Whit Stillman is a director seemingly from a bygone era. Having directed three films in the '90s duing the indie revolution, his was a unique voice that seemed to pine for the literature of almost forgotten times. His movies didn't feel like everyone else's movies. They were like reading novels, written by some rediscovered Lost Generation free spirit inspired by Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They were catty, snarky, and very, very literate. But then, as soon as he had appeared on the scene, he vanished, leaving his last and best film, The Last Days of Disco, to stand testament to his body of work. (Although rumor has it that he might be making his first film in 11 years as you read this -- but I'll believe it when I see it.)
The Last days of Disco is a scathingly wicked comedy with nary a likable character to be found. Much like the book The Great Gatsby, which openly brutalized the wealthy elite social structure of the '20s, this film does the exact same thing to the disco scene at the turn of the decade of 1980. It is a story of self-absorbed, status-obsessed 20-somethings caught up in the disco "movement" -- a painfully garish and elitist period of hedonistic excess taking place in the club scene of New York City. Hundreds of people would wait outside of these clubs begging to get in. This is the story of those few privileged beautiful people who always could, and their vapid, meaningless lives that take a nose dive as the scene crashes down around them.
Normally I'm not a fan of cinematic comedies looking down their nose at a subculture and lambasting them. Indie cinema is rife with collections of New York-educated filmmakers poking fun at middle America. Stillman instead satirizes the Ivy League-educated elitists who are so wrapped up in themselves and social etiquette that they are oblivious to what is really going on around them. Amid the posturing and philosophizing, they are caught up in a grandiose criminal enterprise which they politely try to pretend doesn't exist. All of the film's humor stems from people trying to be better than everyone else and failing. It is a delightfully caustic reversal of the norm and a very refreshing change from what the indie scene usually has to offer in the way of comedy.
The film holds up as if it were made yesterday, existing very much in 1980; the only way you can tell it is more than a decade old is by how young and incredibly hot the film's stars, then newcomers Kate Beckinsdale and Chloe Sevigny, are. Before Beckinsdale turned to cheesy monster movies and Sevigny notoriously participated in Vincent Gallo's career sidetracking The Brown Bunny, these girls gave it their all as the over-educated, under-funded, single-minded socialites that are the heart and soul of this film -- and they've never been better.
Being that this is the Criterion release, there are a number of cool interesting special features adorning the disc. Probably the most sought after for fans will be the eight minutes of deleted scenes, highlighting an abandoned story arc featuring Mackenzie Astin and his attempts to derail the love affair between his sleaze friend and Sevigny. Sadly, they are very much a product of the ear and only existed on video masters of the time (which reminded me of a sad time when we watched movies through a layer of mud we called video). They're worth watching, don't get me wrong; but contrasted against the beautiful DVD cleanup, they stand out in a big way. The disc also features an audio commentary, a five-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (also on video), a stills gallery, and a really cool 17-minute reading of the epilogue of Stillman's novel The Last Days of Disco, with Drinks at Petrossian Afterwards -- a literary follow up to the film.
Well worth checking out, this disc shows a wonderful film that really stands the test of time. It is available now from the Criterion Collection.