Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Criterion Sunday, Anyone?

It's St. Valentine's Day, so it is only fitting that I should write something today about love as I know it. With this noble goal in mind, let me say that I don't know about the rest of you, but my Significant Other has much stricter views than I on what constitutes an acceptable evening's Entertainment. With her, it has to be new -- or at least in color -- and preferably "about relationships." No horror, thank you. And no subtitles, "because I've spent all day looking at words on a screen and now I want to relax."

My wish is to serve. Unfortunately, most of what we are sent for review is contradictory to my Wife's pleasure, so it usually takes me a minimum of thirty minutes of humorous offstage crashes as I rifle through bankers' boxes before I can find some oddball release that at least halfway meets her criteria... and then she watches my prize catch while sewing, scrabbling noisily through a nearby drawer in search of a lost thimble, looking at a quilting magazine, or delighting at the antics of our cats as they tussle in front of the TV screen. In the meantime, I'm watching whatever it is 100 per cent. But I am, as they say, a man in love.

We recently had one of these "entertain me" evenings, my Spouse and I, and the luck of the draw -- something acceptably recent (1990), a "relationship movie," in color, no subtitles -- turned out to be a recent offering from Criterion, Whit Stillman's METROPOLITAN. I'd never heard of the film and didn't know what to expect from it, but, as I should have expected from the Criterion endorsement, it turned out to be a sheer, unalloyed delight. An independent, low-budget film shot in New York City, METROPOLITAN was a "first film" for nearly everyone involved, but through some curious means, the end result is remarkably close to perfection. It might best be compared to a Woody Allen movie without Woody Allen's grandstanding neuroses being channeled by the entire cast list, or an Eric Rohmer movie set outside France, or an F. Scott Fitzgerald story set in a Manhattan he never lived to see.

The story, in short, is about a middle-class leftist named Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) who is serendipitously falls into the company of a group of upper class while exiting New York's Plaza Hotel at the height of Christmas debutante season. Tom doesn't approve of debutante parties, or the class snobbery they encourage, but he finds his conversation with these people invigorating and is persuaded to invest in a used tuxedo and tail coat to continue as an escort to Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina). Audrey, who finds Tom more substantial than other guys she's met, finds herself falling for Tom -- but Tom's heart is still tied to the girl who broke it -- Serena Slocomb (Elizabeth Thompson), who re-emerges at one of these gatherings in the company of Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), a young baron whose selfish, womanizing ways are rumored to have driven at least one lovesick admirer to suicide.

Cast entirely with talented unknowns, including some who had never considered acting before, METROPOLITAN is one of the most sublimely written, dryly humorous, and engagingly well-cast American movies I've seen in a long time. (Stillman's original screenplay was recognized with an Academy Award nomination.) It's easy to see how Tom is drawn to these people and "the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie" (the subject of a hilarious sidebar), against his own ideals, and comes to relax some of his personal, social, and even literary biases. Another of the film's engaging qualities is that it never reveals its time frame -- it takes place "not so long ago" -- so that, even if we can't personally relate to the characters' way of socializing, we can accept that these events took place in another recent era. Indeed, some young people watching the film might roll their eyes at the notion that anyone could call sitting around and debating politics, philosophy or books "a party," but these parties are like some great ones I can remember attending in the 1970s. Today's parties (at least the ones in the movies I see) are all about getting wasted; yesterday's parties were about stimulation -- the stimulation of new ideas and new friendships, possibly new romances. I presume the film's time frame is sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, as Stillman brought a few of the actors and their characters back for fleeting glimpses in his late '70s-situated THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998) -- a film I now need to see again.

Criterion's high-definition transfer of the film is splendid, needless to say. The extras include an interesting an informative audio commentary by Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and actors Chris Eigeman (who plays Nick, the "abrasive" one) and Taylor Nichols (who plays Charlie, the bespectacled and anxious one -- my favorite of the film's characters); an outtakes montage; a memorial to a key crew member; and an illustrated booklet built around an essay by Luc Sante.

Discovering METROPOLITAN reminded me of one of home video's most enduring rules of thumb: When all else fails, trust Criterion. In fact, with their backlog of DVD titles now topping 300, one could easily devote oneself entirely to Criterion for the better part of a year and come out the other end a more experienced, more fully rounded connoisseur of film. In my line of work, it's all too easy to get side-tracked and bogged-down by other, frankly lesser movies and lose track of some of the things that are truly important. There are nights when I, too, tell myself I'm not "feeling up to subtitles" or coming to grips with unfamiliar world cultures -- but what I'm failing to remember when I think these things is how invigorating the discovery of a real masterpiece can be.

With this in mind, I'm entertaining the idea of setting aside one day per week to catch up with my Criterion viewing -- "a Criterion Sunday," perhaps. I usually have things to watch on Sunday evening (new SOPRANOS and HUFF episodes are just around the corner), but a Sunday afternoon... Now that might be perfect -- kind of like playing hooky and going to church at the same time!

If my "Criterion Sunday" idea sounds good to you, be sure to include METROPOLITAN as one of the titles you should visit along the way.

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