>Criterion Collection: The Last Days of Disco (1998)

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#485 – The Last Days of Disco
Whit Stillman, 1998 – United States

“What I found terribly encouraging was the idea that when the time in life came to have a social life, there’d be all these great places for people to go to, because, as you’ll remember, for many years, there were none…What I didn’t realize is that they’d get so impossible to get into.”

Everyone who grows up wanting to move to New York City has their own vision of what life there will be like. The Last Days of Disco was mine. As a smart kid without much of a social life growing up in suburban Ohio, there was something terribly appealing about the idea of a place like the one Josh (Matt Keeslar) describes. One of the first things I did when moving to New York for college was go to a club, Webster Hall, eager to find a place where everyone you knew and everyone you didn’t know was. It was not what I expected. I left after ten minutes.

Each time I revisit The Last Days of Disco I find myself laughing, smiling, enjoying time spent with these characters. Many of them, like Robert Sean Leonard’s Tom or the legendary Chris Eigeman’s Dez, who’s a person of some integrity, except in his dealings with women, are not very nice people. In fact, Robert Sean Leonard is a jackass in this movie. Like, a huge jackass. A “Every so often, I’ll be watching House, and think, ‘Oh, you’re so noble, Wilson, but you’re still the douche who gave Alice VD and called her a whore.'” He does that. It happens.

This movie, along with a few others, is the reason I want to spend my life working in movies, whether it’s writing about them. It hit me at just the right time, in just the right place, and every time I watch it, I find something new to appreciate. This time, perhaps because I was listening to it on headphones, I was struck by just how good the sound design is. The music feels diagetic — it’s music that the characters can hear, too, and within the club, it’s always constant, never overpowering. It’s loud only when the characters are on the dance floor, but it’s always there. I was impressed, and I’m actually pretty sure that I noticed it before, because it’s kind of obvious.

I also came away from this most recent viewing with an appreciation for just how damn good Kate Beckinsale is in this movie. Everyone here’s doing great work — Chloe Sevigny (I would be remiss if I didnt’t mention she can out-bitchface Vincent Karthreiser seven days of the week and twice on Sunday), Leonard, Eigeman, Mackenzie “Brother of Sean” Astin, even Jennifer Beals in a small part — but Beckinsale is a wonder, despicable at times, sympathetic and heartbreaking at others. Her character is so insecure, so desperate for connection, but also so confused as to how to get it. It’s a character that could be one-note, just like this movie could be the bullet points version of the disco club scene, but her performance, along with Stillman’s writing and directing, create a rich, rewarding movie underneath the blazing hot disco soundtrack.

Years after the movie came out, a publisher hired Stillman to write what is basically the “novelization” of the movie, from Mackenzie Astin’s character’s perspective. The book, which you can find for cheap online, is called The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. It’s a pretty cleverly done book — Stillman uses the notion that the events in the film actually happened, and the studio/Stillman just adapted these people’s lives for film. And while some people, like Beckinsale’s Charlotte, don’t like the portrayal of themselves on screen, Jimmy feels that most events happened as they did in the movie. But like a lot of tie-in novels, you get “deleted scenes” of bits that didn’t make it to the screen, including an elaborate opening sequence where all the characters get together for a barbeque and Alice bitches about her burger.

Parts of this book appear on the DVD as a special feature read by Stillman himself. I figure since I’m talking about stuff in the Criterion Collection, I ought to tell you what’s on the DVD. I thought the commentary was pretty fun, too, although it’s very much one of those “oh, god, we made this friggin movie so long ago” tracks, especially from Ms. Sevigny.

We all have our own idea of what New York is, and what we want it to be. For some folks, it’s the studio backlot version of On The Town and West Side Story. For others, it’s the Broadway theater version, where another hundred people just got offa the train and came up from the ground (still, for my money, one of the greatest songs about New York ever written.) For still more, it’s the crime fiction version, the one with wet streets, men in trenchcoats, and dangerous women in red dresses who are trouble from page one if you’re into the classics, or the dirty grimy streets and porno houses of Matthew Scudder and Taxi Driver if you’re a modernist. That’s not even discussing the dual fantasies of Sex and the City and Mad Men, two shows that put forth an idea of New York even though one of them’s shot in L.A.

So although I’ve lived in New York for a while now, and made my peace with the fact that, obviously, movies aren’t reality, part of me still holds to The Last Days of Disco as New York City ideal. I’ve seen the movie many times, and each time I strain to figure out where exactly the club is located. Part of me still wants to believe they’re out there, Charlotte and Alice, their heels clicking against the pavement. “Doctor’s Orders” plays down the street, on the soundtrack.

They look really good tonight. They’re going to get in.

Next: Perhaps a double-feature of The Double Life of Veronique and Wild Strawberries.

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