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Yuletide with the WASPs

I try to write every year on a Christmas movie for Law & Liberty, to add artistic memories to the celebration and to reflect on America as understood by artists. Old beloved movies like Miracle on 34th Street and more recent popular favorites like Die Hard are welcome opportunities to mingle joy or fun with the awareness of our suffering, our need for grace or for redemption. In the movies, as in America, Christmas is both a family and a national holiday, and connected to unhappiness and happiness both.

This year, I’d like to turn to something of a Christmas romantic comedy: Metropolitan (1990). This was Whit Stillman’s debut, it earned him an Oscar nomination as a writer and opened up his impressive career as America’s most devoted Jane Austen follower, dedicated to gentle and bittersweet comedies. It’s a study, too, in independent film-making. Stillman also directed and produced Metropolitan, achieving an impressive success on a very small budget, and turning out a work of art without professional actors. Aspiring conservative artists should learn from Stillman’s example, indeed I wonder that he has not had many imitators.

Metropolitan combines a story about young men and women, college students on Christmas break, that’s reminiscent of Austen with something we rarely see in movies, the funny and even admirable side of the graduates of America’s prep schools. These are both objects of nostalgia, somehow the word classy attaches to them. Stillman shows that, used selectively, nostalgia is a very good thing indeed. It removes almost every hint of the sordid and reminds us of the hope that our lives could be beautified, graceful.

Love and friendship during Christmas

Metropolitan opens with “Manhattan, Christmas vacation, not so long ago.” It turns out to have been sometime in the late ‘60s, when debutante balls were still an institution of the WASPs, the dignified social class in the first half of the 20th century. Tom Townsend, our protagonist, a Princeton student, meets a group of young people after a ball he had attended out of curiosity and boredom; it beats being lonely during the holidays. They are wealthy, at home at these balls, and host after-parties that go on all night, until parents wake up. They dance, talk, and try to make sense of their future as well as of their hearts.

Tom joins this group of friends who call themselves the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, after the girl who usually plays hostess for their parties, and so we are treated to these charming and amusing, but hopelessly naïve youngsters. Charlie seems the most talkative—a moralist with a stutter, more earnest than the others, a big believer in the WASPs as a source of morality and Progress over the modern centuries, and even bigger believer in their contemporary decline. He’s not wrong. He’s educated and so disinclined to do anything but theorize, perhaps because people don’t take him seriously. His counterpart is Nick, a young man who has resolved to deal with this problem of not being taken seriously by saying shocking things. He is, if possible, an even bigger believer in the WASPs, their society, balls included, and even bigger critic of their downfall, and is indeed reactionary.

Then there are the young women. Audrey Rouget is the Austen and Tolstoy reader who is sweet on Tom, and the movie treats everything about her with a remarkable tenderness; it would not suffice to say she’s obviously Stillman’s favorite—she’s his attempt to show a young woman of superior ability, who is nevertheless diffident, perhaps because she is not as pretty or provocative as some of her friends. Jane is her best friend and confidante, though she doesn’t particularly have good judgment. Then there are Cynthia, a more fashionable young woman, and Sally Fowler, who wants to become a singer.

Metropolitan follows these young friends from ball to ball through the debutante season and focuses on their conversations rather than the glamorous occasions. Accordingly, it’s primarily remembered for its witty lines, which for the most part mock gently the overseriousness of the young, who try to live up to the expectations of their parents, their schooling, and beyond their small circle of vanishing elites, to the transformations of social mores in the ‘60s. They are too gentle for their circumstances and, by the time we see Audrey cry while singing the hymns during Christmas service, they all realize that their prep school education made them live in a dream.

Broken Families

There is something more than a little bittersweet about this last season for friends who have known each other since childhood and, after college, must break apart, make their way individually in an America fast changing, which also means they will do so without much guidance from adults, whether in their families or at school. Still, some of them hold on to each other and the audience certainly can take much to heart from Stillman’s gentle education.

Friendship is necessary to these young men not just because they have no experience and must keep guessing at what they should do or say, or even to know their own hearts, but also because of the breakdown of the family, which makes the movie a lot more relevant nowadays. Tom, Nick, and Charles are all products of divorce, a very rare thing then, which has since become at least as acceptable as marriage. They take different paths trying to affirm the WASP ideals that failed in their cases, in order to make up for their fathers abandoning them. But only friendship and mutual help offers them the experience of becoming known to someone who knows right and wrong, and the trust that engenders.

I cannot think of a more pleasant story about Christmas for young adults, who are in-between the family they were born into and the one they might later form.

The other great good that friendship has to offer them is gentleness when it comes to love and forbearance when it comes to the difficulty of keeping friendships alive in modern society. These, again, are much more urgently needed now and it speaks to Stillman’s quality as an artist that he chose to present very atypical characters, looking to how they would become in a way normal. All these talkative young men would now be social media celebrities on Twitter; the young women would perhaps be influencers on Instagram or making their way through journalistic institutions. But gentleness would be sacrificed in the transformation, and so would a kind of faith that underlies decency, which the movie tries very hard to bring just close enough to the surface for the more attentive to detect and which reassures everyone who is decent.

Chivalrous Adventure

America is a society built on families, not friendships, and therefore friendship gives way to dating. Tom spends most of the movie worried about a girl, Serena, who seems to desire the attention of interesting men, whether famous or ignored—her beauty and erotic appeal inspires them and she plays with them, not entirely without innocence, since she has no idea what love is or what these young men feel. Audrey gradually falls in love with Tom in turn, and others date and pair off in their turn, but without this dangerous intensity which is nevertheless what people want out of love.

It is this danger of love that animates Stillman to infuse friendship with such wit and playfulness, which can lead people to improve their taste if they put aside certain moralistic and other romantic delusions. Jokes can reveal pretense and therefore safeguard especially the young from delusions. Playing at falling in love, within certain limits, allows the young to realize what they really want out of love, but, of course, unsupervised, inevitably leads to conflicts, disappointments, and a certain debasement. The ‘60s contributed to democracy shamelessness about love; Metropolitan is as distant as it can be from that attitude, but the story shows the young are not immune to the times.

It’s not an accident that the discord that tests their characters, affections, and friendship concerns what used to be called a cad or rake—a handsome, wealthy young man of the titled aristocracy. Here, we see for once the young men and women divided; the latter charmed and attracted, the former ashamed by the comparison and angry, even indignant at the example of proud, even splendid immorality. This creates the opportunity for the denouement of the plot, the romantic adventure that sends Tom trying to save Audrey from the clutches of decadence.

Stillman treats it comically, just as the rest of the story, but I think he is an honest believer in chivalrous young men exposing themselves to danger, or at least the danger of ridicule, for the love of young women. The comedy also comes from how implausible this is in our circumstances, and today it might even be considered cause for cancelation. All the more reason to think that without that chivalrous strength, even if it is an impulse rather than a habit, love will fail.

For my part, I cannot think of a more pleasant story about Christmas for young adults, who are in-between the family they were born into and the one they might later form. Looking for grace in that sensitive period requires a tenderness in the storyteller that we have for the most part lost and are worse for it. The taste favored by the WASPs’ successors, the Bobos, is epitomized by HBO and Netflix, lacking the decency and sensitivity of Stillman’s protagonists.

This leaves conservatives—they could learn about the importance of beauty, small groups of friends, and falling in love when it comes to the character of the young. The first strong feelings that one cannot share with one’s family somehow define who people become as adults and they deserve the dramatic treatment Stillman offers them and he deserves our gratitude for making a hopeful comedy out of what in other hands might be heartbreak.

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