Spanish Acquisition

It's "the last decade of the Cold War" (as the opening titles inform us) in post-Franco Spain. Anti-U.S. sentiment is sky-high. Fred, the gung-ho advance man for the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet, has just arrived in Barcelona, showing up unannounced at the apartment of his less-than-thrilled cousin Ted, a sales rep for the Illinois High-Speed Motor Corp. Priggish Ted is a little on the decorous side; he probably read Boy's Life as an adolescent and took it too much to heart. He needs order in his life; you get the feeling that if he hadn't succeeded in business, he might have ended up in a cult. "In sales I found not just a job, but a culture," he enthuses. "I love coming to the office early and catching up on the overnight Telex action."

Ted feels put upon by Fred's arrival, but the Navy man promises his stay will be brief, no more than three days. "Guests, like fish, begin to stink after the third day," the salesman warns his visiting cousin.

Impending stench or no, Ted takes Fred, resplendent in his Naval dress uniform (the same one Tom Cruise wore in A Few Good Men), sightseeing in his car. The Gothic architecture, the cathedrals, the Roman walls -- all merit disinterested uh-huhs. Ted, guilt-ridden after a sexually charged encounter with a beautiful woman, finally gets a rise out of his passenger when he divulges his resolution to "only go out with plain or even homely girls."

"Pathetic," assesses Fred.
Apolitical Ted tries to explain the anti-American sentiment to Fred, who cannot believe what he is hearing. They drive past a wall upon which someone has scrawled "Yankee pigs go home" in Spanish. Fred, infuriated, forces his cousin to stop the car. With a great deal of effort, he scratches at the word cerdos (pigs) and, with a felt-tipped pen, alters it to read ciervos (deer).

"Yankee deers go home?" wonders Ted. "I don't think that's much of an improvement."

A carload of revelers -- all women -- on their way to a costume party pulls up. "Nice costume," deadpans Marta as she sizes up the Navy man with a carnal leer. The thought that Fred's uniform might be the real thing never crosses her mind.

The boys follow the girls to the party. Soon Fred and Marta are an item. Ted meets a woman plain enough for him, but on their second date she sends a friend in her place. To Ted's chagrin, Montserrat, the substitute date, is beautiful. She also has a boyfriend, the womanizing leftist journalist Ram centsn. "You're very perceptive," Ted tells Montserrat. "I don't like that." Of course they fall in love.

Welcome to Barcelona, the new Whit Stillman film, set in the romantic European city of the same name. Like that northern Spanish port, the film oozes sophisticated charm and sensuality, plus layers of wit, insight, and cutting sarcasm. But to appreciate fully either the movie or the city, you first must be willing to give yourself over to their singular rhythms.

You know a filmmaker really has made it when the mere mention of his name conjures up a mental sketch of his work. Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, John Waters, Spike Lee, Joel and Ethan Coen, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Quentin Tarantino A their styles are so distinctive that you know a lot about their films before you've seen the first frame of their most recent work. It might be time to add Whit Stillman's name to the list, even though he's made only two trips to the plate. Just don't make the same mistake I did during a recent interview and call the audacious writer-director-producer-editor-you-name-it an auteur.

"I prefer 'author,'" Stillman corrected me, wrinkling his nose at the snootier French term. Having studied film for four years at UM and the University of Southern California during Truffaut's mid-to-late-Seventies heyday, I can't help it if the term has been etched into my cerebrum alongside "mise en scäne." But I will do my best to respect his wish. After all, this is not a man who chooses words lightly. The cerdos/ciervos business, for example, is pure Stillman. "I take great pains to construct dialogue that sounds exactly right," explains the 42-year-old father of two. "I often say it aloud and listen to it through headphones. My eight-year-old daughter starts screaming, 'Daddy's talking to himself!' I've always admired people who can extemporize; I've seen a few Washington lawyers on television who are just shooting from the hip, and they're so eloquent it's amazing."

What's this? A filmmaker with a word of praise for lawyers? Like Barcelona's American protagonists, Stillman does not appear to care one whit about appearing hip or politically correct. Hollywood is a liberal town. Stillman's characters drop conservative bons mots like tapas.

"Americans aren't more violent than other people!" deadpans Fred at one point. "They're just better shots." Later, at a party, he opines that "anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence." Rush Limbaugh, eat your heart out.

Stillman knows better than to stack the deck by making Fred too much of a yahoo, though. He has strong opinions and is not shy about voicing them, and he never will be a model of tact. But in the course of the movie Fred learns to temper his knee-jerk responses with something akin to a newfound respect for those around him. He learns, he grows. And while the character's views do not perfectly mirror his creator's, there are similarities. Both harbor strong opinions that do not exactly endear them to the political left, in Spain or Hollywood. But the difference is that Stillman has a sense of humor.

"My wife and I were in Barcelona when Basic Instinct came out," he recalls. "All those people who decry America's vulgar culture lined up around the block to see it. If you say, 'What about Jim Jarmusch?' or 'What about Nancy Savoca?' they say those are exceptions, those aren't truly American filmmakers. It's a joke, really."

Critics with a political agenda of their own have been known to take Stillman to task for his old-fashioned view of the world and for being an apologist for the young, rich, and beautiful (as if they needed one).

"Movies should be better than real life," he theorizes. "You pay for entertainment and you deserve to be entertained. The dialogue should be a little bit snappier, the actors and actresses slightly better-dressed and better-looking, the scenery a little prettier, than real life. It should be a pleasant experience."

Both Barcelona and Stillman's first major film, Metropolitan, fit that description to a T. (As does the recent non-Stillman sleeper hit of 1994, Four Weddings and a Funeral. The overwhelming popularity of that literate romantic comedy bodes well for Barcelona at the box office.) Nearly all major characters are young, attractive, and smart. Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, the promising, idiosyncratic, and immensely likable (despite their quirks) young actors who made their big-screen debuts in Met, play Ted and Fred, respectively. Even Aurora, Ted's "plain" girlfriend in Barcelona, is a looker. No one worries where their next meal is coming from.

Metropolitan chronicled the communal doings of a clan of Upper East Side Manhattan debutantes and preppies; Barcelona tracks Ted's and Fred's romantic and political awakenings. A pair of cleaner-cut, better-spoken, drug-freer young Americans you'd be hard-pressed to find this side of a young Republicans convention. Fred's biggest worry is that he's "been shaving the wrong direction my whole life. I could have taught my son to shave the wrong way."

With his boyish good looks, Ivy League vocal inflection, and preppie wardrobe -- forest-green sweater over pink cotton shirt, beige slacks, maroon loafers A the director easily could play one of his characters on-screen. The tendency, then, is to assume Stillman has led a life of privilege, like Metropolitan's debs and preps. The truth is closer to that film's middle-class protagonist, who, like Stillman in his youth, was conscripted into deb society because of an acute male-escort shortage. ("Every man should be so lucky," he says with a grin. "It's a fantastic position to be in A to be sought after by women. Enlightening.")

After graduating from Harvard in the late Seventies Stillman took a job at Doubleday, where he rotated between the sales and editorial departments. He met his wife, who hails from Barcelona, in New York City, and they went to Spain to get married. Stillman returned to the U.S. as the worldwide marketing representative for a group of Spanish moviemakers (Academy Award-winning Belle epoque's Fernando Trueba among them). "Our company was called Stillman International," the director recalls. "I was Stillman. My wife was International." The company was a money-loser, but it afforded Stillman the opportunity to make the leap into cinema as a career.

With financial assistance from his mother, Stillman bought and sold an apartment in New York for a profit. ("My credit rating with my mother is excellent," he laughs.) That capital gain became the seed money for Metropolitan. Stillman pieced together the balance of the film's remarkably low $210,000 budget from the pockets of friends and relatives. The film went on to earn millions at the box office and to garner an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay (losing out to the immensely inferior sentimental favorite, Ghost). Suddenly mom's little credit risk was a big-time professional filmmaker.

And suddenly there's a whole new type of movie on the American cinematic landscape: the Whit Stillman film. Remember the name.

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