Last Rewrites

Whit Stillman ’73 revisits his 1998 film with a new “novelization.”

What is initially amusing but ultimately tiresome about movie “novelizations” is that they ignore a truth that is too great to be ignored, a literary Surgeon General’s warning: What you are reading was a movie once. Of course, he who reads a novelization, whether slaking a thirst for the movie’s minutiae or waiting for a prescription to be filled, is in no position to be picky. That spiky cloud of shame which hovers about the CVS idlers and celluloid fanatics—well, let’s just say they brought it on themselves.

Whit Stillman’s novel The Last Days of Disco with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards is a send-up of the novelization form. The title itself is typical of Stillman’s dichotomy: “The Last Days of Disco” because the movie was a study of the early ’80s ethos of disillusionment and financial mercenarydom; “With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards” because the book thickens out all the tiny moments glossed over by the film. The story and, indeed, the sharp, aristocratic tones will be familiar to those who saw Stillman’s 1997 film, The Last Days of Disco. But consumers of movie novelizations will be sorely disappointed. Stillman doesn’t just inform his film. He fairly betters it.

Without too much trouble, Harvard students can imagine which sort of Harvard student Stillman was. Watching Stillman’s three films (Metropolitan and Barcelona are the first two) will suffice. Young Whit was probably one of those observant, sentient rich kids—charming despite his best efforts to be charmless. Indeed, the Stillmans are vintage blue-blooded Boston brahmin: Even the convenient assonance of his name cries Beacon Hill. I’m sure that Stillman, who has a much better developed sense of irony than the current Fly or Porcellian members, enjoys the situational gag that after a night of license and liquor at a Mt. Auburn street final club, a ploughed young blueblood might find himself—more aptly, be found—drying out across the street at University Health Services. Or, as it is officially known, the Stillman Clinic.

The flap copy dutifully notes that Jimmy Steinway, “the Dancing Adman of the film (played by MacKenzie Astin) gets his lucky break when Castle Rock Entertainment, unable to find anyone else to write a novelization of the movie, reluctantly gives the assignment to him.” And so Jimmy, the advertising peon who negotiates the velvet rope gantlet of The Club as a professional necessity, redresses the wrongs committed by the movie.

As it happens, Jimmy is a wry and colorful commentator, a sort of desk-drawer novelist. He takes it on faith that we have seen the movie (we have) but is defensive about its tending-toward-negative portrayal of his insular group of friends (though all the characters except Charlotte “absolutely adored the film”). There is the docile, slightly mysterious Alice (played in the film by the blonde, doe-eyed Chloe Sevigny), who was a social failure at Hampshire College; and her publishing house coworker, Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) a painfully candid careerist snob who railroads Alice into sharing a railroad (blink) apartment—an ill-conceived arrangement for Jimmy, who falls into complacent couplehood with Charlotte and must cut through Alice’s bedroom whenever nature or the kitchen calls–. Jimmy, it almost need not be said, falls in love with Alice. And there’s Jimmy’s friend from their days at Harvard, Des McGrath (Stillman regular Chris Eigeman), a sarcastic, nihilistic promoter of The Club, around which the social lives of these yuppies catastrophically revolve.

The plotting is typically slight. The demise of The Club, which was probably based on the notorious Studio 54, (abbreviated “Studio,” not “54” as another disco movie had it) serves as the analogue for the gradual dissolution of friendships and careers—most notably Jimmy and Des’. Jimmy begins the novel by decrying the notion that “opposites attract,” and, indeed, Jimmy and Des are opposites. Des is an ill-mannered Harvard flunkie who has coached The Club’s owners to financial success and—more important to Des’ cadre of friends—social success (I believe there is an alum of the Phoenix whose career has recently followed a similar route). Jimmy is something of a pushover and needs Des to get his painfully square clients into The Club. That Jimmy was unwittingly a conduit for an investigation of The Club by the District Attorney is of no great consequence to Jimmy and of much greater consequence to Des. Their two careers are inextricably and fatally knotted together in a steep, downward descent: As Jimmy brings in more clients (i.e. more undercover D.A. agents), Des’ power evaporates under the suspicious glare of his superiors. And with Des’ power, so goes Jimmy’s.

Jimmy faithfully reproduces the entire screenplay—and some scenes that were surely excised from Stillman’s film. The dialogue, catty and snobby, reads somewhat better in a novel than it listens on film: For all Stillman’s strength as a recorder of elitist verbosity, his movie characters’ little soliloquies seem rather windy onscreen. On paper, this dialogue feels less canned. Stillman, whose day job is essentially to memorialize talking, is rather better at this novelization, this flight of fancy. Jimmy, too, it turns out, is a better novelist than Adman, dancing or otherwise.

The narrative that falls between the familiar dialogue is interesting. For instance, did you know from watching the movie that Jimmy was nursing a heavy crush on Alice even while he was rather unceremoniously attached to her coworker and roommate Charlotte? Or that he scripted episodes of Sesame Street (“Can you write for Ernie and Bert?” the agent asks Jimmy) after being canned by the ad agency? He was, he did.

What saves Stillman’s novel—sorry, novelization—from being a grim decline-and-fall narrative, is that he loves his characters. He loved one of them enough to breathe authorial voice into him. He even loves gadabouts like Des and fork-tongued bitches like Charlotte.

As a chronicler of the early ’80s, Stillman elucidates his thesis rather less opaquely than in his film. Jimmy, Des, and Charlotte (not too mention the poor money-laundering Club proprietors) are the victims. Des and Charlotte suffered from late-’70s crassness and upward-scrambling. Alice’s story is more poetic. A virgin (Charlotte prefers “social failure”) throughout college, she contracts herpes from Neil, a good-looking Harvard grad, during her “first time,” and retreats from the social life at The Club to her work as a publishing house drone. Alice was betrayed by disco and she turns her back on it. Alice, of course, ends up with a plum junior editorship.

Jimmy was not so lucky. He is quite a tragic character, visited upon by forces beyond his control. But the maladapted Jimmy, like Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet, is in quite a good position to be raconteur, much better than Alice. Jimmy shows us the changes without knowing what he’s showing. Such is Whit Stillman’s carefully modulated dramatic irony (recall those aristocratic little wasters in Metropolitan and the wrong-headed naval officers in Barcelona). However, this irony is gentle. New “disco movies” (why aren’t there more “disco novels?”) mock disco, with all its ridiculous plumage and promiscuity. On the other hand, writes Jimmy,

“Far from being a Decade of Greed, the early 1980s were years of hard work and maximum productivity, better in my opinion than any period that has come since…. It’s not as if we have so many decades available to us that we can afford to go around trashing them for no very good reason. As one gets on in years, the realization begins to dawn that there is actually a bit of decade scarcity in life.”

Jimmy is, of course, writing twenty years hence. Perhaps it’s his abiding love for Alice that still makes him sound tragic and fumbling in The Last Days of Disco with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. The most tragic hero is the one who doesn’t even know how tragic he sounds or, even more debilitatingly, thinks he is tragic for reasons he is not. Yeah, and how was Jimmy supposed to know that the decadence of the late seventies and early eighties would canker under the diligence of the Reagan years? After all, Jimmy didn’t know, as we do now, that these days were the last days of disco.

Couper Samuelson ’02 wound up graduating summa cum laude and now works at Paramount. Fun fact.