Sunday 21 July 2013

Party Monster (2003)

James St James meets an impressionable Michael Alig
I'm coming around to the idea that interesting movies will generally be good movies, or at least worth the watching, so when my lodger Saskia described 'Party Monster' as interesting (indeed, as 'interesting') I knew it had to be Penciltonized.

The film is set in the club scene of '80s New York, but manages to look and feel, in some rather bizarre ways, timelessly modern rather than dated to that era.  It regards two extremely flamboyant and bitchy young socialites, Michael Alig (Macaulay Culkin, who surprised me by being excellent here) and James St James (Seth Green, an actor I always enjoy) - their club nights and their domestic life.  Michael and James live wilfully grotesque lives, never resting from their highly-strung, drug-frenzied Noel Cowerd schtick, all played out in drag and magnificent clubwear.  As the movie starts, the pair bicker self-consciously, quite aware that they're on camera, each vying to narrate their version of the tale.  Michael mentions, casually and without regret, that he's committed a murder, and as per 'Double Indemnity' (1944) the body of the film is in flashback, showing how the murder came to occur.  It's a true story, by the way.

Michael in characteristically alarming array.
The film was made on a tiny budget, its resources wisely spent on a strong and witty script, good actors who manage to make potentially shrill characters sympathetic, and a huge bevy of excellently alarming costumes.  Indeed, while I call it a film, it appears to have been shot on videotape rather than film, and with next to nothing in the lighting department, meaning that any keen amateur could have made their own version with a remarkably similar look.  It's rather disconcerting, as a maker of amaeur motion-pictures, to see a cinematic release so similar in picture quality and colour to my own crude works, and it lends the thing an air of a home-movie, as if Michael and James are not just narrating their own history, but have put together a video presentation about their adventures.

Michael and James are intriguing characters, and, presumably, people.  They're on all the time, always in costume and putting on characters, for themselves as much as for their peers, who they treat as an audience.  It's like 'Withnail and I' (1987), but with two Withnails and no I.  I felt for them in their superficiality; I wanted to see them relax, to be themselves rather than exhausting themselves with masks.  I didn't want to see them be normalised or become mundane, just to relax, to be honest with themselves.  It's the difference between being naturally eccentric (which is commendable) and being an eccentric.  Imagine being John Mccrirrick.  Now imagine being John Mccrirrick every day for the rest of your life.  It could be a wild novelty, but pursued as a lifestyle it would be exhausting, and would soon be no fun at all - a cry for help, and one that could lead to a tremendous breakdown.  Now, there's much to be said for dressing up, and far too few people dress interestingly; I'm a great advocate of all manner of fancy-dress antics, but there have to be some moments of some days where you dress for yourself, and as yourself, rather than merely to impress, alarm and intimidate your audience.  The only time Macaulay Culkin ever seems truly relaxed here, he isn't wearing anything at all.  For a brief scene towards the end of the movie, he takes a bath, and seems blissfully, innocently happy.  He loses nothing of his character, his mirth or habitual androgyny here, but seems to have a peace he's spent the rest of the film avoiding.

Angel, the dealer, starts as a leatherman but is encouraged to dress up to his name and station.
He was the victim of the aforementioned murder.
It is an interesting film, and I'm tempted to say it's also an excellent one.  It's aesthetically thrilling, has an fine soundtrack, and as I've noted, a script and cast worth hearing and watching.  It's also a world away from the other films I've written up to represent the early 2000s.  The Club Kids, those persistent and obsessive clubbers who formed Michael's entourage, come across like an anti-political Baader Meinhof gang, and their story is as fascinating as it is colourful, and this film's telling is simultaneously great fun and disconcertingly serious.

...and here it is on shiny disc, though I watched it on Netflix meself.

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