Saturday, October 30, 2010

This Blog Has Moved

The "Worthy of Note" blog has moved!  We are now located at; please check that site for all new posts.

The name change is a function of a much broader change. This blog is being re-purposed from a blog for an individual, to a forum for a group, and I felt that it should have a site URL to reflect that.  The next major project for this blog will be a multi-week series of reviews of all of the Disney princess films, in advance of the Nov. 24th release of "Tangled."  Look for these reviews to begin on Monday, November 15th.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hergé: Red Rackham’s Treasure

“Red Rackham’s Treasure” is the immediate sequel to “Secret of the Unicorn," and though it cannot compare in literary genius or narrative impact, it is a worthy successor. So many years earlier, a ship belonging to naval legend Sir Francis Haddock was raided and taken by the notorious pirate Red Rackham. During the action, however, the pirate’s ship sunk, so Rackham made the “Unicorn” his new flagship. When Sir Francis escaped and blew up the “Unicorn,” the pirate’s horde of treasure sank with it. Now, many years later, intrepid journalist Tintin and Sir Francis’ descendant Captain Haddock work to recover the treasure and make their fortune.

The book is particularly notable for introducing the greatest of all absent-minded professors in the Tintin series: Professor Cuthbert Calculus. He is brought into the tale as the inventor of a submarine that will allow them to avoid detection by the sharks common to the area. Mostly deaf, and rather careless in his treatment of Haddock’s supply of liquor, he is always one to cause tension on board, especially when he converses with the Spoonerism-prone Thompson twins. Yet in the end, Calculus demonstrates his considerable good nature and child-like innocence by buying Haddock’s ancestral estate for him, using the government check he received for the submarine patent.

“Red Rackham’s Treasure” brings together almost all of the major heroes of the “Adventures of Tintin” for the first time. Tintin discovers the manuscripts pointing to the treasure; Captain Haddock commands the ship that will take them there; Calculus manages to stow aboard for his own reasons; and the twins Thomson and Thompson are brought on board at the last minute, to protect them from the prequel’s villain Max Bird. Bird is never heard of again, so this was pretty clearly an excuse to get the twins aboard, but I can hardly complain since they look so ridiculous in their attempts to act and dress as “old sea dogs.”

The settings are also pretty spectacular here. We quickly move from the piers of a Belgian port city to the Caribbean sea, then to a tropical island and (best of all) to an underwater vista comparable to Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” before returning to the grandeur of Marlinspike Hall. This is one of the most colorful books in the Tintin series, and one of the most delightful for young readers, including myself when I first picked up this book.

The genius of this story consists in its ability to subvert our expectations. There are so many false positives – those elusive moments when we are all but certain they’ve found the treasure – and false alarms contained in this adventure; it’s quite impressive. Moreover, when the treasure is actually found [spoiler alert… darn, too late], it is almost an afterthought. The journey is the thing, along with all the incidental discoveries along the way. The real ending occurs when Tintin and Captain Haddock put on an exhibit at Marlinspike Hall displaying their various finds during the expedition: a statue of the loud-mouthed Sir Francis Haddock made by natives of the island where he was marooned, the figurehead of the “Unicorn,” and of course the three miniature sailing ships that figured largely in the previous book “Secret of the Unicorn.” The lesson is twofold: treasure is always closer to home than we think, and the real treasure of historical artifacts isn’t in their monetary value, but in what they can teach of about the past. On that note of nauseatingly cheesy life lessons worthy of a 50’s sitcom, I will end.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hergé: The Secret of the Unicorn

“The Secret of the Unicorn” is generally considered to be the best comic book in “The Adventures of Tintin,” both by fans and by its creator Hergé. It is not surprising, then, that this is the story Steven Spielberg chose to adapt to screen. Along with its sequel “Red Rackham’s Treasure,” this comic book comprises one of the most enjoyable romps in the entire series.

In narrative terms, this is probably the best and most coherent books in the series. The book opens in a marketplace, where Tintin meets the Thompson twins. The detectives are investigating a series of pick-pockets, but when they stop to buy a number of canes, they discover their own wallets had been stolen. Tintin, meanwhile, stumbles across a sailing-ship model and decides to buy it for Captain Haddock, just before two other antique collectors attempt to purchase it as well. When Tintin presents it to Haddock, he realizes that it’s identical to the sailing ship in the background of a portrait of his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock.

This reminds Haddock of a sea-chest that belonged to his ancestor gathering dust in the attic, where he finds a cutlass (by which he terrifies his neighbors and landlady) and Sir Francis Haddock’s journal, in which he relates a sea battle with the dread pirate Roberts… er, Red Rackham. The panels alternate between Captain Haddocks’ dramatic storytelling and re-enactment of the events, and Sir Francis Haddocks’ experience of the events themselves. The effect is dazzling. Captain Haddock fights with the cutlass and his finger for a pistol, only for the next panel to show Sir Francis Haddock fighting in the same stance with a cutlass and an actual pistol.  When Sir Francis duels the terrifying Diego the Dreadful, Hergé depicts the pirate’s demise via Captain Haddock’s skewering of a cushion. These pages are a highlight of the comic book, and in my opinion of the series as a whole.

Returning to the modern day, Tintin discovers that his model ship was stolen and his apartment ransacked. He suspects one of the other collectors, but soon realizes the man's innocence when he finds that the collector owns an identical miniature that was also stolen. Tintin had purchased one in a matching set of sailing ship models. He soon discovers that there is a scrap of parchment hidden in the mast of each model, with a message from Sir Francis Haddock to his sons: the location of Red Rackham’s treasure.

The story proceeds with murders, mayhems, and pick-pocketing. Tintin is, predictably enough, kidnapped by the villains, questioned for information he could not possibly possess, makes a daring and clever escape, and ultimately discovers his kidnapper’s insidious plan.

The ending of the comic book is truly delightful. It turns out that, while everyone was busily trying to gather the three parchments, the serial pick-pocketer was stealing their wallets with those parchments. When Tintin and the Thompson detectives finally catch up with the man – Aristides Silk, civil servant and kleptomaniac – they discover his alphabetized collection of wallets, and Tintin finds the remaining scraps of parchment.

Before he leaves to share that discovery with Captain Haddock, Tintin reminds the detectives to look under the letter "T" in Silk's wallet collection. The detectives' realization that the entire section had been filled with wallets belonging to them... I still laugh when I read it.

It turns out that when each scrap of parchment is held together to the light, it reveals a message, along with a latitude and longitude where the pirate’s treasure would be found. But that story waits for the sequel: “Red Rackham’s Treasure.”

This comic book is probably the best in the series, both in literary terms and in narrative heft. The recurring motif of pick-pocketing neatly book-ends the central story, and there is an impressive diversity of settings even though the story occurs almost entirely within a modern city. The back-story of Captain Haddock’s ancestor is brilliantly written and sketched, and it is a true highlight of the entire series. Most of all, the story dovetails perfectly with its sequel: the works are distinct in style and in their setting, but coincide splendidly in narrative tension and dramatic movement.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hergé: The Crab with the Golden Claws

Today in Tintin Week we turn to “The Crab with the Golden Claws.”  As in so many stories, Tintin travels to an exotic foreign land and unmasks an international gang of professional bad dudes. This tale is particularly notable for introducing Captain Haddock, who will be a constant companion for Tintin in all subsequent adventures. “The Crab with the Golden Claws” is one of three Tintin books that is being drawn upon for the upcoming film “The Secret of the Unicorn,” directed by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

The story begins in Belgium. Tintin is taking his dog for a walk, and Snowy sticks his head into a garbage bin and gets it stuck in a tin of crab meat. They meet Thomson & Thompson in a bar, and the twins tell them about their recent investigation. Tintin realizes that one of the pieces of evidence the twins had gathered was a scrap of paper taken from the very tin can Snowy had found earlier. This sets them up for a wild ride: the name of a ship, the “Karaboudjan,” is written on the scrap, and when Tintin goes aboard to investigate he is kidnapped and imprisoned in the ship’s cellar by the first mate.

He escapes the cellar, only to meet the captain, an arrogant and alcoholic clod. I later grew fond of Captain Haddock, but in this tale he is maddeningly obtuse and gets in the way of everything. Perhaps this book is one of the reasons alcohol never appealed to me. I’m sure my decision had nothing to do with the white wine I accidentally drank when I was eight, because my grandmother had stored it in an apple juice carton. That wasn’t traumatic at all.

Anyway, Tintin and Haddock escape on the longboat, at least until Haddock burns the oars to keep warm. Then they’re shot at by a seaplane, but thanks to Tintin’s ridiculous ability to swim several hundred yards underwater while fully clothed and wearing  a raincoat, they capture the plane and fly it to Spain. Only they crash-land in the middle of the Sahara. Pity. Haddock, thirsting for a drink, hallucinates that Tintin is a giant bottle of whiskey. He almost suffocates Tintin, but is knocked out, courtesy of Snowy’s ability to wield a camel femur. They wake up in a desert outpost, having been picked up by a sentry patrolling the area, and are soon on their way to “Bagghar, a large Moroccan port.”

While drunkenly carousing the harbor walks, Haddock stumbles across the Karaboudjan, recently repurposes as the “Djebel Amilah.” He is kidnapped shortly thereafter for the commotion he caused. Tintin tries to track him, but fails. However, he discovers that Omar Ben Salaad, one of the wealthiest merchants in Bagghar, is the distributor of the tins of crab meat, and is the suspected head of a gang of drug runners that uses those tins for smuggling opium.

Tintin infiltrates the gang’s headquarters – Hergé clever alludes to the philosopher Diogenes who lived in a barrel, for a hint as to the secret passageway – and rescues Haddock. They escape, they are pursued, the police are called in, and Tintin triumphs. He returns home to Belgium and listens to tales of his exploits on the radio, and discovers that Captain Haddock has also returned, and is lecturing (without the least bit of irony) on “drink, the sailor’s worst enemy.” Unfortunately, he takes ill after he consumes a glass of water when he had thought it would be whiskey.

This is not the best of the Tintin adventures -- indeed, it is somewhat unremarkable. This was partly by design -- this was one of the first of the Tintin comics published after the Nazis invaded Belgium, and Hergé was forced to set aside his more controversial and politically oriented stories for lighter fare. But the locales are splendid, the story is coherent, and the art and the writing are top-notch. Not to mention that there should be some recognition for the first appearance of Tintin's enduring friend and companion-who-isn't-a-dog.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hergé: Cigars of the Pharaoh

Today in Tintin Week, we're featuring a review of "The Cigars of the Pharaoh," the fourth published comic book in "The Adventures of Tintin" and an immediate prequel to "The Blue Lotus." Though it is not as well known (or as highly regarded) as its sequel, "Cigars" marks the crucial transitional period in Herge's writing, as he transitions from stereotyped location-driven fantasies to highly researched action-adventure escapades.

“Cigars” begins as Tintin is returning from a cruise vacation that had taken him from Shanghai in China to Port-Said in Egypt. He meets the deliciously daft Sophocles Sarcophagus, who shows him a papyrus with the secret location of the lost tomb of Pharoah Kih-Oskh. Dr. Sarcophagus is an early version of the absent-minded professor type that would ultimately lead Hergé to invent Professor Cuthbert Calculus, first introduced in “Red Rackham’s Treasure” and a regular recurring character in later stories.

Tintin is also investigated and arrested by Detectives Thomson and Thompson – this is their first appearance in the “Adventures," besides a brief showing that was ret-conned into “Tintin in the Congo." Their presence here is very different here than in later stories.  Where Hergé would ultimately make them laughably dense – often using them to parody European stereotypes of foreign cultures – in this adventure the twins are at least moderately efficient, and save Tintin’s life on several occasions (though they are of course outmatched whenever they try to arrest him).

Tintin also encounters Mr. Rastapopoulos on the cruise ship, and the set up for this character is brilliant, almost worthy of Hergé’s most mature work. On the ship Rastapopoulos is introduced as a random uncivil clod, much like other one-off characters, but a later random encounter in the desert reveals him to be a wealthy filmmaker who is friendly to Tintin. Their initial tension overcome, the reader is made to feel confident in Rastapopoulos’ character, notwithstanding the frequent (and sometimes glaring) hints that he isn’t trustworthy. Only by the end of “The Blue Lotus” is his true nature revealed: Rastapopoulos is the head of the international ring of opium smugglers and in general a Very Bad Man. He becomes a recurring villain in many of Tintin’s later adventures, such as “The Red Sea Sharks.”

The comic book is set in three primary locations: Egypt, Arabia, and India. Unfortunately, while these locations are depicted in a more realistic manner than Hergé’s earlier works, they seem to occupy a world in which Arabia borders the Indus River. At one point, Tintin flies away from a (distinctly Arab) desert city, only to find himself within the hour flying over a (distinctly Indian) jungle with (lions) tigers (and bears). Oh my. Needless to say, the transitions are a bit iffy.

As for the plot, it is borne on so many escapades and plot devices that description is bland even when reading is a thrill. Suffice it to say that there are Bad Guys, that Tintin meets these Bad Guys and interferes with their Insidious Plans without realizing the trouble he’d gotten himself into, and ultimately brings said Bad Guys to justice with wit, charm, and an ample helping of awesome. What more could you possibly ask for?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Herge: The Blue Lotus

**This week is "Tintin Week"!  I'll be reviewing a few of the immortal comic book adventures of the journalist Tintin and his ever-present canine companion Snowy.  Enjoy!**

When I was young I devoured Herge's classic comic book series "The Adventures of Tintin." Some of them were difficult to find, but I read them all, and some multiple times. However, when I grew up I put childish things behind me, or so I thought. But when I heard that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had put their respective careers on hold to produce a trilogy of live-action films adapting the Tintin adventures, I had the dawning realization that perhaps little 10-year-old me had better taste than I gave him credit for. So I did some research, and ordered the comic books at the library, and discovered the treasure of these books all over again.

Today in "Tintin Week," we turn our attention to "The Blue Lotus," which is simultaneously a sequel, Herge's first mature and genuinely great work, and the most famous entry in "The Adventures of Tintin." Herge published only a few works before "The Blue Lotus" and its prequel "Cigars of the Pharaohs."  But these works -- "The Land of the Soviets," "Tintin in the Congo" and "Tintin in America" -- were more or less self-standing stories that occupied the realm of pure fantasy.  They also conveyed a sometimes disquieting sense of humor. Those three books are frequently (and accurately) accused of conveying racist stereotypes, of depicting cruelty to animals, of treating the world from the insular perspective of a European imperial power.

"The Blue Lotus" changed all of that. It was the first demonstration of Herge's appreciation for real history and events, for communicating the breadth and depth of human culture and human nature through his art and writing. The comic is based on the infamous Manchurian incident in 1931 that led to the Sino-Japanese war and to the 1933 expulsion of Japan from the League of Nations. In brief, the history of these events: Japan wanted to occupy northern China (called "Manchuria"), Japan blew up one of its own railways in Manchuria and blamed it on Chinese radicals, and seized the rest of the territory in 'self-defense.' This incident is complicated by the presence of Europeans in Shanghai's "International Settlement," the ongoing turmoil caused by the British-orchestrated opium trade, and the Boxer Rebellion that resulted from both of the above..

In the midst of all this, Herge places the young journalist Tintin, hot on the trail of a massive international conspiracy of drug smugglers who are using the Japanese imperialist desires to further their criminal enterprise. The first panel places Tintin in India, in the home of the Maharaja of Gaipajama, after his successful prosecution of the same gang in "Cigars of the Pharaohs" (the much-inferior prequel of this same tale). He is brought to Shangai, to the home of the Japanese businessman Mitsuhirato. He orders a rickshaw carriage, and the large half-page panel that follows is really a thing to behold.

The mini-story that follows is immensely meaningful. A British gentleman steps off the curb and is nearly bowled over by Tintin's rickshaw. He begins to strike the rickshaw boy with his cane, but Tintin steps in front, breaks the cane, and blames the businessman for not looking before walking into the street. The businessman angrily retires to a club where his friends are waiting, and starts venting his outrage about being stopped from "teach[ing] the yellow rabble to mind their manners" and how great a debt the "natives" owe to "our superb Western civilization." In the course of this speech, he gesticulates wildly, strikes a waiter who is bringing their drinks, and then beats the "yellow scum" senseless. Modern readers may be amused, but this was a bold stroke for Herge, and perhaps an attempt to redeem his former caricatured depictions of other races.

Machinations arise. Tintin is faced with a number of people who wish him dead; he spends some time in prison; he is nearly beheaded by a madman who had previously saved his life; he is kidnapped aboard a brig and brought to the home of a man who calls himself a friend. This man is Wang Chen-yee, leader of the "Sons of the Dragon, a secret society dedicated to the fight against opium." They discover radio transmissions speaking of "The Blue Lotus," and Tintin goes to investigate. It turns out it is an opium den owned by the same Mitsuhirato, and Tintin is able to witness the Japanese crew that sabotages the Manchurian rail line.

A warrant is put out for his arrest, and Tintin evades it on several occasions -- at one point impersonating a Japanese general. He tries to visit Fang Hai-ying, a doctor who might help combat the 'madness poison' that Mitsuhirato is using to dispatch his enemies, but discovers that Hai-ying has been kidnapped. He also visits Mr. Rastapopoulos, a film director he'd met in "Cigars of the Pharaohs." When he makes another escape from Japanese custody, he walks along a rail line and meets many Chinese civilians displaced by the ongoing war and from the flooding Yahtzee river.

Tintin also rescues a young boy from that flood.  The boy's name is Chang Chong-Chen, and he reappears in several other adventures, notably "Tintin in Tibet." This is another remarkable passage, for Chang wonders why Tintin saved him when "I thought all white devils were wicked," and Tintin responds: "Different people don't know enough about each other." This allows Tintin (and by extension Herge) to explain the common European misconceptions of Chinese culture, errors which Chang finds grotesque and ridiculous and frankly rather laughable.

The final sequences are delightful, with plenty of twists and counter-twists provided (including one crucial twist that occurs right after a page turn, which is probably quite hard to do with a comic book of predetermined dimensions). I won't spoil it, besides to mention that Tintin finds a way to work in the detectives Thomson and Thompson in the ending, and uses them to parody the accepted European stereotype of Oriental culture. It's really quite funny to see them walk down a busy street of Shanghai in cloths fit for a medieval Chinese court, totally self-satisfied with their ability to disguise themselves and totally oblivious to the fact that every Chinese person in frame is following them around and laughing at them.

"The Blue Lotus" is an excellent work, one of the definitive "Tintin" comic books and a delight besides. In terms of historical significance, it ranks with the best of them. I can't say it's my favorite, but it is the seminal work in Herge's career and deserves a good deal of recognition for it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

"The Last Days of Disco" (1998)

**This is the third and final review for Whit Stillman Week. Our tour began in New York, then hit Barcelona by way of Chicago, and now returns to New York by way of Motown. Enjoy the music, and the meaning, of Stillman's third and (by all accounts) final film.**

“The Last Days of Disco” is the final installment in Whit Stillman’s trilogy of films in the lives of terminally talkative young people. As with his earlier two films, “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona,” the world of the film is sadly lacking in role models and authority figures. Unlike the boys of Never Never Land, these characters are very clearly bent on becoming adults, even as they flail about rather piteously for some semblance of solid ground. More importantly, these films are in stark contrast to the more modern fantasy “The Breakfast Club.” This is not a film about self-discovery or self-actualization, but about coming-of-age in a more traditional sense: growing up, leaving childish things behind, grounding oneself in the received wisdom of one’s parents and one’s culture. The characters do not seek to come to terms with they were, but rather with who they ought to become.

Directed by Whit Stillman, starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny
Content warning: some nudity and scenes of sexuality, some language, some drug use
The questions of identity and happiness run deeply throughout the film, and appear even from the first scene. The female leads are established immediately: Alice and Charlotte are junior editor assistants who work at a book publishing company and go to disco clubs at night to meet men. Alice is soft-spoken but virtuous – the sort of girl who can easily get trampled underfoot – while Charlotte is the sort of girl who does the trampling. She later justifies herself to Alice: “I’m not so much of a bitch as I might seem.” We first meet the pair as Charlotte positively brutalizes Alice for a litany of flaws, ending with the revoltingly ironic criticism that her friend is “too critical.” Charlotte goes beyond mere inconsiderateness: she is endlessly self-justifying, and deliciously manipulative. We are also introduced to a slew of male characters: Jimmy, the ad-man perpetually trying to get his clients into the exclusive disco club; his friend, Des, second-in-command at the club who gets in trouble for letting him; Tom Platt, the initially charming environmental lawyer; and Josh, the Assistant District Attorney who yearns for Alice, and yearns for a chance to say “Book this clown” just once in his life.

Stillman's film is is deeply, even reflexively ironic; this trait is expressed not only in the screenplay, but even in the casting. Tom is played by Robert Sean Leonard, the charming actor who plays Neil Perry in “Dead Poet’s Society,” who sets up all the right expectations for us to look at him as Alice does: as a prospective match. Alice herself is played by Chloe Sevigny, very much against type considering the rest of her career. Charlotte is played by Kate Beckinsale, who had only a few years earlier played the eponymous lead in the BBC adaptation of “Emma,” a similarly manipulative but essentially good-natured lady who grows up over the course of that film. Then there are in-jokes, as Stillman marshals characters from previous films across the stage. Ted from “Barcelona” counsels Jimmy about jobs in Europe, and notes wryly that “Barcelona is beautiful, but in human terms it’s pretty cold” (echoing some of that film’s critics). Audrey from “Metropolitan” is seen from afar, rumored to be not only accomplished (“the youngest person ever to make editor”) but tremendously perceptive (Charlotte was interviewed by her, and worriedly comments that “she saw right through me.”) These are circles within circles, ironies embedded within, even if only apparent to a film critic.

Soon into the film, Alice is persuaded to rent a railroad apartment with Charlotte and another friend, Holly, despite the pair's obvious incompatibility. This turns out to have been a horrid idea, as there are only two bedrooms, and both of Alice’s roommates seem to be as horny as rabbits. Alice herself loses her virginity to the lawyer Tom shortly thereafter, consummating a years-long infatuation. She had let Charlotte’s cruel words fester, especially the ridicule that had been heaped on her chaste ideals and “cold” persona, the frigidity of a “kindergarten teacher” in a sexually liberated age. Tom loses his charm after treating her as a one-night stand, dismissing her to the morning “walk of shame,” casually noting that he had cheated on his current girlfriend by sleeping with Alice, and revealing that he’d given her both gonorrhea and herpes to boot. But in Stillman’s world even the most unsavory characters can still demonstrate insight, and Tom has both in spades: he reveals that he had been attracted to her precisely because of her purity, and had deplored the “slinky seductress” act she had used to land them both in bed.

This revelation leads Charlotte to confess a much earlier (and if such a thing be possible, much greater) sin: while they were roommates in college, Charlotte had seduced any boy who expressed an interest in Alice, so Alice would think herself unattractive and begin to regret her purity. This is a pivotal moment, not only for Alice’s character, but for our understanding of Charlotte. It is here that we realize that, despite her pretense of confidence (exulting over the crowded dance floor “We are in complete control”) Charlotte is deeply, almost pathologically insecure, and that she lashed out at Alice precisely because she acted as such a stark reminder of Charlotte’s own inadequacies. From this point forward, the film works at reclaiming romance and sexuality from the controlling grasp of 'sexual liberation' that Charlotte (and later Des) represent.

In the middle of the film, we are treated to a remarkably penetrating discussion between Alice and her competing love interests Josh and Des on the Disney film “Lady and the Tramp.” Alice notes that she had watched it with her niece and found it depressing. Charlotte is incredulous (“A children’s film about loveable dogs is depressing?”) but Josh agrees. He notes that Lady is an essentially vapid princess-figure, while the Tramp is a self-confessed chicken thief, a criminal. Josh does quite a intriguing bit of analysis: “The film programs young girls to be attracted to the bad element, so that fifteen years later, when that kind of boy does show up, their hormones will be racing and no one will understand why.” He continues, “The only sympathetic character is the Scotty dog, who genuinely cares about Lady” but is dismissed as obsolete.

Josh takes a breath, and Des pipes in: “But isn’t it clear that the moral of the story is that Tramp changed, that he gave up his chicken-thieving ways and becomes a part of this rather idyllic family with Lady in the end?” The conversation rages, but it’s clear from their vehemence that both men have more than puppies on their mind. Josh is making the case that he’s the best fit for Alice since he is already has a noble personality: “We can change our contexts but we can’t change ourselves.” Des is (rather desperately) working another angle: he admits he is a ‘bad boy’ right now, but implies that by Alice’s influence he might learn to become good.

By the penultimate scene, it’s clear who was right. Josh gets the girl, and Des flees the country when his boss is arrested. In the taxi to their airport, he states his intention to “turn over a new leaf in Spain” then asks aloud: “You know that line from Shakespeare, ‘To thine own self be true’? It’s premised on the idea that ‘thine own self’ is something good, being true to which is commendable. But what if ‘thine own self’ is not so good, what if it’s pretty bad? Wouldn’t be better not to be true to thine own self in that case?” He admits he’s “running like a rat” because that is who he is, but recognizes that it would be far better if he were not true to his nature. Contra the loveable misfits of “The Breakfast Club,” it is neither finding nor accepting who you are, but improving who you are through virtue, that leads to happiness. Whether in conveying the depths of human emotion and experience, reveling the subtleties of irony and language, or presenting insight into the very nature of things, "The Last Days of Disco" remains a truly magnificent film that I highly recommend.

One final note: "The Last Days of Disco" is not a film about plot or big events. The narrative is framed by events, not defined by them. Josh may be the A.D.A. responsible for investigating the disco club for money laundering and drugs, but the story remains on how that affects his friendship with Des and his pursuit of Alice's heart. Besides a brief moment where Josh finally gets to say "Book this clown!" in arresting the club's owner, the drug bust itself is largely relegated to the background. Nor is this a film about big characters or personalities. The final words of the film are giving to Des and Charlotte, talking about how their “big personalities” overshadow the more normal-sized personalities of Alice or Josh, or the “itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini-sized personality” of Jimmy. This may be true – they were the most interesting characters depicted, and Stillman couldn't have sustained an entire film populated solely with people like Alice -- but it is not to their credit. Like Jane Austen in “Mansfield Park,” Whit Stillman contrasts a soft-spoken but virtuous heroine with a more effervescent but also amoral competitor, and there is no contest. Austen’s novel serves as an antidote to her other novels, which tend to present sparkling wit and vivacity as the best virtues in a person. The same applies here, as "The Last Days of Disco" is an antidote to the entire genre of romantic comedy. Love is not about a couple's ability to dominate the silver screen, but in their degree of virtue, which makes for far less compelling drama. Even so, is there any question that Alice will be happier than Charlotte, when all is said and done?