Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 04, 2003 1:23 pm 
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People have praised Seth Green, the second-billed actor in this movie, with the implication that it’s only he who delivers a good performance. Green plays James St. James, who wrote the memoir the movie’s based on, the modestly titled Disco Bloodbath.

To assert that the star of Party Monster, the once child superstar Macaulay Culkin, doesn’t even try to act would be misleading. It’s true that for the most part he just poses, with flamingly mock-gay rakishness, in a variety of outrageous costumes ranging from boas to briefs, while displaying, let’s say, the full range of facial expressions from a smirk to a giggle. Mock surprise or the annoyed eye-roll are also in his vocabulary of looks. There are few variations in Mr. Culkin’s vocal delivery. Can we call this acting? Well, perhaps not, but the Club Kids motto during this silly moment of Eighties New York club history that the movie represents was “We don’t do, we just are.” These are, as Culkin’s character, Michael Alig, says at one point, people whose superficiality “is profound.” What more could be needed to convey the nature of their lives? Were they in fact capable of any emotional nuances? Above all was Michael Alig himself capable of them? These are the questions we have to answer in evaluating Party Monster. At any rate the only emotion we glimpse here is jealousy, St. James’ for Alig’s success: he claims, probably with some justification, to have originated most of the super-shallow Alig’s ideas.

Certainly Macaulay Culkin in Party Monster triumphantly is. He so much is that one can’t get him out of one’s head. (That may also be because nothing in the movie is resolved.) And since the movie is nothing but a spectacle, it’s a bit misleading to praise Seth Green, who does well in his part but really cannot hold a candle to Culkin in the physicality department. It’s not that Culkin’s looks dazzle, but that he is so overt, that he flames; that he loves the limelight and the limelight loves him.

Michael Alig is a young man from nowhere arrived in New York City to become someone, who brought a somewhat dubious success to a certain corner of the Manhattan club scene by throwing outrageous costume parties in clubs, a fast food restaurant, and a truck, where, and around all of which, large quantities of a wide variety of drugs were consumed – chiefly Ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. The movie consists almost entirely of costume scenes with dialogue. The cool formality of these sequences almost rivals the style of the Japanese traditional theater. Alig is so superficial he lives for nothing but the parties and for the impressions he makes and he has no friends: the people around him are furniture, or like costume dolls representing his boyfriend (Keoki: Wilmer Valderrama—-cute and appealing, but not doing much acting), his roommate (St. James: Green—-the one fully present personality), his drug dealer (Angel: Wilson Cruz--allowed to be nothing here but a Latino gay-handsome tableau), an admiring girlfriend from the boonies (Gitsie: Chloe Sevigny—-as too often, rather wasted here). Since these people are merely part of the décor, one can’t entirely fault their lack of character development. And all of the time, Michael is on drugs. He is numbed to whatever is happening, whatever others may be feeling. And since they are mostly on drugs too, they rarely seem to mind. This is Michael’s story. It's true for him. But as the representation of boredom can be boring, so the representation of emptiness risks being empty.

Finally, with the downward spiral of drugs, low income, and failure, there is a murder. (This isn’t made very clear in this erratically edited movie.) Now that's pretty serious. Transcendently shallow though these people are, wouldn’t there be moments of sorrow, self-doubt, and despair? Wouldn’t there be emotions too intense to be encompassed by the realm of smirk and giggle? We never know. Party Monster is unfortunately all on one note. Even for an illusion of the intense, but numbed, drug experience one would have to look somewhere else, such as the recent Spun, or the earlier Fear and Loathing.

As compensation for the lack of the usual human values or insights offered by biopics, there are the things that Michael Alig lived for: outrageous costumes, accompanied with elaborate makeup, incredible wigs, and flamboyant shows of sheer attitude. And drugs.

This is where Culkin comes in. It’s surprising and droll if not shocking to see how the super-famous now 23-year-old actor of Home Alone fame has turned into this big, beefy (but hairless, smooth skinned), dance-school-trained, absolute exhibitionist. The camera never ceases to devour his Springtime-for-Hitler face with its aggressive, mock-innocent blondness, its mobile expressions so full of good cheer despite constant disasters, its narcissistic glance so indifferent to both fake and real gore. It’s an extraordinary face with the long flayed nose, the big bee-sting lips, the bulging eyes and the succession of vapid, gleeful, self-satisfied expressions. One is fascinated and yet repelled, and that’s right for the part. It may be a role Culkin was made to play; but it’s nonetheless a brave performance. Ultimately, however, these shallow people add up to a shallow movie, and neither Macaulay Culkin's looks nor Seth Green's acting can save it.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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