On its 20th anniversary, Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco is as alive as ever to the troubles young people face when it comes love, friendship, and work, although of course the social situation has changed a lot since 1998, not to say the “very early ’80s,” when the film is set. What’s more, yuppies, his chosen subject, make for a very interesting comparison with Millennials today.
A certain combination of cluelessness and earnestness describes Whitman’s yuppies. These qualities are sometimes charming and often proper in the young. They are not criminal or wicked in their mistakes as much as irresponsible, and usually they harm themselves by their irresponsibility more than they do others. They are very gregarious but remarkably asocial and, not to be blunt, lonely. This is largely because, as modern Americans, they do not marry until late in their 20s, and meanwhile have few social venues — hence, the importance of disco, the oasis in the desert for them.
Love, however, still moves them, and drives the story, too. The two leading ladies, Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, new graduates of a prestigious college, are trying to make it in Manhattan, where their story alternates between work and leisure — going to disco clubs and trying to throw parties. They meet a cast of young men who are potential lovers and friends, all of them graduates of prestigious schools — mostly Harvard — and now looking for a career.
Some are immoral characters, like Tom, a handsome young man who mixes the high principles of intelligent liberalism with behavior worse than a rake’s. Alice, mesmerized by the former quality, ends up suffering from the latter. Others, like Des and Jimmy, are mere rakes, guilty of fickleness when it comes to love and women but not harmful or given to the notion of cloaking their immorality in principle.
Des has a particular weakness for women, which the sexual revolution exacerbates. He reacts by telling women, to break up with them, that he’s finding out he’s homosexual. He conceals one ugly revelation about himself behind the kind of revelation that is accepted in an age of liberation. He realizes that what he needs is restraint, not liberation: The love of a good woman, like intelligent, principled Alice, might help him, but she, of course, looks down on him, precisely because of her principles.
Jimmy is interested in Alice, but when Charlotte makes advances, he gives in to her, also out of fickleness, and then callously abandons her in her moment of need, while still trying to make advances to Alice. Again, we see how men act who are young and liberated. This is what they understand opportunity to mean — when the only real opportunity for them would be loyalty or constancy, and when what they in fact need is restraint, as the plot eventually proves.
Des and Jimmy, unlike Tom, are capable of reflecting on their behavior and character, especially as what they notice is not flattering — they just don’t feel capable of changing, especially since society encourages the worst in them when it comes to love. So they take an American attitude to their problems: They blame the place for their misfortunes, not to say sins, and get out of Dodge. Maybe it’s better somewhere else.
Last is Josh, an understated character, who is even more given to self-scrutiny and who knows himself and his weaknesses almost to a fault. He alone is harmless and helpful. He’s in fact a comic image of a gentleman, not to say knight . . . He says, charmingly,“Other guys don’t take no for an answer — I do, I’m easily discouraged.” His lack of confidence makes the others look down on him, but, in her own moment of misery, Alice learns to appreciate his capacity for love, and the others in their small group get to see him give an impassioned speech in behalf of disco as an opportunity to make friends, find love, listen to good music, dance, drink, and have conversations. He has a capacity for enthusiasm they mostly lack, and the contrast speaks eloquently to some of what’s missing in the young.
This fickleness in love — it ended up glamorized in the most mediocre way imaginable in the comedy show Friends, sufficient evidence that the ’90s were a desert where many souls were desiccated — has certain bad effects on friendship. Stillman has a rule: that the outsider tells the truth about a group. So Josh, the man utterly dedicated to serious work, bears witness to the virtues of disco even after America abandoned it, though he admits that he rarely goes to any discos. So Charlotte, the backstabbing bitch, declares the virtues of friendship and deplore the habit of “ferocious pairing off,” which leads yuppies to abandon their friends for their lovers, however temporarily.
The problem with friendship shows up throughout the movie. Stillman has us judge the characters first by following the plot: Which ones are ever helpful to someone else, especially when it costs them something? And then by thinking about the virtue of forbearance: refraining from contempt and from the passion for abandonment it breeds. My friend Peter Lawler once penned a very good essay on the way Stillman treats grace: To get to that question, think about what it means to forgive, or not even that but to defend friendship against the temptation to break with someone who has done something hurtful or failed to do something good.
People who cannot find dignity in friendship and love are left with work, and indeed all the characters in the film end up defined by it. Here, too, they are all-American. What’s strange is that work seems to be the only thing they are fit for. According to Stillman, yuppies, though they come in varieties, have a few important things in common: a preference for big cities, an insistence on higher education as the portal to a worthwhile future, and the desire for meaningful work — which, of course, often turns out to mean having jobs other people will envy rather than disdain.
This is a judgment not simply about money but about what’s considered interesting, whether non-conformist (Des is a manager at the most exclusive disco club in Manhattan— that is, the world) or cultured (Alice, Charlotte, and their friend Dan, a Harvard socialist, work in book publishing) or ethical (Tom is an environmental lawyer). Jimmy works in advertising, which barely qualifies, in their view, except that there, too, there is success to be had . . . Worse still, from the point of view of what attracts yuppies, Josh is so un-cool he works for the district attorney and is in fact the agent of justice, not just the prophet of disco.
These aspirations are tied up, it turns out, with certain negative preconditions — a loosening of attachment to family or place, for example, and an inherent acceptance of the transient character of friendship and other voluntary relationships. Divorced parents also feature in the picture, an example of the failure of too much equality, or of the wrong kind, leading people to contests of will that tear them apart.
Bereft of strong friendships or early marriage, our young protagonists turn to work. They are interested in themselves, same as anyone, and they think the way to self-understanding goes through success. This is because of the strange logic we conceal in our obsession with higher education: Everything in our artificial world serves a purpose, and more and more of our world is artificial — that is, of our own making. Success means being good at that purpose, whatever it is. Maybe human beings serve purposes, too. That’s what they’re educated for, that’s what they do at work, that’s what earns them respect or, rather, envy.
So it’s not merely work, or merely productive work, that these yuppies are after, but work that is said to be part of the future, for what is worse than having America leave you behind by declaring that your work or profession is obsolete, no longer wanted, respectable, or rewarded? That’s the curse of the lower classes, and the yuppies fear it implicitly.
Through the plot, Stillman criticizes their inability to love and be loyal friends and blames their education for it. The most educated one, Alice, keeps making fun of people who read Spider-Man comics but never seems far above that herself. She has read books to educate herself about having sex, but not much else, it seems. Her success at work depends on publishing a memoir by the Dalai Lama’s brother. Charlotte had rejected it — not glamorous enough — but Alice knows popularity, apparently. When the sham author is revealed, she simply says, Let’s turn it from memoir into self-help. Now, it’s a hit, revealing cluelessness and the American desire, in herself as much as in the audience, for quick and easy success.
We con ourselves with self-help instead of doing harder, more-unpleasant things that would really make our lives better, Stillman suggests. Josh, who actually does unglamarous work that might lead to success and that is really a public good, gives one example of thoughtfulness about pop culture, though he’s the most unpretentious of them all. He says, Look at Lady and the Tramp: There you see how our society encourages clueless girls to fall for bad boys even in their pre-sexual childhood! Des, who also wants quick and easy success — redemption, in his case — defends the Tramp and everyone agrees, Josh is too judgmental . . .
Work for Des and Charlotte, who both find themselves unemployed, is supposed to supplant redemption. They say they have personalities too big for normal people — they should go into television instead! Success there surely will prove they were right all along. These are the two most cynical characters in the story, and yet they are utterly gullible about success. Cynicism about moral principles seems to leave people defenseless in the face of glamour.
But aside from their plunge into work at the end, they’re also human in unexpected ways. Des realizes that his self is pretty bad, and it’s crazy for society to tell him — he quotes the old bumbling fool Polonius — “To thine own self be true.” Charlotte, in her moment of misery, sings “Amazing Grace,” crying. It’s generally the rule with Stillman, who is a gentle man, that in suffering our deeper longings are again revealed to us and we have the chance to learn to improve ourselves. His movies are never satires, because he affords his characters and us all this hope, however realistic he is about the mistakes that lead to misery in the first place.
Stillman’s criticism ultimately seems to be this: that yuppies were too materialistic. They weren’t serious about education. It was too much about work and success, inherently unpredictable things, and much too little about character, which is revealed in actions that seldom lead to happiness. These young people for the first time take risks and acquire experience for themselves, painfully, because education never offered them a better way. Happily, we have the chance to learn by pleasure, from Stillman’s movies. Materialism makes young people unable to be patient or attentive. Quick and easy success seems the only option to them, because youth is passing and indeed the whole world is moving too fast to stand still.
This all leads to a question: Why didn’t college offer them all this, since they are so privileged as to attend the most prestigious schools! Stillman addressed that in his next movie, Damsels in Distress, about which we will talk another time. For now, compare the yuppies with our Millennials. The same fashionable success haunts them when it comes to work, concealing fantasies of greed or of prestige based on moralism. They are in as precarious a situation as Stillman’s characters, in entry-level jobs, or unemployed, and not knowing if they have anything ahead of them.
They have a desire to find themselves in leisure, but no sentimental education — no way to build strong, lasting friendships, and no obvious way to get to marriage. They’re chatty, but have no art of conversation. They daren’t tell the truth about themselves or learn the truth about others, since it feels judgmental, and is anyway always open to disputation and counterargument. Moreover, they don’t have money, so how can they even socialize? Meanwhile, the tumultuous, tempting life of the big city keeps them crazy, by turns aspiring and despairing, turning outward to conquer the world and then, failing, turning inward to run from it.
Stillman does not make moralistic movies, so he doesn’t treat his characters with cruelty. Neither does he invite us to treat them that way. We’re first of all supposed to experience the excitement and fear of trying to make it in a big city — and then to suffer along with kids whose good intentions are rarely guided by sense, and never by experience. He gives us a bittersweet story that doesn’t quite qualify as romantic comedy, although he’s the master of the genre in our times, and an admirer of the greatest American master, Leo McCarey — remember Cary Grant!
We owe Stillman a debt of gratitude for the gentleness with which he offers an education, about love and friendship, that is rare in our society, not only at the movies. If we can learn from his insight into our situation with work and leisure today, we should also try to understand the obstacles that digital technology places on the way to love. Someone who studies Stillman and confronts social media, however, could be the poet of love in the digital age, the poet of the Millennials.
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