At this point it is, I think, uncontroversial to note the lack of diversity in American film and television, or to make note of how that lack has resulted in normalizing, or even naturalizing, certain categories of identity—white, male, middle class, heterosexual—and marking others as deviations.
One effect of this privileging is in the absence or marginalization of individuals and stories that do not conform to the normalized categories. To take a few examples, this accounts for the relative lack of leading roles for women or African-Americans, and how few Hollywood films or network television series are made from the perspective of queer individuals, or from those in the working class.
A less obvious effect is how infrequently the privileged categories are subject to scrutiny. If a fictional everyman is meant to be taken as every man, which in this case would include women, then to look at what it means to be, say, a white male in particular makes little sense. The result is that the privilege attached to these identities goes unquestioned.
While Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, and his other ‘90s films, Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994), would seem on the surface to be yet another work about privileged people masquerading as universal drama, Stillman’s films are better seen as rare cases of works that actually explore the lives of white, middle class individuals in their particularities and not as universal avatars.
One sign that Stillman is interested in the particular experiences of his characters, is the narrow specificity of of time and place in The Last Days of Disco, which is set in early ‘80s New York, among a set of young recent graduates of eastern liberal arts colleges and professional schools, and where the action revolves around a single location, simply “the Club”, an exclusive disco where getting in is, in itself, a sign of privilege.
Privilege, and the power that springs from it, takes many forms, and at the Club, one powerful form of advantage is style and beauty. This makes the Club into a polymorphous place. Neither race nor sexuality is a barrier to entry if you are beautiful enough or stylish enough.
On the other hand, not all forms of style ad beauty are created equal. The audience is shown this in the opening scene where the lead characters, Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsdale), make their way to the club, ultimately pushing their way to the front of the line to be waved in by Van (Burr Steers). The two women, and Charlotte in particular, understand that there is currency in being young, white, thin, and female. While Charlotte may not be fully aware of all of the dimensions of this power, she is aware enough to wield it with confidence at the Club, and Stillman’s writing and direction is clearly aware of his characters’ privilege.
Amongst themselves, the main cast of characters are nominal equals, and that contributes to a particular kind of status parsing. What school one went to, how educated you appear in conversation, what job you hold or what profession you are pursuing, these are the terms by which hierarchies are created and maintained within the group.
Of special importance here are the rules of social propriety, which mandate keeping confidences, loyalty to friends, and beyond that to other members of the tribe, and observing civility in public, no matter what one may think of others in private. While, in the main, these rules are to be followed, there is also power in strategically breaking them. Charlotte, for example, selects choice moments to publicly break confidence with Alice so as to advance her own social standing by humiliating her roommate and co-worker (as the two women recognize, “friend” is likely not an apt way to describe their relationship). At other times, Des (Chris Eigeman) makes frequent allusions to Josh’s (Matt Keeslar) history of mental illness to gain an advantage in romantic rivalries, especially in relation to Alice.
While the distinction between public and private is clearly recognized and imbued with meaning by the characters, not only can selective breaks of that barrier serve one’s own status interests, but private conversations can also be used to undermine one’s rivals. Chatlotte, again, is a master of this tactic, frequently offering Alice advice regarding what she sees as the other woman’s social flaws, especially in relation to men. She artfully frames comments like, “There’s something of the kindergarten teacher about you”, as helpful, when, in fact, their primary purpose is to make Alice, towards whom Charlotte is almost transparently jealous, doubt herself in public.
Even though the young men and women conduct themselves as if they are all social equals, gender inequality is still part and parcel of their social world. One sign of this is that the men buy the drinks while the women pose prettily, but, more significantly, the men reserve the right to judge the women for their sexual and social choices in ways that women do not similarly judge men. This is shown most clearly in the relationship between Alice and Tom (Robert Sean Leonard).
One consequence of Charlotte’s consistent picking at her character is that it motivates Alice to have sex with Tom after the opening scene at the Club. Subsequent to that, Tom breaks off any further relationship with a rant about the sexual revolution and his disillusionment at discovering that Alice is not as “pure” as he imagined her to be. But that isn’t the extent of the consequences from their one-night stand for Alice. She contracts gonorrhea from Tom, something that he initially denies, presuming her to be highly sexually active. When it becomes clear that she isn’t, and, in fact, was a virgin before having sex with him, he readily apologizes for passing on the disease, and even cops to also having herpes, for which Alice must now get treated, too.
Propriety demands his mea culpa about the VD, but at no point does Tom apologize for judging her to be a slut, or take responsibility for his own decision to have sex that night. Nor does Alice demand those actions of him.
Indeed, with the exception of Josh, the male characters often express deep-seated fears about the sexual power of women, feeling themselves powerless, oppressed even, in relation to the female body. However, the beauty of Stillman’s film is that these feelings are simultaneously played as real and as ridiculous, as rationalizations for men seeking to dodge responsibility for their own choices, but rationalizations that have some core of sincerity to them. Notably, while there are brief moments where the women will call the men out on these behaviors, for the most part, the women also act as if their bodies are primary sources of power, tacitly accepting the unequal terms on which men and women are judged.
The supplements to the Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition of The Last Days of Disco are the same as those packaged with the company’s previous DVD release. These include: commentaries from Stillman, Sevigny, and Eigeman, both on the film and on a selection of deleted scenes, Stillman reading from his book, The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000), a ‘behind-the-scenes’ short feature, a gallery of stills with annotation from Stillman, and a theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray set also reuses novelist David Schickler’s essay from the DVD.
The high definition video transfer and soundtrack for the Blu-ray are both gorgeous, warm, and rich, which is particularly significant for appreciating the movie’s carefully curated soundtrack that mixes still recognizable anthems with songs that were no doubt popular at the time, but have lost purchase over the years.
In his essay, Schickler praises Stillman for his, “generosity of image and vision”. That generosity accounts for why the film works as well as it does. No one, even Beckinsdale’s awesomely awful Charlotte, is without vulnerability or moments of decency that make them feel too authentic to be anything other than themselves, which is to say something other than universal ideals for what people do, how they live, and what they aspire to. Even the very privileged in America have their own stories to tell. The Last Days of Disco does that with affection, but without illusion.