We can talk about Metropolitan in context with the history of American independent cinema but we would have very little to talk about. The 1990s in the United States was a golden decade for independent American cinema. Emerging young filmmakers like Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch were becoming the new faces of the so-called “indie film” in the United States. The 1980s was the decade of big Hollywood blockbusters e.g, Indiana Jones (1989), E.T The Extra –Terrestial (1982), RoboCop (1987) and so on, it was the decade of yuppies, Ronald Regan, Madonna, cocaine and AIDS. Then came the 1990s, a decade that can be described as the cultural hangover of the 80s. In the 90s, we saw the last days of celluloid and the birth of digital filmmaking. Films became grittier, people were interested in what was socially relevant: poverty, race, violence and the AIDS epidemic. Films like Kids (1995), Natural Born Killers (1994) and Do the Right Thing (1989) were successful. So how does a film about rich upper class Park Avenue kids fit into such a decade? Perhaps it is not a surprise to the reader that Whit Stillman’s directorial debut did not crowd the theaters. It was a lonely release with not much attention. Yet at the 63rd Academy Awards, it was honored with a Best Original Screenplay nomination. Stillman was awarded Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards and over a decade later, the Criterion Collection released Metropolitan with a new re-mastered digital transfer. So there is something to be said about the legacy and importance of this lonely little movie.
I saw Metropolitan for the first time on Netflix streaming. I was in my room and I watched it on my laptop (please don’t judge). I was in complete awe, not because it was an emotionally thrilling film but because I was fascinated with the characters, the tuxedos, the bridge parties and débutante balls. Watching these groups of young preppy Ivy League kids was as foreign and as fascinating to me as watching a documentary on the Awá tribe of the Brazilian Amazon. But I wasn’t just fascinated I was amused. Whit Stillman’s writing is witty, clever and irresistibly funny. What was interesting about the humor was how incredibly dry it was. The language is esoteric with unnecessarily long –sometimes ridiculous- sentences.
It’s hard to talk about this film in cinematic terms. We can say that it is mostly shot on a wide lens, everything is lit flat and uninterestingly and the camera is just there almost to just show us what’s going on, not much else. Scenes of long intellectual conversations mixed in with teenage-like gossip makes up probably 90% of the film. We, as an audience don’t participate in any of this. We just witness.
Metropolitan begins and opens with an establishing shot of the Plaza Hotel, after a debutante ball, a group of kids dressed in dresses and tuxedos come out and try to stop a taxi, they see another young man named Tom. There is a small misunderstanding and they accidentally invite him to a party at a Park Avenue apartment. Our sympathy lies with Tom who is the foreigner in this world of Upper East Side bourgeoisie. Tom gets immersed in this world and becomes involved in their personal affairs that end up in romances, disputes and amity.
The idea of it however, was fascinating to me; this enviroment of rich Upper East Side bridge parties was alien to me. I had grown up in Barcelona and watched plenty of films set in New York. It has always interested me how vastly different some of the cinematic portrayals of the city can be. Compare, for instance Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), both films set in New York yet the two films presents us with dramatically different worlds. This shows us that there are many “New Yorks”: Spike Lee’s New York has nothing to do Jarmusch’s and Jarmusch’s New York has nothing to do with Whit Stillman’s.