History is Made at Night: Whit Stillman, Lena Dunham, and Chris Eigeman at BAM’s “The Last Days of Disco” Screening

Last Thursday night I saw something rare and rich: movie stars not only living up to who you want them to be in person, but behaving the way they do in their best films. Whit Stillman and Chris Eigeman share a rapport that is not only delightful, but feels true to the words that Stillman has been writing for Eigeman’s roles in his movies for over twenty years. As the two bantered back and forth with a kind of artful, dignified squabbling, it became clear that Chris Eigeman is what a real muse looks like, and that he and Stillman are what we can think back on when people talk about the great working relationship of Woody Allen and Scarlett Johannsen, while wondering what the hell those two could possibly spend more than five minutes talking about.

I was treated to a brief and very public look at Stillman and Eigeman’s friendship at Thursday evening’s screening of writer-director Stillman’s 1998 cult classic The Last Days of Disco at Fort Greene’s BAMcinematek. The outing was part of the ongoing “Hey, Girlfriend!” series of female friendship stories curated by Lena Dunham, fellow filmmaker and recent beacon of anticipation for her upcoming HBO series Girls. Having never before seen the film in full or with an audience, I was genuinely surprised by how acutely relevant and fresh Last Days feels. In the screening’s subsequent Q&A, Stillman noted that very little was done to try to mask that the film was being shot in 1997, because he didn’t want a fake set piece version of New York. Moreover, a regulatory finance subplot and post-glam fashion and music present a Manhattan that feels decidedly like our own, and one in which we get to see the borough’s disparate class structure, neighborhood-to-neighborhood. For as Stillman notes here in a 2009 interview on The Leonard Lopate Show, this is a film that’s more about moving into a railroad apartment in Yorkville with questionable roommates than it is about Studio 54.

Still, it doesn’t hurt that we also get some great pop music, or that we get to see some really attractive people dancing together. A film like this could live or die by its soundtrack, and this one slays, admirably showcasing Amii Stewart’s glittery cover of “Knock on Wood” (with a synth line that Beyonce needs to sample immediately) and making better use of Vickie Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” and Chic’s “Good Times” than anyone before or after. For a movie celebrating music oft dismissed nowadays as dated, the cast and camera sway together with the classical moves of a Hollywood musical. Stillman in fact regrets not having called the movie by its alternate title, borrowed from a 1937 corker called History is Made at Night, a mouthful that still would have diminished any mirrorball prejudice from audiences or critics. We also enjoy a great performance from Chloe Sevigny (never more gorgeous than when as protagonist Alice she gets caught in the rain while hailing a cab), a revelatory outing from Matt Keeslar of Waiting for Guffman as Josh, the film’s manic-but-dignified moral compass of an assistant D.A., and Eigeman all but stealing the show in the role of Des (which the studio wanted to go to a then red-hot Ben Affleck), the dance club’s kamikaze of a manager who breaks off his many dalliances by eventually telling every woman he sleeps with that he’s gay.

Best of all for those of us with a chemical dependency to the written word, this is a relentlessly quotable movie ripe for our meme-centric era. One that leaves you looking to sharpen your verbiage and ask, “Why don’t we all talk like this?” Dan: “Aren’t your fathers heavily subsidizing your living expenses with big allowances?” Charlotte: “They’re not big at all.” Des: “I’m not an addict, I’m a habitual user.” Charlotte: “Anything I did wrong, I apologize for, but anything I did that was not wrong, I don’t apologize for.” The film’s vernacular is akin to other 90s classics like Wayne’s World, The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, Clueless, Being John Malkovich, Flirting with Disaster, and Rushmore, in which parlance constructs environment and exemplifies character, and unique language creates a singular sense of place. That Stillman achieved the rare feat of publishing a novel also called The Last Days of Disco that tells the same story without feeling like a novelization two years after the film’s release is a telling look at the heightened value of prose to the film’s pacing and to its characters. I say this not solely because we’re here at Vol. 1 Brooklyn, but this is a damned bookish film.

All the more impressive is that the articulation and clever tongue of Stillman’s characters follow him along in real life. In the oft-thankless task of moderator, Dunham admirably got in a ton of audience questions and otherwise stood aside. Amidst this Q&A, I loved the way in which Eigeman and Stillman so clearly enjoy one another’s company, yet can still bicker with grace. It’s a testament and apt coda to a film which celebrates the complexity of friendship, and so enjoyably grants even its most neurotic characters so much dignity. Lest we forget: when first we see them, all of the film’s lead roles are hoping to be deemed hip enough to be let past the exclusive nightclub’s velvet rope. Yet warts and all, each finds their way into the party.

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