“Before disco, this country was a dancing wasteland. You know the Woodstock generation of the 1960s that were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance.” – Charlotte
Whit Stillman’s films are mainly known for their dialogue and have been compared with the works of Eric Rohmer. And yet, music plays a key role in their themes of civilizational anxiety. If some artists focused on the cracks of desperation on the facade of bourgeois respectability or social conformism(like in FAR FROM HEAVEN and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD), Stillman traced the lingering remnants of conservatism in a world committed to ceaseless change. And especially given the character of American Conservatism — to conserve the engines of free enterprise that facilitates nonstop constructive destruction — , there’s hardly any respite, let alone sanctuary, for the true conservative.
William F. Buckley held a stop sign to a locomotive moving at full speed but was in love with its very engine. Therefore, true conservatism is hopeless in America(and modern West in general) as everything is in constant flux amidst vast changes beyond the control of any individual or institution. And yet, vestiges of conservatism remain at the margins as part of human nature, more so among those with certain dispositions. Thus, for Stillman conservatism is less a political philosophy than a style and approach to life. It’s telling that the socialist in METROPOLITAN fits in very well with the hierarchy. At the very least, he has the manners and a sense of honor(that even leads him to call out the dragon to save the damsel). And in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, the 70s music scene associated with shameless homos, salacious blacks, and tasteless goombas(mainly due to SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER) is presented as something like neo-camelot for the well-heeled and privileged.
Some of the songs in METROPOLITAN are by black singers, not exactly a marker of high society, but there is royalty in any kind of excellence. And, despite the story being set in 1969, the songs featured are of an earlier period, as if the Summer of Love and Woodstock never happened. (Keeping with tradition can be regarded as behind-the-times but also timeless, and the casual viewer could be forgiven for thinking the story is set in another time, earlier or later. In this, METROPOLITAN has something in common with David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET that seems set in the 80s but stuck in the 50s, or early 60s. When the film came out in 1990, the initial impression was of an upper crust variation of John Hughes brat pack movies. Given budget limitations, Stillman didn’t dwell much on period details and one could almost believe it was about some hidden socialite corner in the here-and-now. Stillman could be mistaken for a youngster himself when, in fact, he was a boomer born in 1952, nearing forty when he finished his first film. But then, John Hughes was even older and faked his rapport with 1980s youth.)
Since the Jazz Age, it’s been commonplace for whites to draw inspiration from black music, which had both a sharpening and loosening effect, like a strange drug. In one way, it could mean getting down and dirty, crude and vulgar, all nasty and shit. And yet, there was also hopeful desire to encourage or elevate blackness toward finer sentiments and higher passion. Some blacks internalized this, becoming self-consciously arty and turning jazz from popular idiom into bona fide art music. It was as if blacks had the voice and energy, but whites(many of them Jewish composers) had the finer sensibility.
For METROPOLITAN, Stillman chose black songs that are kinder and gentler, with emotions not so out-of-place in the world of Jane Austen. From Stillman’s quirky perspective, perhaps, there’s an overlap between the black world and the WASP(or UHB) world. Both exist in the margins, privileged or not. It is the late Sixties, when blacks were making the climb while the Wasps were beginning to feel the slip, but with neither commanding the center of American Life, up for grabs and soon to fall into the hands of Jews. (Even today, Wasp elite sentimentality toward blacks and hostility toward white ‘deplorables’ may derive from such mindset. If Wasps are to relinquish power and privilege, then blacks, with their soulful history of injustice and just being soulful, are more deserving than the ‘insensitive’ masses of ‘redneck’ truck drivers and ‘white trash’ with MAGA hats.)
METROPOLITAN is somewhat like AMERICAN GRAFFITI for high society youth. If George Lucas’ film depicts the more ‘innocent’ Sixties before everything blew up with drugs, race riots, and the Vietnam War, METROPOLITAN is like the last hurrah(or final whimper) of the socialite culture. Higher up in society, they could afford to be somewhat aloof and remain less affected by events on the ground; still, social changes have seeped into this world as well in lifestyle and attitudes — Nick Smith(Chris Eigeman) hallucinates to mescaline, albeit gazing at a Babar comic book. It’s also like a minuscule version of THE LEOPARD(by Luchino Visconti) though with comic than tragic overtones; it’s as if they’re doing it for appearances for maybe the last time before their world becomes a museum piece.
Though we don’t see much dancing, the gatherings often center around debutante balls(or whatever such are called). These gatherings are in stark contrast with the kind of dance usually associated with the late Sixties where hippies, high on drugs, moved their bodies anyway they felt like(in tune with the cosmic groove?) On the evidence of GIMME SHELTER(The Rolling Stones film), maybe drugs-and-dancing should be avoided like drinking-and-driving. Though a key event in the Summer of Love billed itself as the Gathering of the Tribe, there was little that was tribal(in the real sense) among the hippies who were too loose to establish a lasting community. After all, tribal societies tend to be rather rigid and demanding, than trivial and libertine. Dancing in a primitive tribal setting serves a purpose. It could have spiritual significance or serve as a rite-of-passage. It’s not something youths do just for the hell of it. Even though the world of high society is far removed from primitivism, there is a link between the tribal village and high civilization in their observances of rites and rituals, in their insistence on cultural significance regarding certain acts. In METROPOLITAN, the young men and women aren’t just hanging out for fun but keeping with a tradition that has been handed down(and ideally should go on indefinitely). They aren’t merely of the whims of the moment but the bonds of history, which is perhaps why the betrayals of parents(though hardly seen) are especially painful as they failed in their duty to the graceful transition between generations.
For Stillman, dance-as-ritual is key to civilizational health. Without dance, society is stuffy and repressed, its vitality stifled. But then, dancing also poses a threat to civilizational order with its summoning of animal spirits and sensual delights. John the Baptist surely got nothing out of Salome’s dance. For this reason, Stillman prefers a kind of philosophy of dance, a compromise or even a compact between the exciting animal spirits and the sensible man-made rules.
The dance cultures of METROPOLITAN and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO are light years apart but have in common a sense of form and standards. The young men and women go about their lives in METROPOLITAN mostly oblivious to the cultural upheavals of the Sixties(rather like the mafia guys in GOODFELLAS), and the characters who frequent the club in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO act as though the Sixties never happened. The most memorable dance moment in METROPOLITAN is a casual cha-cha-cha, a much forgotten number. The characters are hopelessly but charmingly are out of time. In contrast, the boys and girls in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO are very much with-the-time(though to realize at the end that disco vanished as quickly as it appeared, and they are suddenly find themselves out-of-time), but what the older forms of dance and disco have in common is a sense of definition and criteria. No wonder SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER was about a dance contest. Can anyone imagine a hippie dance contest?
Though disco was no one’s idea of conservatism, it did come with a set of standards and hierarchy. It wasn’t just about dancing anyway you felt like but dancing well. And even though the disco look soon became the look, there were do’s and don’ts. You couldn’t be sloppy like the people at Woodstock. Not for nothing did Mike Royko write a column about confusing a hobo with a hippie.
Not that THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO has much in common with SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. (The John Travolta movie was the biggest thing associated with disco, but Josh is disdainful of it. If anything, the characters seem to cherish the exclusivity of their favorite haunt. While the club in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is open to anyone, even an ex-priest and fat girls who can’t dance, the very appeal of the club in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO it’s so damned hard to get in. Even the self-designated socialist can’t believe his good fortune.) Stillman seems to have a natural aversion to Deplorables and isn’t a true conservative but a conservatoid. For him, conservatism is less a matter of core values than style, look, and feel. It’s the kind of ‘conservatism’ that might argue ‘gay marriage’ is ‘conservative’ because some homosexuals dress well, maintain well-kept lawns, and salute the flag(while serving in the deep state). Just like Stillman would rather not think about the messy and slovenly Sixties, he almost never touches upon the white working class. Even though his films are mostly about well-heeled whites(mainly wasps), there is a nod to blacks(at least in music and as dancers); also, the honest working man is depicted by Negroes in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. Just about the only reference to the white working class is the image of rough looking types with ‘Disco Sucks’ T-shirts and TV footage of proto-deplorables who took part in Steve Dahl’s DISCO DEMOLITION, a precursor to the 1/6 ‘Insurrection’, or Deep State Demolition.
Stillman is about hierarchy, and he appreciates the world of style, manners, and knowledge. Even the socialist in METROPOLITAN may be egalitarian in thought but elitist in manners and erudition. As for blacks, Stillman regards them as the royalty of popular music. Of course, we’re not talking of gangster rap and the like, which Stillman most probably doesn’t care for. But there was a time when black music aspired to higher emotions than just wallowing in the morass of ‘muh dick’ and ‘muh booty’. Back then, they were the Duke of Earl(at least on stage) than Da Kang of Bling. Whiling away in a hospital(over what turns out to be a trifle), Charlotte Pingress(Kate Beckindale), the most amoral and conniving character(though rivaled by Des McGrath), begins to sing “Amazing Grace”, either exhibiting her softer side or her self-delusion(that she has any redemptive bone in her body); still, if she’s a phony, she’s a ‘real phony'(like Holly Golightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S) because she sincerely believes in all her self-justifying rationalizations. But on another level, the use of the song could be an allusion to the slave trade and the complex relationship between whites and blacks, though disco is too fun and happy for anyone to think about anything.
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is mostly apolitical — the only explicitly ideological character is the IQ-conscious socialist Dan Powers(aka Departmental Dan), an object of mild mockery — , and the characters could be Republicans, Democrats, Independents, or depends-on-the-issue types. What matters is status, prestige, and position, which back then were possessed or accessible through many more options, which is no longer the case. In our time, just about the only path to elite prestige/position is through the Democratic Party and globalist ‘values’. The GOP is still well-represented in government but only electorally through the votes of the white middle and working class(and even the poor). All other pathways to privilege and power require one to be a Democrat, a self-abasing RINO(who caves to Democrats at every turn), or a Neocon(who has the backing of super-rich Zionists who take care of their attack dogs). Even though Democratic domination of elite institutions has a long history, one could gain position and respectability as a conservative in the Cold War era. Many more views were acceptable and tolerated on a host of controversial issues. There were holdouts in academia and media for people with views that could get anyone ‘canceled’ in an instant today. One could even be an ‘Arabist’ and hold high position. There was a time when Pat Buchanan was one of the most widely read columnists in America. One could admire Robert E. Lee and hold critical views of nonwhites. And of course, the Cold War reserved a place for the American Right. Today, they tear down Robert E. Lee monuments, and even whites in the South just hunker down in shame or cowardice.
This sad state of affairs for the Republicans might be traced back to Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon who played hard for the white working class and southern white vote(even though neither man was a strong social conservative). While rank-and-file Republicans may be about core values, the elites of the movement always put status and social approval above all else. They figure, what’s the point of being conservative if one can’t enjoy the fruits of privilege and respect, which nowadays only come by the way of globo-homo and the like. If the problem with conservatism in the past was it couldn’t win over enough ordinary people, the problem today is it offers little to snobs and social-climbers. The biggest problem for the GOP is it’s toxic to the elitist-minded.
Country Club Republicans and the moderate wing were okay with someone like Dwight Eisenhower who didn’t take a particularly strong stand on anything. This way, the Republicans could gravitate toward whatever was fashionable among the movers and shakers. Increasingly, the white working class and southern whites were falling out of favor among the elites, but Nixon appealed to both hard in 1968 and 1972(though his policies ended up stabbing both in the back). Fast forward to the future, and the GOP is downright apologetic about its two electoral pillars being the white middle and southern whites. If American politics were genuinely democratic or populist, this wouldn’t matter, but the real power is held by the elites, and GOP’s appeal to them is hampered by its reliance on the two most disreputable groups in America: The Deplorables as lowlife losers and Southern Whites as ‘redneck-white-supremacist-racists’. Why does this matter? Because in winning over those groups, GOP became radioactive to the elites and wanna-be-elites whose values came to be directed toward homo-celebration and black-worship under increasing Jewish domination.
While the characters in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO could still conceivably be Republican, all such well-educated urban types today in New York and other big cities would certainly be Democratic. In the short run, the loss of the white working class to the GOP was a big blow to the Democrats, but it was also cut the party loose from deference to corrupt Labor Unions and economic nationalism. By adopting ‘free trade’ and deregulation, Democrats could be more acceptable to Big Capital that relished the moral high-ground held by the Democratic Party. And, end of the Cold War meant the Democrats could no longer be accused of being ‘soft on communism’, and the shift from Big Labor to Big Capital meant the Democrats no longer needed to pander to losers and could finally bank on the winners of society. And over time, immigration would diminish the electoral power of the white working class at any rate. And now, we are told the American middle class has less wealth than the top 1% that is solidly in the Democratic aisle.
Of course, even as GOP depends on Deplorable votes, it does little but pander to the super-rich even more than the Democrats do. Why do the successful lean heavily to the Democrats? It’s because the elites are nothing without conceit of superiority, not only economically and culturally but morally. And as the post-ideological America re-conceptualized morality and values in terms of special identities, mainly centered around Jewish, black, and homosexual, the elites and wanna-be-elites naturally go along. Of course, education played a key role in this, and there are plenty of people with no elite aspirations who nevertheless spout the same nonsense coming from the ivory tower. Still, the main reason why kids of elites study so hard has less to with love of truth and knowledge than want of success and acceptance, though they’re too self-deluded to realize this.
The reason why many white haute-conservatives went over to the Democratic Party is mostly about status. Take Christopher Buckley, son of William F. Why did he vote for Obama? And why did National Review magazine turn into National Disgrace? How come the new ‘conservatives’ are so eager to flash their pro-homo credentials? Some on the Right believe hierarchy = conservatism, but elitism can come in many flavors, especially if the elites don’t have to practice what they preach. Christianity had a long run among European nobility because they didn’t have to act very Christian. They only needed to signal their sanctimony once in awhile. And it’s usually enough just to show that you support BLM and globo-homo(and got many covid shots) without actually having to live in da hood or take it up the arse as a badge of honor in the Current Year. Whit Stillman, a conservative by sentiment than core conviction, is mostly about sniffing for the vestiges of conservatism(real or delusional) in a world where conservatism is all but dead.
The elitism in METROPOLITAN is plain to see(however doomed it may be), but it takes a special kind of mentality to maintain the facade of conservatism/hierarchy in the post-60s age. Then, it’s no surprise that the theorists of dance in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO and DAMSELS IN DISTRESS are borderline cuckoo. Most people into Disco never gave it much thought. Thinking about disco is like bringing a book to a rock concert. Disco just happened. And soon, even non-disco acts got into the act, with the Rolling Stones releasing SOME GIRLS and Rod Stewart singing about people wanting his body. And given its Afro-funkery and homo-narcissism, it was no one’s idea of conservatism or respectability. But for Josh Neff(called ‘loon’ by on/off friend Des), it’s more than the latest trend or fashion in music. “I love the idea that there’d be all these great places for people to go dancing after the terrible social wasteland of our college years… I still consider myself a loyal adherent to the disco movement.”
Now, ‘movement’ implies something radical, like the French Revolution, and there is a morally zealous and reformist side to Josh that evokes Robespierre. It could be his zeal to fight corruption is an extension of his own struggle with inner demons. However, in his need for form and order, there is a semblance of conservative sensibility as well. There are facets to Josh’s character that can lean radical or conservative. Depending on where his mood, he could be a hardline crusader or a defender of propriety.
If this is conservatism, it is of oddballs who don’t quite fit into the normal world but don’t want to surrender to anarchy either. Perhaps, a kind of paradox comes into play among certain natural weirdos. While some weirdos are happy in their weirdness, others are acutely aware that something about them is off and is in need of balance & stability. The character of Des takes his normality for granted, indeed so much so that he plays loose and gets reckless at times. Why not take chances when he can easily go back to being boringly normal again? In contrast, normality is something Josh has to constantly grasp for through mental discipline, medication, dedication to rules, and the philosophy of disco(perhaps as only he sees it)… but then, there are some who see ‘conservative’ messages in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, so he’s not alone. Thus, oddly enough, the ‘loon’ is the most righteous and ‘normal’ character in the film.
Some critics dumped on the film for being rather staid and square for a disco movie, but they missed the point. It’s not about disco but how members of a social class one wouldn’t naturally associate with disco nevertheless find their own existential meaning from it. Stillman is a sort of disconservative, or discon.
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, one of the funniest films I’ve seen, has a similar character, both funnier and more disturbing. If Josh is borderline ‘loon’, Violet(Greta Gerwig) is a functional nutter. Granted, the film is a comedy whereas THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is drama with comedic touches. Several roles in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS are caricatures than characters, and the situations are often set up for laughs. And yet, pathos also come into play. Violet, though pleasantly goofy and upbeat in her helpfulness, is really quite fragile and walks a mental tightrope, and we stop laughing when she spirals into depression and contemplates suicide.
One reason for her eagerness to help others is as a distraction from her own problems. And she’s obsessed with dance forms(as opposed to mere dancing) as a mediator between chaos and civilization. Dancing brings out the animal spirits, but dance-forms give them shape and erect fences around the barbarism inherent in music/dance. She’s like Nurse Ratched and Randall McMurphy(of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) rolled into one. If the vulgarized form of Foucaultism says to let loose your inner craziness, Stillmanism says to strive for normality and clarity through the mental fog even if it is an insurmountable Sisyphean feat. The nobility is in the struggle than in the surrender.
There is nothing to suggest POLITICAL conservatism in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, but as in THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, there is a conservatoid yearning for form and meaning rooted in tradition. While Violet’s fixations may not be a red-blooded right-wing patriot’s idea of conservatism, it is distinct from the liberal tendency of letting go and abandoning oneself to the ‘liberation’ of senses. Even as she’s drawn to the sensuality and excitement of dance, she needs the security of rules and standards. She’s open to change, the evolution of dance, but feels most at home with dance forms requiring technique and training. (The flamenco-inflected dances in BARCELONA are also big on proper form and technique. Sensuality contained in tradition.)
I haven’t paid much attention to dance trends over the years, and I’m sure one can find plenty of young ones doing impressive things in countless music videos, but dances that come to my mind over the years are the retarded punk dance(where people just pile onto each other like the demolition derby), 80s club dancing(without any distinct form), bumping-and-grinding(especially with the rise of hip hop), heavy metal hair-shaking & beer-burping, and of course, ‘twerking’ of late where women, especially black ho’s with big booties(though some homo men seem to get into it too) pump their asses up and down like they’re having sex. Stillman is obviously too much of a gentleman(or craven coward) to touch to on the black problem — he’d rather swoon about early 60s black songs and philosophize about the disco era — and falls back on associating barbarism with Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition crowd or the beer-can frat boys who don’t bathe enough(at least with the proper soap) and wage inter-frat war on those aspiring toward better taste. Still, given what has happened to the culture of dance — mostly skankass ho’s ‘twerking’ their asses or simulating sexual motions than being seductive — , Stillman’s philosophy of dance may seem quaint, but it is also like an oasis, the last refuge of some semblance of sentiment, manners, and form in a world gone totally sheboonic.
“Disco will never be over. It will always live in our minds and hearts. Something like this, that was this big, and this important, and this great, will never die. Oh, for a few years – maybe many years – it’ll be considered passé and ridiculous. It will be misrepresented and caricatured and sneered at, or – worse – completely ignored. People will laugh about John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John, white polyester suits and platform shoes…” – Josh