Like the tux-clad “urban haute bourgeoisie” at the center of Whit Stillman’s debut feature, Metropolitan, the young advertisers, lawyers, editorial assistants, and nightclub managers who populate The Last Days of Disco belong to precisely the sort of social milieu which it has long been fashionable to decry. The film’s own novelization articulates it well: “This is one of those poses, fairly tiresome, that everyone seems compelled to adopt.” Stillman’s U.H.B. Trilogy, as it’s informally known, spanned an eight-year stretch between 1990 and 1998, which incidentally was also the period when grunge music, slacker cinema, and an overwhelming influx of what’s called Gen-X cynicism practically dominated popular culture in the United States. A pervading attitude in those days was to regard money and those who had an abundance of it with skepticism and, in more extreme cases, contempt, and that remains an attractive line of thinking for disillusioned young people to this day. All of which is to say that Stillman’s films don’t exactly fall in line with the popular rhythms of his time, even if they are, in a sense, about the kids who prop up the status quo. It’s strange how that works.
Unlike Woody Allen, to whom he’s often, if wrongly, compared, Stillman never strains to justify his interest in the middle and upper classes, nor does he show off his discomfort in belonging there. Despite being conspicuously wealthy and educated, Allen constantly seeks to prove that he’s some kind of eternal “everyman,” an average schlub without pretension, and that bet-hedging modesty is vaguely disingenuous. A typical Allen gag might lampoon the cultured elite (the rich are made out to be either callous, clueless, or rude, and sometimes all three), while exonerating Allen himself as being comparatively self-aware and down to earth. Stillman doesn’t bother setting up some over-privileged straw man. The characters at the heart of The Last Days of Disco receive ample allowances from their parents, earn substantial incomes at an early age, frequent expensive and exclusive nightclubs, and say without a trace of self-awareness or irony that “sending all your shirts out for laundering” is “a great moment in life.” But what’s surprising is that in Stillman’s hands, these characters, defined by their privilege as much as by their apparent obliviousness about the implications of it, come to seem not so vapid or self-absorbed after all, or in any case pretty sympathetic. They’re neither condescendingly skewered nor carelessly romanticized—rather, they’re gently mocked but loved.
That Stillman manages to approach his characters with enough distance to think about them critically while still getting close enough that we come to care about them as fully realized people is in a way his strongest quality as a writer; that, of course, and his much-famed ear for literary verbiage. He jokes about his style’s formality, or what might be called an excessively rigid manner (a character from his second film, Barcelona, makes a surprise cameo here, explaining that while “Barcelona is beautiful, in human terms it’s pretty cold”), but the torrent of repartee and monologue that erupts from these mouths at every occasion is far too vibrant and lively to be dismissed as simply “frigid.” It’s true that The Last Days of Disco boasts one of Stillman’s most memorable exchanges, in which emotionally unstable attorney Josh (Matt Keeslar) debates the toxic ideological undercurrent beneath The Lady and the Tramp with pathological liar and self-proclaimed nightclub flunkie Des (Chris Eigeman), but the film is ceaselessly quotable even in apparent repose. It’s in its splendid wordiness that The Last Days of Disco truly betrays its influences: Its roots are in the screwball comedies of ’30s and ’40s, in the boundless loquacity of films like The Palm Beach Story and His Girl Friday. And Stillman, for his part, is perhaps the closest thing this generation has or indeed ever will have to a contemporary Lubitsch or Sturges. The Last Days of Disco certainly makes the case that he has the ear (and wit) to qualify.
One of the most overlooked aspects of The Last Days of Disco, and indeed of each of Stillman’s films, is the generosity it extends to things some people almost instinctively consider trite or frivolous. Tom, the protagonist of Metropolitan, advocates everything from Fourierism to reading literary criticism in place of literature (“That way you get both the author’s ideas and the critic’s,” he explains), all of which comes across as endearing rather than ridiculous. And in Barcelona, Ted’s deeply considered philosophy of sales is treated with a surprising degree of earnestness and sensitivity, almost to the point of offering self-help and sales-training texts something close to a serious endorsement (as Ted says in monologue, “the enthusiastic, unsophisticated tone of much of this literature did open it up to the facile ridicule of half-wits,” which seems a reasonable caveat). Unsurprisingly, The Last Days of Disco takes disco music, as well as the fleeting subculture which crystallized around it, as its object of wide-eyed study and reclamation, and it does so with a great deal of warmth and intelligence. Josh, a manic assistant district attorney in his 20s, considers himself “a loyal adherent to the disco movement,” which he sees as something of a social revolution. The film is largely free of what might be called the traditional disco iconography (there are no glittering disco balls or Travolta-style white peak lapels) and so seems, instead, firmly naturalistic, leaving the only kitsch littered at the periphery.
But as any informed pop-culture scholar or historian will tell you, disco music and disco clubs were heavily tied to gay culture in the late ’70s, creating a safe space for marginalized voices—black, queer, transgendered, etc.—to meet, mingle, and dance outside the confines of the heteronormative status quo. Ironically, it was when the straight, white middle-class began crowding out the clubs that the “movement” became just another co-opted product, which, importantly, is the group the film follows through to the end of the era. Disco’s “last days” were, in a way, brought on by the people who felt like they’d stumbled into something exclusive and cool, and the movie’s sensitive eye is trained not only the quality of the music and the nightlife, but on the endearingly hopeless ignorance of the people who effectively ruined it. (Tellingly, when Chloë Sevigny’s Alice is horrified to contract herpes and the clap, her embarrassment is a far cry from the AIDS epidemic that, by the very early ’80s, was right around the corner—another nod to a privilege she doesn’t even know she has.) The Last Days of Disco doesn’t form any kind of accusation (as with issues of class, the movie sympathizes rather than lambasts), but it does stand as a loving, if gently damning, portrait of a very particular period in pop culture history: the brief point at which yuppies were cool, or at least got into cool clubs.
Criterion’s Last Days of Disco DVD surfaced just three years ago this August, which makes it one of the most recent catalogue titles to receive a post-release high-def upgrade. The improvements, as a result, aren’t as drastic as you tend to see when much older DVDs get the same treatment, especially since the original transfer looked so nice in the first place. That said, the image does look noticeably sharper during close-ups and, perhaps most surprisingly, much grainier throughout (which lends the proceedings a nice, rich look missing from the standard-definition version). Unfortunately, two of the most immediately striking aspects of this 1080p presentation—the high contrast levels and vivid, deeply saturated colors—are also the qualities that seem the least natural and authentic. It looks good, but, to borrow a line from Metropolitan, "it doesn’t ring true."
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, on the other hand, is an unquestionable improvement over the DVD’s comparatively dismal alternative. Whit Stillman’s work is ceaselessly talky, so the clarity with which his loquacious heroes comes through is crucial to the success of the film, and thankfully Criterion has done an excellent job piping in these conversations loud and clear. The front channel naturally does most of the heavy lifting, but what really took me by surprise was how robust the film’s soundtrack came through everywhere else, particularly during its many in-club dancing scenes. Separating the music from the voices and the din of the club transforms much of what was essentially "background" music into something much more essential to the vibe of the movie, and in a sense it turns a movie set during the "last days" of disco music to a movie very much about the music itself. This, I think, is the rare case of an improved transfer actually improving (or in the very least enriching) a film; that almost makes this a must-buy in and of itself.
There are few people I’d rather hear talk shop at length than Stillman and Chris Eigeman, who, along with co-star Chloë Sevigny, get the chance to do just that over the course of this disc’s feature commentary. As with every feature here, the commentary track, while superb, has been ported over directly from Criterion’s already fairly recent DVD release of the film, which makes it difficult to recommend to those who already own the earlier iteration. Four brief deleted scenes, a rote featurette, an audio recording of Stillman reading an excerpt from the film’s novelization (a great read on its own, by the way), and a handsome booklet featuring a brief essay by novelist David Schickler round out the set.
A chronicler of privilege and prep par excellence, Whit Stillman was at the height of his powers when he made The Last Days of Disco, which receives a respectable but ultimately imperfect Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion.