[10 September 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
“Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this, that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die. Oh, for a few years—maybe many years—it’ll be considered passé and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at, or—worse—completely ignored. People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits and platform shoes… but we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco. Those who didn’t understand will never understand: disco was much more, and much better, than all that. Disco was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever! It’s got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes.”—The Last Days of Disco
This film – like all of Whit Stillman’s work – is effectively a Noel Coward comedy of manners flashed into a weird, futuristic time and place. Although ostensibly about “the last days of disco”, a scene that had been, in every meaningful way, born of the mingling of black pop music (STAX, especially) with gay camp, this film spends all of its time with wealthy, absurdly loquacious, relentlessly hetero-, lily white, recent graduates of Ivy League schools.
While gay men appear in the film (as dancers, but without speaking parts) and while there are some people of colour here and there, this film is never about them. If anything, Stillman’s much-loved (and now Criterion-canonized) movie is about their absence. Though a highly reductionist thing to say – for we can all agree that “whiteness” is a highly mutable and contradictory and ultimately performative category – this is pretty much the whitest film I have ever seen.
It is ‘white’ not just because the characters are all white-skinned – this is hardly exceptional since, in most films, all the main characters are white – but because it refuses to engage with any aspect of its subject matter that does not reflect a “whiteness”, a certain performance of haute bourgeois civility that feels like it has snuck in from a time before “mixing” had confused the issue. Throughout the film, the characters talk and talk, pointing to “white” cultural signposts – Disney films, Shakespeare, Austin, Salinger, Yuppies, Woodstock – but never seem interested in the actual music or scene in which they’ve found themselves.
Even when, in the final scene, one of them makes the apparently impassioned speech quoted above, he sheepishly concludes by admitting that although he was practicing for a job interview later that day, he “probably” meant some of it. Disco then, is a device in this film, like a feature-length establishing shot, that is meant to convey “the very early 1980s”, but which is, ultimately, never the subject of the movie.
But this is, in the end, how Stillman’s work gathers its considerable charm. The whole ‘whiteness’ thing would be a hell of a lot more uncomfortable if it weren’t so painfully obvious, so clearly a deliberate strategy. Stillman isn’t trying to silence others, just to make loud and unavoidable those subjects he has chosen. His films rely on the thrill we get when we hear such absurdly eloquent and articulate and vocabulary-stretching dialogue like this because in real life, no one talks like his characters talk.
Moreover, people just don’t emote the same way his characters emote – in all three of his films, Chris Eigeman plays a character wound so tight he spits out his lines like a snake, which makes everything he says funny, but totally unlikely – and they certainly don’t do it when they are pissed drunk or full of blow after a night of partying at the disco. But in Stillman’s odd little world, they do. They sit there, hanging around a fabulous, Studio 54-style disco, sipping vodka, the music presumably booming like a thunderhead above them, yet they remain capable of fascinatingly witty and complex banter. As far as I can tell, there’s not much about their little corner of the room that screams “disco”. Mostly it just screams: “white upper-east-side establishment money”.
Ultimately, what Stillman was after here was never really an examination of the “last days of disco”, but rather a study of a group of yuppies (back when the word was freshly coined) as they emerged from university and looked uncomfortably at the world that they’d inherited. They are all flawed in serious ways – Chloe Sevigny’s Alice is a drippy bore, while Kate Beckinsale’s Charlotte is a hateful ingrate – and we struggle to identify with (or even to like) anyone. (As one commentator has concluded, this is more a comedy of mannerlessness than of manners.)
Indeed, Stillman never tries to sweep his viewers up into any romantic narrative; we just watch his characters as they talk, and talk, and talk. A credit to his pen (and, of course, his fine young actors), then that what they say, at such interminable length, is so engaging. In his brief run of three films, Stillman made a deep impression; it is a shame he never made any more.