The Last Days of Disco: With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards
by Whit Stillman
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
339 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Opposites do attract -- but is that really such a good idea? Whit Stillman has won international acclaim as one of the wittiest, most original filmmakers of his generation -- "the Balzac of the ironic class, the Dickens of people with too much inner life." in the words of Stephen Hunter in The Washington Post. Now, twisting the film novelization genre in an entirely new direction, Stillman has produced something equally fresh and surprising; a novel based on the characters and events touched on in The Last Days of Disco -- the movie The New York Times called "deft, funny, and improbably touching" -- with results that are even defter, funnier and more improbably poignant. Jimmy Steinway, the "Dancing Adman" of The Last Days of Disco (and, we later discover, a frustrated, desk-drawer novelist), 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. Jimmy struggles to bring to light the true origins of the story at Kate Preston's party in Sag Harbor and the fast, then slow, then fast again unfolding of his love for Alice Kinnon, the boyfriendless social failure from Hampshire College whose quiet charm detonated a bitter rivalry between him and four of his Harvard classmates. (He also sets the record straight about the beautiful, passionate, painfully candid Charlotte Pingree.)
Set primarily in Manhattan in the early 1980s -- but spanning two continents and two decades -- The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards redresses the wrongs done these characters and this period, while helping to ameliorate the comic novel shortage in the world today.
"Opposites attract," they say -- and it's true. Scoundrels are forever being smitten with angels, and vice versa, and if such terms are objectionable, replace them with the secular equivalent, but it's still true. Like so much that verges on the hackneyed, a wealth of human experience looks out from behind it. Opposites attract, unfortunately, and the cost, in terms of subsequent despair, ruinous legal actions, divorce, fatherless -- or motherless -- families, cracks in the social welfare system and people falling through those cracks, even suicide and violence, is incalculably horrible. For that reason I pledged myself to oppose the whole sexy "opposites attract" dynamic any way I could.
If after all these years Des McGrath should still resent and hold that against me -- well, I'm not sorry.
That there has already been a movie on the same subject as this book is a fact too large to ignore or pretend objectivity about. Often the subjects of films -- and books -- nitpick about how they are portrayed, how the author got this or that wrong, etc., etc., ad infinitum. That was not our case. All of us, except Charlotte, loved the movie -- not entirely surprising, since so did all good film critics the world over (i.e., not David Denby). Our stake in how the film was received was particularly direct in that we were the characters whom the Denbys of this world and the moron from the San Diego paper found so unlikable. That was not true. Except for Charlotte we were not unlikable in the least, especially back then. Des said later that the Denby piece read as if some sort of sexual jealousy were involved. Another friend who reviews movies, though he's primarily a novelist, commented that those of his film-critic colleagues who are always finding characters petty and unlikable tend to be that way themselves.
Why then turn a screen story, admittedly well told, into a book? Art. Self-expression. Taking a corner of our life and culture, and enriching it. Interpreting the times we have lived through and, if not making them one's own, at least preserving them in written memory. For me the events of the story are still fraught with emotion despite their having occurred nearly two decades ago. Watching the movie, I discovered much I had not known before, just as many things I considered important had, given running-time necessity, been left out. The abbreviating nature of film and nearly all audiovisual media is something I had come to understand and accept in a career spent almost entirely in the sphere of the fifteen- and thirty-second television advertising spot.
I come from the tail end of that generation in advertising when there was usually an unfinished novel in the lower desk drawer. It was still the glory days of the baby boomers. While we might have sought to fit into society in economically useful or at least minimally remunerative ways, we still refused, at least initially, to let go of our aspirations to accomplish something beyond that, be it artistic or otherwise. Unlike some other people, I do not think our generation was entirely selfish or bad.
As a fiction writer manqué who had never gotten beyond Chapter 3 of a novel, and then only once, I found the offer from Jess Wittenberg of Castle Pock Entertainment's business and legal affairs department to turn The Last Days of Disco into a novel an opportunity too compelling and rare to let pass, whatever problems and pitfalls might seem to go with it. That I was one of the participants in the original story would, I hoped, take it beyond what is normally thought of as a film "novelization," and to further underline the distinction, publication was not intended until long after the film had already passed through the traditional film distribution "chain." That this would coincide with the film's free television premiere on the well-regarded VH1 music channel -- one of only three feature films to be so selected -- was a fortuitous coincidence.
Once, at a dinner during a return trip to New York I heard the novelist Tom Wolfe talk fascinatingly about what film could and could not do well in terms of narrative storytelling. I forget what he said film could do well, but as to what it could not do well, he cited as an example "shoes." In a novel, he said, if you wanted to discuss a character's shoes, you could describe not just the shoes' external appearance but everything about them. Perhaps the shoes had been handmade at enormous expense at Lobb in London; maybe the character under study would not have known (or cared) about Lobb when he first came to New York from the South in the late 1950s, but over time and with increasing prosperity in a certain social milieu, perhaps he'd come to care about just that kind of thing. Was it to show off and keep up with his peers, or simply an enthusiasm for beautiful objects of craftsmanship, along with the resources to buy them?
Later when I read Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, I admired how he used such sociological detail to weave a portrait of Manhattan in the 1980s that memorialized a world we all lived in, the way Thackeray and Trollope had theirs.
I remembered this "shoes" story at the screening of the first rough cut of The Last Days of Disco when, after the opening title cards set the scene as "Manhattan -- The very early 1980s," the first striking pictorial image flashed on the screen and was, again footwear: in this case, a tight shot of a woman's shoe-clad feet (Alice's) striding along the sidewalk, keeping pace with another woman wearing a pair of modish low black boots (of course, Charlotte's). Then the camera tilts up and we see the cool actresses attached to these shoes and boots. In the movie it's the music (Carol Douglas's early disco hit "Doctor's Orders"), the sound of the actresses' voices, and their stylish body language that strike one so strongly -- the shoes hardly register at all. It was another example of the enormous difference between a story told on film and one told in writing.
For the majority of us, the real story began not outside the Club that night but weeks earlier at Kate Preston's famous party in Sag Harbor Labor Day weekend.
Kate's father was the publisher and de facto editor of the magazine Futura and, as such, a big figure in our Harvard firmament. Maybe later those in our group moved on to careers in advertising, the law, or nightclub management, but that didn't mean we had given up our intellectual interests and aspirations -- quite the contrary. There is a too-common assumption among professional intellectuals that the world of thought and ideas is in some way owned by them. In truth, some of the best minds have fled the mediocrity, jealousies, and low pay of the literary-intellectual ghetto.
Sag Harbor is one of the resort towns on the southeastern fork of Long Island, two or more hours from New York City, that are collectively referred to as "the Hamptons." It is the Hamptons town with the "literary" reputation -- a reputation that is, frankly, deserved. Many writers, editors, and people active in the theater and the allied arts do tend to vacation or live there -- and those who don't, often visit. Like the other Hamptons, Sag Harbor has a particularly intense summertime social whirl which it has long been fashionable to decry. This is one of those poses, fairly tiresome, that everyone seems compelled to adopt. But to be honest, I've always found the social life there pretty terrific -- from that first party at Kate Preston's on.
Kate's Labor Day bash was a curious affair that started at about one in the afternoon and ended long after dark. We were all supposed to bring food and drink and help out. Tom Platt and I had been given responsibility for the condiments and hamburger buns (we found that moist and good-tasting brand of potato rolls -- Martin's, I think -- they sell on the Island). My turn on the grill came first, and it was in that context that Alice and I met. She claimed the burgers I was cooking were much too rare.
"That's disgusting," she said each time I took one off.
I accused her of being anti-meat, an unconfessed vegetarian.
"Not at all. I like hamburgers -- properly cooked." Before I moved to Europe, all the women I fell for liked their meat extremely well cooked, practically burnt, and their favorite color was always blue. I don't know if there was any connection between these preferences. (Oddly, the French word for meat that's so rare it's essentially uncooked is, in fact, bleu.) Alice was the last and by far the greatest of these infatuations.
What kind of first impression did she make? A very strong one. In my opinion she did not greatly resemble the attractive blond actress Chloe Sevigny (Kids), who played her in the movie. She was more petite, her hair darker, her figure less sensational, though still perfectly fine. She was only twenty-one then and in some ways even younger-seeming than that. I should mention that not everyone found her attractive. To them, she was merely "normal-looking." Thank God for divergences in taste and aesthetic judgment -- and other people's lack thereof!
For those sensible to such things, Alice had an extraordinarily sad and romantic look around her eyes -- lovely light brown eyebrows, diagonals sloping downward, above warm, sincere, kind, dark eyes that promised the most interesting of companions to anyone lucky enough to become her friend. Through absolutely no fault of her own, she had an expression that could break one's heart -- at least anyone sentient to such things. While normally such a look might portend a sad, poetic, romantic -- and, often, unhumorous and quasi-depressive -- personality. Alice was instead (and thank God) funny, charming, and cheerful -- at least to the extent that she had any reason to be. (She was not "inanely cheerful," the way some very tiresome people are; in fact, I've been accused of that.) Of course, like anyone in her twenties, she got into funks and "depressions" -- but hers tended to be for actual reasons, not trumped-up ones, and then she found ways out of them without making everyone else in Creation miserable, too.
An observation which might not be wholly true but which I'll risk proposing anyway: Most women who seem fascinatingly silent, romantic, and mysterious turn out to be just ... not so bright or communicative. Getting deeply involved with them can mean, at least in my experience, a one-way trip down the well of loneliness. Perhaps that sounds cruel, and they could probably say the same; granted that. All I mean is, what a loss, what a shame: if people were only as fascinating as they looked, how life might be. On the other hand, to be balanced about it, many people who don't look at all fascinating, mysterious, or interesting turn out to be. You tend to encounter this most often in working environments where there are so many opportunities to meet people who seem completely unattractive and uninteresting -- but then turn out not to be. I think that's one reason I've always liked the working world so much.
Next it was Tom's turn to take over the grill. I sort of expected or just assumed that Alice would join me, drifting away to explore the rest of the party together. We had really hit it off. I thought a real connection had been made. Instead, she remained glued to the spot, leaning against the table where hamburger and hot-dog preparation was taking place, chatting with Tom and monitoring his grill technique. So I decided to hang around, too.
Evidently Tom was also one of those entirely susceptible to that heartbreakingly romantic-sad look in a young woman's eyes. It was pretty surprising to see. For years he had been romantically linked to a very attractive, extremely-sexy-for-the-cardigan-set Wheaton girl, Jennifer Robbins by name (not to be confused with all the other Jennifer Robbinses). In college they had been among the most visible couples, Saturday-evening drinks at the Hasty Pudding bar and all that. I think she was the first young woman I noticed drinking whiskey sours. They were one of those couples envied by both sexes, including me.
With Alice, Tom was completely different -- much lighter and funnier than had been his mode in college. Maybe it was the Labor Day atmosphere and release of tension. Similarly, with him, Alice dropped the teasing tone she had taken with me, not harassing him about the "rareness" of his hamburgers at all.
When Tom stepped away to get another platter of hamburger patties, I asked her about the apparent inequity of this.
It's just that his hamburgers are properly cooked," Alice said. "We're free to talk about other things."
"I thought you were just teasing me about my burgers being rare."
"No. Your hamburgers were too rare. It was a health hazard."
"Haven't you ever heard of steak tartare? People eat raw meat all the time. I love it."
"Yes," she said. "I noticed."
"I thought you were just saying that for effect."
"I don't say things for effect."
"Oh, you don't," I replied in that fairly obnoxious, skeptical tone it's all too easy to slip into, regretting it even while saying it. In situations of any kind of social tension at all, I tend to act in one of two ways: like a bit of a jerk, or like a total jerk.
"No, I don't," she said.
Alice was not, as it turned out, one of those people who make themselves interesting, or flirt, by teasing or criticizing someone of the opposite sex. She really did think the hamburgers I was cooking were much too rare, and our conversation, though it had seemed great from my point of view, in fact never got much off the barbecue level.
On the other hand, the way she and Tom communicated was like bursts of microwave transmission, with vast quantities of information, opinions, and insights almost instantly interchanged. Tom acted as if injected with sodium pentathol or some other alleged truth serum, spilling his guts out to Alice in a way I had never imagined before (though later it turned out that he was filtering out some things).
I did not hold it against Tom personally, but it was intolerable being around him in the presence of girls. They collapsed in puddles before him, sometimes in the most abject way, and Alice, terrific as she was, seemed not entirely an exception in this case.
Despite firm resolutions to the contrary, I did let myself get bent out of shape by it and finally slipped away in a skulk, fortunately not attracting Alice's adverse attention. She had been pretty charitable in not noticing my querulousness while she devoted her concentration pretty much exclusively to Tom. As with any humiliating experience (and competing with Tom Platt was always going to be a humiliating experience), I immediately tried to put it out of my mind, and the girl with it. There are all kinds of things we do, against our own ultimate best interests, in order to immediately protect our egos and amour-propre. That the remarkable rapport between Alice and Tom did not have any immediate consequence or sequel is something I did not stick around to notice. An unobserved or unacted-upon romantic opportunity is the same as no romantic opportunity at all, at least in my experience.
None of this was directly portrayed in the movie. The filmmakers, seduced perhaps by the title they had come up with and the potent reference to "Disco" embedded within it, began their account instead on the south Manhattan streets outside the club where we coincided that night and often subsequently gathered.
The downtown section of Manhattan -- specifically that, nowhere land between Greenwich Village on the north and Wall Street or Chinatown on the south-had for most of a century been desolation personified at night. Until recently the area's only late-night patrons had been financial printers on the lobster shift and young corporate finance types pulling all-nighters proofreading their work, documents on hundreds of millions of dollars of stock market financing could depend. Serving them were two taverns with greasy barbecue, several takeout places, and a couple of Italian restaurants which time and all but a few nostalgic mobsters -- and their closest business associates -- had forgotten. Then sometime in the 1970s, what would later be endlessly referred to as the "down-town club scene" was born. By the time of the story -- the very early 1980s -- Hudson and Varick Streets had begun their new roles as dual parallels of late-night beauty and romance. | August 2000
Copyright © 2000 Whit Stillman
James W. Steinway has a long career in advertising. In the 1980s he published several highly regarded short stories in The Beacon, the much-missed Cambridge, Massachusetts, literary magazine. This is his first novel.
Whit Stillman wrote and directed the films Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. This is his first novel, too.