If asked to make a movie about how the yuppie ascendancy of the early ’80s helped squeeze the funkiness out of New York, most filmmakers would make the yuppies the bad guys. Not so Whit Stillman. Stillman’s 1998 comedy The Last Days Of Disco follows a group of privileged young New Yorkers as they strive to cobble together a social life and an identity while embarking on careers in advertising, publishing, law, and nightclub management. Stillman makes them the heroes of his story, though he doesn’t let any of them off the hook, exactly. Like the characters in his Metropolitan and Barcelona, the young men and women in The Last Days Of Disco—played by Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Robert Sean Leonard, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, and Matt Keeslar, among others—are depicted as vain, smug, and self-deluded, and they often make mistakes with dire consequences. But Stillman understands these people, and even forgives them. After all, everyone has the right to a nightlife.
The Last Days Of Disco arrived at the end of a decade that Stillman helped define in subtle ways. Though his films were set in the ’80s, their distinctive take on urbane young adults did as much as Quentin Tarantino or Jerry Seinfeld in the ’90s to popularize the idea of idle chatter as entertainment. Stillman’s characters were neither everymen nor pulp archetypes; they were moneyed professionals governed as much by Victorian literature and value systems as by popular culture. Of course in The Last Days Of Disco, pop holds more sway. Keeslar in particular talks at length about the dangerous messages in mass media—most memorably in a takedown of Lady And The Tramp—and extols the virtues of disco as an egalitarian, community-building art form. For the most part, though, the movie takes its cues from Sevigny’s character, a hypercritical assistant editor who complains about the quality of conversation she has with men of her generation, saying “I don’t consider the guy who did the Spider-Man comics a serious writer.” Yet even Sevigny, when trying to seduce a Carl Barks fan, lets go of her principles and whispers, “There’s something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck.”
That drive to be thought of as a serious individual—while simultaneously struggling to fit in—is a typical Stillman character trait. In fact, one of the major criticisms of The Last Days Of Disco is that it’s all too typical of Stillman, and doesn’t show the growth from Barcelona that Barcelona did from Metropolitan. Even now, Disco feels too long and too shapeless—an extended remix of familiar beats. But perhaps because Stillman hasn’t made a movie since, fans of his work will want to soak up every second. Some formidable indie filmmakers emerged in his wake, but not so many, and few who can sum up the strengths and flaws of a character with a single line or a single image, the way Stillman does in Disco when he has Beckinsale sauté some delicious-looking shrimp, then drown them in cream of mushroom soup. It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel nostalgic—not for the end of the disco era, but for those heady late-’90s days when small, almost novelistic movies like this were relatively common, and in some cases were as well-covered and well-promoted as any blockbuster. Call it The Last Days Of Indie.
Key features: Negligible deleted scenes, a short vintage featurette, a reading from Stillman’s novelization, and a very warm commentary track by Stillman, Sevigny, and Eigeman.