Whit Stillman: What I Read

The Damsels in Distress director talks Twitter fakes, the dangers of being a "periodicalaholic," and the French racing forum. 

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How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts and the literary world, to hear their answers. This is drawn from a conversation with Whit Stillman, Academy Award nominated writer-director of Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. His new film, Damsels in Distress, comes out April 6.

I listen to a radio show on Bloomberg Radio. It depends sort of on the time I get up. It’s at 7 a.m. to whenever, it’s called Bloomberg Surveillance and it’s with Tom Keene and Ken Prewitt. They interview a lot of economists and various finance types. That’s a very interesting show. They don’t talk much about politics, which is what I like. That’s when I’m getting coffee, et cetera.  Now, if I were in France, I’d read the racing paper, Paris Turf. Because they also don’t talk about politics. In Madrid, I guess I read El Mundo.

I don’t listen when I’m writing. That’d be just when I get up and get showered and have a first coffee at home before I go out to write. Then when I go out to write, it depends what city I’m in. If I’m feeling self-indulgent, I’ll buy The Wall Street Journal and read that. But I cannot try to read anything before I start writing. I prefer just to listen to the radio because you can excuse that as you’re getting dressed or getting something to eat at home or showering. But as far as reading the press, that’s an indulgence for your break or lunch.

I like to read books. That’s my favorite thing. And I particularly like -- I’m sort of a classic guy getting on in age -- I like military history and I also like literary biographies. My favorite reading is literary biographies. And my favorite reading of all is the unabridged Boswell’s Life of [Samuel] Johnson. It’s my favorite thing because it’s interesting and has no import or forward narrative momentum. So you’re interested and edified but it doesn’t keep you up at night.

The papers I read are The Village Voice and the New York Post. I generally read the film section of the Voice. I won’t read them online when I’m in France. The thing I read online is Arts & Letters Daily. But again, it’s an indulgence, because I find that it’s so good that it just sucks up a lot of my time if I get started so I try to really limit -- I try without success -- to limit my reading on the Internet. Because I find just one thing leads another and I’ve just gone down a wire. You go, “I don’t know much about this, I’ll go to Wikipedia to find out more about that” and blah blah blah and on and on and on. I mean, I sometimes run across you guys. I run across you guys sometimes. But I mean, I find it such a temptation to get [into] a publication. I’m kind of a, you know, -holic. I don’t know what to say. A -holic. Periodicaholic? Periodicalaholic? I find magazine journalism very seductive. And I think American magazine journalism tends to be very, very good. But I prefer to stick to books, because you tend to get the full meal.

You have a lot of freedom in reading a book. I’m unable, for some reason, to read books from beginning to end. I have to go to what interests me most in the book. And if I like that, I start going backwards and forwards. And it starts to become a really complicated endeavor of just reading the parts of the books once and not sort of overlapping. I don’t know why I have to sort of re-edit the books myself. I don’t know why I can’t read a prologue and read a first chapter. I mean, if I really love a book I’ll get to them too. For some reason, I usually find them deadly dull, the prologues.

Lately, I’ve been reading books about John Huston. One was his autobiography, and the other was the Jeffrey Meyers book about him [John Huston: Courage and Art]. I find that Jeffrey Meyers is a very good biographer. Oh, and also, I read a very interesting book by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a film director, about his interesting life I think it’s called Luck and Circumstance. It’s quite fascinating to read a book, memoirs by a writer who is practically a contemporary. He had an amazingly precocious career, so he was doing the video work for The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

I get emails and I read on the net. But I don’t do any social stuff. I obviously misjudged that. I thought Facebook was going to be another Friendster. I’m not sure how much of a problem it is, because the last thing I needed was another was to spend time on the net. It’s like the Max Beerbohm quote, Oh, it distresses me, to miss these trends as they pass me by into oblivion. Usually that holds true, but occasionally it doesn’t. I really felt that Twitter was a non-starter. I just couldn’t understand that. But I guess I’m going to have to do that. It’s been proposed, having me tweet to promote the movie. I’ve been impersonated twice and that’s really obnoxious. Because unfortunately, the people who impersonate tend to be witless, so you get pretty well misrepresented. I mean, I did think of some funny stuff to put on, so now it’s appealing to me. But I’d rather save funny stuff for film scenes rather than 140 character messages.

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