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

Movie 421 – Vegas in Space

Vegas in Space – April 25th, 2011

My freshman year of college I had the pleasure of living in a dorm with one of the most fabulous people I have ever met. She had a laugh you could hear from anywhere on the hall and to this day I wish I’d gotten more than one year with her. She was a senior that year and she and her roommate took myself and my group of friends under their wings. This involved giving us tips on some of the school events and activities as well as gathering us together for movie nights. Oh, I vividly remember my parents arriving for parents’ weekend while my room was full of ladies drinking cocoa spiked with Goldschlager while watching Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill. That was her fault. I don’t regret it.

Anyhow, this fabulous lady was the one who insisted we watch Vegas in Space. I don’t remember if she’d seen it already or if she just thought it would make a fantastic thing for us all to watch. Regardless, we watched it and we loved it. We couldn’t help but love it. It became a thing for us all for a while and we kept a couple of quotes from it in our lexicon. “Glamour first, glamour last, glamour always!” and “An oasis of glamour in a universe of mediocrity,” really are eminently quotable, aren’t they?

Now, you have to understand that while I can rock a pair of heels like nobody’s business, I’m not fabulous or glamorous on a daily basis. But oh do I love drag queen glamour and fabulosity. Love it all so much. I love the gowns and the wigs and the shoes and the attitude. And you know what else I love? Cheesy low budget movies. The sorts of movies that are clearly labors of love and made on the film equivalent of a shoestring. I love camp. So combine the two and you’ve got what has got to be one of the most perfectly bad things ever made. I cannot help it, I love this movie to pieces.

From what I can tell, it took years for this movie to get financed and put together. Drag queen, star and screenwriter Doris Fish worked her ass off on this movie. Check her IMDB page and you’ll see that her credits include visual effects, costumes, make-up, etc. Doris Fish owned this movie and certainly dominated the vast majority of the scenes she was in. As Captain Tracy Daniels of the USS Intercourse, Fish leads her crew on a mission to save the planet Clitoris. And if you think that’s just far too obvious well, you’re missing the humor. It’s supposed to be obvious. And ridiculous. That’s the point. Anyhow, originally Daniels was a male starship captain with an all male crew, but men aren’t allowed on Clitoris so they become women and get big hair and head on down to Vegas in Space, the fabulous resort on Clitoris.

Now, there is a plot here, with some Girlinium jewels being stolen from Empress Nueva Gabor of Clitoris, and somehow that’s destabilizing Clitoris and causing tremors and chaos and decidedly un-fabulous things. Tracy and her crew are sent to find out what’s going on and recover the jewels. There’s a bit of misdirection when the Empress of Earth tells the crew to beware of her evil sister, Queen Veneer, who is the queen of police on Clitoris. But she turns out to just be super fierce and totally awesome. Spoiler alert: It turns out the thief is Empress Nueva’s young friend, Princess Angel, who’s actually a robot. A creepy kleptomaniac robot. Come on, did you expect the plot to be brilliant? Of course not.

Really, the whole thing is an excuse for a bunch of drag queens and a few other men and women I assume were friends of theirs or involved in the drag scene somehow to get together and wear the most outlandish sci-fi themed costumes and huge wigs and make a movie where they were fantastic futuristic beings. And let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to be fantastic and futuristic and wear great wigs and dresses made of tinsel? I know I’d jump at the chance and I’m just me. I can’t imagine this was a hard sell to the drag queens on the cast and they’re great fun to watch.

Now, I won’t lie. This movie is not high art. It’s low quality at best. The sets are clearly apartments and lobbies and the like. A few of the cast members are probably far far better on stage doing comedy or lip syncing than they were delivering lines for a movie camera. There are a few jokes that fall flat. But then there’s Queen Veneer and Princess Angel chasing each other around while Princess Angel throws a temper tantrum in the Vegas mall. It’s uneven at best if you want to be cold about it. But I don’t want to be cold, because I do love it. I love every fabulous moment of it.

April 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Vegas in Space

April 25, 2011

Vegas in Space

“Behold: Vegas in Space- an oasis of glamour in a universe of mediocrity.”

Way back at the start of this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Ru had the girls perform in a science fiction production as one of the mini competitions. The instant we saw it in the previews for that episode Amanda and I both knew that we had to review this movie as part of our project. Sadly it took a while to track down a copy and purchase it (even in this modern day and age) because for some reason this absolute classic is somewhat hard to come by.

When the precious Girlinium Jewels that the Empress Nueva Gabor uses to keep her artificial pleasure planet of Clitoris in orbit around her sun are stolen the empress of Earth dispatches her best space rangers to investigate. Of course no men are allowed on Clitoris so the daring crew of the Intercourse must first take pills to change their sex to female, and so captain Dan Tracy becomes Tracy Daniels, Mike becomes Sheila and Steve becomes Debbie. Thus transformed the trio can infiltrate Vegas in Space (posing as a trio of chorus girls from Earth invited to entertain at the Empress’ gala) and search for the thief. The prime suspect is the sinister queen of police Veneer, but of course on Clitoris nothing is exactly as it seems.

This movie is a chaotic, crazy, glamorous gem. Created (apparently over the course of several years) by Doris Fish (who stars as Tracy but also designed the hair, sets, costumes and miniatures) this movie is a labour of love. Doris has a couple of her companions from her San Francisco drag show Sluts A Go-Go here as co-stars. Miss X is the hard-as-ceramic-nails Queen Veneer, and Tippi is Princess Angel, the heir apparent to the throne of Clitoris. All three of them deliver fantastic performances (though to be fair Miss X tends to steal the show – she’s just so fabulous!)

For some movies a severely restricted budget can be a blessing. The exterior shots of Vegas in Space are clearly perfume bottles arranged on a counter top. The sets are cardboard draped in fabric, covered in tinfoil or hidden by shag carpeting. At one point in the production they are forced to use black & white film stock (which back in the late eighties when they were filming this would still have been cheaper than color film) and so there’s a scene where Veneer explains to Tracy that the atmosphere of Clitoris can’t hold color and they have to use artificial color boosters most of the time. This looks like a production filmed in somebody’s dressing room – because that is precisely what it is. And that is most of the charm of the movie right there.

I don’t think it is possible with words alone to communicate just how glorious this movie is. How can I describe the catty ADR dialog that fills almost every scene, especially those involving crowds? How can I do justice to the crazy performance s of the all-drag-queen cast? How can I possibly make sense of the WTF moments like the introduction of Veneer’s pet – a primordial missing link called Drag who has been defrosted after being discovered after millennia encased in ice? (You mean humans are descended from Drags?) This is one of those astonishing films that simply has to be seen to be believed.

I will say that my appreciation of this movie has been enhanced by RuPaul (as so many things are.) When we were first introduced to this by one of Amanda’s friends at college my only real touchstone for the world of drag was John Waters and Divine. A couple years of RuPaul along with last weeks viewing of Paris is Burning allows me to enjoy this movie from a very different perspective. It is so clearly a result of the culture that it springs from. As we watched tonight Amanda and I made jokes about “throwing shade” and grinned at the dragalicious performances. The more I learn about drag as an art form the more fun it becomes, and this movie should be shown in drag 101 right there with Paris is Burning. Clearly it inspired Ru this season.

April 25, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 414 – Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning – April 18th, 2011

I had heard about this documentary ages ago. I think we had a copy at the video store Andy and I worked at when I was in college and I know for certain that it was shown for a couple of classes. But I never saw it. I knew it existed and I had a vague idea of it being about drag culture in New York. But I never took the classes it was shown for and I never grabbed it from work so I never really got the specifics until I started poking around online after reading some comments about one of the contestants on this year’s RuPaul’s Drag Race.

One of the places I frequently read (though almost never post to – I’m a lurker by nature) is Television Without Pity. The forums on there can be horribly biased towards their favorites, and back when a certain show I enjoyed was still running I had some issues with the person they had reviewing it, but overall I find that there’s some good discussion. And frequently there’s a wealth of information on things I myself have no experience with. So when the Drag Race forums were discussing Mariah Balenciaga there were mentions of the House of Balenciaga, and they weren’t talking about the fashion designer. They were talking about drag balls and the Houses that compete in them. I had to know more and knowing more led me back to this title. So we bought it and tonight we watched it as RuPaul’s Drag Race draws to a close (finale next week).

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this documentary. On one hand, I knew it would be showing me a culture that I am not at all a part of. I knew that I would be learning new terms and cultural history that I’ve never really been exposed to. In many ways, I expected a lot of the content, but it still felt fresh. Even so clearly dated from the eighties, it felt fresh. Perhaps because it’s new to me. You can know a concept and still not be acquainted with the reality. And this documentary might not have been made by someone from inside the community it documents, but it does present some pretty impressive reality.

The movie has a variety of types of shot. There are interviews with many of the key members of the scene as well as some lesser knowns (at the time – I have no way to judge how successful any of the up-and-coming members ended up being after the filming was over). They tell the viewer about some of the history of ball culture and how it came to be and where it began and how the Houses started and what the current state of it all is at that time. They talk about voguing and shade and realness and fantasy and passing. There’s plenty of footage from what looks like one or two balls, complete with several different costume categories, dancing competitions, arguments over rules, requests for stolen items to be returned, etc. And then there’s footage of many of the people involved just out and about in the city, hanging around with each other, showing off their fabulosity, chatting about why they’re into the scene, what they hope to accomplish and how they live their lives.

It would be incredibly presumptuous of me to try and explain what the documentary explains, but I’ll give the basics. Drag balls as shown in the documentary are sort of competitive parties. Various attendees dress up for different categories and we’re not just talking ballgown and swimsuit here. We’re talking everything from passing as straight (male or female) to specific careers and situations. Executive wear, student wear, high fashion, first time in drag. And that’s just the fashion, though I certainly don’t want to give the impression that it’s at all minimal. It’s fantastic and very clear right from the outset that tons of time and effort and money go into these looks. They’re stolen or created or bought, sometimes at the cost of buying food. This is a big deal. But then on top of it is the dancing. And it is amazing to watch. Madonna’s version is so very tame in comparison to what these folks were doing in a banquet hall in the middle of the night in 1988. Through it all the audience cheers and jeers and gets up close to get a good look at what’s going on. It is utterly unlike anything I have ever seen or lived.

Also unlike my own personal experience are the Houses. They’re described as surrogate families or gay street gangs who fight through dancing and fashion. The Houses have parents who lead the groups, take in new members and help them out. The people in the documentary are mostly African American. Most are gay and many aren’t just drag queens, they’re transsexuals at various stages of transition. They are people whose families have rejected them or who’ve left their families preemptively to avoid rejection. On one hand, I wish there wasn’t such a need for groups like these to form. On the other hand, the need exists and I’m glad that the Houses are there and provide the support and kinship that they do. In an ideal world people’s families wouldn’t reject them for their sexuality or gender identity or for being themselves just because being themselves isn’t “mainstream”. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where over twenty years later I know there are still people who need those support networks because they have no others.

So it’s not just about a bunch of drag queens getting together to out-stomp each other in fabulous gowns. It’s about community and family and the difficulty of living day-to-day for most of the people involved and how these balls are their escape and their connection to each other and a common interest and passion. And oh, some of the people in this movie break my heart. Venus Xtravaganza, particularly, who is so clearly talented and determined and amazing, and who was murdered in a hotel room before this documentary was finished. And there are two boys who show up a few times, thirteen and fifteen and hanging out outside one of the balls. I want to know who they were and what happened to them. What they went on to do with their lives because they were so obviously taken with the balls and wanting to be a part of it. The fifteen year old claims his parents are gone and he lives with a friend. And I want to believe he did something amazing but I don’t think they give their names and I don’t know. As is made clear from so many of the people in the documentary, life for many or most of the members of this community isn’t easy.

The trouble I run into with this documentary is that it makes me feel like a voyeur. And really? I am when it comes to a culture like this, so far removed from my own life. I’m a white straight cisgendered woman who grew up in the suburbs. I went to a private school and a small women’s college. I can work a pair of heels, but that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve remotely got in common with anyone on the screen here. And it’s an uncomfortable feeling. But that’s valuable too. Because I’d rather know that there are things outside of my experience than go through life assuming that my experience is universal. Which is likely the point of this documentary being made. But still, it was made by a woman who wasn’t part of the community herself. It wasn’t one of the members of the group who went and got a grant to make a movie about the balls and Houses and culture. It was someone from outside. Which immediately makes it a display. As candid as the interviews are and as real and honest as the footage is, it’s still being put together from the outside. It’s frustrating, because it’s valuable, but it’s also problematic.

Still, I’m glad we have it and I’m glad we watched it. I’m under no illusions that the culture exists for me to take in, regardless of shows like Drag Race. The culture existed then and exists now for the people in it. They are their own audience and their own judges and while many of the people in the documentary say they want to be known in wider circles and achieve fame more akin to, say, RuPaul’s, the balls themselves aren’t there for that. But I am glad I got to see them. I’m glad I know a little more about it all than I did earlier tonight.

April 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Paris is Burning

April 18, 2011

Paris is Burning

Another thrilling conclusion to another hilarious and wonderful season of RuPaul’s Drag Race is rapidly approaching, so Amanda and I splurged a bit and got some appropriate movies to watch on Monday nights for the next couple weeks. (As a result Amazon now thinks I’m a homosexual black man. I’m not complaining because some of the resulting suggestions are rather interesting. I’m just saying.) One major lasting impression from watching this movie is that I am very much an outsider looking in here. RuPaul’s brilliance lies in the ability to make the spectacular world of drag accessible to all, but this documentary comes from a different time, almost from a different world.

This movie drives home the astonishingly difficult circumstances that some of these people lived in, and celebrates the strange world they crafted for themselves to belong in. I cannot even imagine how harsh life must have been for an impoverished gay black man in New York City in the late eighties. This movie doesn’t actually dwell on the challenges of such a life, but it points out, in a sort of off-hand manner, that this is the life many of the people featured here are living. They’re ostracised for being gay (particularly in the frightening world of the AIDS epidemic) for being black, for being poor, and for being, in many cases here, transvestite or transsexual. Some of the people interviewed talk about being cut off from their biological families. They talk about how obsessed popular culture is with being rich, white and heterosexual. But they talk about this within the context of describing and explaining something wonderful and special that has come into existence to provide a place where these people can revel in who they are and take delight in a culture of their own.

I’m clearly the target audience for this film. It’s a movie made to introduce people like myself, affluent and privileged people who have no experience in this world at all, to its concepts, vocabulary and a few of its inhabitants. It purports to be a documentary about the Ball scene, and it is, but in order to explain the Balls it has to explain so much of the rest of the culture. It defines terms like “Shade” and “Reading” which are familiar to me from Drag Race but would not have been otherwise. It introduces the concept of the Houses – a combination of gay street gang and surrogate family. Through interviews and footage from a few Balls it explains a little about how this blending of beauty pageant, dance-off, and extreme costume ball came to be and how they influence the lives of the people drawn together to compete in them.

To tell the truth I found the world and the characters who inhabit it much more interesting than the film made about them. I appreciate Jennie Livingston’s documentary style – letting the subjects tell their story in their own words through interviews – but the film overall felt scattershot and disorganised. Maybe it’s that I’m so used to the reality programming of today, which uses a heavily over-produced version of the same style. Today’s shows are edited to create story arcs. They have writers and producers who use off-camera prompts to steer interviews and keep things on message. They create an environment of stress, sleep deprivation and in the case of Drag Race of alcohol consumption which is carefully crafted to generate drama for the cameras to capture. In contrast this movie is just some interviews about similar subjects edited together. It doesn’t attempt to craft a story from them or use them for its own ends. I suppose I appreciate that restraint, because there are some powerful stories here that could have taken over the project but which instead feel like footnotes.

Take, for example, the heartbreaking tale of Venus Xtraveganza: found strangled and stuffed under a bed after giving interviews in this movie about how dangerous it was to turn tricks in the city for a living. She’s so full of dreams and optimism in these interviews, and her death is hardly mentioned in the film. Such a story could have taken over the entire movie, but instead Venus’ Xtraveganza mother Anji just sadly shrugs and says it’s the kind of thing that happens to people in her world.

In contrast to that harsh world we have the glamorous but competitive land of the Ball. The best part of the whole movie is seeing all these people doing the walk, demonstrating their skills be it “realness” or “vogue” or just plane fabulous over the top drag. I love watching Willi Ninja doing his thing. I love all the fantastic drag queens. I love the high class glam and the feathers, ruffles, fur and fans. Most of all I love the catty MCs who bring the whole event to life. I can easily see how this escapist world became such a sensation for these people. It’s like PAX is for me: a convention where you can celebrate who you are with like minded people. Heck, I even want to dress up for my convention. So maybe although I live in a completely different world from the people in this film I find it easy to feel a kinship with them. I just couldn’t ever hope to be half as fantastic.

April 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment