Fairytale of New York

A while ago I attempted to write a review of Whit Stillman’s film Metropolitan, but became completely distracted by this odd/only in New York encounter that happened to me a few years ago, which reminded me so much of the film that I lost pretty much all semblance of writing about the film...anyway (!), here is what came out...

Metropolitan is the first film by the insouciant American filmmaker Whit Stillman. Stillman is a peculiar brand of auteur, he has made three films (with a fourth currently in the works being his first since 1998’s The Last Days Of Disco), all of which were critically, if not commercially successful. Like Abel Ferrara and Jim Jarmusch, he carries the kudos of being a New York filmmaker who has never made an effort to please Hollywood. Unlike them, he seems to prefer quality over quantity, something his fans find frustrating. Metropolitan is the first of a thematic, if not strictly linear trilogy of 1980’s young New York socialites and their foibles.

At first glance this film seems almost archaic and stilted; indeed its inhabitants live in the dying world of New York debutante balls. I first saw it as a college student and was mainly impressed with the snappy dialogue and charisma of indie staple Chris Eigeman. I didn’t think such people actually existed, especially after living in NY during a gap year (it sounds more glamorous to say gap year, it was more of a college dropout midway through crisis). Needless to say my own downtown experience was not one that would put me in the circle of Upper East Side socialites. 

Then, on a trip to NY (I'll let you in on a little known outside New York secret - most people who live in New York refer to it only as "NY", not "NYC", which sounds weird and pretentious once you leave/are writing about it, but it's ingrained). Anyway, a few years ago, I had a very bizarre encounter that was oddly reminiscent to that of the protagonist of this film. I flew into JFK quite late one night from the U.K., to find there were no shuttles or buses. Just as I was despairing of having to fork out for a taxi, a girl struck up a conversation with me. Her friend was running late picking her up, maybe we could share? Except her friend did turn up shortly thereafter, and I was kindly offered a lift into the city. Now this is highly inadvisable I must add to any tourists, but being streetwise (tsk), I decided taking a lift from a stranger at possible peril was worth the saved taxi money. We were introduced in a very unremarkable way and then went to another terminal to pick up another friend.

I soon gathered that these were young people who traveled often and to far flung places. Their patter was relentless, breakneck, and honest to God as if they had crawled out of Whit Stillman’s script book (his second film, about similarly privileged social cliques in Barcelona, suddenly seemed not so outlandish). They were bubbly and frighteningly Bret Easton Ellis-esque in their constant name checking, party ticking, gossip updating way. It made my jaw drop, I had heard of their kind but felt a bit like I’d stumbled into a car full of unicorns. Everyone was Ivy League, well-traveled and pseudo jaded, yet without any seeming outside intrusions into their rarefied world. Returning to their parent’s mansions in NY in the fall was just a bit ho hum. They attempted to converse with me but honestly my state schooled, U.K. via Brooklyn via lower middle class Virginian/Mass. reared self could not have been more alien. Did I know Matilda from Smith or Belinda from Amherst? (I went to the large university UMASS Amherst, which happens to be in near proximity to some of the most elite colleges in the country - this seemed to make them think I might have some vague connection to their world).

They were just so stupendously unguarded, un-ironic, so the antithesis of practically everyone I’d ever encountered in the city called New York. And to find them on a visit after a few years away, felt a bit like Alice opening the door to Wonderland. I sensed the fact that I was staying downtown in the East Village seemed like a peculiarly mysterious trait to them. They mentioned uber hip nightclubs which I would never go to, but that was the extent of their knowledge below 59th Street. They dropped off the first passenger, who invited us in, but was declined. Her house had its own designated garage. This is unheard of in Manhattan, at least in my little world. Needless to say they were not driving anywhere near my ’hood, so I asked to be dropped off where I could get a taxi. I had no idea that taxis are not very prevalent late at night on the Upper (very upper) East Side, and they did all seem terribly worried about me and asked if I would be going to this or this social engagement of which I had absolutely no knowledge. They bizarrely assured me we would bump into each other again and declined my offer of gas money as if I had fallen off of a pumpkin truck, all in the cheeriest manner possible, of course. I staggered off onto the deserted, white washed city pavements, feeling a bit like the stunned protagonist in Metropolitan when he first meets the wealthy enclave he becomes consumed by. If only I had a tuxedo…

New York is a place which can seem almost class-less at times. Of course I met many friends from wealthier backgrounds in my time living there, but it never felt like we were alien species the way I did with the Stillman crew. The whole issue of class is nothing like as ingrained as it is in Britain. And New York I always found to be a great equalizer. Most young people in New York, regardless of parental background, are struggling to get by. Yes there are trustafarians but most everyone has the same cultural references, goes to the same bars, works the same crappy jobs to supplement their artistic endeavours. What Whit Stillman, whose mother was a former Southern belle, brings to life in his debut film, is a world that might seem as alien to most as an outer Mongolian documentary. But it does, in fact, exist, unlike perhaps, the liberal elite that make up Woody Allen’s nirvana New York that draws na├»ve young artistic types like me from far afield, only to be confronted with the rather different reality.Young aspiring girls do not stumble into West Village bookcase lined brownstones, let’s just put it that way. If you are very lucky you get to share a studio where there are fewer rats than inhabitants.

Were they my people and would our paths ever cross again? No, which was what made me fully grasp for the first time how tantalizing and true in its own way the Stillman universe was. I thought his world of debutante balls and incestuously cliquish young wealth was a fairy tale, but I was wrong. It exists, completely in a snow globe bubble of perfection that not even New York can intrude on or tarnish. While I loved my time living in the city and garnered more street smarts and bagel survival techniques than I ever would have had my background provided me a more luxurious shelter, I don’t deny that getting a whiff of pure UES bred air did open my eyes. There is a NYC the plebeians don’t see, where very pampered  party people offer strangers lifts in the most innocent way, as if they had never heard of or encountered a bad thing in the beautiful city in which we all slept so soundly. Isn’t it romantic?

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