Clive Stapley, an Eton-educated English aristocrat, and I walk through the woods at the back of my house in Harare. He is 22, and I'm 18. We cross a stream. I want to show Clive, a man I deeply admire (and may even love—I certainly love his sister, who lives in Italy but exists for me only in the photos on the table beside the bed he slept in during the summer we spent in Gaborone, Botswana), the giant bamboos in my neighbor's yard. There is nothing like giant bamboos. They give a human an ant's perspective of grass.
We reach the fence, and I show him the bamboo forest. He is clearly impressed—but he wants a closer look. Slender and tall, Clive jumps over the fence without a second thought and begins walking into the forest. From the other side of the fence, I yell that it's wrong to jump the fence and to walk on someone's property without permission. Clive turns to me and says: "Charles, I had no idea you worry about such things. Worrying about fences is so... middle class." Those words sting me. They also throw me into a state of confusion. Clive sees me as a man in a cage of middle-class values. This is wrong, but I do not know why it is wrong. All I can do is jump the fence and follow him.
What I knew at that point is this: I did not want to be a member of the class that valued above all the private ownership of property, the marriage contract, and a robust work ethic. Those were virtues for the sad and contemptible passions. But I had a problem: How could I legitimately, or better yet authentically, break with my own class? How could I climb that fence with the same confidence that Clive, an aristocrat, had? His class had a natural and deeply historical antipathy for the bourgeoisie. They had lots of money but, unlike my class, they hated it. And they conducted their affairs as if mere nobility put food on their tables, servants in their kitchens, horses in their stables, and chauffeurs in their cars. There was nothing in my blood that aligned me with Clive's form of contempt, though my father often said that his great-grandmother was a princess. But that claim was as real to me as the nobility of the royal big cats in The Lion King was to a pride of lions in an African wildlife reserve.
It was not until I arrived in Sweden that I found a solution to the confusion that Clive plunged me into. My mother bought me the trip as a graduation gift, and I visited the country before I settled in the United States. I entered Stockholm with lots of doubts, and I left seeing the way I would break with the middle class: socialism. Swedish social democracy made the socialist alternative very real to me. To be in that country was like arriving at the border where capitalism ends and its opposite begins. And what I saw on the other side was a society that had natural contempt for all of the things that are dear to the middle class: moneymaking, property, and family values.
I could now jump fences with confidence.
A few years later, on a whim, I saw Whit Stillman's masterpiece Metropolitan at the Harvard Exit. I was very pleased to find that the main character of that film, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a young Ivy League student who accidentally enters a floating world of exclusive after-parties held during Manhattan's debutante ball season, is a socialist who, like myself, looks down on his own class and also the one above it. But as the film progressed, it became more and more clear that Tom, who follows a dead form of socialism that was developed in the early 19th century by the French philosopher Charles Fourier—another character's aghast "You're a Fourierist?!" is one of the film's best laugh lines, which should tell you a lot—had two major flaws in his political thinking. For one, his socialism was almost purely theoretical, and two, far worse, it had ressentiment as its root. Tom isn't a socialist because he hates what the rich stand for but because he resents not being rich himself. This fact is revealed in the course of heady conversations he has at the after-parties held by an enchanting circle of young and upper-crust New Yorkers. Outwardly, Tom is opposed to the conventions of the rich, and also their balls and parties, but only because inwardly he wants to be one of them. The real star and hero of the film, Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), understands this almost immediately. Tom just wants to be included.
Though I found myself troubled by the faulty politics of the main character, and not at all in agreement with the smug and rather bratty hero, Nick, Metropolitan was like no other American film I had seen before for this reason alone: Its characters had a lot to say about class in general, and the condition of their class specifically. This sort of thing is not typical for Americans, who tend to think that there's only one class in their society, the middle, and therefore really no class (and the related tensions) at all. A person who drives a bus is not poor, and a person who manages investment portfolios is not rich; their different interests are all dissolved into the same vast social substance. This is why the presidential candidates of our times never address the rich or the downtrodden but only the millions in the middle. This is America. This is how we like to think of ourselves. And this is why most American movies and even books never bring up that dirty little word directly.
But why is class at the core of this film? This was my first question to Whit Stillman when we talked over the phone last week. (He is currently living in Paris, and he recently made a pilot for Amazon—The Cosmopolitans—that draws from his experiences in the world's capital of, to use a description made famous by a character in Metropolitan, "urban haute bourgeoisie," or UHB.) "It's not the women [in Metropolitan] who are interested in class so much, but the men," Stillman explained. "They are the ones who have a sense that they are in decline. Their fathers and grandfathers were much more successful than they are or could ever hope to become. This is why they are thinking about class a lot."
Though the film is deliberately vague about its time period, presumably for budgetary reasons, the title card tells us we're in a Manhattan of "not so very long ago." Metropolitan is not set during the late-1980s, when it was shot, but 20 years earlier, in the late-1960s. At that distant time, the idea of one massive class had not been fully established in the American imagination (that would happen in the decade Stillman made his film). There was then a hard upper- , middle-, and working-class division. The presidents of that decade still had to have the poor on their radar. And so Metropolitan is about the twilight of a world—the years Stillman attended real after-parties and balls of the rich during his school breaks (he studied at Harvard). "When I attended those parties, I was surprised to find there had been so little change from the time of F. Scott Fitzgerald. There had not been a rupture. Everything was intact," said Stillman. "But by the 1970s, it definitely was over."
In this context, all the talk about class status in Metropolitan makes a lot of sense. The young men know very well that the end is near, that things are going to radically change, that their whole way of life will become extinct. Nick and his set of friends are the ghosts of Manhattan. They even wear top hats and tailcoats. "The 1968 protests had not hit this group yet," explained Stillman. "Then, all at once, everything went crazy: drugs, Woodstock, long hair."
And that was the end of their party.