What is wrong with “Disco”?

I finally watched Whit Stillman’s third film, The Last Days of Disco last night.

It seems it was a reasonable critical success but was reportedly a commercial flop which damaged Stillman’s career and probably helped keep him from doing anything for thirteen years until the release of Damsels in Distress in 2011, which seems to have restored his reputation and fortunes.

What was wrong with The Last Days of Disco?

There are some wonderful lines. One of which made me laugh out loud. The young actors and actresses are attractive, although I found the young men a bit generic looking and got confused among the characters. That might have been partly because of the tiny screen I was watching the film on, though.

Here are Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale in their office at the publishing company where they are junior editors (not a very flattering shot):

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Carolyn Farina (centre of the screen here) makes a cameo appearance as “Audrey Rouget” in the disco, but has no lines:

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The film was made in 1998. Carolyn Farina was 34 in real life. Cf. the actress as “Audrey Rouget” in Whit Stillman’s first film Metropolitan, made when she was 26:

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The once luscious Audrey Rouget (below) has become a somewhat stringy career woman (dancing, above); “the youngest person ever to make editor” at her publishing house. The Kate and Chloe characters are aspiring to become editors at their publishing company. They are apparently from wealthy families, are being underwritten financially by their fathers, and have been to “good schools”.

With good-looking women, good lines, and a soundtrack that suggests itself, the film should have been a success. But I did find there was something disappointing about it.

I can’t quite place my finger on the problem, and I might revisit the film and revisit this post, but here are some possibilities. The title is a downer. The ending is a downer. The girls are pretty but nothing is done with them. They are surprisingly unsexy. Not even in a healthy way. The Chloe character gets not only gonorrhea but herpes. The Kate character gets a kind of phantom pregnancy.

The film is partly a music movie; partly a love story; partly a story about ambition; partly a comedy; partly a crime story; but the parts don’t make for a whole movie.

I should like the film more. Disco was the music of my youth, and I even danced to it a bit. This was in the late 70s/early 80s. And one of the last scenes has a likeable character give a passionate defence of disco. But I was not sold on the movie even so. Maybe the problem is that whereas Metropolitan made us care about the coterie of young people and their problems, the problems of healthy young professionals in a big city who have the time and energy to go dancing after work just don’t seem that dramatically important, especially when set against the wider world depicted in the later film. The death of a dance craze simply isn’t good dramatic material.

(20 May 2013) I just received this via Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Doomed-Bourgeois-Love-Essays-Stillman/dp/1882926706

It looks like a scholarly set of essays, and I gather is meant for “college students”. It covers The Last Days of Disco, but not Damsels in Distress, since it was published in 2001

19 responses to this post.

  1. I think the main point was emphasizing the utter completeness of the moral and cultural degradation of the upper-class WASP establishment set, by the time in which The Last Days of Disco is set. The Chloe character is meant to be sympathetic, as is Josh; both are somewhat of innocents, compared to the rest; I loved Josh’s line: β€œI consider you a person of some integrity β€” except, you know, in your relations with women.”, to which Des shakes his head in bewilderment, and gasps, “No!”; indeed, one should have been able to see that people who are morally weak in one area can also be in others (Des being implicated in the drugs and money-laundering going on at the club).

    Indeed, The Last Days of Disco is meant to be a bit of a downer; it is the way of things to decay, and degrade, in this fallen world. You know that! πŸ™‚

    Yes, Metropolitan was a better movie, but I think The Last Days of Disco was at least as good as, if not better than, Barcelona.

    Lots of great lines; my favourite dialogue snippet remains one exchange between Alice and Charlotte:

    Alice, waxing philosophical: “I don’t know; I’m beginning to think that maybe the old system of people getting married based on mutual respect and shared aspirations, and then slowly, over time, earning each other’s love and admitation, worked the best.”

    Charlotte, cheerfully shrugging and dismissively: “Well, we’ll never know!”

    Reply

    • Oh, there are some terrific lines. And Charlotte is wonderful. She should have made a screen villainess for the ages. But somehow the film fails to cohere into a satisfying whole. I am not sure why. I am still thinking about it.

      There are improbabilities in the film too, which jar because we are not in the drawing-room world of Metropolitan, but in a wider world of reality. If Alice has herpes, why does she go straight back to having sex? That kind of thing.

      I don’t think Des is meant to be in on the criminality. At least, not the money-laundering.

      Reply

      • “If Alice has herpes, why does she go straight back to having sex?”

        Because she figures it doesn’t matter any more, and in a sense, she’s right.

        “I don’t think Des is meant to be in on the criminality. At least, not the money-laundering.”

        No, that was his boss, but he was aware of it, and didn’t do anything, so he is slightly complicit.

        “But somehow the film fails to cohere into a satisfying whole. I am not sure why. I am still thinking about it.”

        Hmmm. Well, I guess we differ, there; I thought it came together fairly well.

      • I think, BTW, that if you do see Damsels in Distress, you will agree with me that it isn’t as good as The Last Days of Disco; Stillman waited too long, and his latest film just misses some of the qualities his earlier three had; hard to put one’s finger on it, but it’s just not the same.

      • (Well, one way in which the new film falls short, is that it’s more decidedly in tune with the PC sensitivities of our time: all the main characters are women, instead of a mix of both young men and women, and one of them is black and British, which seems to me a pointless sop to PC.)

      • I am a bit wary of Damsels in Distress because of the anal sex thing, to be frank.

        As for the black girl with the English accent. I suspect that Stillman is of the age to think that is just cute and amusing. I feel I understand Stillman, since I am of his age and I think we would have somewhat similar world-views, although obviously we are not of the same religion. (I found out that the beginning of Metropolitan has a snatch of a hymn by Luther. It is a bit like having it pointed out that Audrey is reading The Rector of Justin in the “tanning” scene. There is more going on here than one imagines on a first viewing, and seeing it on a clearer, large screen would be of help for me too. I am hoping to get that collection of essays on Stillman’s films via Amazon, as I believe there is some discussion of the degree to which Audrey engineers some of the events, including Tom’s derring-do towards the end.)

      • It was sorta cute when the Spice Girls came out in the late ’90s, with Mel B., Brit rapper chick. That’s long ago.

        The Cathars thing was just dumb.

        Not of the same religion? Protestantism and Catholicism ARE the same religion, just different traditions within it. πŸ™‚

      • I wrote carelessly. Not of the same denomination.

        I think there are two errors one can fall in to. One is to minimise the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. And the other is to overemphasise them.

        Elusive Wapiti made a good point on his blog a while back. With the best will in the world, Catholics and Protestants go through the world with different assumptions and understandings. I was engaged to an Anglican girl, and it did cause problems. If she had been, say, a Presbyterian, it would have been even more difficult. My wife and I are both Catholics. Although she thinks I am wrong on some things, she does understand where I am coming from, as the Hippies used to say.

        Stillman is probably a pretty “high” Episcopalian. I assume this because he puts the Rougets at Midnight Mass at St Andrew’s, I think it is, which is a big New York Episcopalian cathedral. [22 May 2013: actually St Thomas’.]

  2. Oh, I certainly agree; I don’t minimize the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, at all. However, I prefer to focus on what they have in common, mostly, in the tradosphere / manosphere…

    Reply

    • Yes.

      There is a chap on FB, Bill Muehlenburg, who is big on social conservatism. We are always “liking” each other’s posts. But he is an Evangelical I think. I suppose he and I realise that we have to make common cause …

      BTW, even Wired magazine is now talking, albeit grudgingly, about misandry. The MRAs are starting to go mainstream. Of course, the simian looniness of some feminists has produced its own natural backlash.

      The TC girls are talking about the problems of the black community in America. Nothing for me to say.

      Reply

  3. […] Here. Here. Here. […]

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