Watching The Last Days of Disco on Hulu earlier, my second time after a decade had passed*, I very much enjoyed, and was most surprised by, the sense of timing. Time, and timing, are too rarely brought up by cinephiles and critics. Whether in evaluative or descriptive terms, the dimension of temporality seems to be a rarefied artifact of cinema (despite the fact that all cinema must exist in time): we can speak of the timing of a comic gag, or narrative/dramatic pacing in the style of Syd Field (that's for PWC). Certain long-take masters like Tarkovsky may invite us to think of the image in temporal terms. And people are hardpressed to discuss His Girl Friday and certain other films without at least acknowledging the fast pace of action and diction. Still, specific instances of what happens "in" a cut, of how a series of images flows, sometimes beg for unpacking, for savoring, on the level of time every bit as much as of space.
About an hour and a half into The Last Days of Disco, Alice (Chloe Sevigny) is on a coffee date with Des (Chris Eigeman). They are discussing their mutual friend, and Des' potential romantic rival, Josh (Matt Keeslar). Stillman is a connoisseur of facial tics and body language, both in screenplay but also in images: as Des nonchalantly trashes his lunatic buddy's good name, a fair amount of the image focuses on Sevigny's face, catching her reactions (which are subtle, constrained). Des tries to snort coffee after he has just questioned Josh's mental stability; cut to a cup of coffee, and there's another meeting, this one between Alice and Josh. The time between cuts is uncertain, but also unimportant. What I mean is that the specificity of this particular cut may not be so important. The gestalt is masterfully clarified by moment-to-moment obscurities. Stillman arranges a dramatically clean ensemble storyline, but unlike, say, Neil Labute in the contemporaneous In the Company of Men, the quotidian lunches, dinners, nights out, etc., are not subordinated to rather grim schematics. Stillman gets his yuppies to breathe, to pulse, to contradict themselves.
(Muriel Spark's narrator Fleur Talbot, in Loitering with Intent: "Contradictions in human character are one of its most consistent notes ...")
Stillman is utterly merciless towards his characters, giving no quarter when it comes to showing their flaws and shortcomings. Their "life," though (and Stillman's "generosity") comes in how he stitches together this group portrait. Part of this has to do with his deft handling of time:
in terms of the characters' sketchily but sophisticatedly evoked relationship to their pasts (days at Harvard, Hampshire, Sag Harbor; frequently connected, in these yuppies' cases, with parochial privilege),
in terms of their cramped, barren, predictable quotidian time (office work, nights lived for the weekends) reflected by their living spaces and offices,
in terms of their their slower, only aspirationally linear experience through post-college professional life (a title card like 'spring'), announcing progress made, visible, but never felt in the making,
in terms of cuts that leave us stranded from moment to moment before an image, periodically unsure of whether we have been pushed forward to the next shot in a scene, a new scene, a montage sequence. I think Roger Ebert promoted the advice, or something like it, that in a good film you can tell how much time has taken place between shots. I don't think this is true at all. Stillman is an example of a director, here at least, who uses these mild and continuous indeterminacies to make palpable the progression of time.
Like Linklater or Hartley, Stillman invests his speakers with a distinctive cast of speaking. Like a great deal of independent film of this generation, there is dialogue devoted to the analysis of pop culture, dropped titles and names as cultural capital, a sort of generational/class code drawn upon like a fund, at times: to lubricate conversation, to cement or clarify a relation (Wild Kingdom), or alternately to sow discord (The Lady and the Tramp). Stillman (in contrast to, say, Tarantino, whose method is very different) makes explicit the social fabric in which this kind of analytical savvy is embedded. But where Tarantino imagines savvy people in pulp roles, the interplay of fiction/fantasy/genre and particular codes of realism, in Stillman (at least Last Days of Disco) it is the experience of this pop culture that is important, and important to depict, not the mixing of codes of reality and unreality. That's why the jokingly climactic "disco will never die" speech is ironic for its speaker as well as for us, and simultaneously touching.
In summary, a very impressive film, and one that I remember liking but surely didn't understand at all when I saw it ten years ago.
* This is the only Whit Stillman film I've seen, I must admit, though that will be remedied soon enough.