Snowed in last Friday afternoon, I watched Metropolitan, Whit Stillman’s debut movie. I hadn’t seen it since it was in the theaters in 1990. I was surprised by how much of it I remembered, and marveled over how many cultural and literary references must’ve made no sense to me back then. Smartypants though I was, I was just 19, a college sophomore still more immersed in mid-to-high-brow superhero comics than any other narrative form.
Metropolitan tells its story over two weeks of ball season and is seen through the eyes of an outsider to deb/socialite culture, a college man whose parents have divorced, leaving him a “West Sider” in a world of Upper East Side socialites. “My resources,” he frequently says, “are limited.”
(I’m sure I romantically cast myself in that same role back then, though outsiderness is relative. Over our Christmas visit to her family in Louisiana â€” and that’s a story I’ve been meaning to get to â€” Amy & I went in to New Orleans to see my friend Paul Longstreth play piano at Bistreaux. My wife’s family live in a bayou town about 40 minutes from the city, but Paul comes from a town 40 minutes further away. He and Amy talked about growing up in those parts, and Paul made the comment that, during our time at Tulane, he felt like the total outsider. The school, he told us, was filled with rich northerners and fraternity types (“Just say it: Jews,” I joked) and he was the poor kid from way out in the swamp. I hadn’t seen him like that; I was too busy not bothering to fit in. But back to the movie.)
Our West Sider, Tom, gets adopted by the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, rounding out the group at 4 boys and 4 girls, all home from school for the holidays. Of course, there’s a romance and intrigues. There’s the also the charmingly entertaining debut of Chris Eigeman, the operator of the group, whose lengthy expositions somehow come off as charming instead of, well, info-dump. His Nick has a Gatsby-like farewell, boarding a Metro North train in full tux and top hat.
Looking back at the movie and myself at 19, I don’t think I understood the fragility of the characters, their delicate balance between being children of privilege and being children. I’m sure I was a bit irked at the fairy-tale-ness of their lives, even though I went to the theater that evening with a pal of mine who came from that world. I suppose I thought back then that those lives may have been real, but that they were objects of pity, not even scorn. I think that’s how I would’ve asserted some sort of superiority to my not having won the genetic jackpot. I wasn’t cut out for class war.
One of the characters, Charlie (the stand-in for a neurotic Jew), goes on exhaustively about the career prospects he and his friends have, and his theory of how the UHBs (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) are doomed to fail to live up to past generations. Just a few days from 40, I contemplated that notion of failure for a while.
The night I graduated high school in 1989, I had a strange conversation with a pal of mine who came from great wealth. I’d just moved to the area a year earlier, because my mom’s boss married this guy’s mom, and moved his offices down from NJ to PA.
My pal and I sat by the pond in his backyard and talked about The Future. He told me that he’d go to college, do his thing for a while, and then come back and work in his father’s company. Until that moment, I’d never considered that someone at 18 could possibly have the general lines of his life sketched out so clearly. What did I know from legacies? Sometimes I think my parents’ key legacy is uprootedness, stemming from their childhoods in the war, their migrations to Israel, then America. (Like I said, Mom & I picked up and moved the summer before my senior year of high school.)
Twenty-one years later, my pal is working at his dad’s company. He does pretty well for himself, married a beautiful (non-WASP) woman, and has a pair of kids. I’ll go out on a limb and say the kids are wonderful, even though I haven’t met them yet. He’s one of the happier men I know, and I don’t think his happiness is tied to his bank account.
But it wasn’t my mid-life notions of failure and success that kept me watching the movie. To be honest, it wasn’t the characters or their skilfully written, deliberate prep-college dialogue, either. What really got to me about Metropolitan this time around were the brief glimpses of the city.
There aren’t too many exterior scenes in the movie (and many are outside the Plaza, the Stanhope and ’21’), but almost all of them were of a New York that’s dead and gone, only 20 years hence. I found myself nostalgic for the boxy old cabs, the lunch that Tom & his nemesis Charlie share at the Automat, the two bookstores Audrey passes on Christmas Eve (Doubleday and Scribner’s). I missed that New York, even if I only had passing acquaintance with it.
The fashions, on the other hand, I wasn’t nostalgic for. Sure, it was fun to see the women in preppy garb and late-’80’s hair (and Audrey was awfully cute with that girl-from-Human-League cut), but now that I’ve become more of menswear aficionado, I have to say I was in dread awe of the suits. The peak (of the peak lapels) was reached near the end, Tom & Charlie meet an older version of themselves in Dick Edwards.
Tom: Do you think that, generally speaking, people from this sort of background are doomed to failure?
Dick: Doomed? That would be far easier. No, we simply fail without being doomed.
Charlie: But you feel that you HAVE failed.
Tom: You can still afford to eat in places like this, though.
Dick: Oh, I’m not destitute. I’ve got a good job that pays decently. It’s just that it’s all so . . . mediocre, so unimpressive. The acid test is whether you take any pleasure in responding to the question, “What do you do?” I can’t bear it.
You start out expecting something more, and some of your contemporaries achieve it. You start reading about them in the papers, seeing them on TV. That’s the danger of midtown Manhattan: running across far more successful contemporaries. I try to avoid them whenever I can. When I can’t, they’re always very friendly. But inevitably they ask what am I doing, or think it.
. . . Or they’re thinking, “My God! His lapels are nearly touching his shoulders!” I mean, I enjoy me some Tom Ford lapels, but that’s mobster-level, especially when you combine it with pinstripes.