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Last Days of Disco, The (Blu-ray Review)

30 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for some elements involving sexuality and drugs.
Stars Chloe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale.

Until 15 or 20 years ago, I don’t even think it would have been possible to imagine a movie year more dispiriting than what 2012 has wrought so far, but one of the standout disappointments has been the regretfully deserving thud made by Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress upon its release last April. The first outing from this uncommonly civilized writer/director since The Last Days of Disco’s release 13 years ago, it ultimately proved that it takes a certain kind of screen personality — and not hapless Greta Gerwig leading an almost-as-sorry pack — to deliver (often in deadpan style) Stillman’s brand of dialogue. This is mean-spirited thing to say, but I couldn’t help thinking so at the time — and certainly do now that I’ve seen Criterion’s clean and colorful Blu-ray upgrade of what I now think is one of the most engaging movies of 1998.

The timing of this Blu-ray upgrade is unintentionally ripe, dovetailing with the publication of Paul Dickson’s equally engaging new biography of baseball maverick Bill Veeck, which I’m reading as we speak. Veeck was owner of the Chicago White Sox when, on July 12, 1979, Comiskey Park hosted Disco Demolition Night, in which fans stormed the field and heaved disco records around in the stands like Frisbees. Said to have hastened Disco’s decline (though I was living in Detroit and can remember it expanding the blood pressure of Tigers announcer George Kell), it is referenced via archival footage in Stillman’s movie. I wish MLB and A&E would put the forfeited contest out as one of their “Great Baseball Games” DVD releases, though I’m not holding my breath.

Of course, Stillman’s Ivy League (and close) cast of characters here loves both Disco and the New York club — modeled on Studio 54 — where they congregate to meet — if, that is, the Darwinian-bent doorman will elect to let them. This is something the latter won’t willingly do with anyone unclean enough to work in advertising (a major plot point). But the female roomies at the story’s center labor as ill-paid peons in the more respectable publishing field, so they pass the test — and what’s more, they’re definitely comely when they get dolled up. Playing this duo pitch-perfectly are Chloe Sevigny as the unsure-of-herself Alice (about as unlucky in cohabitation as you can be) and Kate Beckinsale as an almost congenitally catty Charlotte, a character who offers some of the strongest evidence ever that looks aren’t everything. But like everyone here, Stillman has affection even for her, and Charlotte is a key figure in the movie’s wistful final scene (not counting a musical fade-out that works incalculably better than the one in Damsels).
The disco palace is savored as a necessary gathering place for these social animals to congregate, though there is plenty of evidence that they actually like the music as well. Against a continuous array of late ’70s and early ’80s pop staples, the movie at times comes to resemble an episode of "American Bandstand" — but an "American Bandstand" where guys are sometimes shown dancing with guys or people show up in Wizard of Oz costumes. (No matter how many times Stillman shows the Tin Woodsman bopping out, it always gets a laugh).

And speaking of laughs, Stillman again gets a lot of mileage out of Chris Eigeman — who, in the Whitman trilogy of Metropolitan (also new on Blu-ray from Criterion), Barcelona and this, basically plays the same character under different names. As Disco’s womanizing and frequently fired and rehired club employee, Eigeman’s “Des” has an hilarious inability to see himself as others do — but you certainly can’t say he isn’t self-analytical. In fact, analysis runs rampant here: With their lofty educations, these young adults aren’t skittish about — and here we get back to how it takes a certain kind of actor to put across Stillman dialogue — handicapping the a proposed rematch between the tortoise and the hare. Or to deconstruct Disney’s Lady and the Tramp by characterizing Lady as an airhead that Tramp will probably end up knocking around some at home when he’s not watching sports on TV.

I was rewatching this very handsome Disco disc (with commentary and extras carried over from the DVD) just days after Ernest Borgnine died. It’s interesting to compare the New York courtship rituals here with those in Marty from 43 years earlier — factoring in, of course, the white vs. blue-collar differential as well. One social group seems as insecure as the other, though Borgnine’s Marty may have been making more money in adjusted dollars slicing fat off the loins in a Bronx butcher shops as the ‘80s wage slaves do here.


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