THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998, USA, Whit Stillman)
I'm going to turn over a new leaf in Spain. I'm going to turn over several new leaves. You know that Shakespearean admonition, "To thine own self be true"? It's premised on the idea that "thine own self" is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if "thine own self" is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better in that case not to be true to thine own self? See? That's my situation.
Indeed, that's the situation of all the characters in this closing chapter of Whit Stillman's NYC WASP triptych (acronyms cluster around these films like debs around a punchbowl). Of course, none of them know it at the outset: when first we meet them, they're out for a disco night on the town, flushed with youth, good looks and the high spirits that come from gaining admission to New York's most exclusive dance club. They're on top of the world, neither sadder nor wiser than their younger METROPOLITAN counterparts – but they will be by the end of the movie.
The tagline for the first film of the cycle was so apt, you'd think it was penned by the writer-director himself: "Doomed. Bourgeois. In love." – a phrase later appropriated by Mark C. Henrie for the title of his very fine anthology of essays on "the peculiar comic genius" of Whit Stillman, whose work is there described as "class-conscious, theory-laden, nostalgically romantic, and deflatingly ironic." A tone of nostalgia and deflation permeates this autumnal final installment in the series, a sharp contrast to the sunny, summery comedy of BARCELONA, its immediate predecessor. Charlie spoke in the first film of the impending doom that awaited his entire class. Prophetically enough, as it turns out: as the trilogy draws to its close, it's reckoning time. Time to come to terms. With sin and consequence, with weakness and mortality. And, perhaps, with redemption.
Each chapter in Stillman's magnum opus concerns a different set of characters, but they are essentially alike. (In a very satisfying touch, several faces from the first two films show up at the disco: Audrey Rouget, now something of a legend in the publishing business, is deep in conversation with Charlie, Fred and Sally – nice to see the SFRP at least somewhat intact – and when Ted Boynton enthuses about his new job in Spain, it's a kick to realize how much we already know about the "future" trajectory of his relationship with his date, whom he awkwardly introduces as "Betty." Our disappointment at not seeing Taylor Nichols in a central role is at least mitigated by the fact that he gets not one but two cameos.) The Audrey-ish Alice (Chloe Sevigny) works in an entry-level publishing job with her stunning soon-to-be-roommate Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale). Around them, a cluster of attractively Young, presumed-to-be Upwardly-mobile Professional men: Jimmy Steinway, in advertising; Josh Neff, an Assistant D.A.; Des McGrath, majordomo at the club (played by Chris Eigeman, a veteran of both prior Stillman campaigns); and "Departmental Dan" from the publishing house, who may be an Ivy League grad, but whose politics and social manner mark him as being a little less haut than his fellow bourgeois.
As suggested by the film's wryly apocalyptic title, the heyday of disco is beginning to wane, along with the youthful optimism of the characters. The bottom rungs of the professional working ladder are tougher than freshman year at college and, far more important to this financially independent crowd, the rituals of romance have changed from the exhilarating game of dating to the high-stakes business of mating – a risky business indeed in the promiscuous early eighties.
Religion, however ironically disguised, makes its presence felt early in each of the two previous films, but for much of THE LAST DAYS the only cathedral is the dance club, the only faith a misplaced allegiance to "the disco movement." That absence, combined with the realistically rendered downward spiral of Alice's search for love, lends the story a slowly accumulating gravitas that has much to do with moral consequence and more to do with spiritual emptiness: isolation surrounded by copulation, loneliness in the middle of a partying crowd. More often than in any of Stillman's other films, the irony falls away for entire scenes: he's playing for keeps. This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around.
When grace comes, it comes unexpectedly (as grace is wont to do), from damage and weakness. The ragged words tumble desperately over each other, tuneless and unmusical, manic, apologetic, embarssing, and we don't know just how to take them – as evidence of mental instability, or a very present refuge in a time of trouble.
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.
And there's more hymn-singing to come! From a source so unlikely as to defy not only expectation but explanation. Apparently the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. The high and mighty are brought low and helpless, characters move from control to abandonment, and it just may be Divine Providence they end up abandoning themselves to, whether they realize it or not. As we learn along with Alice "to appreciate the virtue in what others find defective" (Mary P. Nichols) – a bogus spiritual memoir, a loyal Scotty-dog, a damaged friend and the universally despised dance music that is his glory – we sense that, while the reign of disco must come to an end, another Kingdom may well be at hand.
METROPOLITAN opened the Stillman saga with a hymn that quickly gave way to a dance tune. So THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO bookends the set with The O'Jays' "Love Train," which surrenders the dance floor to John Newton's "Amazing Grace." Human love, divine grace – and everybody up dancing, not just the ones well-dressed or gorgeous enough to get past the gatekeepers at Studio 54. Amazing indeed.
"Doomed Bourgeois In Love" dubs Stillman's work "a major achievement of Christian humanism in our time." You may feel that's overstating the spiritual case, but the more one considers the puzzling place of religion in Whit Stillman's films, the more plausible that statement seems. If, like me, you find yourself intrigued by the question of the film maker's own relation to the faith that keeps asserting itself in his autobiographically-informed creations, your curiosity will likely never find a direct answer. Like so many of his characters, Stillman is reticent about these matters. Perhaps the closest we'll come to a response is the suspicion that Josh's last word in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is, in effect, that of the filmmaker's: "Most of what I said, I believe."
* * *
Terrific that the new Criterion release renews interest in this quietly substantial film and its predecessors, disappointing that the extras are weak. ("Nice movie, pity about the Supplements...") Trailer, Featurette (a slightly extended trailer), some decent deleted scenes, audio excerpt from the intriguing novel treatment, and a commentary track with Stillman, Eigeman and Sevigny that's pretty run-of-the-mill: not much about the film itself, just the usual boring backstage talk about challenges with the shoot and how talented people are. Stillman comes off as a warm, thoughtful man - no surprise there - but nobody does much to enhance our appreciation of the film itself. They mostly just chat while the movie runs in the background.
A couple nuggets:
"The composer, Mark Swazo, came in with the idea of having some Jamaican music. He introduced me to it, and it's a fatal attraction because I became obsessed with it. After Disco I started thinking on and on about early sixties Jamaican music. I went down to jamaica. Down there it's the church scene, so I could go to churches and feel safe and be with people. I love the churches down there, and the Christians and their community, and started thinking about a story there. Of course if they're Christians and really believers, they're thinking about angels and demons, and so there are angels and demons in that story. It turns out I picked about the hardest film to get financed in the world. But I hope one day to do that."
"Stanley Kubrick talked about (these) movies all the time. He adored Barcelona, he's very interested in John Thomas's photography, and he said about it that this is a new kind of cinema, this is dialogue advancing story in an interesting way. He had called up Thomas Gibson who had an important but not big part in Barcelona, and Thomas was sort of surprised to get cast in a Stanley Kubrick film without any audition or anything. Stanley Kubrick had just liked him in Barcelona and called him up and got him to do it. I met Nicole Kidman later at the premiere of Eyes Wide Shut and she said, yeah, it's true, Stanley would talk about Barcelona all the time. He said it's different kind of dialogue, it's dialogue advancing story. So that's our apology. We get beaten over the head by a lot of people saying there's too much talk, and maybe there is. But at least a great filmmaker had another version."
Available at Videomatica