Party Monster. – television program reviews
The yuppies huddle just before the fade-out of Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco, mourning the demise of the great club years and speculating that it may have had something to do with the outbreak of herpes. As if. Earth to Whit, Earth to Whit: Studio 54 and its spawn were not straight enclaves with a token gay couple imported from some leather dungeon for colorful window dressing, hard as you may try to reinvent the myth. And disco was not dying in the early ’80s. It was simply on the verge of turning very scary.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s jaw-dropping documentary Party Monster is the awful truth, arriving just in time to expose The Last Days of Disco for the fraud it really is.
On the surface a portrait of Manhattan’s original club kid, convicted killer Michael Alig, Party Monster depicts a nightlife in which heroin was ingested like oxygen, folks doffed their Calvin Kleins in front of hundreds for a measly 50-buck bounty, and a golden stream splashing in your face could be either a drag queen giving herself a champagne enema onstage or someone peeing on you from the top of a staircase.
This latter stunt was a particular favorite of Alig’s, according to a Limelight nightclub survivor named Lahoma. If only urination in the first degree were the worst of his crimes. Alig is currently serving a manslaughter sentence for his participation in the ultraviolent murder of a roommate, Angel Melendez, whom he dismembered a week later and sent floating down the Hudson River in a large cardboard box.
A refugee from the high school prom scene in South Bend, Ind., Alig quickly rose to the top of the heap as downtown’s reigning party promoter through a combination of Midwestern insouciance, a diabolical imagination, and an instinctive understanding of the ’80s ethos he sums up as “give me money because I’m fabulous, because I say so.” Alig’s ascent and fall is described by a pierced array of former acolytes and boyfriends, all of whom seem so damaged from the effects of heavy drugs that their testimony would probably hold little water in a court of law.
On film they are entirely credible and utterly heartbreaking. Bailey and Barbato choose a stylistically brash but noneditorializing approach that allows its participants to dig their own graves. One literally did in the case of Gitsie, a waiflike lost soul who absconded cross-country with Alig after the murder and who subsequently died of an overdose.
The Alig allure is probably best summed up by his last boyfriend, a recovering heroin addict who claims, “I was attracted to the mess…it was fun being a mess with Michael.” The creepy double-edged sword of Party Monster is that it allows you to see how liberating it could have been to be a mess with Michael at the same time as you mutter, “There but for the grace of God,” under your breath.
The film’s other lucid witness is Alig’s mother, a blond hausfrau who projects an off-center quality that initially makes us want to giggle. But as the film goes along, we are moved by her sincere expressions of both cluelessness and canny insight. Holding a childhood photograph of her son up to the camera, she correctly identifies his smile as “ornery” and notes his crooked pointing finger, with which he was getting ready to jab his older brother in the ribs.
That ornery smile, underscored by a fat Alfred E. Neuman lower lip that lolls in an unwavering “What, me worry?” pose, seems to hover over the entire film. Dressed in prison fatigues, Alig is able to summon that smile in a pinch as he recounts how “I told my lawyer that if I get charged with murder, I don’t get a VCR.” That crack actually prompted me to fetch the remote and rewind my screener copy of Party Monster a few inches to see if I had heard right. I had.
Jan Stuart is theater critic and senior film writer for Newsday.
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