Whit Stillman was on the phone last week, chatting about his third and still most recent film, The Last Days of Disco (1998), a contemporary classic now out on DVD in a Criterion Collection edition. His voice moved according to the inflections and rhythms and syntax that, recast as stylized dialogue, distinguish several of the film’s scenes as among the funniest in recent American cinema. He was even rather dry in turning the conversation toward this magazine’s original review of that 113-minute film, which included the phrase “I forced myself to stay for almost 90 minutes.”
“That’s pretty incompetent,” Stillman said eventually, further asking, medium-rhetorically, “What is it about this movie that threatens David Edelstein?”
Dunno; got me. But the question inspires a thought: Holding your head at certain angles, you can look at the movie with a glint of hostility that has nothing to do with its occasional flaws. In The Last Days of Disco, the director draws full characters who are not, as he puts it on the commentary track, “sociologically sympathetic.”
In a memorable scene from Stillman’s 1990 film, Metropolitan, one character identifies this privileged class as the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, or uhbs. The principals in Disco are Manhattanites in their 20s in “the very early 1980s”—preppies becoming the first waves of yuppies. All of them trace the narrow laps of their social lives on the same dance floor, a well-bred species of night-life form. As all the world knows, yuppies are quite desirable as targets of hatred, especially the preppiest kind. Stillman, who hails from a fancy family and is neither a traitor to nor an apologist for his class, refuses to gratify that particular desire. For instance, his characters, having taken their expensive educations at least seriously enough to learn how to talk pretentiously, have clever mouths with which to say foolish things. However, they are not fools. This leaves the unsympathetic viewer with a lot of ill will that needs to get directed somewhere.
The heroine of Disco is Alice Kinnon, recently arrived in New York City from boho-prep Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. Alice is bright, impressionable, naive, virginal, faintly awkward, and, being played by Chloë Sevigny, alive with fluid movement and alarming prettiness. She both rooms (on the Upper East Side, on the cheap side of Lexington Avenue) and works (at a publishing house, on the lowest rung) with the bolder and bitchier Charlotte, played by Kate Beckinsale, who is pallid unto a phosphorescence extreme that must have caught the eye of the casting team for her Underworld vampire flicks.
As for the plot, well, plot is a very strong word to use. Things—betrayals and misfortunes and fallings out—happen, and Alice comes of age, but it is better to think of Disco as a multipart character study. Or maybe a drawing room comedy where the room has a mirror ball spinning from the ceiling. It is Stillman’s particular and slightly odd cleverness to create movies that are not dialogue-driven but dialogue-paved.
As for the plot, Alice, doing more listening than talking, makes her way through the pleas and pitches of a courtship story. Her potential partners include a lawyer at a white-shoe firm, a lawyer at the DA’s office, a low-level ad executive, and a Harvard-dropout “nightclub flunkie” played by regular Stillman collaborator Chris Eigeman as a triumph of the sardonic. Stillman presents mannered portraits of these mannered people with a kind of flamboyantly understated wit.
Despite his reputation as a chronicler of WASP decline, and regardless of his engagement with issues of class and capital and labor, Stillman’s real subject is society—small s and small scale: the dynamics of partygoing groups, the obligations of friendship, the “ferocious pairing off” (to use Charlotte’s expression) that is the aim of courtship. These are universal. It’s the style and tone that are eccentrically and unrepentantly uhb. It’s one of the highest compliments you can pay a filmmaker to say that the characters he laughs with and at would be among the keenest admirers of his sensibility.