Friday, August 03, 2012

The Last Days of Disco (1998)

USA, 113 minutes
Director/writer: Whit Stillman
Photography: John Thomas
Music: Mark Suozzo
Editors: Andrew Hafitz, Jay Pires
Cast: Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Matt Keeslar, Mackenzie Astin, Matthew Ross, Tara Subkoff, Burr Steers, David Thornton, Jaid Barrymore, Michael Weatherly, Robert Sean Leonard, Jennifer Beals

There are thing to complain about in The Last Days of Disco—it's hardly flawless. But I was compelled to revisit it after seeing screenwriter and director Whit Stillman's first movie since, 14 years on, Damsels in Distress, which came out earlier this year. Not only did I adore Damsels in Distress, but I also find that I like The Last Days of Disco a whole lot more in its glow. As a matter of fact, in many ways Damsels practically picks up where Last Days left off, certainly in terms of the never-ending search to find truth and meaning in popular dance crazes and the social upheavals attending them. Everything anyone might rightly find fault with does not prevent The Last Days of Disco from being perfectly insinuating and a complete winner start to finish, a broad farce playing our nominal superiors, namely New York City's Upper East Side ruling class, for witless buffoons.

I think I didn't comprehend before how funny Stillman is at sending up these people—or, more specifically, their children. Making privileged WASPs into vicious, plainly dumb caricatures may look easy but making it work is probably his best trick in a whole magic bag full of them, because he's kind of gentle about it and yet he shows no mercy. To a person, no one here is likeable (or, in fairness, entirely unlikeable either). There's a lot of skill to the way Stillman renders them as well-educated, well-mannered, well-spoken, well-dressed, and well-bred preening nincompoops, alternately strutting about like barnyard cocks or cringing to perceived authority. It may be class warfare, but it's deliriously pleasurable.

Never mind the plot—something about the downfall of Studio 54 in the early '80s. It just plays in the background as a way to keep its many moving pieces organized for a tidy finish. Above all, this picture sails on the music, where it has power to send one into absolute swoons. All of the most energizing scenes are on the dance floor, just music and costumes and bodies writhing, and it evinces a preternatural sense for timing the many arch emotional turns of its story, such as it is, to the music, as when "Doctor's Orders" swells up big in the early moments just when Alice (the Betty, played by Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (the Veronica, played by Kate Beckinsale) have gained access to the nightclub.

In the alternate universe of this movie, disco is lionized and glowingly extolled as a heroic moment of youth culture. Myself, I always thought punk-rock/New Wave was the music denied its place at the table in those times, but The Last Days of Disco finds ways to remind us that disco was actually one of the most publicly reviled episodes of popular culture ever, so much so that the name "disco" itself had to be discarded, marginalized to this particular era, even though keyboard-driven dance music has never, ever gone away, just traveled under different names ("second British invasion," "urban," "electronica," etc.). The dichotomy is played to deliberately here, even including out-of-time-frame news footage of the 1979 Disco Demolition Night at Chicago's Comiskey Park, a record-burning event that turned into a near riot. The snark gets thick, as this is a picture filled to overflowing with irony and strategies of distancing. But as removed as it attempts to make itself from its own feelings it's hard to miss the genuine affection (and feel) that it has for the music.

On top of that, I can't help myself. I do end up loving these dopes it calls characters, forever saying things like, "Have you ever noticed how people who look just alike never seem to know each other?" Or, "One thing I've noticed is that people hate being criticized. Everyone hates that. It's one of the great truths of human nature." Or, "The way I see it, Brutus was a good friend to Caesar." It's talky and wordy and New Yorky, which alone is enough to keep me entertained for hours on end. It's why Woody Allen, for all his many faults, has been nearly a lifelong guiding point, for better or (maybe) worse.

Thus the absolute heart of The Last Days of Disco turns out to be ... just another conversation at the club. But an acutely key one, a discussion of the 1955 Disney feature Lady and the Tramp, which becomes an earnest—ridiculously earnest, of course—undergrad classroom type of debate. The deeper they get into their explications the more apparent it becomes that they are actually using Lady and the Tramp transparently as a way to talk about themselves with one another, a unifying and profound formative experience they all share, this Disney movie, a neat symbol of privilege in its own right, even though they cannot agree on it any more than they can on anything else. (Bambi, now that I think about it, also comes up in an earlier conversation, and in many ways The Last Days of Disco perversely occupies that same imperturbable bubble that Disney movies do as an ideal.)

The players are fine—eloquent, unintentionally self-revealing, and with the vague manner of animals trapped and considering chewing off their own legs. Stillman is not above cameos from his two previous movies, Metropolitan and Barcelona (also worth seeing, of course). Kate Beckinsale is shallow and bitchy and delightfully lame-brained. Chloe Sevigny brings her usual intriguing presence, a kind of indie brand of its own, careful and self-regarding, a dense walking discomfiture and a chilly vision of beauty. I think Stillman has arguably cast and directed her as well as anyone ever has. She's not likeable, as few here are, but even so one reads her and feels her at every step.

As with Damsels in Distress, The Last Days of Disco manages to have it all ways an outrageous amount of the time: poking good, hilarious fun at the empty rich people, swooning it up with musical flourishes, and then probing with precision for secret vulnerabilities and humanity. One of the best moments in the whole thing, funny and shivery good all at once, is entirely unexpected, when Charlotte rears back and peals off a beautiful reading of "Amazing Grace" from a hospital bed. She's the least likeable person here—that's mostly for laughs though it's not always that funny—but for that one moment I was definitely looking around for a chair to stand on and applaud from.

It ends on a speech, a closing argument from Josh, who is also a prosecutor and the greatest lover of them all of disco—"Disco was too great and too much fun to be gone forever," etc.—and then, as if to prove the point, and to assert one last time that it is actually serious about all this on the deepest levels, the picture heads off to a scene on a subway train car for the credit crawl and a beautiful and strangely moving music-video style interlude based on the O'Jays' "Love Train." Once again, one doesn't know whether to laugh or weep at the sheer beauty of the spectacle of it. Now that's entertainment.

Top 20 of 1998
I really meant to "give the singer some" and write more extensively than I have yet about my #1 for 1998, High Art (or, for that matter, my #2, Velvet Goldmine, although that gets a reasonably good appreciation in the ongoing Facebook 50 '11 countdown, still upcoming, and never mind they are transposed in that list). But there's something there I'm procrastinating, and anyway, I had a bright shiny object in The Last Days of Disco. (I previously kinda sorta wrote about A Simple Plan here.) I will make a point of getting to High Art in the fullness of time. It's only fair. The Celebration I saw recently on a VHS. Living Out Loud is mainstream tepid, as I recall, but an ecstasy scene at a dance club has stuck with me. I remember liking Rushmore a lot when it was new, but was more disappointed more recently, so I'm going to call #12 fair. Saving Private Ryan is of course for the first 30 minutes, which could well be #1 if the rest were excised. But then would it still be a movie? Otherwise, it does get a bit thin there towards the bottom. But I can recommend them enough for entertainment type purposes.
1. High Art
2. Velvet Goldmine
3. Run Lola Run
4. A Simple Plan
5. The Last Days of Disco
6. The Big Lebowski
7. Your Friends & Neighbors
8. The Thin Red Line
9. The Celebration
10. Living Out Loud
11. Happiness
12. Rushmore
13. Buffalo '66
14. The Gingerbread Man
15. There's Something About Mary
16. Following
17. Saving Private Ryan
18. Babe: Pig in the City
19. Ringu
20. Rush Hour

Didn't like so much: American History X, A Civil Action, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Pi, Primary Colors

Gaps: Central Station, Flowers of Shanghai, Gods and Monsters, The Opposite of Sex, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries

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