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“Those who didn't understand will never understand”: Whit Stillman’s "The Last Days of Disco"

"We're getting older. We've lived through a period that's ended. It's like dying a little bit." - Des

We came to the city and we danced. There were late nights and stylish parties and too-eager girls and conversations pulled from liberal arts playbooks. We didn't know whether to bother sleeping or whether to bother sleeping alone and for the most part we didn't care. Around the underpaid workhours and first stabs at dinner parties, we went somewhere to dance where we always knew we'd hear Common People and where boys in tight pants and girls with haircuts would swap partners - and maybe tongues, numbers. We didn't have any idea what we were doing; we must have known that we weren't the first but we didn't think much about that either. We came to the city young, hungry, ready for a burst of life, and we fell into moments that won't be repeated again - personally, historically.

“Social life,” in "the very early 1980's”: Young people flocked to cities to lead lives of relative independence and freedom. They stayed out too late, drank too much, danced too fervently, slept together too quickly. They didn’t invent this form of early adulthood, but they embraced it. All this ‘too much’ and ‘too late’ was -- is -- just enough, if you’re in a position to enjoy it.

Whit Stillman's third film about "doomed bourgeois in love," The Last Days of Disco follows a group of recent college graduates and their days at “The Club,” an exclusive disco spot where they spend their party-hours navigating “social life.” Our windows into this world are two Hampshire grads, just starting jobs in publishing and moving in together. Charlotte is a sophisticated social climber; Alice is more naïve but equally enthusiastic. Charlotte argues for the value of “group social life,” and that’s what they pursue -- when they’re not pairing up.

"Thank God this is a whole new era of music and social models... we're in complete control. Look down - there are a lot of choices out there." - Charlotte

The Last Days of Disco isn’t Charlotte and Alice’s story, or even the story of the wider group of friends they make. Well, it is both of those things, but not so much as it is a film about discovery and excitement and the passage of time. Like Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, The Last Days of Disco is also a portrait of a society on the verge of changing into something else. Like Wharton’s novel, it’s a lament for a disintegrating thing of beauty. Stillman’s particular beautiful thing isn’t youth or the city, but a world where, once you get past the door, everything is full of possibility and you get to dance while exploring it. Maybe those things are all the same.

In these pages and elsewhere, I’ve praised certain contemporary films for their anthropological aspect, the way they capture the use of language as a tentative exercise for the young grownups of today. Stillman doesn’t present language as a field of uncertainty; language, for his characters, is the one tool they know how to wield well. They can discuss how the childhood trauma of watching Bambi helped create the contemporary environmental movement, or how watching Lady and the Tramp conditions what little girls will grow up to want from men. Their wit and intelligence is all foreplay. No matter how ‘experienced’ they are, they don’t seem to know much about consummation or adult emotional life. Terry Teachout has said that Stillman’s films understand “just how hard it has become for nice young men and women to figure out the right thing to do in a culture without rules.” For all of this, Stillman isn’t judgmental toward them -- he’s nostalgic for their mistakes more than their successes. For all of the film’s nostalgic celebration of disco culture, Stillman understands that disco is an excuse for his characters to attempt to create a ‘group social life’ worth living.

“You know, Alice, except for politics, we've got a lot in common: We're both pretty serious, and, I think, respect each other's bases for judgment. Occasionally I get reactionary thoughts, too.”

“I'm not reactionary.”

“Well, aesthetically.”

“Oh, well - aesthetically.”

- Dan and Alice

I came to New York for good more than 6 years ago. I got an apartment, started a job in television, made new friends, went out, met girls, listened to music, drank, danced. There was pleasure to be had -- sometimes too much. I grasped toward a career, adventured with my friends and picked up new ones on the way. I remember every note of every song from those days, all the streetcorners, bars, graffiti, kisses. I’m leaving New York soon for London, in about a month. I think I’ll be back, maybe in a year or two, but I’m not sure. I miss it already.

"Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this, that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die. Oh, for a few years - maybe many years - it'll be considered passé and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at, or - worse - completely ignored. People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits and platform shoes and people going like *this*, but we had nothing to do with those things and still loved disco. Those who didn't understand will never understand: disco was much more, and much better, than all that. Disco was too great, and too much fun, to be gone forever! It's got to come back someday. I just hope it will be in our own lifetimes." - Josh

***

The Last Days of Disco was released this week on DVD by The Criterion Collection. It screens on Thursday August 27th at the Walter Reade Theater in New York, with Director Whit Stillman in attendance. The screening will be followed by a Late Disco Dance Party sponsored by Viva Radio -- further information and tickets available here.

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