Home Video Hovel- The Last Days of Disco, by Tyler Smith
There is a school of thought out there that suggests that if we simply let the most intelligent people of the world run everything, there would be no war. Or poverty. Or famine. Once these brilliant people sit down and really put their minds to it, they’re bound to come up with a solution that will work. I myself have thought that this was a perfectly reasonable philosophy and believed it for many years. Now I’m not so sure.
Don’t get me wrong; I certainly don’t want a bunch of idiots running things. However, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that intelligence is not going to keep the world from going to Hell. It will merely take us there by a different route. A route filled with passive aggressive asides and pop psychology. I came to this realization partly out of my own life experience, but also through watching movies like Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, wherein perfectly reasonable, intelligent, well-spoken people demonstrate their utter lack of ability to improve their own lives, much less the world.
Not that any of them have any such ambitions, of course. They are much more interested in getting high, laid, and promoted. As they rush through early 1980s New York, tending to their own needs and little else, they may spout some philosophy they heard somewhere, but it’s usually just a function of trying to seem impressive to somebody, be it their boss or a cute girl.
This is Yuppie culture. It is made up of educated, intelligent professionals. When they get together, they have debates about national affairs and politics, always being careful not to be on the unpopular side of an issue… unless they are able to wring some superiority out of a contrary position.
The central focus of the characters in The Last Days of Disco is a very popular club, not unlike Studio 54. It is a hub of both business and pleasure. There is a character whose job seems to consist primarily of exploiting his contacts within the club to gain access for himself and his clients. He keeps getting kicked out, but persists, even to the point of wearing a costume. This angers the club owner and he fires the employee that keeps sneaking his friends in. Of course, this doesn’t bother the employee, as he knows he’ll be hired back shortly, which he is.
These are the kinds of strange goings-on that these characters engage in. They do whatever they need to do, while not seeming particularly invested in what that is. Other people get in their way, and they simply find ways around them. If somebody says something they don’t like, they’ll look for ways to justify discounting it. They are social strategists, always scheming, never deterred. One such man admits to his girlfriend that he is gay and that they can’t date anymore. She is taken aback, but accepts this. The man is, in fact, not gay, but has found the perfect way to get out of relationships without being too hurtful and maybe even coming across as somehow brave.
This man’s exploitation of the emerging national awareness of homosexuality is just one example of how these smart, well-to-do people waste their talents and opportunities on the trivial. Rather than look at the changing culture and engage with it, they instead choose to use it to achieve their shallow goals, while seeming deep and socially conscious in the process.
There is no character that is exempt from this. A sensitive guy meets a nice girl and tries to connect with her. She is a smart, independent woman, but has been informed by her friend that men don’t seem to like this. As such, she dumbs herself down in order to not scare this man away. They spend the night together, but when they next see each other, he comments on how frustrating it was that she compromised her intelligence in order to attract a man. He goes on to talk about how he just wants somebody real; a person he can really connect with. When listening to him, he sounds deep and introspective. This is by design. However, it’s worth noting that he didn’t bring this up until after he had sex with this woman. If he was really so put off, why wouldn’t he bring it up beforehand? Unless, of course, he is merely using this display of indignation as simply another way to distance himself from other people.
This would all be very tragic if it weren’t so funny. Surprisingly, The Last Days of Disco is a very effective comedy. As these characters collude with one another to avoid social responsibility, they seem somewhat cartoonish. Their willingness to disconnect from reality is pitiful, but one has to admire their almost athletic ability to maneuver. This seeming contradiction in how we react to these people makes for a very specific kind of laugh. It is hearty, but there is an acidic quality to it. It is very possible to see ourselves in these characters’ selfishness. At one point, the club manager finds several large bags of money stashed away in a back room, leading him to speculate about possible illegal activities happening behind the scenes. Upon reflection, he declares, “I’m definitely not going back there again.” His ability to retreat from any sort of responsibility is funny, but I wonder how many of us wouldn’t do the same thing. This club is the biggest in New York and he is in a place of prominence in it; why give that up just because there might be something bigger at work? Better to just cover his eyes and move on.
That is the inherent tragedy of the film. These are people of privilege and potential; able to achieve great things. But they’re so focused on themselves that they seem to be ignorant of even the idea that great things are possible.
The Blu Ray transfer of the film is quite beautiful. Scenes that take place in the club are dazzling; you feel like you’re really there, in the midst of the bodies and the sweat. Special features include a pretty shallow featurette and an interesting commentary with Whit Stillman and actors Chris Eigeman and Chloe Sevigny.