Sunday, August 30, 2009

Decadence in the early '80s--notes on The Informers and The Last Days of Disco

I didn't realize that the two DVDs I set aside to watch this weekend would make for such a matching pair--both The Informers (2009) and The Last Days of Disco (1988) attempt to encapsulate the youth culture of the early 1980s, but their point of view and their approaches are radically different, and the contrast between the two is thought-provoking. Some notes:

1) Oddly, given that it came out this year, Bret Easton Ellis' The Informers has aged more, in part because the 1995 book that inspired the movie was comprised of brief sketches that Ellis wrote on the side when he was composing Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987). With Less Than Zero, Ellis established himself as the successful chronicler of decadently nihilistic LA youth culture, a world where boredom, Wayfarer sunglasses, and early music videos formed a kind of rock star glamour for jaded and yet handsome-and-rich-enough-to-envy disaffected teens.

Later, Ellis switched his locus to New York and ironically mixed the "greed is good" yuppie ethos of the early '90s with serial killing in American Psycho (1991). Yet the problem with all of Ellis' depictions of youthful narcissism and Play It As It Lays-Joan Didion-esque "deep" posturing (with everyone endlessly lighting cigarettes and gazing with apathy off into the distance) lies in his difficulty in making anyone care about these characters who certainly do not care about each other. Moreover, this aesthetic based on youth does not age well. Ellis' recent novel Lunar Park (2005) was an embarrassing metafictional rip-off of Stephen King, and one can only wonder about his upcoming sequel to Less Than Zero to be released soon.

2) So, while I enjoyed the re-creation of Ellis' world in The Informers, the weaknesses in the writing accumulate as the film goes on. While many writers of short fiction build their stories to some realization or epiphany that adds depth to the characterization, the vignettes of The Informers do not. Instead, what you see is largely what you get--a man kidnapping a child for profit, a very jaded rock star who beats his groupies, the spoiled disaffected children of a studio mogul who fools around on his pill-popping wife--and so on. The fundamental emptiness of these people may be Ellis' existential point, but beyond the glamor and the bored posturing in their underwear, the characters have little room to grow or change. Late in the movie, one coked up young fellow named Graham (Jon Foster) wonders why no one has bothered to explain right and wrong to him, but Ellis is having too much fun shocking his middle-American prudish audience with all of this decadence to adequately to convey things like morality and consequences. When that happens, such as when one fellow gets hit by a car, or another contracts AIDS, the film is both too heavy-handed in its sense of fate, and the characters too apathetic and rich for the viewer to get involved. The Informers suffers from the same problem that Robert Altman's Short Cuts did (which was also cobbled together from several stories): in the attempt to bring all of these mini-narratives together, both films sell out on their original premises.

3) In a side note, I disliked director Gregor Jordan's treatment of Winona Ryder. As a newscasting neurotic love interest for Billy Bob Thornton's philandering film mogul, she deserves far better (I also found it awkward to see her in such a small role). Also, Chris Isaak seems poorly cast as a fraudulent lush dad on a trip to Hawaii. Many of the "name" actors in The Informers appear stranded in underwritten parts. One can understand why Mickey Rourke treats the movie as a warm-up exercise for The Wrestler.

4) In contrast, and with the new Criterion DVD release, The Last Days of Disco (1998) returns with the alienated majesty of a film we did not properly appreciate the first time around. As the third in Whit Stillman's trilogy that began with the excellent Metropolitan (1990), and the more forgettable Barcelona (1994), Disco now looks way better to me than it did in the theater 11 years ago. Disco includes Chloe Sevigny in perhaps her best film, and Kate Beckinsale holding her own as a bitchy American (quite a contrast to her campier work in the Underworld series). Many of the guys can also be found in Stillman's earlier films, especially Chris Eigeman whose character Des helps run a Studio 54-like disco. As far as I can tell, Stillman was in love with Eigeman, since he dominates the entire trilogy. Even when (spoiler alert) Des threatens to leave the country late in the film, Stillman brings him right back for the last scene. Whereas Ellis rains down judgment on his characters, Stillman has too much affection for his to allow much to happen to them even when they catch a venereal disease or break the law.

5) But the chief thing I admired about The Last Days of Disco is the cultivated, urbane, witty dialogue and the subtle Woody Allen-in-his-prime sense of moviemaking craft on display in the story-structure, the acting, the costuming, and the period mise-en-scene. Stillman cheats a bit with the disco music. He plays it at such a low volume that one can hear every bit of the conversation, whereas in real life, the characters would have had to yell at one another incoherently over the disco beat. Regardless, The Last Days of Disco views like the last sophisticated film depicting that time period, a cultural rarity by today's standards, and therefore a delight. Even as he chronicles the end of an era many people might want to forget, Stillman conveys more hope for America's decadent youth than The Informers would care to acknowledge.