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“The Last Days of Disco” and the death of the rom-com

The 20th anniversary of Whit Stillman’s paean to disco reminds us of another great American form of entertainment that has all but disappeared: the romantic comedy.

Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny in a scene from Whit Stillman's "The Last Days of Disco."

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of The Last Days of Disco, the Whit Stillman romantic comedy that made the case for the disco as the last iconic American venue for music, dance, drinks, and conversation—in short, for the sentimental education of young Americans. We’re as much in need of wit and romance as ever, but since the romantic comedy has disappeared from today’s Hollywood, we must look back to this classic and the work of the living master of the love story.

The Last Days of Disco shows us the lives and loves of several young college graduates trying to make something of themselves in New York in “the very early 80s.” Our heroine is the demure Alice, played by Chloe Sevigny. She’s a reader in a publishing house in Manhattan, a graduate of a prestigious school, and completely lacking in wherewithal. Disco, she believes, is her chance to win admiration, have fun, meet her friends, and find love.

The story shows us her preferences and options in men, as well as her only female friend. Stillman does a great, understated job of showing us recognizable human types and the pairs they might make, with the good and bad likely to issue from each coupling. If you give the story some thought, it’s possible to imagine a slew of other possible romantic comedies with these characters in various configurations.

They are the first American generation to grow up with the Sexual Revolution, and their lives are a mess, which is Stillman’s quiet theme. They don’t really know anything about love, nor about the future. America, the land of the free, is one big mystery for them, and they are aware of the scary likelihood that they will fail. Alice, pretty, smart, and feminine, seems an alien in this world—she is our protagonist because she’s quiet and shy, which reveals, in contrast, the madness of the times.

She is by no means perfect—and she is too passive, relying on others for the parties and fun she craves. She’s also what you’d call a snob. She mocks whoever wrote Spiderman and comic book fans, but she’s about as uneducated as they are, despite her greater opportunities. Moreover, her career success consists in publishing the book of the fake brother of the Dalai Lama. When the obvious fraud comes up, she just switches the genre from non-fiction to self-help: it turns out, knowing the facts doesn’t make us any less gullible or less crazy for Zen. In a restless America, any pose of confident serenity will sell…

Unlike her ridiculous career, Alice’s love life is actually interesting, and we not only follow her misadventures, but sympathize with her in her suffering and humiliations. They seem both undeserved and inevitable, because society simply isn’t set up to help young women. The only help she gets is from the charmingly conceited Charlotte, played by Kate Beckinsale. She works with Alice, convinces her they should move in together (the only way they can afford Manhattan), and irresponsibly encourages Alice to be sexually active. It’s not the 50s anymore, she says.

Charlotte is charming because she is all worldly knowledge, no self-knowledge. She has faced up to the Sexual Revolution and she’s making the best of it she can. She knows her parents divorced because of an excess of a bad equality—they kept criticizing each other. She’s been bruised and, though it is hard to sympathize with her, she’s the only character who seems to know how terrible it is to be needy and unloved. She’s also one of two characters who sings “Amazing Grace.”

But she’s a bad friend to Alice, treating her in a shameful, contemptuous way under guise of friendship. Charlotte encourages Alice to pursue a sexual relationship, with Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a young Harvard grad, environmental lawyer, and idealist who loves intellectual women. He despises vulgar sexuality, but is perfectly willing to spread sexual diseases. His espousal of high principles combined with worse-than-caddish behavior shows the dangers of a lack of self-knowledge—his fling with Alice will leave indelible scars.

Hurt by Tom and then humiliated publicly by Charlotte, Alice starts dating Des, who works at The Club. He seduces women and then claims he’s gay in order to break up with them. He uses the ideology of the Sexual Revolution to justify his own faults. He eventually acquires some self-knowledge—that “to thine own self be true” is terrible advice if yourself is bad—but he is both weak and cowardly. It is also true that modern society tempts him with sexual promiscuity, his peculiar weakness, without having ever offered him any way to defend himself. He is pathetic rather than tragic—he desires to be better, but lacks any resources within himself. His solution is always to run away.

Charlotte and Des see eventually how alike they are, but they cannot love each other, which is a revealing lesson about their faults and failures. They could both be healed by love, if there were much truth in the claims of the Sexual Revolution, but they find themselves stranded in a society in which their vulnerability dooms them to misery and which blames them for not succeeding. The lovers who might show them loyalty and some faith instead abandon them, thinking they can do better. So they bet desperately on a foolish self-importance and fantasize about professional advancement. Careers and money are supposed to heal the wounds of love.

This is Stillman’s explanation for the yuppies’ crass materialism. Des defends yuppies in the movie in an all-American way: what’s so bad about being young, professional, and upwardly mobile? Isn’t that what everyone wants? The problem is, it excludes the fundamental human experiences, including love—because of deep personal fears and a social arrangement that’s nuts.

Alice’s third romantic partner is Josh: Don Quixote, if the Knight of the Sad Visage were sane. He’s an assistant D.A. and, as a believer in justice, he is part of the destruction of disco clubs, for their manifold, particolored crimes. But as a young man open to love, he is the only believer in disco—although he’s rarely ever been to clubs. He thinks disco is a movement and that there is something great about it. The music awakens people to love and allows them to have fun. As Charlotte says, unlike the hippies, disco people can dance! Josh is the only eloquent voice for the hopes these youths share, but his speech can only be given in a ridiculous moment after it’s too late and disco is over.

Justice and love come out of the two sides of Josh, who’s a manic depressive. He has to take lithium to be normal, but he loses something of himself that way. For example, he’s given to singing Christian hymns whenever the spirit moves him. People think him crazy—but that’s just secular society reacting to enthusiasm, which literally means feeling God within oneself. Josh knows more about himself than the others, partly because he’s the least self-important. He knows his weaknesses and seems to have learned from suffering. He is heroic in a quiet way that suits Stillman best. Alice ends up dating him—the only hint of possible happiness in love.

Stillman teaches one big lesson that should not go unnoticed. These young men and women only find self-knowledge in suffering, which might just prove intolerable, because in the end they’re incapable of being friends. It’s Charlotte who notices this, who’s the worst friend of them all, in another of Stillman’s bittersweet lessons about the disjunction between goodness and knowledge. Their lives and loves throw them around without them ever being able to hang on to each other. This suggests the death of the romantic comedy in Hollywood has a lot to do with the increasing implausibility of friendship, the last association in an individualistic society.

Love in a society of equals requires friendship to retain sanity, because otherwise we’re too tempted to delude ourselves, going from fantasy to despair, from infatuation to endless criticism. Friendship moderates love by teaching us our duties, helping us put up with the less lovely parts of humanity. That’s what romantic comedy itself is supposed to achieve—it’s mostly about heartbreak, but it makes suffering tolerable, so long as some lessons are learned, and then happiness becomes a real possibility.


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About Titus Techera 21 Articles
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a contributor to National Review, The Federalist, Law & Liberty, and Modern Age.

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