Let’s do a movie thing. It’s been a while.
Writer-director Whit Stillman is probably the closest thing American cinema has to a Jane Austen, in that his movies tend to be comedies of manners about insular, WASPish social circles with a slant towards romance and sexual politics. What I’ve seen of his stuff is really quite delightful, and I’m only surprised at how slow I’ve been in working through his slim filmography. I saw Damsels in Distress when it was in theatres back in 2012 or whenever and loved it for its skewering of undergraduate pretentiousness, then only about a year ago saw his most recent one, Love and Friendship, which actually is an adaptation of an Austen novel (Lady Susan) and managed to be a visually beautiful period piece in addition to being hilarious.
But anyhow, this post is about his 1998 movie, The Last Days of Disco, which follow a group of Ivy league graduates who fall into various romantic entanglements while attending a fashionable New York disco club in the early 80s. It’s a largely plotless affair, and even does the Ozu thing where a lot of the important developments just kinda happen offscreen like it’s no big deal. But the principals are Alice (Chloe Sevigny), who works as a publishing assistant, Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) her passive-aggressive co-worker/roommate, Des (Chris Eigeman), a womanizing manager at the disco, Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), an ambitious but unlucky advertising guy, and Josh (Matt Keeslar), an assistant DA with a history of mental illness.
Stillman’s dialogue is always somewhat more articulate, verbose and blunt than ordinary speech tends to be, but without elevating the characters to any greater degree of self-awareness or ironic detachment. This is where the surface-level pleasures of a movie like The Last Days of Disco lie, in hearing all these bon mots get thrown about by inexperienced, earnest 20somethings looking for love and a steady job.
Beyond this, I find it difficult to pin down what raised The Last Days of Disco from being a witty movie to a genuinely poignant masterpiece. Part of it is likely the autumnal tone. The movie isn’t thematically concerned with disco per-se – it’s more important for being something ephemeral (and of personal import to Stillman). One of the characters has a line towards the end that goes something like, “we’ve grown older; we’ve lived through something that has died.” And the whole thing does capture the sensation of realizing that a moment in your life that you thought would somehow last forever is now past; and that even though you may feel the pangs of nostalgia, you also have the hindsight of all the mistakes and dumb shit you did. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a comedy which has managed to capture that sense of impermanence so well.
Actually, wait – that’s exactly what makes it a masterpiece, and its almost plotless structure leans into this as a series of impressions and memories that unravel over time (and, despite this, the script being rather tight on a micro level).
I thought I’d have more to unpack here after having seen it twice, but I guess that’s it. The thing’s my first real cinematic love of 2019, though granted I’ve been watching movies a lot less lately (well, there’s also the Battle Angel movie which I forgot to write about, but that’s a whole different story).