Reproduction of movies in new home entertainment formats is symbolic proof of a film’s cultural and/or commercial significance, an indication that the movie is worth owning, watching, re-watching, discussing and sharing with others. Reproduction and reissuing are means of preserving texts we deem worthwhile for the present and the future. Should that release be by the likes of the well-respected company Criterion, the symbolic value triples, assuring the film’s place in the coveted arena of cinematic canon. When Criterion released Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan, but for whatever reason decided to forgoBarcelona (possibly an issue pertaining to licensing, funding or timing), I’ll admit my heart sank a little. While it is entirely feasible and quite likely that there are, indeed, logistical, practical or industrial reasons preventing Barcelona from re-release by Criterion, one cannot help but view the loss symbolically. Especially considering how different Barcelona is from Stillman’s other films.

Notice I did not make a bold claim there, such as “Especially considering that Barcelona is Stillman’s best film.” This is not a matter of hesitation or diffidence on my part, but simply my very radical theory on Stillman’s oeuvre: his films simply cannot be ranked for quality. If you enjoy Stillmanian satire, it is likely you will find something equally admirable in each of his works. Some filmic aspects are better in certains works versus others, but at the end of the day each is a self-confident, polished film that examines a specific milieu to be found in America’s vast landscape of upper class white privilege.

Barcelona’s prominent strength is its lack of an ensemble cast, in that it is Stillman’s sole film to place much of the character identification in two characters, which is an ambitious move when your film thrives on quick-witted dialogue and complicated, idiosyncratic and seemingly contradictory characters. A lesser writer would have likely drowned trying to place two American idiots abroad in Europe at the end of the Cold War if s/he tried to imbue the film with any ounce of wit, satire or political backdrop. Fred (Chris Eigeman) and Ted (Taylor Nichols) – two American cousins who find each other shacking up temporarily in a foreign city as they both work, date, socialize, and attempt to navigate Barcelona’s culture together – are fascinating because the narrative gets to hone in on only them as the two main leads. Stillman’s other films kind of, sort of feature main leads (e.g. Tom Townsend in Metropolitan, Alice Kinnon in Last Days), but they are less actual protagonists than major players, which is to say that they receive possibly more screen time than other characters, or their emotional issues are treated with more reverence or seriousness.

In Barcelona, Fred and Ted are essentially the viewer’s guide to Barcelona (perhaps thus the reason for the film’s uncomplicated title), although they are not exactly the most desirable or graceful gateway to European life. Throughout much of the film, the viewer is tempted to facepalm every Fredism and Tedism if it weren’t for Stillman’s knack for treating his characters as emotionally complex and relatable. Fred and Ted are as ridiculous as they are human. Their American-apologist defenses sound clueless at times, but their earnestness and desire to prove themselves as worthy human beings to their Barcelonian acquaintances is simply too endearing. When Ted tries to explain American foreign policy to fellow picnicking Barcelonians, using the black and red ants darting on the grass below as an analogy, the oblivious Fred has a kneejerk reaction to kill the red ants, before they can do any damage. A practical move on his part, but his stomping is a woefully symbolic gesture for the Europeans. Ted extols sales business strategy to the point of viewing self-help and sales literature (by the likes of Dale Carnegie) as philosophy; he treats such texts more reverently than he does the biblical proverbs he consults for romantic advice. Ted almost seems less a religious man than he does a pragmatic one (well, he is Protestant), relying on whatever established knowledge that applies most germanely for him, to improve his romantic and working life. That he finds the moral values behind this knowledge fundamental to his habits and opinions is absolutely crucial, though. He explains to different people the utmost importance of total honesty in successful selling. His beliefs reach the point where one cannot help but think the poor guy has self-romanticized a profession that is considered largely cutthroat and demoralizing by most. Regardless, it is difficult not to admire someone for so earnestly describing the literature that has inspired him to live a better life.

With the exception of its tepid and hasty conclusion (in which the two cousins end up with wives whom the film has not prepared us for), Barcelona is Stillman’s most structurally solid story, and I can’t help but wonder if that is because of its lack of an ensemble cast. It gives the viewer more time to fall in love with Ted and Fred, as egregiously pro-American as they are. It also allows certain character preoccupations and tendencies (Fred’s tendency to secretly “borrow” Ted’s belongings, Fred’s becoming such a disliked American figure in their circles that an unfortunate series of events inadvertently leads to his being not-lethally shot by an anti-American terrorist, Ted’s insecurity about his career as a salesperson) to re-emerge time and time again so seamlessly within the context of the narrative progression, that it really does feel like the film is going somewhere and that the viewer witnesses slow, subtle but substantially rewarding character arcs. Their sibling-like rivalry (they do act more like brothers than cousins, which should indicate both their mutual closeness as well as their discord) is a consistent source of friction that leaves very little room for any dialogue in the film to even remotely resemble casual, polite conversation. Indeed, Barcelonais easily Stillman’s most hostile film: Fred is actually shot in the head, the Europeans never turn down the opportunity to challenge the Americans on their beliefs and Fred and Ted already have so much fodder to bicker about. But it is also perhaps, simultaneously, Stillman’s warmest film, because of the characters’ family dynamic. No matter whom they date, shared blood won’t let Ted and Fred abandon each other.

One thought on “Barcelona”

  1. Bill Butkevich says:

    You’re probably correct about Criterion not releasing Barcelona because of a rights issue. I purchased the soundtrack album to Barcelona the week it came out and was dismayed to find that one of the best music tracks in the film was absent (fortunately that track, however, survived into the film’s VHS and DVD releases). I looked up Stillman’s Manhattan phone number in the White Pages… left him 2 voice messages querying about this… but inevitably he was too highfalutin to respond to such a plebeian/stranger like me. I next looked up the Music Man of the production Mark Suozzo… he was immediately the nicest guy going and readily chatted with an aficionado/stranger like me. I learned that the missing track from the album was the song “Hora del Crepusculo” (Twilight Time) (I believe this was played during the countryside drive to the picnic outing where Ted & Fred have the discussion involving the black & red ants) performed by the great 1950’s Latino quintet Los Cincos Latinos… Suozzo informed me that although Sony felt they had sufficient rights to include the track into the film, they felt uncertain that they had sufficient rights to include the track into the film’s soundtrack album. At that time (mid 1990’s) Sony was having a difficult/impossible time trying to figure out who owned the rights to any of the (even by then “old” already) Los Cincos Latinos recordings. I eventually found the exact track played in the film on a Sony “Best Of” re-release of an older/original Los Cincos Latinos LP onto CD. (I inserted the track where it belonged back into my Barcelona Soundtrack CD… to have a “complete” soundtrack at least!) Sony was OK in taking the risk to allow use of the song in the film… but not in the film’s soundtrack CD. Criterion probably wasn’t OK in re-releasing the film (onto BD, etc) with such an open rights issue still hanging over the project. Too bad because Barcelona is THE BEST of the three!! And of course it would be a totally awful conflagration to remove the track from any later-released video version solely for this pesky/unsolvable old song rights issue… So leaving it AS IS turned out to be the way to go… but I DO miss Barcelona in BD… or even UVHD… or even… Hey! maybe if someone keeps working on that Los Cincos Latinos rights issue we might someday SEE an exciting new high-def version of Barcelona… Wow!!

Comments are closed.