Name a movie director who has written the novelization for one of his films. I can think of only one. His name is Whit Stillman and the film in question is 1998′s immortal (and now Criterion-ified) The Last Days of Disco. Stillman’s novel, the sympathetically titled The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards is a serious work in its own right, written from the perspective of one of the film’s principal characters, Jimmy “The Dancing Adman” Steinway. When the book sadly went out of print a few years ago, my copy instantly became one of my most prized possessions. Critics have often praised Stillman’s inimitable dialogue, but it’s more than inimitable (or just witty), it’s incredible. Profound, sweet, full of contradictions and endearing repetitions, literate but thoroughly self-effacing, and yes, very funny, I personally can’t get enough. The novel, of course, does much more than simply reprint the script. Whit reveals himself to be nearly as gifted with descriptive turns of phrase (and inner monologues) as he is with dialogue. Familiar scenes take on extra dimension (and weight) in print, even the punctuation brings some added life. The following two passages, some of the most well known in the film, are probably not the best illustrations of what I’m talking about re: the novelization, but they are certainly highpoints of Stillman’s approach and evidence of his overall genius. The Mockingbird points of connection should be fairly obvious:
“There is something depressing about [the Disney movie The Lady and The Tramp],” Josh answered, defending Alice’s comment from the other side of the booth, “and it’s not really about dogs; except for some superficial bow-wow stuff at the start, the dogs all represent human types–which is where it gets into real trouble. Lady, the ostensible protagonist, is a fluffy blond cocker spaniel with absolutely nothing on her brain. She’s great-looking but–let’s be honest–incredibly insipid.” [...]
“Tramp, the love interest,” he continued, “is a smarmy braggart of the most obnoxious kind–an oily jailbird out for a piece of tail, or whatever he can get–”
“Oh come on,” Charlotte said.
“No. He’s a self-confessed chicken thief and all-around sleezeball. [...] What’s the function of a film of this kind? Essentially it’s a primer on love and marriage directed at very young people–imprinting on their little psyches the idea that smooth-talking delinquents recently escaped from the local pound are a good match for nice girls from sheltered homes. When in ten years the icky human version of Tramp shows up around the house, their hormones will be racing and no one’ll understand why–films like this program women to adore jerks–”
“Gahd, you’re nuts,” Des interrupted.
Josh glanced at him, clearly vexed; his voice was growing a little strained. “The only sympathetic character, the little Scottie who’s so concerned about Lady, is mocked as old-fashioned and irrelevant and shunted off to the side.” [...]
“Isn’t the whole point that Tramp changes?” Des argued. “Okay, maybe in the past he stole chickens, ran around without a license, and was not always sincere with members of the opposite sex. But through his love for Lady–and the beneficent influence of fatherhood and matrimony–he changes and becomes a valued member of that, you know, rather idyllic… household,” he concluded, rather moved.
“I don’t think people really change that way,” Josh said: “We can change our context, but we can’t change ourselves.” (pg. 229-230)
“Do you know the Shakespearean admonition ‘To thine own self be true’?” [Des] asked.
I nodded, of course.
“It’s premised,” he said, “on the idea that ‘thine own self’ is something pretty good, ‘being true’ to which is ‘commendable.’ What if ‘thine own self’ is not so good? What if it’s ‘pretty bad’? Wouldn’t it be better not to be true to thine own self in that case? You see, that’s my situation.” (pg. 299)
The last two chapters of the book go beyond the events of the film and contain some of its most vivid prose. One passage in particular has always struck me as an expert description/depiction of an all-too-common experience of a person’s Christianity failing to touch down when it’s needed most. That is, grace and mercy are all well and good in theory, and certainly commendable when it comes to how other people should treat us, but when the rubber hits the road in my life, well, that’s another story:
After [being caught in adulterous affair with one of his wife's employees, Alice's] Uncle Jack had not behaved in the worst way possible. Under the circumstances, he tried to say and do all the right things, and seemed to mean them. He had the advantage of not having a particularly high moral self-regard in the first place, so he was not subject to the usual irresistible compulsion to justify himself by inventing bitter, retrospective reproaches against Aunt Janet… Never having prided himself on “face” anyway, Uncle Jack did not feel honor-bound to being the matrimonial demolition and reconstruction work of the usual “face-saving maneuver.” Instead he turned to Aunt Janet with a face that was warm, loving, contrite, abject, sincere, and even poetical.
But she couldn’t buy it. The moment she had come upon them, she had started down a sort of tunnel of depression and despair that… would not permit the absorption of any ameliorating fact or information. A whole lifetime of Christian education — regarding forgiveness, redemption, Christ’s loving treatment of Mary Magdalene, casting the first stone, or rather the imperative not to cast it — either meant nothing or just seemed beside the point. She could not enter in it intellectually or emotionally.
Finally, as a tribute to our very own DJ JAZ, here’s the classic speech from the end of the movie:
p.s. Whit’s long awaited new film, Damsels in Distress, opens in New York and LA on April 6th, 2012.