Thursday Editor’s Pick: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

by on March 30, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Aug 5 at 4:30, 6:50*, 9:15 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*Q&A with Whit Stillman, Chris Eigerman, and Lena Dunham
As we noted in our blogroll on his first feature in 13 years, Damsels in Distress, director Whit Stillman is busy this week. He’ll be introing a sneak preview of Damsels at MOMI and then skipping over to BAM to join his frequent (and greatest) star Chris Eigerman for a chat with Lena Dunham, who curated the film in her series “Hey Girlfriend!” a celebration of female bonding. Be sure to check out Chip Brown’s marvelous New York Times Magazine profile on Stillman.

Alt Screen editor Brynn White on one of her favorites, for Film Comment:

Whit Stillman’s final serving of Doomed Bourgeois in Love chronicles postcollegiate dilettantism in the big city. Stillman’s polysyllabic patricians endure the age-old travails of job security and railroad-apartment cohabitation, but find Eighties-specific refuge in the vodka-tonic oasis of the downtown disco scene. Their pursuit of velvet-rope access and strobe-lit romance results in varying degrees of success. Insecurity and competition ignite as group social life devolves into “ferocious pairing off” quicker than you can cry “Freak Out!” Chloë Sevigny demonstrates the expressive potential of downcast eyes, and Chris Eigeman reconfirms his mastery of Stillman’s distinctive cadences, but it’s Matt Keeslar’s manic sentimentalist who gets the girl. Exulting in their Epic and Important – and vibrantly soundtracked – Zeitgeist, he embodies Stillman’s celebration of dancing along the thin line between self-awareness and delusion. A masterful evocation of the giddiness and instantaneous nostalgia of waning youth.


Troy Patterson for Slate:

As for the plot, well, plot is a very strong word to use. Things—betrayals and misfortunes and fallings out—happen, and Alice comes of age, but it is better to think of Disco as a multipart character study. Or maybe a drawing room comedy where the room has a mirror ball spinning from the ceiling. It is Stillman’s particular and slightly odd cleverness to create movies that are not dialogue-driven but dialogue-paved.
Despite his reputation as a chronicler of WASP decline, and regardless of his engagement with issues of class and capital and labor, Stillman’s real subject is society—small s and small scale: the dynamics of partygoing groups, the obligations of friendship, the “ferocious pairing off” (to use Charlotte’s expression) that is the aim of courtship. These are universal. It’s the style and tone that are eccentrically and unrepentantly uhb. It’s one of the highest compliments you can pay a filmmaker to say that the characters he laughs with and at would be among the keenest admirers of his sensibility.

Aaron Aradillas talks with Stillman – and David Edelstein shows up to set the record straight regarding his original, intensely harsh, Slate review.


Graham Fuller for Interview:

At the disco, an after-hours bar, on the streets, these kids blatantly humiliate each other, subtly switch their romantic allegiances, as everyone in their early twenties is wont to do…What seems like idle chatter in Stillman’s urbane comedies of manners contains seeds of conscious and unconscious intent-often planted in the past-that bear fruit in later scenes. That’s standard screenwriting practice, but Stillman has the knack of showing us rather than telling us how people change over time, and it’s compelling. That it comes as no shock when we learn why Charlotte hates Alice, or that Alice and Des are having a fling, is part of the fun. This is the fabric of Stillman’s films, and it’s also their essence.



Noel Murray for The Onion AV Club:

If asked to make a movie about how the yuppie ascendancy of the early ’80s helped squeeze the funkiness out of New York, most filmmakers would make the yuppies the bad guys. Not so Whit Stillman. Stillman’s 1998 comedy The Last Days Of Disco follows a group of privileged young New Yorkers as they strive to cobble together a social life and an identity while embarking on careers in advertising, publishing, law, and nightclub management. Stillman makes them the heroes of his story, though he doesn’t let any of them off the hook, exactly. Like the characters in his Metropolitan and Barcelona, the young men and women in The Last Days Of Disco are depicted as vain, smug, and self-deluded, and they often make mistakes with dire consequences. But Stillman understands these people, and even forgives them. After all, everyone has the right to a nightlife.
The Last Days Of Disco arrived at the end of a decade that Stillman helped define in subtle ways. Though his films were set in the ’80s, their distinctive take on urbane young adults did as much as Quentin Tarantino or Jerry Seinfeld in the ’90s to popularize the idea of idle chatter as entertainment. Stillman’s characters were neither everymen nor pulp archetypes; they were moneyed professionals governed as much by Victorian literature and value systems as by popular culture. It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel nostalgic—not for the end of the disco era, but for those heady late-’90s days when small, almost novelistic movies like this were relatively common, and in some cases were as well-covered and well-promoted as any blockbuster. Call it The Last Days Of Indie.


Stephen Hunter for the Washington Post:

Stillman is the Balzac of the ironic class, the Dickens of people with too much inner life. His dialogue is crafted to the point of mannerism. Sometimes he seems like a David Mamet who actually paid attention during English class and learned a thing or two. Yet he’s always amusing in his sly way, and this film is in its own way a near epic, attempting to sum up a generation as it stumbles against the first crisis of its collective life, which is the utter collapse of sexual caution in a cocaine-fueled decade-long party.
Slowly, almost unnoticeably, “The Last Days of Disco” gathers momentum; each of the lives it chronicles reaches a turning point, and they all find themselves on that cusp of confusion known as the beginning of adult life. They learn that being grown up doesn’t necessarily involve discos. It’s a hard lesson, one other generations learned in trenches or on islands in faraway, mean places. Still, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and dance

Stephen Saito talked to Stillman about the film several years ago, for IFC:

What has it been like to revisit “Last Days”?

The journalistic comment on the film — not so much by critics, more by the journalists — tended to see it through the lens of a disco revival. There was Mark Christopher’s film “54″ coming out, there was our film called “Last Days of Disco,” even though it’s not so much about disco, and then there were other things that they decided to throw in to say that there was some sort of disco revival afoot. It’s much better now, when all that dropped away. People just watch the film and just take it as it comes.
Do you find that a new generation is starting to discover it?

Yeah, and I think we were rebelling against this slightly older generation. The rock ‘n’ roll Woodstock ’60s generation sounded oppressive and boring [to us], and our films are aggressively needling of that. I think we got some pushback from those people, who, for their part, hated disco. They hated that, and so I think it’s better received by not my generation.


Stillman on Leonard Lopate in 2009:

You an listen to the full interview here. And check him out, upon the film’s release, on Charlie Rose.
Stillman reveals his connections to Dunham to Indiewire:

Stillman’s fellow New York indie read for a small part in the film. “Lena was going to play the Alia Shawkat role, the angry Mad Madge in the corridor shouting at Greta. But you realize [that a script] has no real melody until actors say it. When Lena came in, it was for one of the comic parts, and it had been an audition session where nothing sounded right, and you really get worried.” But: “We became friends.”
Aside from helping each other out during production, Stillman and Dunham hold similar views in terms of shooting format: “There’s this sneering that goes on about shooting digitally, ” says Stillman, “but I think that’s misplaced.”



Alt Screen contributor Andy McCarthy for his blog The Shine Box:

In New York City there often recurs a phenomenal thing, that when a flag of creativity is stook in an unknown, castaway community, it is soon dispersed and made popular by the those less innovative but just as eager for stimulation, until the system shuts the scene down and the movement chokes dead. These are the last days.

Disco – born as an underground scene in gay black dance clubs in post-industrial Brooklyn outlands – got big. Barnacled by two-tone collared, classically articulate New England collegiates looking for the glamour and edge of nightlife, the scene is kept alive by guys like Bernie, the peppery pony-tailed club owner, who says, indemnifying himself, “I used to be in advertising,” like a shammo music promoter from Woodstock. Alice and Charlotte find themselves unlikely friends. Though disparate and awkward at tony rebellious Hampshire College, the girls live together with a third roommate in an Upper East Side railroad apartment. They are always walking through each other’s rooms at inappropriate times, and find asylum at the club, the umbrage of Xenonic strobes, where the girls bounce their own insecurities off one another, under “Doctor’s Orders. ”Charlotte’s idea of sly charm is to say things seriously as if “obviously a joke.” Alice is the character most grounded and humble and eventually the most successful, but she is also the most shamelessly confused. She hooks up with navy-blazer dicko Tom Platt. In the future one imagines Tom writing Op-Ed pieces in the Times which gain him a sociopathic following amongst liberals. Tom sidles up to the dance floor with his pennyloafer lack of rhythm and soul, his late entrance attractively picaresque for Alice, who still believes in novelistic romance. Tom thinks it is a profound thing to collect Scrooge McDuck memorabilia, and it seems as if the situation couldn’t be more lame until poor Alice (too many whiskey sours) tries something she never learned at Hampshire – to talk naughty: “Scrooge McDuck is sexy.”
Disco’s characters are all somewhat obsessed with the camaraderie and excuse for melodrama that a “scene” provides, though their emotions and intellect have been bred to expect the higher sanction of inimitable status without proof of action. Once they arrive in New York, expectations warp, and they pick up a modicum of survival skills – as when Jimmy Steinway has his elder WASP boss from the ad company take Jimmy’s raincoat, “Here, put this on,” so they won’t get rejected by Van, the Blade Runneresque head bouncer. Jimmy is on thin ice anyhow, Van doesn’t let them past the velvet ropes, and instead Jimmy sneaks his party in through the back.


Joseph Jon Lanthier for Slant:

The Last Days of Disco imagines post-grads not unlike those of Metropolitan in their uncomfortable late 20s, stumbling over their parents’ ideals on the way to connubial compromises and modest career advances. A far cry from the complacent curtain call to Barcelona, Last Days is easily the most hard-knock of the Stillman triad, depicting the fate of social ineptitude and romantic uncertainty doomed to befall post-Harvard preppies after they first venture out of the mother’s bosom of Sever Hall. This sets the stage for a Darwinian game of survival of the wittiest, and Stillman divides the weak from the strong with sharp, snarky bon mots that, unlike the puerile put-downs of his previous two movies, smart like hell and destroy tenuous reputations while somehow keeping the audience chuckling. As Kate Beckinsale’s acidic female back-handedly confides to her “friend”: “Maybe in physical terms I’m a little cuter than you, but you should be much more popular than I am.”
Unlike the wounded masculinity on display in Metropolitan and Barcelona, the focus of Last Days is a psychologically authentic and painfully parasitic female relationship. The pale, porcelain Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), a hot-shit rich girl who misses being the center of the male student body’s attention, vents her aggression by belittling and exposing the vulnerabilities of her fleshier, more modest flat-mate and coworker Alice (Chloë Sevigny). And rather than admiring disco on its own terms, the two view the dance scene—particularly the buoyant, popular club managed by the womanizing cad Des (Chris Eigeman, in the most entertaining manifestation of his typecast smart-aleck)—primarily as a way of exercising what sexual power they have upon the cold, impartial dating environment. Although judging from the men they mean to wrangle onto the dance floor or into bed, their pulchritude turns out to be more of a disadvantage: The nebbish adman Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin), forever attempting to sneak his crusty, quinquagenarian clients into the club, and the wishy-washy, broad-eye browed Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) are justifiably terrified of attractive women.
In many ways this film, with the remainder of the UHB trilogy, was ahead of its time, possessing a playful wholesomeness unlike most other reminiscences of the ’80s, one that—in spite of a peaceful third-act cocaine bust at the club—Stillman and his cast maintain with the wide-eyed innocence of a social and sexual virgin stepping beneath the mirror ball for the first time.


David Schickler for The Criterion Collection:

Whit Stillman took a risk to set his third film during (and title it after) the disco era, whose erstwhile existence, from almost the moment it ended, has seemed to embarrass most Americans more than Watergate. One would think, fifteen years after the death of this maligned musical movement, it could have been safely celebrated only with a protective sheen of kitschy detachment. So then how did Stillman pull off something as genuine and persuasively fresh as The Last Days of Disco, and why does it continue to sparkle, more than a decade after its making, with more glittering facets than a mirrored ball? Maybe the answer is Stillman’s unironic affection for the period, for the music, and for his endlessly verbose characters, who live and dance through it.
Its closest artistic ancestor, for my money, is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Both are comedies of manners in which any one of the leading ladies could conceivably, at the close of the story, end up matched with any one of the leading men without our sympathies being vexed, so long as we can imagine that all these clever people will go on talking and interacting cleverly with each other beyond the final curtain or credits, eternally. And speaking of eternity, or at least longevity, the deadpan chestnuts of dialogue that have long kept Wilde’s funniest play from going out of date meet their modern match in Disco in the barbed honesty and timing of Stillman’s Gothamite rascals, who would surely stake their droll conversational claims on us at a present-day hot spot like Babbo or Gramercy Tavern as fluidly as they do at their fictional early eighties Club.


Nick Pinkerton for the Village Voice:

Dialogue, fragments from a lifetime of conversations, are the mobilizing force in all of Stillman’s movies. His meticulous writing technique (“It’s the reverse of what Robert McKee used to say in his course”) depends, he says, on developing voices “to the point where they seem to be operating autonomously,” then creating volleys of dicta and contradicta: “Have the characters tell the truth from their point of view and then . . . you realize, ‘You know, that’s not quite true, there are these exceptions. There’s this other aspect,’ and then send another character to say that.” Disco‘s characters, fluent and affluent, argue questions of fate, regarding both class (“What if, in a few years, we don’t marry some corporate lawyer? What if we marry some meatball, like you?”) and character (“What if ‘thine own self’ is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad?”).
With due respect to Carolyn Farina, terrific in Metropolitan, Disco has Stillman’s fullest female protagonist in Chloë Sevigny, here a recent Hampshire grad negotiating the shoals of sex and Manhattan nightlife, joining an Ivy League clique whose social bubble submerges, without ever popping, amid a multiracial, omnisexual dance floor. In a piece of “counterintuitive” casting, Stillman ignored Sevigny’s “very Downtown, Harmony Korine, edgy Kids reputation” to recognize the patrician Connecticut she’d grown up around. In a New Yorker profile positing Sevigny as 1994’s “It” girl, one interviewee commented: “People want to project their desire, [but] she’s smart enough to hold back, and that allows us all to project whatever we want to.” Stillman saw this—and saw beyond, into the expressive dolor in her dusky eyes, the slight slump that makes her meekly tall. Her hookup with Robert Sean Leonard, oppressed by outside expectation, is painfully human acting.


Dave McDougall for MUBI:

The Last Days of Disco isn’t Charlotte and Alice’s story, or even the story of the wider group of friends they make. Well, it is both of those things, but not so much as it is a film about discovery and excitement and the passage of time. Like Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, The Last Days of Disco is also a portrait of a society on the verge of changing into something else. Like Wharton’s novel, it’s a lament for a disintegrating thing of beauty. Stillman’s particular beautiful thing isn’t youth or the city, but a world where, once you get past the door, everything is full of possibility and you get to dance while exploring it. Maybe those things are all the same.
Stillman doesn’t present language as a field of uncertainty; language, for his characters, is the one tool they know how to wield well. They can discuss how the childhood trauma of watching Bambi helped create the contemporary environmental movement, or how watching Lady and the Tramp conditions what little girls will grow up to want from men. Their wit and intelligence is all foreplay. No matter how ‘experienced’ they are, they don’t seem to know much about consummation or adult emotional life. Terry Teachout has said that Stillman’s films understand “just how hard it has become for nice young men and women to figure out the right thing to do in a culture without rules.” For all of this, Stillman isn’t judgmental toward them — he’s nostalgic for their mistakes more than their successes. For all of the film’s nostalgic celebration of disco culture, Stillman understands that disco is an excuse for his characters to attempt to create a ‘group social life’ worth living.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The movie is the latest sociological romance by Whit Stillman, who nails his characters with perfectly heard dialogue and laconic satire. If Scott Fitzgerald were to return to life, he would feel at home in a Whit Stillman movie. Stillman listens to how people talk, and knows what it reveals about them. His characters have been supplied by their Ivy League schools with the techniques but not the subjects of intelligent conversation, and so they discuss “The Lady and the Tramp” with the kind of self-congratulatory earnestness that French students would reserve for Marx and Freud. (Their analysis of the movie is at least as funny as the Quentin Tarantino character’s famous deconstruction of “Top Gun” in the movie “Sleep With Me.”) Stillman has the patience to circle a punch line instead of leaping straight for it. He’ll establish something in an early scene and then keep nibbling away until it delivers. The guy who dumps girls by claiming to be gay, for example, eventually explains that he always thought he was straight until, one day, he felt “something different” while watching Jim Fowler on “Wild Kingdom.”
The movie has barely enough plot to hold it together; it involves drugs and money laundering, but it’s typical of Stillman that most of the suspense involves the young D.A. fretting about a romantic conflict of interest. The underlying tone of the film is sweet, fond and a little sad: These characters believe the disco period was the most wonderful period of their lives, and we realize that it wasn’t disco that was so special, but youth. They were young, they danced, they drank, they fell in love, they learned a few lessons, and the music of that time will always reawaken those emotions.


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