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Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Welcome to the phonyverse


When interviewing the codirectors of "Party Monster" -- Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, along with James St. James, author of the book on which the movie's based -- the hardest thing was to get them to hype their own film. After fielding questions on kosu-purei ("costume play") and bars in Shinjuku's 2-chome, the subject finally turned to "Party Monster."

News photo
Fenton Baliey, James and Randy Barbato

An author and the directors on good terms -- now that's something you don't see every day.

FB: That's an interesting point. Because authors always whinge about how their books have been raped.

RB: But actually, the book and the film are two separate things.

FB: It's an adaptation in the loosest sense of the term, because there's also our documentary, which we took a lot of material from, and there are vast chunks of James' book that we completely left out.

JSJ: My book "Disco Bloodbath" is really like an inner dialogue with myself, it's just a rant, and sort of unfilmable.

Was James' viewpoint ever in conflict with facts you guys unearthed for the documentary? And if so, how did you resolve that?

FB: The problem was solved the moment we had the idea for the movie. We were finishing the documentary, and the last thing we shot was the interview with James sitting by the pool. And James says about Michael Alig, "Oh, he's always been awful! He's always been a monster." And this is Michael's best friend speaking! In that moment, we wondered, what is this weird relationship between Michael and James, this constant rivalry and one-upmanship? So the conflict is the movie.

Did you ever feel it was a bit unfair to portray Michael as you wish without him being able to respond? Or could you care less?

JSJ: Number one, I could care less. [Laughs.] Two, history belongs to the writer. And three, I don't think he's portrayed unfairly in the movie. For God's sake, he dismembered someone! It would be very easy to demonize him, but the filmmakers chose to show that he's also cute, that he's witty, he has this charisma. It's punk rock. He pushes it to the edge, he breaks all the rules. That's why he has so many fans.

What attracted you to cover this scene?

FB: There was something about the Club Kids that was so exciting, iconoclastic and irreverent. I think we've always been inspired by people who have perhaps more courage than we do, people who aren't afraid of the judgments of others.

RB: So much of what the Club Kids were doing seemed to be so ahead of its time, they were sort of mocking celebrity, and commenting on fame.

FB: We like to think fame is a meritocracy, but the truth is, it's not -- it's all about getting the attention. And the Club Kids boiled it down to that essence. The impetus of the Club Kids was the idea that to be yourself, unremarked upon, without being photographed, not in the papers, not on tabloid talk shows, was to essentially not exist. Their whole goal was to cross over into that electronic realm of media to mythologize themselves.

Do you think that every club scene is doomed to die a slow death from the very same drugs that launched it?

JSJ: It's a double-edged sword. The drugs are the catalyst. the Club Kids would never had happened it someone hadn't taken acid and decided to wear a Scooby-Doo suit and a diaper. But by the same token, you always think you're controlling the drugs, but they always end up controlling you.

How do you respond to criticism that these characters are superficial?

FB: Well, what has happened culturally is that high art and low art, that generations-old distinction has collapsed, and now we live in a surface-scape, and the shallowness of our lives is the profound problem of our existence. The old values of depth and substance -- these genuinely do not exist anymore. So the people who keep harking back to them. You know: "Can't we get back to the way it was, before drum machines, when people played their guitars?" or George Bush, with his whole moral agenda -- it's so refusing to deal with the world in which we exist. That attempt to weed out who's really profound and who's really phony -- that is what's superficial. We're all in the phonyverse.



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