Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Damsel not in distress

 (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

I saw the new Whit Stillman movie Damsels in Distress this weekend with a friend and, after having read some of the reviews, felt sufficiently tempted to revive this long-lying-dormant blog.

On the whole, it was really lovely and very much worth seeing, especially if one already liked previous Stillman films. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone who doesn't. It is more over-the-top whimsical and less realistic than either Metropolitan or Barcelona. It focuses on the adventures of four young women at the fictional Seven Oaks University. Seven Oaks is almost certainly loosely based on Dartmouth -- there's a reference early on in the movie to it being the last of the Select Seven to go co-ed and to it being the one that remains the most masculine-feeling and the most male-dominated.  Although Columbia was actually the last Ivy to go co-ed, Dartmouth was one of the last Ivies to admit women and down to the present day is often caricatured (in my view unfairly) as being unfairly dominated by all-male fraternities.

Anyhow. The story begins when Lily, a transfer student from another college, is signing up for Seven Oaks orientation. Three young ladies named Violet, Rose, and Heather eyeball her, agree to themselves "That one," and then approach her and draw her into their little circle. The choice of all floral names is no doubt deliberate.

The date at which all of this is taking place is left (probably deliberately) ambiguous. Lily appears in the first scene dressed in a T-shirt, but the other three are all in prim full skirts and kitten heels that would not be out of place on the set of a Season One episode of Mad Men. Of course, retro-inspired clothing is readily available in any suburban mall that has an Anthropologie or a J. Crew, and plenty of 2012 college women dress in such clothing sometimes. But there are other markers that Seven Oaks is both of the modern world and yet not quite. Violet once remarks how nice it is to receive handwritten notes in an age when most communication is electronic. Yet none of the characters is ever seen using a computer, sending an e-mail, or talking on a cellphone, all of which seems utterly implausible on a modern campus.  This technological backwardness seems most apparent when Violet mysteriously vanishes, and her friends resort to hanging up posters on campus. One wonders; why aren't her friends franctically trying her cellphone? What about mass e-mail as an alternative to the damn posters?

The Seven Oaks horticulturally-named trio-turned-foursome aspire first and foremost to help others, but in unconventional ways. First, they attend fraternity parties and aspire to date these guys not for the usual reasons, but in the hope of being able to improve the poor witless creatures. Seven Oaks does not have a Greek system  -- it has a "Roman letter" system -- which all of the characters with charming stubbornness insist is totally different from a Greek system.  Ringleader Violet shrugs off the claim that fraternities are bastions of elitism: "They can't be elitist if they're filled with morons." Thus, Heather winds up dating a guy named Thor who never learned the colors because his parents made him skip kindergarten. They always assumed that he'd pick them up, but he didn't. This would admittedly seem over-the-top absurd, except for the fact that there was a kid in the Dartmouth marching band back in my day who was infamous for not being able to tell analog time. He refused to learn how in third grade because he felt that digital watches were the wave of the future anyway and that this was therefore a waste of time. There are also my ongoing efforts to teach Pnin more unusual colors like "teal" and "magenta," both of which he once said he thought were shades of brown.

Violent, Heather, and Rose also head up the Suicide Prevention Center. They hand out gratis Dunkin Donuts and coffee to those who are suicidal or seriously depressed, but only to those truly suffering in such a way. The scenes about the Suicide Prevention Center are a clever enough little commentary about the proliferation of well-intentioned but not actually very helpful peer advising programs on college campuses; in my own day, there were the SAPAs (Sexual Abuse Peer Advisors,) the DAPAs (Drug Abuse Peer Advisors), EDPA (Eating Disorder Peer Advisors) and GABA (which is either an acronym whose initial referent I have forgotten or a misfiled memory involving gamma-aminobutryic acid.)

Once again, though, Violet's approach to preventing suicide in no way resembles the long confessional conversations that the depressed were supposed to be having with the SAPAs, DAPAs,  EDPAs, and GABAs. No, she wants them to take up tap dancing. And yes, we are treated to scenes of the prospectively suicidal learning tap steps from her. Indeed, Violet's ambitions are grander -- she aspired to start an international dance craze. She confesses once in a small seminar that she views history's greatest humanitarians as Richard Strauss, Mr. Charleston, and "Chubert" Checker, who all accomplished this feat.

But then Violet herself must struggle to resist suicidal depression when Roman-letter frat stud Frank breaks up with her. She travels to a motel in a nearby town with the possible intention of throwing herself under a train there; the spot is notorious as the location of previous Seven Oaks suicides. She turns back, though, because she discovers a bar of really lovely smelling soap in the hotel room. In fact, she becomes so excited about the revitalizing potential of the soap that she decided to pack up dozens of bars and distribute them to residents of one particularly malodorous and unhappy dorm on campus. Notably, the soap is not the only time that the characters are drawn to the  rehabilitating power of scent. Violet asks one of her Suicide Prevention Center counselees what perfume she is wearing. When the counselee says none, Violet replies, "Well, that might explain why you're depressed."

On the one hand, of course this is all a bit over the top and ridiculous. As Lily -- who as the group's most newly inducted member often plays straight man -- once points out, "Depressed people need drugs, not tap dancing." At the same time, it is not really all that absurd to suggest that perhaps many depressed people benefit from taking joy in the little things. I have long liked and found utterly believable the Tori Amos song  in which the singer deals with a brutal rape and thoughts of suicide afterwards by reminding herself that the biscuits in the Carolinas are really good and that she must get through this trauma so that she can travel to Barbados someday. Sometimes, the little things are all one can really address. Consider this the psychological equivalent of the broken windows theory of crime prevention.

Also, perhaps Violet is not really so wrong that there is something special about the power of dance to heal and the special significance of international dance crazes that have brought joy to so many people. I was also reading Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind during the same weekend, in which there is an interesting discussion of the power of dance to activate humans' "hive switch" and bring us together (see here for a good short summary of Haidt's argument.*) Perhaps Violet's claims that international dance crazes have a special power to heal and bring us together are not so ridiculous after all. So, shall we dance the Sambola?

*It's beyond the scope of this already long post, but I agree with many of the criticisms of Haidt voiced in that post.

No comments:

Post a Comment