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Whit Stillman

     Whit Stillman, who takes reviews of his films extremely seriously, has an admittedly myopic and manichean view of the worth of critics. Those who liked his last movie are splendidly talented, those who wrote negatively can roast in hell. I said his last movie, and that's what's a bit eccentric and funny about Stillman's position: reviews of his earlier works, pro and con, are forgotten and irrelevant.

     Well, I liked Metropolitan (1990) fine, but I gave a pretty thumbs-down notice to Barcelona (1994) and, when we've talked, Stillman has politely suggested that I missed the point, that maybe I need to see that one again. But the important thing is that I'm a true-blue booster for The Last Days of Disco (1998), Stillman's most recent feature, so we've grown chummy at various festivals. And our friendship is sealed, because Stillman knows how much I genuinely love the novel he has just published through Farrar, Straus: The Last Days of Disco-With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, transferring to the page his delightful movie.

     Actually, it's a "faux" novelization. The conceit of the book is that Jimmy Steinway, the young-and-failed ad-man from the picture, has been hired by Castle Rock Entertainment to write a novelization of the film story in which he appeared. He's the appropriate character to be offered the writing assignment because he was at the epicenter of the film's several stories and crucial moments: trying to sneak business clients into the disco, and being backstage there as witness for the drugs and money laundering; falling head-over-heels for lovely Alice (Chloe Sevigny), but becoming involved with bitchy Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale).

     So Jimmy tells the Last Days of Disco story again, reiterating in print the movie's plot and dialogue the way a faithful-to-the-source "novelizationist" is supposed to, but filling in cracks in some scenes, expanding many others with rich, nuggety writing and philosophic rumination, supplying a telling forward and also a smashing, moving epilogue, which brings the early 80s Disco ensemble to the end of the 90s. Jimmy's got the story down; but credit the true-life creator of the novel of The Last Days, Stillman, whose beguiling book not only evokes J.D.Salinger but feels at times - the prose is that refined! - like a discovered F. Scott FitzGerald manuscript has landed miraculously in your lap.

     "The humor is like the 1920s, The New Yorker when it was funny," Stillman explained of his book, when I brought him recently to speak at Boston University. He was thinking of such forgotten writers as Wolcott Gibbs, "though I've gotten a rap as a wannabe Fitzgerald, trying to do Fitzgerald in the '80s with some jokes.

     "Jimmy stepped forward pretty early as to who would be the narrator. Some people think he disappears a bit in the movie, but those who read my screenplay felt he was 'the glue.' He's an unreliable narrator, but not that unreliable. Actually my model was a classic 1930s Boston novel, John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley, which purports to being a privately printed memoir by Apley's somewhat dimwitted and terribly proper best friend. Like this friend, Jimmy is a somewhat awkward first-time writer. At a certain point, I cheated a bit and made Jimmy's prose less awkward than it should have been.

     "I've never read a real novelization. If I've already seen the movie, why would the novelization add anything, if it's by a hired writer doing a paste-up job? My challenge was to make my book an actual novel that pretends to be a novelization. Practically every word spoken in the movie is in the book, but sometimes in different places. Jimmy covers the movie's scenes, but he also takes it his way. Hopefully, there's so much, much more."

     P.S. What's Stillman doing lately, besides penning his brilliant novel? He's been commuting between Paris - a wife and two daughters - and a New York office where, among journalist dabblings, he's had fun providing gossip for The New York Post's famous Page Six. His long-planned screen bio of the American Revolution's Francis Marion, "the Swamp Fox," fell through, pre-empted by The Patriot. Potential film projects include an adaptation of Red Azalea, Anchee Min's chilling saga of China's Cultural Revolution.

(December, 2000)


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