by Brian Doan
“Classification provides a system for organizing the universe of items, be they objects, concepts, or records.”
—introduction to the Dewey Decimal Classification Guide
“Where’s the spot?”
—pissed off club owner Rene, to dumbfounded DJ Leo, in Party Girl (1995)
I. History and Biography
“So, what are you going to do now?”
Early June, 1995: Everything had been fine until that question. The upper level of the Crazy Horse, a popular Bloomington bar, had been warm and relaxed, with a pale orange light filtering through the windows, coating the green lampshades and inky black shadows. I had graduated from Indiana University a month before and was about to head to Chicago; some friends were going away for the summer and asked me to apartment and cat-sit Carmen and Diego (so named because my friends would yell, “Where in the world are Carmen and Diego?” every time they came home). Armed with a highly marketable double degree in comparative literature and political science, and with vague thoughts of pursuing freelance film writing while exploring the Midwest’s answer to New York, I was enjoying a farewell evening with college friends, trying not to show how homesick I already was for them all.
“So, what are you going to do now?”
I stumbled through a vague answer: “Well, you know, write and look for work, and um, enjoy Chicago, and you know, we’ll see…” before smiling and sipping my pint of Guinness. It was a kindly meant question, but it cut deep. If there had been a job listing for “Interrelationship of the Arts Expert to Expound Upon Cary Grant’s Star Persona,” I’d have been all set; as it was, I was headed to the Big City highly trained in a set of skills whose practicality was questionable (they were fun, but hard to pitch to employers). Six months later, as I watched Party Girl’s Mary (Parker Posey) declare “I’m not good at anything” and then sigh, it felt like a moment of deep relation between me and the screen.
II. Philosophy, Psychology, and Logic
Party Girl begins with colorful, animated credits on a black screen, intercut with shaky hand-held footage of a walk-up apartment’s staircase, as a voice cries out “Dammit...Look over there, because I heard it somewhere…” This is the voice of The Lady Bunny, a drag queen looking for a lost earring, and on her way up to the apartment of Mary, the “party girl” of the title. Mary is the center of a downtown clique of DJs, drag queens, club owners, and fashionistas, known for her style, wit, and fabulous (if sometimes illegally staged) parties. Her latest shindig has caused noise complaints and a stint in jail. Bailed out by her godmother Judy (Sasha von Schlerer, mother of the film’s director, Daisy von Scherler Mayer), Mary begins working as a clerk at the public library Judy runs—both a way to pay rent and penance, a nod to practicality. She’s also letting her goofy DJ friend Leo (a scene-stealing Guillermo Diaz) stay at her downtown loft while he’s supposedly “looking for another place to stay,” something we pointedly never see him do. Meanwhile, Mary nurses her friend Derrick (Anthony DeSando) as he grapples with a crush on a man he’s only met once, dodges her sometime lover (Liev Schreiber), an obnoxious nightclub bouncer, and pursues Mustafa (Omar Townsend), the Lebanese falafel cart guy that she flirts with at lunch every day.
The key scene in Party Girl comes about 38 minutes into its 94-minute running time. Leo gets a gig DJing at hot dance club Rene’s (owned by a character of the same name), on the same night that Mary finally lands a date with Mustafa. Unfortunately, a dressing-down at work from Judy causes Mary to go on a bender and forget about both her friend’s gig and her date. Instead, she drunkenly breaks into the library and teaches herself the Dewey Decimal System, her bȇte noire.
“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories,” Walter Benjamin writes in “Unpacking My Library.” He continues, “More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books.”
As Mary ecstatically absorbs the Dewey Decimal System, the film crosscuts between her revelations in the library and Leo’s DJ work at Rene’s. As he’s spinning, a follow-spot in the club reveals a beautiful dancer; Leo loses track of his place with the record needle, which begins to scratch aimlessly on the vinyl; as the restless crowd yells and complains, the sympathetic dancer begins to clap a beat on top of the record scratch, and the crowd joins in, jarring Leo from his reverie. He recovers control of the needle, and as Chantay Savage’s “If You Believe (Believer Mix)” plays on the soundtrack, this mid-point moment in the film becomes one of identity unraveling and re-threading, for Mary, Leo, and the viewer.
“Where’s the spot?” Rene demands of Leo, just before the beautiful dancer appears. It’s a line rich with resonance for the film, and for the way the movie generates knowledge without seeming to do anything “serious:” staged as a fun, quasi-dance number (with Mary in the library, grooving on tables to Leo’s beat, which she can’t logically hear), it sets up Mary’s second-half transformation into someone more responsible while making us laugh. It’s learning as a literal dance.
This moment of movement between library and club is a re-mix of image, sound, and character identity, in which “the disorder of the crates” (Benjamin’s description of his unboxed library, but also of Leo’s vast, milk-crated record collection) becomes (to us a musical term) the bridge between the supposedly disparate spaces of Mary’s life; the night-club and the library coming together. “Where’s the spot?” is Rene’s question to Leo about a literal light, but can also be read as marking a place: The spot where the dancer stands in the club, the spot where Leo drops the needle on the record, the spot in the library stacks where Mary discovers her new identity, the spot at which the viewer situates him or herself amidst the film’s joyous cross-cutting, like a DJ finding bliss in the scratch. Moving across a text in order to find new sounds and rhythms. “These are the very areas,” Benjamin writes with both anxiety and anticipation, “in which any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness.”
Five months after leaving the Crazy Horse, and three months after moving out of my grad student friends’ Evanston apartment, I am living in a walk-up in Rogers Park. My first post-collegiate job is at Video Adventure, balanced literally, figuratively, and precariously on the border between Evanston and Chicago. Designed as a VHS outpost for connoisseurs, the space is best described as the video equivalent of the record shop in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, both staffed and patronized by cinephiles who ignore the Milk Money and Forrest Gump boxes that dot the shelves as commercial obligations in favor of talking your ear off about the French New Wave, John Woo, Kenneth Anger, the border between art and trash. I love it there, even if the minimum wage doesn’t really cover my rent, and even though one day I don’t realize the foursome that I’m speaking to are planning to rob the place; my manager does, hits the button under the counter, and politely lets them know the cops are on their way. After they flee, he pulls me aside, and like Party Girl’s Judy explaining Origin of Species to Mary, lets me know what just happened. I’m there for about two or three months, until I get a job at the American Bar Association, working in their public education division. I don’t know my exact path yet, but as Mary says at the end of the movie—while dodging an exotic dancer—I’m serious about graduate school. My apartment is an echoey one-bedroom; one day I come home and all the mailbox doors have been ripped off their hinges by a drugged-out resident; my bathroom ceiling collapses because another drugged-out resident, living above me, was so high that they forgot to turn their bathtub’s tap off; another time, shivering while watching Jules and Jim on a Sunday evening, I realize the heater doesn’t work.
But all that doesn’t matter. I may be cold, I may not always get my mail, and my bathroom is a mess. But I have the movies.
III. Fine Arts and Recreation
In 1996, I discovered Facets Multimedia, down on West Fullerton in Lincoln Park, and it became my church. The video store in the basement is excellent, and the theaters on the upper level host both revivals of movies like Herzog’s Nosferatu, and classes on cinematic topics (like “Chicago in Film,” “Movies About the Movies,” etc.) taught by local experts and filmmakers. I spotted the Party Girl box there one day in late ’95 or early ‘96. I’d remembered reading about the film that first summer in the city, when it was playing at Sundance. The cover is atrocious. Parker Posey’s neon clothing and clipped-up hair make her look like an unholy mash-up of 90210 and My So-Called Life, and the cover copy leans on the excellent, then-popular Clueless (“Sassy, savvy, and definitely Clued-in!”) in a way that does disservice to both movies.
I rented it, anyway.
“I broke into the film business from being super scrappy,” Daisy von Schlerer Mayer would remember 18 years later, speaking to the Vimeo blog. “I had a theater background, but my friend and I wrote the film for me to direct. We used every resource we had available in our own lives, then reached out to people that were way too qualified to engage with us. But, they liked the script and so they worked with us. It was at that point in the early 1990s where there was a lot of fun, poppy indie film happening. Indie film was making the transition from being more art house to more commercial, lighter indie films. We were a part of that, which was great.”
That “lighter indie film” world made Posey its Katharine Hepburn, and Party Girl—which came for Posey after a year on As The World Turns as “Tess Shelby,” and stand-out turns in Dazed and Confused, Sleep with Me, and Tales of the City, the regrettable Mixed Nuts and, um, Coneheads—would make her a star. Mary is the perfect vehicle for Posey’s gangly, slapstick physicality. She can be funny—as when she dances with Natasha at Rene’s, and is all angular, a precise silent clown—and touching, as in the choreography between her and Mustafa when he pushes his falafel cart across the street; they move slowly, tentatively, so as to stay together (Party Girl often feels like a dance musical, even when there’s no music). It also gives Posey an endless stream of quotable dialogue that displays her verbal ferocity. At one point in a brilliant monologue, she explains to bouncer boyfriend (Schreiber) how he “lowers her worth” with his behavior. Later, she rants to a patron about how he’s mis-shelved a book—“We’ll just put the books...ANYwhere!...We’ll just put the books ANY DAMN WHERE WE PLEASE!” Her ups and downs in work and love cause her to read Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” whose central figure’s existential struggle she takes as her own. “I think I’m an existentialist,” she declares, Posey’s deadpan-sincere line reading and follow-up nod making Mary’s appropriation of French philosophy even funnier.
What’s really notable, though, is what a generous star turn Posey’s performance is, one whose dynamics and charisma cast the spotlight onto the rest of the cast, and not just herself. Guillermo Diaz, Sasha von Scherler, Omar Townsend, Donna Mitchell (as the faux-confident wreck Rene), Schreiber, and even smaller roles, like Anthony DeSando’s wonderfully obtuse Derrick and L.B. Williams’ concerned library clerk Howard, are all given moments to shine. The film also has excellent cameos from aforementioned drag queen The Lady Bunny and Natasha Twist.
Indeed, although von Scherler’s Judy initially seems like the butt-of-the-joke straight woman, the film allows her its most serious moment, when she angrily explains the sexism that female librarians have had to face for centuries (“Melvil Dewey hired women as librarians because he believed the job didn’t require any intelligence. It was a woman’s job…That means it’s underpaid and undervalued”) before banishing Mary from the sacred space because of the latter’s costly screw-ups. Von Scherler is superb here, and the scene up-ends the movie’s sympathies in a way that only the resolution (set at a party, naturally) can fix.
When I ejected the tape from Facets back in 1996, Posey became my new cinematic avatar. The timing is propitious: when it comes to Chicago movie theaters, Parker Posey was everywhere, her image floating from screen to screen across the city. Over the course of the next 18 months or so, she seemed to have a new film at the Music Box every time I check the listings—The Daytrippers, Waiting for Guffman, SubUrbia—all of which I absorbed in that great Deco palace on Southport Ave. I was living down in Wrigleyville now, which made the 20 to 30-minute walk west to the theater a snap. She’s not the only star I saw, of course. By now, applications to graduate programs in film studies were in, and I was absorbing as much movie (new and old) as my eyes, my time, and my bank account could handle.
It was a good moment for movies in ‘95 to ’97, and the spirit of Posey—at once hip, knowing and modern, but clearly drawing on the styles of Hepburn, Jean Arthur, Paulette Goddard, and other great classic comediennes—felt at that time like the indie movie equivalent of what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the whole equation of pictures.” She keeps everything precariously balanced, and so does Party Girl, whose structure blends blackout sketch aesthetics, pop musicals, and earnest rom-com into a dizzying cocktail. It’s ridiculous, but its ridiculousness hides seriousness, like Mary herself. It’s a survival kit for Gen X hedonists with a secret bookish side.
IV. Language (English, grammar, and dictionaries)
“So, what are you going to do?”
“Where’s the spot?”
Once Judy dresses down Mary for having sex with Mustafa (in “the romance languages section,” he later reports), Party Girl becomes more off-kilter, its narrative spiraling downward like Mary herself. The final third of the film wants to wrap up its several storylines—Mary’s journey to a career, the central romance of her and Mustafa, the various ancillary triangles between supporting characters—but once the library is a banned space, it seems to lose a bit of its pulsing center. While the occasionally awkward ellipses of this final section work on a thematic level as representations of the characters’ struggles to conclude their transformations, and are often visually striking, they also feel a bit rushed. There’s a jumble of narrative resolutions as the movie gets to its concluding surprise party, whose bright and earnest mise-en-scene includes a piñata and a stripper, generating a light-hearted deus ex papier-mȃché for everyone.
Still, the movie’s earlier jokes about “The Myth of Sisyphus” play out, in the end, as a way of understanding the rom-com forms Party Girl is exploring: “Boy meets girl” as a narrative rock that’s always being pushed up the hill, and rolling back down again in the same way. The movie acknowledges that this is one of Mary’s dilemmas, as the central figure of such a romance, and then at least tries to avoid that cliche by shifting the focus in the movie’s second half to concerns of professional, familial, and platonic love. If it’s not entirely successful, it does offer a heartening way of broadening the genre’s recurring concerns.
Shifting focus is on my mind at this time, as I think about life after Chicago. The American Bar Association offices in Chicago are an interesting place to work in the mid-’90s: the people are very nice; I helped with writing, editing, grant rewarding and conference organizing around issues of law and the liberal arts; and there were enough pleasingly surreal moments to keep everyone on their toes. But I knew, like Mary, that it was a temporary stopping place. Like her, I was serious about graduate school, and headed south to Florida in August of 1997.
The University of Florida was a space known for its theoretical difference, for its interest in Surrealism, Derrida, and Andy Hardy as models for academic film writing. My mentor’s suggestion to his students about their work was a quote from Dziga Vertov, but it could also have come from Party Girl’s Mary: “Anything but the boring.” If other film programs sometimes looked at us like godmother Judy berating Mary-- “no common sense!”—we cheerfully rejected the false binaries of a lot of academic cosplay radicality: we knew how to throw a fun party, how to create an atmospheric mise-en-scene for our work.
Even in Gainesville, amidst classes, research, and theory, Party Girl would pop up like a talisman. Over post-Boogie Nights drinks one evening, a fellow graduate student mentions how much she identifies with Mary’s rant about putting books back randomly on shelves. A friend’s Oscar parties would use movie quotes as passwords, one year I was given Mary’s cri de couer—“I think I’m an existentialist; I really do.”—as mine. I would share my shitty Showtime VHS dub of the film with friends, recruiting new members to the cult. Posey’s movies continued to have a hold, even if her late ‘90s/early ‘00s work couldn’t hold a candle to that mid-’90s stretch. But the main thing was that, like Mary, I’d figured out where my spot was, and what I wanted to do. The cinephilia that functioned like a sponge in Chicago—absorbing, keeping me liquid in a rough period—was more ordered and focused now. Like Mary awkwardly shoving the exotic dancer away while trying to prove her seriousness, I didn’t need the movies to strip for me in that way and didn’t need to emotionally strip for them. Like Mary, I was ready for a different, more stable party.
V. Social Sciences
Returning to the film for this piece, in a moment when the state of the world makes everything feel precarious again, the rush I felt when I first watched Party Girl came back with a vengeance. Its blend of styles and tones feels smartly heterogenous, a winning blend of the professional and amateur. Its jokes ping-pong in your ears, providing both relief and one-liners for future use. There’s even an Ivana Trump joke near the start. Party Girl actually premiered on the internet in 1995, via Seattle’s Point of Presence Company; Parker Posey introduced the film via a webcam. Now, it feels less like a harbinger of a virtually real future, and more like a series of after-images that linger, a nostalgia that shimmers.
There’s real power in that, though. “Movies don’t change, but people do,” Roger Ebert famously wrote in his review of La Dolce Vita, and Party Girl—both the film and my shifting responses to it—suggests that the movie’s lessons about identity and escapism (and the open-ended, tentative nature of each) are even more resonant than they were when I was 23. Escapism, like Mary, gets a bum rap. For many self-serious critics, the escapist pleasures of this kind of pop are often derided in the way Judy approaches Mary and their shared family history: “Your mother was a woman with no common sense.” But of course, that’s Judy’s shield, a way to protect herself from rejection and to hide how much she wants to connect.
So, perhaps there’s another way to think about this, another way to organize our universe of items. In 2017, Party Girl’s escapism—the frisson that comes from its balance of the cartoonish and the earnest—feels less like an escape from reality than an escape into a different mode through which to view our current reality. It’s a vision of nation-as-library-as-dance club, a party where everyone is invited, and like the clubbers when Leo’s record scratches, the movie’s audience learns to clap along—creating their own beat, a community out of which pleasure arises. Its joy teaches us how to find our spot.
Brian Doan is a freelance writer living and working in Oberlin, Ohio, where he binge-watches Murdoch Mysteries with his wife, and dreams of a Midwestern grocery store that will carry good boudin (he is also an Affiliate Scholar in Oberlin College's Cinema Studies program). He received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida in 2010, where he wrote a dissertation on "The Anecdote and Classic Hollywood" that he is currently revising as a manuscript. He's a contributor atRogerEbert.com and has also written essays on movies, comics, and popular culture for various academic collections. If you're so inclined, you can read his musings on pretty much everything at his blog, Bubblegum Aesthetics.