A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 428 – Wigstock: The Movie

Wigstock: The Movie – May 2nd, 2011

Tonight we watched the last episode of this season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race (congratulations, Raja!) and we’d saved this movie just for tonight to mark the end of the season. It’s got RuPaul in it, after all, and a huge number and wide variety of drag queens and performers and artists and everything you can imagine. I’d never seen it before and I’m so glad that I have now because it was fantastic.

The problem is, it’s supposedly a documentary but it’s not really great as one. I’ve seen some fantastic documentaries, like Paris is Burning from a couple of weeks ago. And this lacks a little something as a documentary. Yes, it gives a decent look at the 1994 Wigstock festival in New York, but I feel like it was far more a concert movie than a documentary. Maybe it’s that I can’t help but put it up against Woodstock, since that’s the inspiration for the name of the festival and there’s definitely a ‘do what you want to do’ vibe going on among the participants and audience. Heck, one of the performers even sings Woodstock midway through the movie. It’s not nearly on the same scale, but I think it’s a fair comparison.

Unfortunately it doesn’t quite live up to it as a movie. This has nothing to do with the festival itself, which appears to have been a total blast. But the movie itself is a little on the sloppy side, as if it can’t decide if it wants to showcase the performances/performers or the festival as a whole. There are a few short interview segments with a couple of performers (Mistress Formika, RuPaul and Lady Bunny in particular, plus a number of people at a wig stylist’s shop), but they’re not all identified and really only Mistress Formika goes into a whole lot of detail on drag and sexuality and the festival as a way to bring people together. In terms of the history of it all and how it came to be and the 1994 festival in particular, well, it just doesn’t touch on it that much. Which I found frustrating so long as I looked at it as a documentary.

So I had to switch gears and watch it as a performance. Instead of finding out about the festival and the people involved I had to go at it more like how I watched Pulse. It’s a spectacle and one I wasn’t present for in person. And aside from the interview segments, well, it does give a good view of the overall atmosphere of the festival. There’s the main stage, of course, where there seems to always be some sort of performance happening. But there are also the attendees, who range from totally mundane looking folks in t-shirts and jeans to folks in costume but not necessarily drag and then drag in so many different forms and levels and types it’s impossible to describe them all. Men in skirts, wigs, full drag, butch drag, big beards and fake breasts. Women in suits, dresses, wigs as big as anything the queens were wearing. It’s this fantastic mix of gender expression and sexuality and people having fun being who they want to be. There’s a great bit where they talk to an older man who looks to be like someone just passing by. Like they stopped him on the street and pointed to the drag queens and said “Hey, what do you think?” And he talks about how hey, they’re not hurting anyone so who cares? And then we pan back and he’s wearing a frilly black and white polka dotted skirt himself.

He’s somewhat of an exception though, because for the most part the shots of attendees are mostly to let them show off what they’re wearing or doing or representing. And oh, the things people put together for this festival are just amazing. Multi-tiered wigs and gigantic bouffants and dresses and costumes and it’s sort of like a big drag convention. It’s fairly clear that the audience is part of the appeal of the festival. It’s not just the acts up on stage, it’s the people strutting their stuff down on the ground as well. The attitude of the crowd is wonderful and positive and upbeat, and given the time this was filmed, in the mid-90s in New York, that’s fantastic. It’s wonderful to see.

The performances themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. They’re everything from performance art to lip syncing to drag performers singing live to non-drag performers singing live. There’s dancing and comedy and nudity and costume changes and wigs. Wigs wigs wigs. My exposure to drag performance is limited to what can be considered fairly mainstream drag. RuPaul, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. That sort of thing. And I know that’s very limited. Just look at the balls and pageants, which have a relatively large following, and yet they’re not as much on display as the gown-and-lip-sync drag that’s probably what comes to mind for most people like myself (i.e. straight and fairly square, alas). There are whole swaths of drag culture I simply don’t know and this movie, showcasing this festival, definitely touches on them.

Despite my criticisms of this movie as being a little on the messy side in terms of its intent, I really did enjoy it. Regardless of its intent or its structure (or lack thereof), it does manage to capture the spirit and experience of the festival, at least on a small scale. There’s no way an hour and a half long movie could truly showcase the whole thing, but it does an admirable job of trying. It could perhaps have gone further in one direction or another. I wouldn’t have minded hearing more of Mistress Formika talk but I also wouldn’t have minded seeing more of the performances overall. But I would call it a success simply because it made me want to go back in time and be there.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wigstock – The Movie

May 2, 2011

Wigstock: The Movie

I don’t want to review this tonight. I want to just enjoy it. Absorb it and let it wash over me. Tonight’s reunion show represents the end of another season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and we’re ending it with a crazy chaotic look at the 1994 Wigstock festival. It’s a delightful combination of concert DVD and documentary that shows interviews and performances from the stage.

This movie is pure joy for the most part. Yes, it takes place in New York in the nineties at the heart of the AIDS epidemic, and it has to acknowledge that. But it is that very sense of oppression and dread that makes Wigstock so very necessary. Some of the people interviewed talk about how they just want a day of frivolity when they can dress up and forget everything else. A day when folks can let their hair down – or put it up – or cover it with an enormous crazy teased up wig.

This is a celebration of drag, of course. The Lady Bunny emcees a cavalcade of amazing drag acts for our delight end entertainment while the cameras roam through the crowds seeking comment and looking for folks attending the festival in their various drag. Which highlights one of the things that intruiged me most about this movie. It has so many people playing with the concepts of gender roles. There are bearded guys in wigs and dresses. There’s a fantastic interview with a nice older gentleman who talks about how it does nobody any harm for a bunch of guys to dress up in women’s clothes, and then the camera pulls back to reveal that in solidarity he’s wearing a little skirt. There are professional drag queens in full make-up. There are some people that could be men passing as women or could be trans-sexuals or could be genetic women from birth and frankly it simply doesn’t matter what their gender is because they’re just part of this whole mad party atmosphere. “Let go your preconcieved notions,” the film seems to say, “they have no place here.”

The many fantastic drag acts captured on the main stage are fascinating too. It seems that the Lady Bunny and the other organizers have made an effort to feature as wide a range of performers as they can. There are carefully choreographed lip syncing displays. There are performers who actually sing, some of whom have simply astonishing voices and range. There are camp acts like Dee-Light who are not necessarily drag in and of themselves but who are accepted by the drag world. There is a woman who sings in male drag. There are edgy concept acts like the strip tease to Mark Almond’s What Makes a Man and the simulated birth on stage (which seemed to me to be an homage to Female Trouble and the inimitable Divine.)

This was the first time that I had watched the film tonight and I was caught up in it and enjoying it so much that I didn’t take notes like I should have so that I could address specifics. There is so much amazing talent on display here that it seems unfair for me not to talk about specifics, but the truth is that I wasn’t watching it to review it tonight. I was watching it for the spectacle and the joy of it. Maybe tomorrow, while Amanda is at work, I’ll watch it again and try to be more analytical.

To be continued?

May 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment