss terms for much of the story, a feature which is even less plausible than the story’s central conceit.
For such romance to work there still has to be a barrier of some kind to overcome, and as these barely exist nowadays, I suppose artificial ones like these have to be invented. And for comedy to work, you need directors and actors who understand timing and have sure-footed instincts. The director here, Lasse Hallström, appears to have neither, so we spend much of the time during this perfectly inoffensive movie in a state of readiness for laughs or sighs that never quite come (things aren’t helped by a truly dreadful, unfunny performance by Kristin Scott Thomas, who should in future stick to damaged hauteur). And within an hour, it has all disappeared from our minds.
I now cannot remember the last time I heard a cinema audience laugh, together, uproariously, at the same joke, not in the way they laughed at, say, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, or even at Four Weddings. Behind the scenes someone, somewhere, has lost their touch, or indeed their nerve.