Party Monster (2003)

2003-09-05 (Limited release)

“Man is so perfectible and corruptible that he can become a madman through sheer intellect.” This quotation by George Lichtenberg, is recited by Michael Alig in Party Monster, and pretty much sums up the philosophy that informed his eccentric and notorious life.

Michael Alig was known as the “King of the Club Kids” during the heyday of NYC’s clubbing nightlife. From the late ’80s to mid-’90s, he became the center of the post-Warhol, pre-Giuliani New York party scene, organizing epic (and often illegal) shindigs where his presence became the main attraction. His good looks, marketing savvy, and willingness to do anything for any or no reason at all attracted those with similar aspirations. Alig’s behavior and larger than life persona gave others the green light to enact their darkest or most childish fantasies. His parties tended to have horror-movie themes and loads and loads of free drugs, a decadence that seemed fun at the time, but which also foreshadowed the dark tragedies to come.

Party Monster features the return of former child star Macaulay Culkin after an eight-year hiatus. Clearly, he is looking to reinvent his career by taking on a role in drastic contrast from the lovable, witty parts he played as a child. Here he’s a bisexual entrepreneur in drag with a murderous streak, about as risky as roles come these days. He pulls it off with surprising success.

Although his performance is sometimes wooden, relying on such homosexual stereotypes as the lisp and limp wrist, Culkin still manages to suspend disbelief enough so that you forget you’re watching the star of Home Alone. Sadly, the directing doesn’t help. As much as former clubbers Bailey and Barbato thrive in the world of documentaries (they’ve won accolades for the original Party Monster and 2000’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye), they don’t have a knack for feature filmmaking. Whether they were deliberately going for the confusion characteristic of most party scenes is beside the point. The film feels disjointed and uneven and, much as in real life, only Alig holds everything together and make it all interesting.

Party Monster opens with Alig arriving alone in NYC by bus from his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, where he suffered ridicule and abuse during his high school years because of his homosexuality. He soon meets up with James St. James (Seth Green). Already a fixture in the city’s club scene, James teaches the eager Alig about club etiquette; using Warhol’s Factory as a template, they aim to shock the “drearies and normals” with elaborate outfits and irreverent attitudes. “I wanted to create a world full of color, where everyone could play. One big party that never ends,” says Alig, whose innate creativity set the stage for his meteoric rise.

Of course, nothing happens overnight, but this strange displacement of temporal reality is one of Party Monster‘s calculated effects, an attempt to convey the festive chaos of its setting through anarchic camerawork and to recreate the impressions of a mind drenched in vitamins E, H, and K: Ecstasy, Smack, and Special K. Watching this colorful, disorienting film gives you the feeling that you are right there with Alig, lost in a haze of inebriation, dimly lit dance floors, overwhelming beats, and heaving bodies. It recreates with authority the discombobulation of its scenery and characters.

And if anyone’s story is discombobulated, it’s Michael Alig’s. He created and promoted the infamous “Disco 2000” weekly parties at Limelight, devised and hosted annual “King and Queen of New York” pageants and “Filthy Mouth” contests in which participants shouted obscenities for money, and even went so far as to sell kids as sex slaves. After finding his niche as a party promoter for the infamous Limelight and many other dance clubs, Alig began to redefine the fashions (or anti-fashions) of the trendiest city this side of the Prime Meridian. Painting his face white, plastering on the eyeliner and lipstick, and donning unusual transsexual outfits, Alig influenced club wardrobes and some in the city more widely.

The Club Kids were the talk of the town, the hottest clique in the clubbing subculture. They made the talk show rounds and even went on tour, even though they didn’t do anything special except try to outdo each other every night with flashier costumes and more outrageous antics. Alig was the ringmaster of a commercial circus comprising fairy tale freaks whom he assigned names and personas, and gave bit parts to play in his own spoiled reality. Alig and company pushed the limits of everything and eventually the only act left undone was the performance of a capital crime.

In 1996, during a dispute over heroin money, Alig and a friend killed fellow club kid Angel Melendez (Wilson Cruz). After bludgeoning him with a hammer and smothering him with a sweatshirt, Alig poured Drano down his throat and taped shut his mouth, amputated his legs, and stored him in a bathtub with ice and baking soda, enacting deranged experiments on the corpse, inspired by Alig’s favorite horror movies. Eventually the stench became so rank that he had to dispose of the body, which he dumped in the Hudson River. Alig had left the world of rationality so far behind that it never seemed to cross his mind that he might get caught.

Alig’s megalomania reached such epic proportions that he had no qualms about bragging about the murder on camera during the filming of the original Party Monster documentary. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this murder was the utter lack of concern Alig and the Club Kids showed. Melendez simply wasn’t cool enough to warrant much consideration among Alig’s friends and partygoers. Furthermore, Melendez’s homosexuality, Hispanic roots, and drug use made him a low priority in the eyes of the NYPD, who did nothing about the murder, even though everyone apparently knew about it and knew who was responsible. In this aspect, the almost all-white Club Kids mirror the cops they claim to revile. Only Melendez’s brother seemed willing to take Alig to task, and his efforts paid off — Alig now awaits his first parole hearing in 2006.

Even with his horrific actions made public, Alig (who now blames his deeds on his homosexuality) continues to garner supporters and well-wishers. One website devoted to him actually features a clock counting down the minutes to his potential release. What is it about personalities like Charles Manson or Michael Alig that makes them so captivating? Just as they once drew young people into their folds in real life, their stories continue to attract the attention of the mainstream public. Perhaps they appeal to the inner psychotic in all of us. Their stories, though, reveal the dangers of too much authority and influence. The Michael Aligs of the world force us to face (or gawk at) the worst human potentials and remind us of the consequences of not keeping a check on our own desires. That is, without having to serve 10 to life in prison.