The Last Days of Disco [DVD]
Director : Whit Stillman
Screenplay : Whit Stillman
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Chloë Sevigny (Alice), Kate Beckinsale (Charlotte), Chris Eigeman (Des), Mackenzie Astin (Jimmy), Matt Keeslar (Josh), Robert Sean Leonard (Tom), Jennifer Beals (Nina), Matthew Ross (Dan), Tara Subkoff (Holly), Burr Steers (Van), David Thornton (Bernie), Jaid Barrymore (Tiger Lady), Sonsee Neu (Diana)
As the title implies, Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco is set “in the very early eighties,” and one of the film’s unexpected pleasures is that it manages to evoke a very specific time period without becoming mired in it. As both writer and director, Stillman pulls off a unique balancing act of conveying the specificities of the cultural milieu of late-’70s hedonism giving way to Reagan’s “Morning in America,” but also maintaining a sense of universality that keeps the film from being solely about its time and place. The backdrop is essential, but it’s not the whole story.
Much of the action takes place in an appropriately gaudy Studio 54-ish club in New York referred to simply as “The Club.” It has a front door carefully guarded by snooty bouncers and surrounded by wanna-be’s desperate to get in and a shady backdoor where those in the know can be slipped in surreptitiously. Inside it has a huge dance floor, glittering disco balls, a grand staircase snaking along one wall, and silver confetti falling on top of the vibrantly varied rabble of dancers whose only link is their desire to dance their cares away inside a private universe. Stillman conveys the essence of the disco era--its unbridled sense of fun and abandon--without falling prey to either kitschy nonsense or moralistic didacticism.
As with his previous two films, the independently produced Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994), Stillman populates Disco with a group of hyperarticulate young men and women at a crossroads in life (it is not hard to see them as the college freshmen from Metropolitan five or six years later in life). The two primary characters are Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), both of whom are recent Hampshire College graduates working as editorial assistants in a large Manhattan publishing house, but their similarities end there. Despite being roommates in a railcar apartment (so named because all the rooms are lined up one behind the other sans hallways like railcars), they have little or nothing in common personality-wise. Alice is reserved and rather quiet, constantly listening but never fully sure of anything. Charlotte, on the other hand, is her extroverted opposite, particularly her tendency to speak her mind with sharp authority and little regard for how her words might affect the other person.
Alice and Charlotte mix and mingle with a group of other aspiring twentysomethings (yuppies, to use the parlance of the times), including Des (Stillman regular Chris Eigeman), who works as a manager at the club and uses his leverage in that position to seduce women and then break it off with them by claiming to have suddenly realized he is gay; Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), who works in advertising and is banned from the club by its snarky owner (David Thornton) for that reason alone; and Josh (Matt Keeslar), an ambitious district attorney with a history of mental instability. There are other characters, as well, including Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), who shares a night with Alice and then unfairly punishes her for it, and Dan (Matthew Ross), who works at the same publishing house as Alice and Charlotte and shares the former’s sensitivity and the latter’s tendency to speak his mind a little too openly.
As in Stillman’s other films, these characters, while representing distinct personalities, cohere as a group into a collective representation of a particular slice of the human experience, even if that experience is presented in the kind of hyperstylized dialogue that we can only wish to speak with the same off-the-cuff dexterity and fluidity. Stillman has a way with words, and he directs his actors to deploy them with a casual elegance that makes the dialogue seem natural. Stillman also has a gift for spinning conversations around familiar elements of literature and pop culture that, in his characters’ mouths, become laden with specific meaning. Thus, we get genuine insight into Josh when he lets loose his real feelings about the romance in Disney Lady and the Tramp, and Des, despite his overt caddishness, is never more sympathetic and insightful than when he’s ruminating on the limitations of Shakespeare’s quote “To thineself be true” (what if “thineself” is not a good thing?).
There is a plot in The Last Days of Disco, or, rather, a number of subplots that weave together the main characters’ various romantic travails and social dynamics with an investigation into money laundering and other criminal activities at the club. This is the film’s most conventional and, not surprisingly, weakest element, as Stillman attempts to literalize the film’s title in connecting the eventual crackdown on the club with the American culture’s eventual rejection of disco music and the characters’ ever-present need to fully grow up. As such, The Last Days of Disco is another of Stillman’s coming-of-age stories, albeit one that marks the ascent of (possible) maturity with the plummeting popularity of the likes of Chic, The Chi-Lites, Cheryl Lynn, and Blondie, all of whom grace the film’s soundtrack. As always, Stillman observes all of this with a wry, deadpan style that allows us to take the drama seriously while also recognizing the inherent humor of it all.
|The Last Days of Disco Criterion Collection DVD|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||August 25, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|As we would expect from a digitally restored Criterion transfer of a film that is just over 10 years in age, The Last Days of Disco looks great on DVD. The highest budgeted of Stillman’s three films from the ’90s, it is has smooth, professional polish, and John Thomas’s cinematography emphasizes both the inky blacks of the Manhattan nights and the bright colors of the disco era. The high-definition transfer was made from a 35mm interpositive and cleaned up with multiple digital restoration systems, resulting in a clean, well detailed image with no signs of dirt or debris that is a welcome replacement to the long-out-of-print Polygram DVD from 1999. Colors are strong and natural, and black levels render excellent shadow detail both inside the cavernous club and in the streets of Manhattan. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack, which does a great job of balancing the heavy dialogue with the immersion in disco music inside the club, was mastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm magnetic audio tracks and digitally restored.|
|As he did on Criterion’s release of Metropolitan (1990) a few years ago, writer/director Whit Stillman provides an easy-going, enjoyable, and informative audio commentary, this time with actors Chloë Sevigny and Chris Eigeman. The three of them have a natural rapport and play off each other well, asking each other about memories of making the film and what it means to them today. Also included on the disc are four deleted scenes (about 8 minutes total) with optional commentary by Stillman, Eigeman, and Sevigny. While presented in anamorphic widescreen, these deleted scenes, three of which comprise a subplot involving Jimmy and Des’s personal journal, were clearly transferred from a video source. Stillman also contributes a 17-minute audio recording in which he reads a chapter from his book The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards (2000). The disc is rounded out with a brief behind-the-scenes featurette that was produced in 1998 as part of the film’s marketing campaign, a stills gallery with captions by Stillman, and the original theatrical trailer (oddly presented in nonanamorphic widescreen).|
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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