Monday, April 20, 2015

The Last Days of Disco

You know you're inside a Whit Stillman motion picture when even a sleazy nightclub owner asks his employee why he used the past perfect when he answered his question.  Or when that same guy explains that he chose Hemingway for his undergrad thesis.  Writer/director Stillman was/is virtually solitary in his creation of characters who speak like Ivy Leaguers and consider Harper's bathroom reading.  While any number of Generation X  film auteurs wrote lengthy, verbose rants for their self-absorbed onscreen dopplegangers in the '90s, Stillman steered his charges through a distinctive brand of erudition very rarely heard in cinema.

The third in Stillman's self-described "Doomed Bourgeois in Love" trilogy, 1998's THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO continues the numerous (sometimes over-) analyzations spouted by attractive, well-dressed youth who are primarily consumed with what people these days called "first world" problems.  Yet they deal with the same insecurities and hang-ups as that of the great unwashed, though their commentary on it is far more studious than what might be heard in most non-Yuppie watering holes.  This time the story takes place in 1980, in the waning days of the disco era in Manhattan.  Just as the title states, the culture of Studio 54-type excess is rapidly fading.  The carefree coupling, drugs.  Working your life around your leisure and not the other way around.  It was never just about the music. 

Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are former college acquaintances who work at a publishing house in the City.  They are trying to become editors, er, associate editors.  Reality is harsh.  Their parents help them somewhat but New York is awfully expensive.  The duo, frequent companions but not exactly chums, find a "railroad" apartment with a third young woman named Holly (Tara Subkoff).   They all frequent an exclusive club where the doorman turns away anyone who isn't on the List (or wears brown coats).  While yes, the women are all beautiful, it helps that they know Des (Chris Eigman), one of the managers. 

Each character is drawn carefully.   Alice is reserved, cautious, observant.  Charlotte is conceited, manipulative, blunt, mindless of others' feelings.  Des is also a "big personality", brash but wildly insecure.  He often breaks up with women by telling them he just discovered his homosexuality after watching an episode of Wild Kingdom. THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO also follows ad exec Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), forever having to bluff his way into the club as the manager doesn't want "his kind" there, Josh (Matt Keeslar) an assistant D.A. who takes a liking to Alice, and Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), another attorney with an interest in Alice that becomes a one night stand.  Also in this circle is Dan (Matt Powers), co-worker of Alice and Charlotte and, while being a Harvard grad himself, is the Common Man's Greek chorus, calling the women out on their lineage and behavior, certain that they will continue their supposed fairy tale lives by marrying some lawyer or such.

Stillman strikes many fascinating observations, the most obvious of which is the whole class structure of the disco scene.  How getting into the right club is like getting into the right college.  Some of the characters may actually be poor, but appearances and connections are everything.  Friendships, such as they are, are as disposable as your last bed mate.  There is much discussion about group social activities versus "pairing off".  For the characters in LAST DAYS, their fragile lifestyles are threatened by things like sexually transmitted disease, mental illness, corrupt bosses, looming jail sentences, and possible pregnancies.  But then, whose life wouldn't be? Is Stillman moralizing?  Perhaps...a few characters even sing old hymns with conviction - and nary a sign of condescension - late in the film, when the pleasure dome collapses.

The director is not so interested in specific evocations of the early 80s, other than the near nonstop music and few old television clips.  If you want that, watch THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY (and best of luck).   In LAST DAYS, the clothes and hair are too contemporary.  The subways cars too clean.  I was never convinced these characters were living in the era depicted. Often, they rather looked and acted like 1990s urbanites who spend time at Starbucks debating the finer points of sitcoms, albeit the way Proust might've.  Ordinarily, this would be an issue, but the film is so swiftly rendered and engaging that for once I didn't care.  Stillman has used the early '80s backdrop as merely an excuse to have another fascinating talkfest. And it's sublime. The film gets better every time I watch it. 

THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO's pleasures are many, from the wordy by play to the beauty of the women.  To me, Sevigny has never been more appealing or alluring.  Stillman always features a quieter, less confident character such as Alice in his works but Sevigny puts it across with an elan that is singular.  Eigman, often hilarious,  plays the same sort of smug, neurotic smart aleck he did in the director's METROPOLITAN and BARCELONA, beautifully, I might add.  Here he hones it to some sort of perfection.  He and everyone speak the director's words like music.  Watching Stillman's films, his patently manufactured surrealities, I'm reminded of a friend who explained that when he was robbed overseas, the gunman quoted Shakespeare to him.   I could see Whit Stillman writing such a moment.  With the victims' witty ruminations on why this is happening to them, of course.

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