The Evolution of the Yuppie
The Last Days of Disco (1998)
Written and Directed by Whit Stillman
Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale and Chris Eigeman
Series by Lena Dunham
Starring Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, and Zosia Mamet
Now that privileged white college-educated women are back in vogue thanks to Lena Dunham’s much-discussed series Girls, it seems fitting to reexamine the work of cinema’s prime purveyor of yuppie angst, Whit Stillman. Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, shot in 1998 but set in the “very early 80s”, shares enough of Lena Dunham’s sensibilities and interests that it’s difficult to discern whether anything at all has changed in the past three decades.
Dunham as an actress conveys the same “wannabe” mannerisms and fake confidence that Stillman’s star, Chloë Sevigny, has made a career out of. Both women work so well in lead roles precisely because they don’t command the camera’s attention, preferring instead to invite it. Sevigny’s “unconventional” or “intriguing” beauty is commonly noted as a euphemism for her lack of conventional movie-star glamour. Tactful remarks are made to suggest the same thing about Dunham, to an even greater extent.
Alice (Sevigny) struggles with the rent despite large subsidies by her wealthy parents while Hannah (Dunham) must finally find a paying job after her parents cut her off financially. They sleep around with the wrong guys against their better judgment and values, prompting one male love-interest in Disco to bemoan the fact that “women prefer bad over weak and indecisive.” This, of course, is one of the central dilemmas of the two female protagonists in Girls. Hannah (Lena Dunham) has sex with a guy who never seems to leave his room and whose version of kinky roleplaying involves pedophiliac fantasies and occasional bruising. Marnie (Allison Williams) is so bored with her sensitive, caring boyfriend that she runs to the bathroom for some autoerotic stimulation the second a cocky artiste makes a demeaning sexual advance on her.
The early 80s, of course, were still at the beginning stages of an era in which women were allowed to go after men and get what they want, and so it’s somewhat perplexing that Hannah finds those choices just as crippling in 2012 as Alice, her precursor and pioneering counterpart, did in 1980. Alice eventually becomes so disillusioned that she proclaims nostalgia for “that old system of people getting married based on mutual respect and shared aspirations and then slowly over time earning each other’s love.” Hannah hasn’t made any such reactionary statements yet, but we’re barely halfway through the first season and it looks like things can only get worse.
Both Girls and Disco flaunt their modern outlook with “coming out” scenes that feel calibrated to be ever so slightly politically incorrect. In Last Days of Disco, after Des comes out as gay to a female companion of his, Charlotte attempts to out him as heterosexual, insisting that he pretends to be gay in order to exploit women. Her hypothesis is proven true, but only after a comprehensive catalogue of gay stereotypes, featuring such gems as “It’s true, Des, your mouth does look gay.” When Hannah’s ex-boyfriend comes out of the closet, she makes similar remarks about his newly-acquired mannerisms in order to exculpate herself from the notion that she should have known all along: “Let me tell you something, this fruity little voice that you’ve put on is a new thing.” In both cases, we can laugh off the female heroine’s homophobic outlook as a temporary symptom of an abnormal situation, while admiring the writer/director’s refusal to be restricted by a kind of liberal straight jacket.
Alice and her contemporary counterpart Hannah inform their lovers of a newly-diagnosed STD with similarly cumbersome accusations. Although the men in both situations are eventually proven guilty, it’s only after the women’s right to hold an impromptu sexual health forum is seriously cross-examined. Both women are accused of being sexually promiscuous when the truth is actually the extreme opposite: Alice was previously a virgin and Hannah’s only other potential disease-donor is the previously-mentioned gay ex.
Of course, neither Dunham nor Stillman hold a monopoly on any of these conversation topics of cosmopolitan living. The 1990’s indie boom was full of ensemble casts overanalyzing base topics so that skilled directors could placate their audiences with layers of dramatic irony. But few took on the issue of yuppie privilege so blatantly as Whitman. One character compares a club-bouncer’s discrimination against advertising executives to the Nazi’s hatred of Jews. His friend fervently agrees, and points to the common graffiti exclamation, “Yuppie scum” as yet another example of such gross injustice: “In college, before dropping out, I took a course in the propaganda uses of language, and one objective is to deny other people’s humanity, or even right to exist.” Alice’s own humanity is salvaged mainly by the film’s treatment of her as a tragic “wannabe.”
If the dialogue in Disco manages to be overly literate yet maddeningly inarticulate, it’s only because the director is hoarding the film’s self-awareness to the point where there’s none left for the characters. But Stillman’s and Dunham’s writing succeeds precisely because it never allows its own cleverness to obfuscate the fact that the sole dramatic engine is sex and death. The seemingly complicated web of desire and boredom in Stillman’s film is actually so linear that the film ends metaphorically with the ultimate existential ending: “We’ve lived through a period that’s ended. It’s like dying a little bit.”
Such inescapable banalities are even more explicitly depicted in Girls because while Stillman resorts to flattering lighting and off-screen intercourse, Dunham treats sex as a grotesque confession. Dunham unclothes her own imperfect body and coerces our attention with still shots, naturalistic lighting, and almost no cutting. The media scrutiny surrounding her physical appearance is entirely defensible because it’s so novel in the realm of television that to neglect it would be an oversight. Lena Dunham may have taken a page from Whit Stillman’s book of yuppie angst, but what distinguishes the new yupster generation is the refusal to withhold personal information, no matter how unflattering. Girls, steeped in the era of the internet, fully realizes the polarities of ugliness and empathy in a way that The Last Days of Disco never quite managed.