The Last Days of Disco (1998) ***
In 1990, first-time director Whit Stillman gave us one of the best films of the year, Metropolitan. For those who pay attention to the occasional wheat of independent filmmakers over and above the regular chaff of Hollywood, Metropolitan was a revelation. It received one Oscar nomination, for writing. (The Best Movie nominees for that year were Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather III, Goodfellas, and the winner, Dances With Wolves). Metropolitan made instantly of Stillman not only a maverick but also an "auteur."
His film was about Manhattanite preppies and debutantes, a sharp but affectionate satire whose motor was talk, talk, talk. Then, in his second movie, Barcelona (1994), took on former preppies and such, older yet still young, and pursuing careers in Catalonia in the early 1980s. The Last Days of Disco, set in the Manhattan of the "very early 80s," in time and characters inserts itself between the two earlier films. Its main people are preppies turned yuppies-- although someone in the film splits hairs about that definition and adds that yuppies are always "the other." Not a silly statement since the focus group correctly see themselves as still struggling to attain upward mobility.
The motleycrowd centers on Alice and Charlotte, twenty-something Eastern college graduates working as lowly editorial assistants in a publishing firm. More companions than real friends, they make a mismatched duo that labors by day and boogies by night at the same disco. Alice is the (presumably) sensitive and shy. She is supposed to be brainy, but I was far from convinced and would trust neither assistant editor with a manuscript. Charlotte is hard and manipulative. The film's end proves that there is divine justice as it finds her pairing off with someone she deserves.
The trendy, unnamed dance club's main Cerberus at the door decides who can get in and who cannot. We're talking here of inclusion and exclusion that go beyond the disco and can involve mini-subplots. Acceptance, in the widest sense is emblematic of the characters' lives and mentalities. The men whom the two girls meet at the club are mostly Harvard graduates. Chief among them is Des, a sort of assistant manager who snorts coke (he protests: "I am not an addict, but a habitual user") and pretends that he's just discovered he is gay whenever he wants to dump a girlfriend.
Admission to the disco is about as hard as entering Fort Knox, yet the standards, vestimentary to start with, are otherwise vague and capricious. Some clients are bare-chested, and an older habituee, the Tiger Lady, is bare-breasted. There are no color- or sexual preference- lines. It's a strange microcosm of semi-hedonism, mating rituals, and social contacts. The non-plot's main focus is on Alice. She apparently has no bad hair days, but did have a bad social life in college, is still self-doubting and insecure, politely sleeps around and pays the price -- an easily curable one compared to other aspects of the early 80s. The first year of the Reagan presidency was when herpes was common and AIDS was identified
Writer-director Stillman has wickedly good eyes and ears for his creatures. These make up an un-detailable criss-cross of relationships. Males and females are all Closely Watched Yuppies who talk pretty incessantly --about anything. Stillman knows those people inside-out. He comes from a high-caste family, went to Harvard, and before making films he held various jobs that added to his perceptions of the human comedy. He makes his characters jump through hoops, feeds them lines, yet this is no artifice since his movie is like a "fictional documentary" of real-life, a stalking of people who might as well be wearing lapel mikes.
Jumping from subject to subject Alice, Charlotte, Des and Co. engage in conversations -- some can be outlandishly funny-- that overwhelmingly have in common pretentiousness, false intellectualism, forced wir, smugness, dumb paradoxes, or analyses that ape the ponderous jargon of a certain academic criticism. Those people think they're all so smart, but don't realize that a little learning is not only a dangerous thing but that it can change literacy into sub-literacy.
The result is that Stillman's devastating reproduction of shallowness and all-around insecurities may score a perfect 10 but can leave one royally uninterested in those people, if not downright bored and irritated by them. The basic mold from which so many of the characters are cast is a good, anti-Hollywood move by the director, although the several males, unlike the two girls, can take some time to sort out. Add to this that the dialogues are not always clear to the audience, while, oddly, the characters can make their interlocutors hear everything over the disco's din. Not to mention that hardly any dancer sweats.
With his films Whit Stillman has broken new ground but there are limits. Unlike some genres, Westerns for example, this specialty is not too repeatable. I hope those are the last days of Stillman's pursuit of immature pre-thirties types, and that he will come up with his own takes on thirty-somethings and beyond.