The Last Days Of Disco & Whit Stillman’s Legacy

In 1998 Whit Stillman released his third film The Last Days Of Disco.  Like his previous two films (Metropolitan and Barcelona), The Last Days Of Disco centers on a group of recent college graduate yuppies navigating the adult world of work, responsibility and relationships.  The Last Days Of Disco also reunited Stillman with cast regular Chris Eigeman, who once again makes a memorable turn as another chauvinistic and self-absorbed intellectual.  However, disregarding Damsels In Distress, which I haven’t yet seen, I regard The Last Days Of Disco as Stillman’s most mature and fully realized film.

With his first two features, Stillman’s narratives were isolated to the tragically comic minute moments in the lives of his characters.  Rooting his plots rather thinly in history, Stillman attempts to draw parallels between the upheavals in his character’s lives and those that sociological progress bares upon the greater national backdrop of his films.  In The Last Days Of Disco he realizes this explicitly, so that the decline of Disco music and clubs directly coincides with the relationship turmoil and strife the characters of the film are experiencing.  But this cultural history is invariably tied to the characters.  Chris Eigeman’s character Des works at the club which forms the center piece of every character’s social life.  The grounding of history into the human elements of the story therefore bonds organically without ever seeming forced or contrived, which is the case with the climax of his previous film Barcelona.

The Last Days Of Disco does not center on Des; like Metropolitan, The Last Days Of Disco is an ensemble piece.  As Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloe Sevigny) navigate the club scene and the men they meet there in a series of disastrous relationships, they come to realize what a destructive effect their friendship has on one another.  In this Stillman escapes repeating MetropolitanThe Last Days Of Disco is not limited to depicting how dysfunctional romantic relationships can split a tightly knit group of friends, it is about the much bigger dilemma of growing up and growing apart, the realization that the social mores and conventions held dear in college are misapprehensions at best.  That Stillman can convey this with witty and sardonic dialogue without being sentimental is a result of his prowess as a novelist.  It’s a thin line he’s been walking since his debut feature, but luckily he’s managed to elude those trappings that make Independent film in America so mediocre today.

The Last Days Of Disco does carry over an obsession that has been evident in all of Stillman’s films; dancing.  There is something wonderfully allegorical in arranging his characters on the dance floor.  The awkward social interaction of a crowded dance floor coupled with the sexual intimacy of maneuvering through a crowd with one’s partner form the conceptual backbone of all Stillman’s narratives.  As Des points out to Alice in The Last Days Of Disco a group of people is bound to break up into pairs.  Visually, to the audience, the dance floor is a crowded place.  Yet, all of the audiences associations are isolated with pairs of characters who populate that dance floor, back grounded by hordes of faceless extras.  The tongue and cheek application of this visual effect coupled with the “quick quip” dialogue prevent The Last Days Of Disco or any of Stillman’s films from becoming too dark or overly analytical.

In conclusion, The Last Days Of Disco represents the fruition of everything a filmmaker has been nurturing, allowing the filmmakers best qualities come to a clear realization.  Stillman’s legacy remains one of the most under recognized in all of contemporary American film.  The stylized characters and mannered speech of Stillman’s characters are the blue prints for those created by Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson.  Perhaps that will change.

-Robert Curry

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