Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days Of Disco” (1998)

Inducted into the Criterion Collection:  2009

With his previous two films, METROPOLITAN (1990) and BARCELONA (1994), director Whit Stillman had built up a reputation for sobering depictions of the urban/East Coast bourgeoisie.  His themes and characters are a world onto themselves, often crossing over from one film to another seamlessly.  As a result, Stillman found himself creating an informal trilogy of films, which he has since come to call his “Doomed-Bourgeois-In-Love” trilogy, or his “Yuppie Trilogy”.    With the 1998 release of his third feature film, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, Stillman completed the trilogy with his most absorbing and arguably most popular film to date.

Taking place in New York in the early 80’s, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO follows a small cadre of characters as they struggle to find themselves amidst the death throes of a genre of music they have come to identify themselves by.  Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are fresh out of college and aspire to careers as book editors during the day, only so they can let their hair down at the disco club at night.  Supplementing the main narrative is a subplot involving their friend Des (Chris Eigeman), a manager of the club who finds himself in trouble when his boss’s shady side dealings spell financial and legal trouble.  The club’s excesses will prove to be its undoing, thus becoming a metaphor for an entire subculture and way of life that reigned supreme in the druggy, heady days of the 1970s (only to come crashing down to sober reality in the following decade).

Stillman is known for his literate, talky characters, and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO has them in spades.  While METROPOLITAN dealt with the confusing social hierarchy of that time between high school and college, and BARCELONAreveled in the collegiate pursuits of worldliness and travel to exotic lands, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO concerns itself with the realities of establishing a career in the working world while using a disposable income to hang on to those last shreds of youth.  As Alice, Sevigny turns in an early career-making performance as a moody, soulful woman who finds herself coming into her own in the waning days of a movement she never really fit into in the first place.

In her own breakout performance, Beckinsale plays Charlotte as the original Mean Girl.  She’s young, gorgeous, and her skin is creamy and perfect— and she knows it.  She effectively weaponizes her beauty in a perverse twisting of feminism, all in the pursuit of satisfying her own vainglorious desires of becoming a television personality.  Despite her nasty traits, Charlotte is an undeniably charismatic character and the most watchable.  As an actress that’s now primarily known for her agility in a catsuit within the UNDERWORLD films, she still uses her sexuality to weapons-grade effect, but it’s ironically in service to the male gaze and not as an expression of an empowered femininity.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Stillman film without the presence of Eigeman, who steals every scene he’s in.  It’s worth noting, that under Stillman’s guidance, Eigeman doesn’t really stray from the singular, outspoken personality he’s known for.  The names and clothes are different, but the philosophy and attitude is the same.  Luckily, Eigeman is entertaining enough that he remains inherently watchable and relatable.  He has become a cypher for Stillman himself, a conduit in which Stillman can inject his own musings about the subject matter at hand.  In THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, Eigmen embraces the sleazier aspects of his stock character.  For example, he sleeps around with many girls, and gets rid of them by telling that he’s gay.  In real life, this would be abhorrent behavior, but goddamnit if Eigeman isn’t a lovable huckster.

Working again with Director of Photography John Thomas, Stillman sticks to the pre-established look seen in METROPOLITAN and BARCELONA.  The image is high in contrast, with even and natural colors.  He frames his subjects mostly in 2-shots that feature both performers in conversation, oftentimes with that ¾ depth angle that I often dislike.  The camerawork is more varied than his previous films, perhaps owing to having to switch up his style for HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET (1996).  While most of his coverage is primarily locked-off on a tripod, he makes strategic use of long tracking Steadicam shots that are arguably inspired by the use of similar techniques in PT Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997)– another film about the dying days of disco.  As a result, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO becomes Stillman’s most energetic and visually dynamic work.

Stillman reteams with Mark Suozzo on the music front, who provides a light, subtle score that never distracts and provides just a touch of emotional underpinning to its respective scenes.  Ultimately, however, Suozzo’s contribution takes a back seat to the sheer quantity of disco music on display.  There’s so many classic tracks here that it comes off as a college-level historical survey on the genre.  It plays wall-to-wall in the club, sometimes even bleeding over into the characters’ reality.  The presence of the disco music gives the film a vibrance and personality that coincides not only with the zeitgeist of the genre itself, but the quasi-resurgence that disco was already enjoying in the time of the film’s release.  I distinctly remember a nostalgia for the 70’s during the 1990’s (a phenomenon I like to call the Twenty Year Nostalgia Rule), more than likely brought about by the popularity of films like BOOGIE NIGHTS and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.

As a director, Stillman’s work on THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO shows a subtle development.  His unique characterization is still present, but the world around those characters is expanded.  It’s not just articulate, over-educated and over-privileged people trying to find themselves– there’s also idealistic lawyers and sleazy club-owners too.  Just as the world expands around us when we leave the insular world of our youth and college, so do Stillman’s characters encounter a reality where their lifestyle and opinions are actually in the minority.  They use their education and privilege to deny their flaws and maintain a sense of superiority over others.  A perfect example is when Des remarks “I’m not an addict.  I’m a habitual user”.  His verbosity and vocabulary afforded to him by his affluent background allows him to hide behind his words and create euphemisms for his flaws without having to actually confront them.  Small exchanges like this show why Stillman is the premier chronicler of that specific subset of the population known as Old Money.

It’s well-known that the film raced to completion in competition with STUDIO 54, another film about the heyday of disco.  While STUDIO 54 proved to be the more commercially successful and popular film, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is remembered today more fondly, perhaps because of its sober depiction of a gaudy subculture.  The tone is decidedly non-cartoonish, going so far as to to specifically and explicitly mock the excess and cheese embodied by SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1997).  In taking this tack, Stillman turns the film into a sad portrait of one’s search for identity when faced with irrelevance.

Indeed, the looming death of disco hangs heavy in the film.  Stillman even incorporates news footage of a public event where thousands of disco records were literally blown up in a stadium while people cheered.  All of this doom and gloom is given a refreshing counterpoint in what is perhaps the film’s most seminal and inspired moment.  As the story comes to a close and the characters encounter the hangover of disco’s “morning after”, we see two main characters riding a subway quietly.  However, all it takes is one little, subtle dance move and the entire subway system becomes a disco party.  With this expressionist ending, Stillman’s message becomes clear: “the discotheque may be gone, but as long as we hold it in our hearts, disco will never die”.

By the time of THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO’s production, Stillman had cultivated a distinct universe for himself– self-contained and a step removed from reality.  The film features cameos from characters from his past films, such as METROPOLITAN’s Sally Fowler and the Taylor Nichols’ ex-pat businessman from BARCELONA.  It’s a nice touch that capitalizes on Stillman’s cult appeal as a filmmaker.  He even includes nods to filmmakers who have been influenced by him— for instance, Carlos Jacott, who appeared with Eigeman in Noah Baumbach’s KICKING AND SCREAMING (1995), makes a cameo appearance as a bumbling dog walker.  Moments like this are why taking on projects like “The Directors Series” are so much fun– it clues you in to an unseen world of in-jokes and references you wouldn’t necessarily encounter by viewing of a film out of context.

With his self-described Yuppie Trilogy complete, Stillman had created a comfortable niche for himself within the annals of independent filmmaking.  He had passed from upstart reactionary to the status of seasoned veteran/tastemaker/influencer in his own right.  Due to the success of THE LAST DAY OF DISCO, he had solidified his standing as the go-to-guy for depicting the trials and tribulations of the east coast elite.

THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from the Criterion Collection.