The Last Days of Disco

(1998) Whit Stillman.

In New York City there often recurs a phenomenal thing, that when a flag of creativity is stook in an unknown, castaway community, it is soon dispersed and made popular by the those less innovative but just as eager for stimulation, until the system shuts the scene down and the movement chokes dead. These are the last days.

Disco - born as an underground scene in gay black dance clubs in post-industrial Brooklyn outlands - got big. Barnacled by two-tone collared, classically articulate New England collegiates looking for the glamour and edge of nightlife, the scene is kept alive by guys like Bernie, the peppery pony-tailed club owner, who says, indemnifying himself, "I used to be in advertising," like a shammo music promoter from Woodstock.

Alice and Charlotte find themselves unlikely friends. Though disparate and awkward at tony rebellious Hampshire College, the girls live together with a third roommate in an Upper East Side railroad apartment. They are always walking through each other's rooms at inappropriate times, and find asylum at the club, the umbrage of Xenonic strobes, where the girls bounce their own insecurities off one another, under “Doctor’s Orders.”

Charlotte’s idea of sly charm is to say things seriously as if “obviously a joke.” Alice is the character most grounded and humble and eventually the most successful, but she is also the most shamelessly confused. She hooks up with navy-blazer dicko Tom Platt. In the future one imagines Tom writing Op-Ed pieces in the Times which gain him a sociopathic following amongst liberals. Tom sidles up to the dance floor with his pennyloafer lack of rhythm and soul, his late entrance attractively picaresque for Alice, who still believes in novelistic romance. Tom thinks it is a profound thing to collect Scrooge McDuck memorabilia, and it seems as if the situation couldn't be more lame until poor Alice (too many whiskey sours) tries something she never learned at Hampshire - to talk naughty: "Scrooge McDuck is sexy."

Disco’s characters are all somewhat obsessed with the camaraderie and excuse for melodrama that a "scene" provides, though their emotions and intellect have been bred to expect the higher sanction of inimitable status without proof of action. Once they arrive in New York, expectations warp, and they pick up a modicum of survival skills - as when Jimmy Steinway has his elder WASP boss from the ad company take Jimmy’s raincoat, “Here, put this on,” so they won't get rejected by Van, the Blade Runneresque head bouncer. Jimmy is on thin ice anyhow, Van doesn't let them past the velvet ropes, and instead Jimmy sneaks his party in through the back.

At the end of the night, after the hermeneutics of a "gay mouth" and Lady and the Tramp exegesis, it is shack-up time, the "ferocious pairing off.” Alice falls into a lingering fling with Des, a lovably loquacious lech and Ivy League grad slumming the after-hours with an attuned coke habit. For Des, the new openness of gay-rights serves as a useful masquerade to extract himself from female relationships that become too real for his stunted ideology. When he is suitably disinterested in a woman, he confesses a new-fangled lust for the host of Wild Kingdom. Des is bewildered at the implications of being called a “yuppie” – a fresh catchy term - since he regards himself, though young, as neither upwardly-mobile nor professional. “Those are good things.” But it is because Des is decidedly not good that Alice starts hooking up with him. Des' fidelity to Alice is brief, though he seems to believe that he has truly changed, unlike Tramp. Alice turns her sensibilities to Josh Neff, a spy for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

Disco was always comprised of a motley assemblage - trannies and Bay Ridge gavones rubbing polyester shoulders; Broadway dancers and anti-hippie rejects; the Andy Warhol hodgepodge of Brooke Shields and Dali and Schwarzeneggar and Halston; Dolly Parton's birthday when they decked out Studio like a barnyard. Such pop eclecticism hits the American imagination as it would have (among canonical others) at the last turn of the century, over Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, who assaulted San Juan Hill in Cuba as aggressively as Jimmy Steinway marshals his entourage past the club door (at one point disguised in Wizard of Oz costumes). In the ranks of these heroes of the Spanish-American War were Yalies and Comanches and gold prospectors and bison-hunters. Indeed, the most deliriously enlightened scene in Disco occurs near the U.S.S. Maine monument at Columbus Circle. Josh and Alice step delicately along the Park and Josh confides to Alice his own history of madness. These 59th Street environs, from the Plaza Hotel west to Broadway, is favored territory of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and this scene in Disco near Merchant’s Gate is pregnant of that author’s intimations of epic youth and deep loss. “You think I’m a wacko?” asks Josh. Alice first shakes her head no before she nods yes. Josh is the paranoiac lyrical artist-type with blueblooded learning and a quick pedigree in seersucker espionage – the vocalizer for both the ecstasy of Disco and the glorious trauma of skittish love. He is also the agent of the club’s closing, which puts Van on welfare and Bernie in jail.

“The very early eighties,” as Disco’s opening titles indicate, are a time when New York is backlashing from the zombie vigilante midnight-movie reputation caused by the 1970s. Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau’s office is mobilized to prosecute the disco business, with Josh acting as the Elliot Ness. One might fantasize that a co-worker of Josh in Morgenthau's office is future Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor, chain-smoking and equally forward-thinking. Morgenthau went after disco clubs as he did underground cinema in the 60s, impounding prints of Jack Smith’s glitzy gender-bender Flaming Creatures; and in the early 2000s, taking down the toga-clad CEO embezzlers of global manufactures conglomerate Tyco, International. The rest of the country despises Disco as the ultimate curse of good taste – the tripped-out crowd at a Chicago White Sox game burns piles of LPs as if books at a Hitler rally and take to the fields with baseball bats like mobsters. New Yorkers are still too unhinged from the Death Wish decade and don’t deal with things by ratiocinating. Soon enough a new neon decadence sets in, and the preppy ties and shaggy-flared hairstyles will devolve into hairspray flips and 80s womens jumpers.

Charlotte ends up hospitalized with "back spasms" when Jimmy ends their relationship ("she got her period" he explicates), and her recovery is fraught with self-consumption, blaming everything on Alice. She seeks new life in TV, “where my interests truly lie.” By now, Alice is over Charlotte’s continual berating co-dependency, and gains success in the book publishing industry. She has already admitted to Departmental Dan that her “dream book” would be to publish “anything that might become a best-seller.” Only aside from that might she hope for a shot at Salinger’s unpublished short stories. So it is not a surprise, but a heartwarming familiarity, that with her breakout book she “shifts the category from nonfiction to self-actualization," staking her own light flag in America's new consciousness-fad. Alice now offers lunch invites at Lutesse while the rest of the old gang picks up checks at the unemployment office. It takes slick bouncer Van to fess up the final reality, before heading to Florida: “Disco’s over. It’s dead. People aren’t just going out like they used to. They’re tired....”

Josh and Alice, on the subway love train, can only dance, and all New York City straphangers dance with them - like an Ed Koch-era Lotto ad or ’86 Mets promo on WPIX. Whit Stillman hallmarks unto the living American memory what only 20 years later is revealed as so richly spotlit, so vivacious of meaning.

Watch here: The Last Days of Disco.

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