Sunday, September 6, 2009

Austen at the Disco

Kate Beckinstale and Chloe Sevigny primping at the Club

The Criterion Collection has released Whit Stillman beautiful and witty 1998 film The Last Days of Disco on DVD. I saw the film for the first time a few weeks ago at a screening at Lincoln Center, following which was a disco dance party, though I was really the only one moving my hips in a room mostly full of film nerds.

Stillman is a wonderful observer and chronicler of society who is unsparing yet sympathetic to, even protective of, his characters. Film Comment's Gavin Smith, in a conversation with the director after a screening of the film at Lincoln Center, compared him to Jane Austen, and I think that is rather astute. In a wonderful recent interview with the Village Voice, Stillman referenced Austen but also F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger and Evelyn Waugh, though Stillman is far kinder than the often acerbic and bitter Waugh.

There is a bit of a This Side of Paradise whiff to Last Days of Disco -- these kids, spoiled and bright, with their Ivy League pedigrees looking for love and trying to find themselves as they are thrust into young adulthood. The passion and earnestness in the film is also in keeping with Fitzgerald's first novel, but it is mixed with -- and even buried under -- a laconic irony and disarming awkwardness (much like many of Austen's funniest scenes). Alice (played by Chloe Sevigny) is the prototypical Austen heroine: independent (but not too rebellious), bookish and serious, yet romantic.

But Alice, in a way, has a much harder time than Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet navigating through her society's social mores. For Elizabeth, elaborate, ridiculous rules are in place that she -- and her suitors -- must abide: the result is awkward, inconvenient, yet pretty safe. Alice, however, is a young woman in a time in which social mores are being completely uprooted and changed, yet there is still some secret, mysterious code in place that she must figure out. It seems so easy (in her view) to everyone but herself. And she watches them with a mixture of envy and (perhaps because of her jealousy) contempt. There is a constant turmoil between who she wants to be -- someone who is confident and who can easily ensnare men (like her domineering roommate, Charlotte) -- and who she really is. It is something all the characters, to an extent, struggle with, except perhaps Charlotte (played by a young Kate Beckinstale), who seems slightly delusional and egomaniacal anyway. It also spurs one of the film's most memorable monologues, in which the womanizing Des (played by Chris Eigeman) muses on the famous Shakespeare phrase "To thine own self be true": "But what if 'thine own self' is not so good?"

The witty repartee -- a wonderful mixture of the high and low-brow -- reminded me of some of my favorite post-graduate-malaise/Gen X films of the '90s, such as Before Sunrise and Kicking and Screaming, albeit about yuppies at the disco rather than slackers hanging around the coffee shop. I wonder if this had something to do with the film's initial lukewarm reception -- that Stillman elevated the much maligned and caricatured disco era and its spoiled, rich and materialistic enthusiasts to, well, something of beauty and profundity.

Two things I wanted to point out from the interview, which I found really illuminating. The first is how Whitman describes his writing process:
The best way I find is to have the characters start to operate and speak and then let them run and conflict and end up one way or another. And I really don't know how things will turn out, generally, in the stories. It's the reverse of what Robert McKee used to say in his course, which is, he used to say you don't want to create story through dialogue ... and the only way I know how to create the characters is to try some scenes with dialogue where they do stuff and say stuff, and then you start getting a sense of the character and what they might do and how they might think, and if you get to the point where they seem to be operating autonomously then it feels much better and much more authentic and worth exploring ...

And it's a slow process, because there're a lot of cul-de-sacs that have to be gotten out of. I think in dialogue, what I find really helpful is trying to sort of tell the truth about things, have the characters tell the truth from their point of view and then, sometimes you make a statement in dialogue and then you realize, "You know, that's not quite true, there are these exceptions, there's this other aspect ..." and then send another character to say that, or they can themselves reconsider what they said. Sometimes by being a little bit tormented by something you wrote that really probably isn't true, you can use that anxiety to come to a solution that helps you in dialogue, helps you in character. And often there's a joke in there, often you can come up with some response that'll be a punchline and you can see them get out of it, get on to something else.

So elegantly put. I love the idea of creating a story through dialogue. That makes sense to me. (There is a third option, I think, though, which is creating a story through a mood or timbre.)

The second is about realism:

I'm explicitly coming to feel that realism is a problem in cinema. It is the criterion for many people's judgment of films, and there's a lot of static about anything that doesn't seem verite to people, or externally verite. And I think ... it's led people a lot of wrong roads, they dismiss some things that are good, and over-value some things that are rather empty because of the infatuation with "the real." That "real" we really get every day, every day we open our eyes. And it is true that the unreal can be artificial in a very bad way, and therefore it makes us appreciate those film that seem real in what they're showing. I've just seen a series of highly-praised very realistic films and ... there's just a feeling of emptiness, of hollowness, there's no humor in them, there's no joy, there's no romance ... I don't think it's true to life because I think we bring those emotions and aesthetic exultation to life as we observe it instead of just having this critically-negative camera covering things...

My boyfriend and I were discussing this quote over our cereals this morning, and we both thought of the current craze for "mumblecore," films about inarticulate 20-somethings trying to figure stuff out. But mostly this quote makes me think, again, of one of my all-time favorite films Before Sunrise (and its companion Before Sunset). That film had a profound impact on me as an adolescent because in it I realized all my dreams and hopes and ideals. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful idealization of romance ever put on screen, yet it still feels true. You can argue that no early 20-somethings are as articulate and profound as Ethan Hawke's and Julie Delphy's characters in Before Sunrise, but that didn't matter, because what they said embodied the frustrations and dreams of young idealistic teens and 20-somethings watching that movie everywhere. They shared our frustrations and struggles, they shares our beliefs and passions, they just expressed them more beautifully than we ever could (and were themselves, of course, impossibly beautiful). In a way, though, that is one of the greatest things about cinema, that it can express ideas and life with more wit and insight and beauty and clarity than we have the luxury or time to.

1 comment:

uberfantastic said...

hi! i came upon your site by chance (or maybe luck!) when I googled "the squid and the whale" and was directed to your review of it. I love your writing!--how clear and focused it is. I have linked you so that I can continue reading your stuff. I hope that's ok!