This film was released just as I was starting to properly get into film so I imagine I may have turned my nose up at it. Apparently I did see it on a visit to London in 1998, the day before watching Velvet Goldmine, the memory of which has stuck with me far more vividly (perhaps because it embodies the qualities that this film seems designed to erase, but more on that later). I imagine at the time it just seemed a bit odd and stilted but with the benefit of hindsight, I think it’s lovely.
Of course, it has a specific point of view: that of a straight white man with an acerbic New York aloofness surveying the landscape of his youth and you could say it suffers for that, but I prefer to think of it as a self-critique. It’s a film set during the disco era, absolutely packed from start to finish with classic tunes, but it’s a film about the gentrification of a scene, of that slightly hollow sadness when looking around at what was once about parties and drugs and, most importantly, its acceptance of, if not predication on, queerness and diversity (the things that made so many people unironically want to express their hatred for disco music at the time).
It’s not called The Last Days of Disco for no reason: the club here is half populated by bankers in suits with the kind of floppy hair that says 90s to me more than 80s but perhaps that’s apt. There’s nothing transgressive, though even among the dad-dancing on the disco floor there is still a bit of joy, and it’s largely within the relationship between its two leads played by Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, the latter of whom has some of the films best lines, shady comments delivered almost as asides to Sevigny. It’s a curious balance this movie achieves between fun, snarky and eminently quotable bitchiness and the hollow empty nostalgia of 20-something aimlessness.
- Four deleted scenes are shown, in unfinished rough cuts, for those that want more of these characters hanging out in their slightly depressing railroad apartment.
- A behind-the-scenes featurette is very much in the mould of five-minute bonus features made by studios that have a sort of blandness to them (the blandness of advertising, which is apt given the broadsides at one such character in the film itself) but you do get to hear a few little soundbites from the actors at the time.
- The stills gallery includes plenty of contextualisation of what we see, making it something of a production diary or a reflection on the film by its director.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Mackenzie Astin, Robert Sean Leonard; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at a cinema, London, Saturday 28 November 1998 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 2 December 2021).
There was a story recently in the New York Times that sparked off a lot of online discourse about the Criterion Collection, specifically about its blind spot for African-American filmmakers, and the next morning I found myself watching Noah Baumbach’s debut film, which seems to exemplify something of the collection’s fixation on white American filmmakers. To stick with the discourse for just a moment, I think the sensible response is not to valorise the Criterion Collection as the ultimate arbiter of tastemaking, but for whatever reason it has de facto become that — and as someone who is literally invested in the collection (as my watching of their films has also been accompanied by acquisition of the physical media), I can only hope that they do diversify their titles, while acknowledging that other labels have much better records on historically interesting releases by Black filmmakers (Milestone and Kino Lorber being two examples of distributors some of whose titles I own). Just looking at 90s indie films, there have been plenty of titles by Black directors that are easily the equal of this one, for example Love Jones, or indeed much of the output of that film’s stars during the decade (several of them were in Dead Presidents, which even had a Criterion laserdisc release, I believe).
I was younger than the characters are when I first saw Kicking and Screaming, and revisiting it again now in the light of everything I’ve seen since, 25 years after its first release, it has become aggravating to me. The actors are all fine; instead the weakness seems to be the script, which attempts a sort of witty insouciance that it just doesn’t perhaps have the experience to achieve (Baumbach would go on to make films which I’ve liked very much, so it’s not that I don’t like his work). The presence of Chris Eigeman only underlines this, given his role in Metropolitan five years earlier (and not very far back in the Criterion Collection), which did this stuff a lot better and with more genuine wit and humour. Of course, perhaps part of the problem is that “this stuff” as I’m calling it is the spiritual succession to Woody Allen and his neurotic stories of WASPy New York types — but that’s not even a genre that is necessarily bad, just quite well covered already. Certainly these mopey graduates trying to make their way in the world feels as limited as their social spheres. I do remember much of my post-film discussion in 1996 or so was about the flashback structure (because all these filmmaking tricks were still new to me then), and Olivia d’Abo’s character Jane is probably the most interesting of everyone, so it’s a pity she gets short shrift to the tedious Grover (Josh Hamilton). Let’s just say there were a lot of things that Baumbach would go on to refine in subsequent decades, but this still very much feels like juvenilia.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Noah Baumbach; Writers Baumbach and Oliver Berkman; Cinematographer Steven Bernstein; Starring Josh Hamilton, Chris Eigeman, Olivia d’Abo, Parker Posey, Eric Stoltz; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Paramount, Wellington, early-1996 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Friday 21 August 2020).
This film feels like the New Wave if that movement were about spawning the Noah Baumbachs and Wes Andersons who would come to define the genre of ‘brittle New York-set comedies of manners skewering the affectations of the urban haute bourgeoisie’ (well, that’s what they call themselves in Metropolitan, “uhbs” for short). Then again, I suppose this kind of confected class paradigm has always been part of the NYC milieu, but Whit Stillman is particularly good at capturing the absurdity without also making me hate the characters — although I did certainly dislike most of them. That self-important sense of a man who lectures a more educated woman about Jane Austen before at length revealing grandiosely that he doesn’t like to read novels, only literary criticism; or the exceedingly designer-clad woman who declares to all that she despises snobbery; or the earnest invocation of French socialists at a tuxedo-clad debutants party. Part of the film’s affectation is to present these quaint society throwbacks of the Upper East Side (apologies if I’m getting the geography a bit wrong, as I’m not from NYC) in a slightly arch framework, with the title cards and graphics all suggesting a world-preserved-in-aspic quality, a sort of faux Gilded Era of society wits with a youthful sense of their own mortality and impending worthlessness (only briefly punctured when they meet an older version of themselves who doesn’t quite align with their self-mythologising). The key is, though, it’s well-written, which carries the film’s at times amateurish feeling — though I do genuinely mean that in a generous way, in the sense of someone who really loves what they’re depicting but perhaps hasn’t quite yet acquired the polished skill that Whitman would come to possess.
- There are a couple of short clips presenting multiple takes of alternative casting, including the actor who plays the hated Rick as the central character Nick, and Troma director Lloyd Kaufman as a music producer.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 18 June 2020.