Define Frenzy: The Last Days of Disco at 20

Movies Features The Last Days of Disco
Define Frenzy: The Last Days of Disco at 20

“Define Frenzy” is a series essays published throughout Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read previous essays here. Though this last essay for the year sees print in July, it’s Pride in the UK and it’s now Wrath Month, so there.

In a joke that New York based queer comedian Kendall Farrell tells detailing a conversation with a straight man, he recalls how said straight man wishes he were gay so that “he cop whenever someone doesn’t like him to homophobia and never grow as a person.” Kendall responds, at first sarcastically, “Wow, what an accurate description of gay culture.” Returning to a more serious tone, he continues, “When someone doesn’t like us, we don’t think that’s homophobia. When someone doesn’t like us, we think it’s because they’re just jealous.” In his set, he turns on his heel and pouts, dismissing the audience, a sharply ironic gesture.

Though hyperbolic, Farrell’s joke isn’t totally untrue: Jealousy almost serves as a kind of category or strain of friendships within the queer community. That competitiveness is identifiable in works like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (albeit, more cruelly) and All About Eve—about female friendships, to be sure, but rippling through them the power dynamics of real life relationships almost as cultural and social inheritance. Note the complex mix of ambition and love within the queens of the various houses in Paris is Burning, and, too, the tempestuous friendship between Sean and Thibault in BPM, two ACT UP members with very different political strategies eventually impacting their personal relationship.

“Frenemy” might be an antiquated term, but it does have a specificity to it, and its presence in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, which turned 20 in June, makes the film feel like a deconstructed approach to the archetypal female relationship without sacrificing the authenticity of the relationship between Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale).

That the film is so tied to a genre which seemed to be particularly venerated by queer people only accentuates this queer reading. Whit Stillman’s films are not known for how “attention-grabbing” they are—at least to the extent they’re not defined by the ostentatious stylization of his contemporaries. Then we forget that Stillman does call for our attention with the opening minutes of The Last Days of Disco, its sans serif font flashing like strobe lights on the dance floor, accompanied by the commanding vocals of Carol Douglas on “Doctor’s Orders” while Beckinsale in a dark jacket and Sevigny in a studded black dress debate whether to take a cab to a disco nightclub or not. The third in his unofficial trilogy of Doomed Bourgeoisie in Love, The Last Days of Disco allows Stillman to find a setting and period as sparkling as the dialogue his characters spout.

The escape from the tragically boring routine of the 9-to-5 in New York is a night on the town, as cliché as that may sound. Recent college graduates working for paltry wages as readers at a publishing house, Alice and Charlotte attempt to find solace in the sonic paradise of Diana Ross, Cheryl Lynch, Amii Stewart and others. As it tends to happen, the two run into more petty troubles in the club, negotiating the sexual and romantic politics of the early 1970s with dashing, doofus men.

There’s an inequity of power between Charlotte and Alice, in that Charlotte spends an inordinate amount of time telling Alice who she is—to herself, to others, to Charlotte. As Charlotte sets the definitions and boundaries of Alice’s personality—grumpy, kindergarten teacher, judgmental—Alice slyly subverts them, particularly when going home with Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a rich lawyer with an interest in Scrooge McDuck comics. She turns “I’m a kindergarten teacher” into something slinky, seductive, upending the expectations of prudishness that Charlotte has projected onto her. She even has the skill to transfigure “There’s something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck” into a sentence laced with erotic power.

Thus, there emanates an erotic friction between Alice and Charlotte, always implicit if not explicit. The two women verbally or mentally compare themselves to one another constantly, and Charlotte’s way of combating how comparison might force her to reflect on her own actions and attitudes is to lash out in some way, either by spreading a rumor back in college or interjecting that Alice has an STD in mixed conversation. If jealousy fuels the relationship between the two, it’s no wonder: Taking place only a decade or so after the second wave feminist movement in the United States, the film bears the residue of women’s socialization for the purposes of competition in a male-dominated society. Charlotte might disdain coupling while sitting around drinking a nightcap, but that won’t stop her. Alice’s own judgmental impulses rarely are aimed at Charlotte. She can look across the dance floor at Charlotte and some guy, and you can wonder which of the two she’s watching, how space and time collapses for her.

With its beautiful banisters and atmospheric lighting, the The Last Days of Disco’s Studio 54-esque club becomes a space—for the characters in the film, for both performance and vulnerability, liminal. The image of Alice sitting, somewhat depressed and lonely, can coexist with that of Charlotte, her arms up in the air dancing with someone, the two 50 feet apart and able to look at one another. Friendships can be tested, romances can be lit aflame and yuppies can be the brunt of a joke.

After Metropolitan and Barcelona, Stillman shifted his masculinist inclined perspective for Disco, assertively pointing out the buffoonish qualities of affluent men and the resilience of the women who have to deal with them. Chris Eigerman’s selfish Des, once the manager of the club, unironically uses “I might be gay” as a way to break up with women he’s seeing, identifying with Tramp in Lady and the Tramp while he and Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) complain about being labeled as yuppies. Tom gives Alice herpes and gonorrhea. The nightclub is a field, and Alice and Charlotte are there to rewrite the rules, or at least point out how inane they are. Even if Charlotte performs publicly and personally as the very things she dislikes about Alice, and even if she’s guilty of hypocrisy, she still radiates power in a context where she’s probably not expected to have any.

The Last Days of Disco evolves into Alice’s story, coming out of the shadows and into her own, not to be compared to Charlotte, but a woman in her own right. After a miserable stint living together, Alice finds her own place (rather, she says she’s going to and then never does) and cultivates her own relationships. Her growing ambition at work begins to pay off. The last days of disco become the first days of Alice’s autonomy.

Perhaps ironically, time stands still in this space, a musical heaven where you can get down to “I’m Coming Out” and “Love Train” and “Knock on Wood,” hoping for the best. Despite the fact that Disco suggests a period, as indicated by both its proclamation at the beginning of the film that it starts out in “the very early 1980s,” as well as its title, the film isn’t married to its time period, at least not aggressively. Rather, these doomed bourgeois in love are the timeless sort.

Kyle Turner is a freelance writer and Paste contributor based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has also been featured in Brooklyn Magazine, The Village Voice, Slate and Little White Lies. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.

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