Eat Your Vegetables: A Critique of Criticism

Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.

Metropolitan is a funny movie (you can watch it on Netflix) that gets most of its laughs from irony. Only occasionally are the characters in on the joke. But more than the film’s source for comedy, irony is at the heart of everything the film does. For example:

  1. The characters of Metropolitan would never go see the movie Metropolitan. When they talk about art, they talk about literature. The cue cards tell us the film takes place “Not So Long Ago” but none of these people talk Bergman or Fellini, much less Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. It’s Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy or nothing.
  2. The movie critiques criticism, anticipating and undercutting its own analysis. The film’s hero, a naïve college socialist named Tom Townsend, makes a big deal of the fact that he doesn’t read novels. Instead, he reads literary criticism so he can get the novel’s ideas and the critic’s ideas about those ideas in one fell swoop. Director/writer Whit Stillman shows us that this is a shallow way to approach art, which must be experienced directly. That’s all well and good, but where does that leave someone who wants to write criticism about the film itself, especially since the film is basically about ideas?

The plot, then… A group of well-to-do freshmen come home to New York City for their winter break. The film charts the group’s dynamics over a four-week period. In need of another male escort for the debutante ball season, the group adds Townsend, a less financially well-to-do but more intellectually haughty freshman who subscribes to the teachings of Charles Fourier. Audrey, the group’s smartest and most sensitive young woman, falls for Tom. Charlie, the group’s most philosophical and introspective young man, falls for Audrey. Tom falls for a pretty but amorously mendacious yuppie before he realizes he likes Audrey. Though he’s outside this love triangle, Nick Young is the group’s unofficial ringleader, a brat-packish Oscar Wilde who supplies the movie with its most memorable lines and its most deeply conflicted and hypocritical character.

Below, I offer some things to look for and think about. We can talk about it in the comments section.

  1. The title. The word “metropolitan” has two meanings. As an adjective, it means “of, or relating to, a metropolis,” in this film’s case the nation’s metropolis par excellence, New York City. As a noun, however, the word refers to an archbishop. The former is secular and descriptive, the latter religious and about identity. The film’s juxtaposition of financial abundance and spiritual penury is right there in its title.
  2. The music. The film opens with the melody line of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” As the credits roll, the score quickly segues from that most archetypal of Protestant hymns to a nondescript cha-cha track. That juxtaposition — an intensely serious hymn with a formulaic, if well-executed, 20th century dance number — captures the film’s twin themes of individual spiritual alienation and paint-by-numbers social interactions.
  3. Mirrors. The film is filled with mirrors, both literal and figurative. The film’s first scene shows Audrey examining herself in a lavish bedroom mirror after her brother makes a never-revealed comment about her body. Though actual mirrors keep showing up throughout the film, we gradually start seeing a series of two-shots that show us characters using each other as mirrors in which to examine their own imperfections.
  4. Interiors vs. Exteriors. The film opens deep in the bowels of a wealthy New York apartment. The film closes with its three protagonists walking down the New Jersey highway. The conversations that take place indoors are always interesting but often emotionally stifling. When characters are walking home in the brisk New York winter or shuffling between fancy parties, they are more likely to put their private emotions in social context. They are able to see more than just other versions of themselves.
  5. The criticism. Both liberals and conservatives love this movie (read this Slate piece on why conservatives, in particular, like the film). The film is conflicted, but it’s not aesthetically compromising. The film is a mirror, reflecting its viewer’s own biases and preconceptions back to them. And it’s quotable.

About Jonathan Sircy

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