Friday, August 21, 2009

Urban Haute Bourgeoisie

My friend and former colleague David Zahl has an eclectic parachurch ministry (with a blog) called Mockingbird that is as cool as this blog is uncool. In that, the blogs reflect their authors!

Yet David and I have a number of things in common, the chief being Christian brothers and maybe the second being an affection for the film trilogy by Whit Stillman.

While serving a ministry to boarding school students, David and I used to run sessions to show and discuss these films, which put a human face on preppy people who are typically lampooned in film (take the character played by Ted Knight in Caddyshack as a prime example, with the only thoughtful character, played by Chevy Chase, rejecting his background at some level). The interesting thing about really preppy people (those who grew up with their names in the Social Register) is that the human experience and the human problem is the same for all.

While in America most people are told that you can do anything, and rise to whatever heights to which you set your mind -- to succeed and advance is the American dream -- for this subculture, merely holding your ground is a massive success. For example: if you are the son of George H. W. Bush, and you become President of the United States (as his son George W. did), then you have equalled your father's accomplishment. The others have not measured up to it, in worldly terms. So Jeb Bush, a popular and by most measures very successful former governor of Florida, may yet feel a weight of expectation. While the interesting thing about Mad Men is Don Draper's very American re-invention of himself to enter the upper middle class, Stillman's films examine through exceptionally witty dialogue, those who inhabit its environs. What happened at the lake house while a child, or the relationships formed at boarding school, are of greater consequence than most of what follows in life.

If a group of people start "at the top", possibly one or two will do yet greater things, but the best most can hope for is to hang on, while most will drift downwards.

So fear of failure is a debilatating feature for preppies, and of the fascinating characters in Whit Stillman's films. And this is why the message of grace, of life measured by humility before God rather than exalting oneself before Him and others, is needed (in Manhattan and elsewhere). The materially rich may be spiritually poor, and suffering in unseen ways (or very visible ways, as substance abuse is highest at the very top and very bottom of the socio-economic range).

Anyway, I don't know that I've linked to other blogs before, so here goes: David was able to interview Whit Stillman, and the results are quite interesting.

But on the greater topic, what do you think: are we all the same, sinners in need of saving grace? Or are the rich different? What about the cultured, or the intellectual, for that matter?

If the subject is interesting to you, I recommend
the book, Doomed Bourgeois in Love : Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman for further reading. And the Bible. Especially Romans 3.


DZ said...

Thank you Cliff for the kind words and shout-out! Whit is a treasure, and I still can't believe I got to interview him. The new edition of Last Days Of Disco is really, really great. And I think the film itself answers your questions much more insightfully than I could - You should post the Shakespeare admonition quote!

Clifford Swartz said...

Here it is:

You know that Shakespearean admonition, "To thine own self be true"? It's premised on the idea that "thine own self" is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if "thine own self" is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, not to be true to thine own self?... See, that's my situation. 

Des McGrath, a lovable rogue in author/filmmaker Whit Stillman's "Last Days of Disco"

Or, a good answer to the question: "Why Jesus Came"