…one can change human institutions, but not man; whatever the general effort of a society to render citizens equal and alike, the particular pride of individuals will always seek to escape the [common] level…In aristocracies, men are separated from one another by high, immovable barriers, in democracies, they are divided by a multitude of small, almost invisible threads that are broken every minute and are constantly changed from place to place. Thus, whatever the progress of equality…a great number of small private associations in the midst of the great political society will always be formed…
Tocqueville, Democracy in America (II, 3.14, #s9-11)
The Club that is the primary setting of Whit Stillman’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO is a democratic place, and, an aristocratic place. Alice, Charlotte, and Josh all love the Club, but they are both exhilarated and repulsed by the fact that getting in has become a kind of trial. It is, of course, governed by democratic laws (including federal Civil Rights laws), just as are the private clubs like those remaining in Philadelphia, Augusta, etc., or those set up by college students—sororities, fraternities, or the sort of club in the SOCIAL NETWORK which provokes such envious emotions in Mark Zuckerberg. It is more democratic than these, however, in that it has no pre-set membership. While there seems to be an understood (yet ever-shifting) group of regulars, it is open to the public. Getting in is in no way connected to what we used to call Society. The example and presence of (“Protestant Establishment“) Society, felt so vividly in America right up into the 1960s, and whose own “last days” are portrayed by Stillman’s METROPOLITAN, is by the late 70s no longer there to shape the way democratic people form the “small private associations” they inevitably do. The Club is a new sort of association.
The film’s dialogue indicates there was a time when there was no problem getting in—one simply had to be hip to the new sound and show up. But with disco’s popularity, i.e., with success at really achieving what I described last time as a rebirth of social-dancing culture, the Club is forced to pick and choose. (It could have adopted a “first in the door” policy, but that would have penalized late-nighters and club-hoppers, often the most desirable patrons.) The popularity of the Club itself is partly a function of its exclusiveness, but a carefully crafted excellence and the reputation it establishes, is the bedrock factor. Is this excellence so hard to imitate that, once disco-going became popular, enough similar clubs could not set up shop to supply the demand? So a crude economist might reason. But people want to go to a club known for being among the best; and, they know that only in one of those might they mingle with the best dancers, the scene-setters, a few movers and shakers like Audrey Rouget, and perhaps some celebrities, too.
There is a particularly funny moment where we see that Dan, the socialist who had previously been contemptuous of disco and mocked the Club as elitist, is boyishly thrilled upon getting in and seeing the scene. Even Alice and Charlotte have mixed feelings about the aristocratic admittance policy. They knew and loved the Club in its early days, but we see in the very first scene that, relieved to have been admitted in its new era of a highly selective door-policy, they resolve to never go again for fear of not getting in. Given the romantic and friendship connections we see them make, they change their calculation, but that initial reaction is a telling one.
The film thus makes us face a basic tension of democratic life: however fraternal and egalitarian our values are, at some level we all want to be part of the inside crowd, to be judged in some way superior. Our conflicted feelings about this especially come to the fore when we are made to overtly experience such judgment.
The doormen decide according to how interesting, hip, and attractive you look. Excluding certain people sets the party’s tone. At one level, this just recognizes that sometimes all it takes is one person to ruin the overall mood on the dance floor–the doorman in one scene describes his duties as being on “jerk patrol.” But finer calculations can be made, as the social mix that makes things hip, flowing, exciting, classy, and friendly really is a delicate one. Like the music mix, it is also a matter of artistry. The club’s owner is angered by Jimmy Steinway’s sneaking in advertising executives because he “doesn’t want that element in the club.” The Club will not only seek to exclude jerks, but those too out-of-tune, mercenary, or conventional to belong.
So, those who dress too grungy or too “everyday people,” in the late-60s/early-70s manner: not admitted. We’re trying to be chic here! Those who look like they might be boring, or who just don’t look that attractive: not admitted. Jimmy Steinway’s boss, who is repeatedly said to be a real nice guy, but one with bad fashion sense: not admitted. “Yuppies,” so-called? I.e., Stillman’s post-collegiate crowd? Opinions are divided here. It might depend on how obviously “preppy,” as opposed to “cool,” they come across.
It’s harsh. Humiliating. Some very nice persons, and inevitably, even some actually very hip or otherwise interesting ones, get shut out.
To pick at one aspect of this, we might ask whether fashion should matter so much. When Irving Howe, the good democratic socialist critic of Dissent fame, was attacking in 1966 the whole idea of Counter-Cultural style—I guess Beatle boots, beads, long hair, turtlenecks, denims, etc.–, he said that it rested upon the “…basic assumption…of the middle class: that values can be inferred from, or are resident in, the externals of dress, appearance, furnishings, and hair-dos.”
One can see how an emphasis on such would be wrong for a socialist movement, yes, but what about the mere reality of the phenomenon? The notion that non-material values are “resident” in clothes is obviously foolish, but is it not the case that, many times, ideas and virtues really can be “inferred” from these externals of fashion? Sister Sledge wonders why he’s the greatest dancer, and given what the great Albert Murray says in Stompin’ the Blues about the likes of Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, they are right to so wonder—dancing ability often is a sign of musical intelligence, and is often linked with good fashion sense, even if the latter is a more surface sort of excellence, in that it obviously requires the money and leisure to purchase the clothes, or as Aristotle might say, the “equipment.”
Moreover, in the context of the late 70s disco movement, the dance steps and clothes of Sister Sledge’s man all indicate his intelligent atunement to it. To the extent you sympathize with that movement, he’s all the more interesting and attractive, just as the man wearing a peace symbol is to the woman with pacifist sympathies. Clothes can say as much as, and even more than, a symbol; although of course either can become worn by those with little understanding of what they say, other than “fashionable.” Disco as a movement insisted upon accepting all of this as a fact of life, and further, was ready to revel in the play, especially sexual, with the surface illusions and suggestions that it also makes possible. But contrary to Howe’s indignant suggestion, the language of fashion really is a fact of life (as is—ahem–the fact that moth and rust destroy) and its reality highlights a fundamental characteristic of our way of life: no matter how democratic we get or try to makes things, certain aspects of the aristocratic always return. Deny them however we might, very strong aristocratic tendencies remain at work in us, and they tend to get intertwined with our love of the musical. With our “pop scenes” and attendant fashions.
We saw this with Rock. ALMOST FAMOUS showed us that the rock scene is characterized by an intense desire, often wildly erotic, to bask in the fame, mythology, and what I’ve called the democratic heroism of the rock stars.
If we compare and contrast the aristocratic character of rock with that of disco, by using the two films in question, we see that disco’s aristocracy is more natural, whereas rock’s is more heroic. How do you get into the Club? You look hip to the music and its scene, and you only get in repeatedly by being so. How do you get Backstage? (I.e., into the rock “circus”) We see only three ways: you are a musician-star, you sleep with musician-stars, or you write about musician-stars. As with the audiences’ focus at a rock show, everything is zeroed in on the star. And, shades of Kojève, the stars’ stardom seems closely related to the willingness of others to abase themselves before it.
I suggested in my ALMOST FAMOUS essays that the whole punk, alternative, and indie stance did not fundamentally change this heroic character of rock’s aristocratic drive. The measure of stardom shifts from who can mount the biggest tour and such, to the endlessly arguable notions of who is most on the cutting edge, or has the most “indie integrity.” All this does is democratize an already problematic pattern. All eyes are still upon the theatrics, the stage, the mythology—WHAT will The Sex Pistols, or Ian Curtis, or Nick Cave, or Sonic Youth, or Nirvanna, or Garbage, or Mike and Meg, or whoever…DO? Will they smash a guitar? Leap into the mosh pit? Introduce the ideas of Dada to pop music? Drink milk out of a shoe? Expose themselves? Introduce the ideas of deconstructionism to pop music? Slash themselves? “Break the rules of logic, space, and time?” with their pop music? Who will be the heroes of Rock this season that only we will know about before everyone else?
That is, when we tried to democratize the heroic charge of a Dylan, Morrison, Townsend, Bowie, and Iggy, by asking all the rock-tuned “sonic youth” to D.I.Y.–i.e. to Do whatever It is we think the stars did Yourself–what we mostly wound up with is, to twist Charlotte’s words a bit, a set of people far more “conceited and full of themselves” than even the “Woodstock Generation” could hope to be.
Tocqueville is certainly for grand honorable ambitions. But like myself and Stillman, he would have serious reservations about the type of grand ambition on offer in THE DOORS or ALMOST FAMOUS. Does anyone know what Tocqueville thought, for example, of Hector Berlioz, the rather heroically-attuned French composer of his time? Or of great composers and musicians in general? We know that he judged Byron’s poetry as the sort of artistry democratic peoples would increasingly approve of. We certainly have every reason to suspect he had a low regard for the set of third-tier artistic and literary talents that had emerged in 1830s-1850s Paris, the prototype “bohemians” portrayed in Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education and especially the Murger stories that later became adapted into the Puccini opera La Bohème, the set most like our indie-alternative rockers.
The Club would prefer to build a broader and more gradated aristocracy, and one built upon the readily understandable excellences of dancing ability, attractiveness, fashion sense, conversational manner, etc. It is more in tune with the economic and social realities of the city, such as the need for interactions across generational lines.
Is the cost of this broader disco aristocracy, then, a discouragement of our desire to foster and celebrate the truly heroic? Well, surely many at the Club, such as the literary editor Audrey Rouget, appreciate the claims that superior artistic ability, even those of genius, really do put upon the rest of us, but they reject the heroic/monarchic Rock instinct to divinize such genius, either that of the Star, or of the Avant-Garde Pioneer. The Club would love to have James Brown and his band pay it a visit, if they could arrange an impromptu set, or perhaps even David Bowie, if he would stick to his danceable songs and keep the set short, but its patrons would not fawn over either of them the way a pack of groupies or rock journalists would.
I understand that I am idealizing the Club even more than Stillman did. Idealized archetypes are useful for thought. And despite what some commenters have suggested, I am aware of the shortcomings of the 70s disco scene, and of the many ways it was generally not as admirable as Stillman paints it. Moreover, I worry with the best of ‘em about the larger pattern of disco music it initiated. I do think Stillman is aware of most of these downsides, but in any case, his film convinced me that there was more to that scene than we might think, namely, that at its best, it sought and to some extent achieved a more natural form of aristocracy-within-democracy than rock ever has.
That was not exactly intentional, but had everything to do with (white) disco fans simply permitting themselves to re-embrace the original raison d’etre of the whole Afro-American pop music phenomenon: good-time dancing. Indeed, dance can be regarded as the key to interpreting Stillman’s entire body of work, as I shall argue next.