not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
Of all the authors whose style has been described as “inimitable,” P.G. Wodehouse has to be one of the names to arise most frequently. This is a bit strange, since Wodehouse was not a hugely original voice like, say, Samuel Beckett, nor do you get the sense, reading him, that every sentence is packed with more thought than you have managed to summon up in your life so far, like you might with James Joyce. Quite the opposite, in fact: Wodehouse’s plots are assembly-line farce, emerging with enviable ease at about the speed he typed them, which was quite fast: anecdotes abound of him buying his paper by the roll rather than by the sheet, because it took more time for him to change out pages than it did for him to fill them with words. I currently have 3 of my 10 or so Wodehouse books on my shelf, grabbing one at random and flipping to it at random, I come across the following passage:
“When I was a piefaced lad of some twelve summers, doing my stretch at Malvern House, Bramley-on-Sea, the private school conducted by the Rev. Aubrey Upjohn, I remember hearing the Rev. Aubrey give the late Sir Philip Sidney a big build-up because, when wounded at the battle of somewhere and offered a quick one by a companion in arms, he told the chap who was setting them up to leave him out of that round and slip his spot to a nearby stretcher-case, whose need was greater than his. This spirit of selfless sacrifice, said the Rev. Aubrey, was what he would like to see in you boys – particularly you, Wooster, and how many times have I told you not to gape at me in that half-witted way? Close your mouth, boy, and sit up.”
This is how it goes, for pages and pages, sounding more or less the same whether in dialogue or prose. Wodehouse’s eternal setting was the late Edwardian era, among the families of the very rich and very bored, at the moment before World War I would tear their world up by the roots. Most writers of my time and socioeconomic background have tried to imitate Wodehouse’s style, sensing perhaps that they, too, are living at an absurd level of wealth and privilege (on a global scale, at least) and believing that, as with the Edwardians in 1914, an under-foreseen catastrophe is around the corner. And yet none of us (I include myself) have come close to creating a modern-day version of the standard Wodehouse story. For some I was convinced it was because there doesn’t seem to be a way of translating the breezy effortlessness of his prose into anything modern. And to some degree Wodehouse is writing in a voice that it is beyond our ability to recreate. But these days I think it’s a matter of talent more than time- it’s extremely difficult to make stories as effortless as Wodehouse’s appear to be, and that’s what separates him from the “Great Authors” of English- for all their greatness, all the vast distances of time and space they attempt to span, all the answerless questions they grapple with, we can see them sweat. Meanwhile, the Wodehouses of the world emerge for a garden-stroll, impeccably dressed and free of all perspiration.
I bring up Wodehouse at such great length because of all modern-day artists, the one who seems to be most frequently compared to him is Whit Stillman, whose films achieve a sort of breezy charm that seems to transport the viewer into the trivial troubles of the young, rich, and disaffected. Only they’re not effortless at all: Stillman’s only made four films in 25 years, in part because his writing process for the films is so intensive, and his shooting process so precise. He’s writing a TV show, The Cosmopolitans, for Amazon right now, and while I love the pilot, I’m a bit skeptical that the whole thing’s going to come off, because I don’t see Stillman managing to write thirteen hours of dialogue every year and keep his usual standards.
But anyway, I keep digressing from the main point, and I can already tell this is going to be one of my more Shandyish blog posts (digressing again!) so I’m just going to discuss the film of Stillman’s I recently watched, The Last Days of Disco. There was a whole lot of stuff I wanted to tie in with the first paragraph, about how the film’s setting (New York in “the very early 80s,” according to a title card) precipitates not only the end of the disco era, but the end of a more personal era for these characters: the end of their youth, the last time they’ll ever be able to be worried about the trivial things they worry about. Characters worry about getting into clubs, not being seen in clubs, being seen by managers who have told them not to come back into clubs, not talking with cute boys or girls at clubs, talking with the wrong cute boys or girls at clubs, being seen or not being seen talking or not talking to the right or wrong boys or girls at or outside clubs… you get the point.
And of course things are ending all the time, and youth is no exception, and youths of all generations are always going to associate the endings that occur in tandem with the end of their own youth to be particularly significant, in some way, and a lot of them will watch Whit Stillman films and be overcome with the sense of possibility, the excitement of banal lives, and the melancholy that it’s all going to end sooner than anyone realizes. They might also remember that they felt the same way watching Rushmore.
Every time I watch one of Stillman’s movies (still have to see Barcelona and Damsels in Distress), I’m overcome in that way once again, and I marvel again about how lightweight it all seems. Reasonably speaking, this shouldn’t stick with me longer than the average romantic comedy. But it’s so much harder to make, and maybe that makes it stick longer?–But it doesn’t feel harder to consume; there’s nothing about it that seems particularly important or weighty or difficult; in many ways it’s the sort of movie you put on when you don’t want to think too much. Only here’s the difference: boilerplate romantic comedies will let you shut your brain off for an hour or so. A Whit Stillman film makes you want to turn your brain back on to fully enjoy the movie. It’s breezy and ephemeral, but it’s the type of ephemerality you can return to forever, and the breeziness is the same wind you always feel when you first realize it’s starting to become spring again.