I was lucky enough to get into a screening of Whit Stillman's 1998 The Last Days Of Disco at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this evening, and even though I have the very nice Criterion DVD it was a real gas to see it on a big screen and with a live and appreciative audience. What a fucking spectacularly good film it is. The dialogue is so fantastic, really right up there as far as I'm concerned with the classic stuff like Hecht and MacArthur and of course Sturges but filtered through something both more literary-classical but also literary-postmodern. People compare Stillman to Tarantino on account of the cultural references, but listening to the debate on Lady and the Tramp this time around—as great a comic set piece as anything in post-'70s American cinema, and you don't even really need to know the Disney film to "get" it—I was oddly reminded of Pynchon, at least in terms of the way the argumentation is framed. There are a couple of narrative leaps I still don't quite grok—Matt Keeslar's Josh suddenly wearing that harlequin costume, for instance—but overall, just great, up to and including the dance fantasia finale.
The movie is part of a series programmed by the multi-hyphenate Lena Dunham, whose HBO series Girls is debuting on a date that lives in inf...well, it's April 15, which falls on a Sunday this year. Anyway, her series is called "Hey Girlfriend" and features films she admires/was influenced by, and after this screening of Disco Dunham led a Q&A with Stillman and actor Chris Eigeman, who's appeared in three of Stillman's four films. Dunham led off by saying one reason she loved Disco was its portrayal of a "great female friendship," a description that made Stillman raise at least one eyebrow. The film's central relationship is between Chloe Sevigny's Alice and Kate Beckinsale's Charlotte. Charlotte's, as it happens, is one of the most hilarious archetypal underminers in the history of fiction, so blatant in her manipulations that the joke becomes (in my mind at least) how much Charlotte only thinks she's being something like passive-aggressive. Sweet and inexperienced Alice falls for Charlotte's nonsense with a credulity that would make her an utter dupe in a less nuanced film, and this credulity leads to such classic lines as "I think Uncle Scrooge...is sexy." But on reflection, it seems that the fact that Dunham takes the relationship in the film as a friendship is not unrelated to what makes Dunham interesting as a filmmaker. There's been a lot of ink spilled about Girls lately, the most confounding piece to my mind being Frank Bruni's "O tempora! O mores!" New York Times thumbsucker about these kids today with the meaningless sex. And I've written about how certain aspects of Tiny Furniture made this 52-year-old guy glad to be out of the demographic by which his gender is judged by Jezebel and such. (Incidentally, while I stand by all of the points I made in that piece, I allow right now that my overall tone might have been a little too studiedly acerbic. Or a lot too studiedly acerbic.) What I didn't get into as much is how Furniture depicted intra-female relations as head-spinningly alternating between abrasion and affection, competition and solidarity, and so on. Very few of the films I've seen by male filmmakers of Dunham's generation have any such concerns, but then again very few films at all have such concerns, or at least they don't articulate them in the way that, say, a film such as Disco, or, for that matter, Claudia Weill's Girlfriends, which also showed in Dunham's series, do. I mean, Girlfriends and Disco take VERY different formal approaches to that articulation, but they both share a similar sharpness and frankness (for all the artifice of Stillman's film, it also has a very definite adamance—and accent, if you will—on being about something real). As does Mike Leigh's great Career Girls, also part of the series and showing this coming Sunday. What I'm saying finally is that my main interest in Girls is in seeing where Dunham takes THAT theme. So I look forward to it.
In the interest of what they used to call full disclosure I'll tell you that a friend who was part of the event introduced me to Dunham after the Q&A and we had a very pleasant chat and I found her completely engaging and gracious.