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“This country has more illiteracy than some of the most underdeveloped nations! Even Americans who can read, don’t! They watch movies, they watch television, they watch movies on the television!”
Arriving on the cusp of a brave new millennium, Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s slacker-screwball classic Party Girl is a film that is at once modern and anachronistic. Cutting-edge and retro. Designer and vintage. It was 1995 – a time of rapid cultural seachange and molasses slow dial-up. For all its infinite pleasures, Party Girl is historic for being the first film to broadcast live before a virtual audience on this nifty new thing called The Internet™. The image quality was laughably primitive then, but now, twenty-eight years later, the film returns to theaters with a fab 4K restoration during a moment when Internet streaming is the expected mode of consumption for cinema. As if fashionably late to its own party, von Scherler Mayer’s trendsetting film greets a new generation of online movie lovers as a jubilant transmission beamed from the past: too weird to have thrived in its time, too unique to have been forgotten since its release.
This very notion of a restoration – an act of metamorphosis, evolution – shapes much of Party Girl’s plot. The titular party girl, Mary, seeks to re-organize her life following her arrest for hosting illegal parties. At the ripe old age of 24, the physical, emotional, and pecuniary tolls of Mary’s nocturnal lifestyle are beginning to catch up with her – options for a stable future, vanishing.
Played by the exquisite Parker Posey, Mary is the platonic ideal of a Posey-type character before such a model had really existed: stylish, witty, confident, bold, and joyously superficial. “I’m really bad at auditioning,” Posey admitted in a 2020 oral history of the film, “but I auditioned and I got cast. It’s one of the few films I’ve auditioned for where I got cast. We had this two-week rehearsal period where we all just hung out. The theater and independent film scenes at that time were so close-knit. It’s very different in the digital age.
In both Party Girl and The Daytrippers, Posey’s fierce independence belies a deeply private well of vulnerability that her characters are masking. The same is true for her roles in Josie & The Pussycats – and basically any Christopher Guest movie – only the insecurity is played for laughs. That Posey can effortlessly shift between these tones on a dime is what has made her such a valuable player of heightened characters.
Like some high-heeled noir detective, Mary is in every scene of Party Girl – looking for herself. Splitting time between working as a library clerk and party promoter, the mystery of Mary’s future (indeed, her past) remains unresolved. Von Scherler Mayer’s camera is often static as a result – stuck – but still active during the film’s more upbeat moments. The dichotomy of youthful vigor and staid adulthood told through alternate wide angle staging and runway-style cutting.
True to its name, Party Girl is party cinema par excellence. “People still say it’s a movie they like to turn on when they’re about to go out,” says Posey. “At that time in the ’90s there was so much going out, and thinking about what you were gonna wear.” Among everything else, “going out” is one of the film’s essential subjects. The thrills, the adventure; the bodiless wonder of disappearing into the city, or a party, after the sun has gone down.
Because what is a party, if not a communion of social and spiritual restoration?
Combined with music and dance, parties are sites of transformative power that can absolve one of their troubles for as long as the turntables keep scratching, sampling, and back-spinning. Oracular noise. Watching the film now in the midst of a global pandemic, these party scenes become glitteringly nostalgic. All good vibes and saturated colors in this new restoration.
As much a character as anyone else in the ensemble, vinyl records are analog talismans that symbolize the infinite recombinant possibilities of music, and, by extension, life. A synthesis of disparate things in harmony – like a cute hat with the perfect shoes. However unintentionally, the foregrounding of vinyl in the film also anticipates creeping cultural disruptions of the end of the century. Approximately 12 million vinyl records were sold in 1995 compared to almost 800 million CDs sold in the same time period. The old ways were dying. The future was becoming as urgent as it was intangible. They didn’t know it at the time, but von Scherler Mayer and her crew were chronicling the final moments of an artform that was being obliterated into bits, bytes, ones, and zeros.
Here, two films emerge in Party Girl: the feel-good party movie set within a historically queer, New York City milieu, and the first-person existential drama of a woman adrift in time. Between waves – between grooves. It’s Paris Is Burning and The Last Days of Disco.
There is also a romantic comedy within Party Girl that, while moving, is pointedly not the focus of the film. Amidst Mary’s journey to self-actualization, she meets Lebanese falafel vendor Mustafa. In what is a long list of people who’ve acted once before leaving the industry entirely, Omar Townsend as Mustafa is surely among the most missed absences. He brings a classic Hollywood presence and charm to the role, playing the Sharif to Parker’s Streisand.
While the film is smart enough not to frame this relationship as the solution to all of Mary’s problems, its placement in the story is indicative of other areas in her life that need improving. Hot guys can be distracting! And if Mary wants to make a serious connection with someone, she’ll have to learn how to not objectify people. This is communicated in a scene where Mary invites Mustafa to an “Arabian Nights”-themed party, replete with racist caricatures, hoping he might be impressed by her attempts at cultural “appreciation.” He isn’t. But it brings into focus how Mary’s parties are extensions of herself, personal expressions of an artform of her own creation.
“We’re laughing at her as much as we love her,” says von Scherler Mayer. “To me, she’s this very ambiguous character. She is lazy and she is selfish and she does need to learn a lesson, but things get so earnest sometimes, and I find that boring. We wanted it to be light-hearted, too.”
Outside of Townsend, Parker’s most prominent co-star is the swanky costume design by Michael Clancy, which has proved to be one of the film’s enduring delights. “There was basically no budget,” explains Clancy. “I had to fight to get the money to buy a pack of Polaroid film, which we used to take continuity pictures. It was like $9 a pack.” Despite these budget limitations, virtually no two scenes in a row feature Mary wearing the same outfit – some change, some alteration is always made. “There were a lot of clothes that were bought in from my closet, my assistant’s closet, Parker’s closet, Daisy’s cousin’s closet.” All resulting in a seamless cross-section of 20th century couture that was as unique then as it is now.
“It wasn’t like people were wearing crazy leggings and hotpants in ’90s New York on the regular,” explains von Scherler Mayer. “If anything, there was a lot of grunge going on and long layered skirts, things like that.”
As much a study about clothes as it is the people who wear them, Party Girl is a film made about, and for, the type of people who dress in designer brands to go to the supermarket. The fashion is what gives the film its distinctive power when compared to the slurry of ’90s New York indies produced during the same time frame.
Though the film is bookended by parties, Mary is only seen dancing at one. Which, I won’t spoil, but it’s a different kind of dance than what’s normally glimpsed in the film. It’s a dance of pure lost-in-the-moment elation, uninhibited by pretense or insecurity, the kind parties are made for.
Party Girl is enchanting not just for its cultivation of vibes but also for this affirmative spirit in the face of unknowability. For Mary, it starts with the things she can control, like how she dresses, which are a daily rebellion against the things she cannot control. Going with style. Sisyphus eventually finds a new fate.