Flashback Film Friends is a series in which a Jezebel staffer watches a movie she or he has seen a million times, with a staffer who has never seen it once. Then they discuss—just like friends.
Party Girl premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, as one of the titles emblematic of the '90s independent film explosion. Unlike the proto-mumblecore films of directors like Hal Hartley or the bro-y slacker vibes of Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater, though, Party Girl was a story centered on a woman and the complexities of women's choices, directed and co-written by a woman, Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Lead character Mary, played with impeccable sarcasm and incredulity by queen Parker Posey, is a spunky New York nightlifer whose aspirations—throwing fantastic raves, going to excellent clubs, generally being an It-girl—begin to conflict with her ability to pay her rent. After spending a night in the slammer for hosting a party that got a little too fantastic, she finds herself in the employ of the New York Public Library, under the disapproving tutelage of her godmother, Judy (played by Sasha von Scherler, the director's mom). As she floats through after-hours New York City while trying to keep her day job, she learns some really important life lessons about adult goals and like, not being an asshole.
The whole cast is incredible, with Guillermo Diaz as her funny DJ friend Leo, Liev Schreiber as her mean British boyfriend (a door guy, no less), Omar Townsend as the Lebanese falafel cart vendor who steals her heart, and Anthony DeSando as her fellow fashion-obsessed best friend Derrick, who spends the entirety of the movie desperately looking for "Carl," his hot one-night stand. And because it's a film about New York City club life in the '90s, there are many cameos from its denizens, like infamous drag queens Lady Bunny and Natasha Twist. So even though Party Girl is a spoof—that year Sundance called it "a delightful and often very funny satire on career choices"—elements of it ring true, mainly the concept of a feckless, carefree young woman having the time of her life while listening to incredible house music. (DAJAÉ AND CAJMERE!)
I first saw Party Girl when it came out on home video, probably 1996. Living in boring-ass Wyoming, I already idealized what I imagined to be New York City life—the raves alone, but also the fashion, the freedom—but this film cinched it. One day, when I grew up, I would move to New York City and copy every move Mary makes in the film. I would combine my love of dancing with my love of reading, go to all the cool nightclubs and write books in my spare time. And I would wear exclusively Todd Oldham and Comme des Garcons—jackets in leopard print, hot pants in primary colors, wild tights and dainty gloves for my fantastic lifestyle. I aspired to her life.
Since the '90s, I've seen Party Girl approximately 350 times, give or take. It's probably my favorite film ever—glean from that what you will—and it reminds me of being young and having all the hope in the world for my future.
One Wednesday night, my colleague Kate Dries and I sat down to watch Party Girl, which she, as a native New Yorker, had never seen. Here is our subsequent chat.
J: Party Girl is probably my favorite movie of all time, but because it's meant so much to me through the years, I obviously have no perspective on whether or not it's as funny or great as it was in, like, 1996, when I was wee. What I'm saying is, I've been burned before, Kate… and you seemed to be only vaguely entertained while we were watching it. Am I wrong? Was it anything like you expected?
K: I guess I thought it would be a little bit more... together? Maybe that's the word I'm looking for. I mean from the title, Party Girl, I expected perhaps a more formulaic film than I got. Which wasn't a disappointment! Just not what I thought it was going to be. I think by the end of it I was much more convinced of its value than after the first half an hour, not to get too ahead of ourselves.
J: So what were you expecting? Just from the title. Also: did you think the jokes were too '90s.
K: I guess maybe something more like a teen film. Which doesn't really make sense at all; I mean any movie you described to me as a movie that made you want to move to New York and join the rave scene would NOT be described as a teen film. So me starting off on the wrong (or rather, inaccurate) foot, so to speak, with Party Girl, was not the fault of anyone but my own remembrance of my youth, when I had brief flights of fancy with moving to the suburbs and meeting a nice jock who could love me for who I really was.
I did not think the jokes were too '90s. As Vh1 says, I love the '90s.
J: It should probably be noted here that after we watched the movie, greased by a shared bottle of wine, I invited you to visit my mom in Cheyenne, Wyoming, during Cheyenne Frontier Days, "The Daddy of 'Em All"; the offer still stands.
Yes, so: as a teenager, I was obsessed with the idea of moving to New York, and Party Girl really played out this very specific fantasy of what I expected my life to be if and when I moved here: a person with a fabulous life (and a day job at the library!) and fabulous clothes designed by Todd Oldham and carte blanche entry to every fabulous nightclub and rave with house music and fabulous friends who were DJs and voguers and, like, British people. I have succeeded achieving many of these things. In a way, now that I think of it, Parker Posey's character in Party Girl was really a precursor to the idea that Carrie Bradshaw was selling in Sex and the City, albeit much grimier. Maybe Carrie Bradshaw in the first half of the first season, if she lived in Soho and took ecstasy. Does that ring at all true to you?
Julianne has been trying to recreate this outfit in some fashion for the last 20 years.
K: The Carrie Bradshaw comparison is a great one. Like Carrie Bradshaw if she was broke the way she probably should have been and 24 years old.
I think Parker Posey's Mary was probably a big reason it took me a bit to warm up to the movie, because she reminded me so much of a modern-day Holly Golightly; flighty, always dependent on the help of others, sort of annoying in her effortless glamour. People LOVE Audrey Hepburn's character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but I can't stand her because she seems like such a leech. I think the more Party Girl goes on, however, you really get character development with Mary, and see that yes, she has this exciting life and amazingly shiny hair, but she's really looking for something to focus on. She's so annoying at first because she hasn't been given the opportunity to have stability in her life.
(BTW I am definitely looking into tickets to Wyoming.)
J: Yeah, I can see that: at the beginning, Mary is this archetype of the entitled, hapless fuck-up, and everything goes pretty right for her even though she's self-centered and just a grade-A asshole. I can't say that some of that didn't influence me as a kid, though, as far as becoming the bitch that I am today; the part where she's telling Nigel, her British, Kangol-wearing boyfriend, that he "lowers her worth" just because he pissed in her shower at a party was hysterical to me when I was younger, but also instructive in a way. It taught me never to date a dude who was not on my level. (Not that I took my own advice, but.) I still have a thing about dudes pissing in showers. It's disrespectful.
Mary telling Nigel he lowers her worth.
But the gist of the story is, Mary gets over that entitlement. She realizes she's being a dick and finds her way to becoming a better, less shallow person via learning, obviously, the Dewey Decimal System. She sells all her designer clothes to pay her rent and go to library school. Of course it's absurd—no one can change that much, that fast—but it's teaching us the fundamental idea that people can change at all. Also, this just occurred to me, is Party Girl like the most '90s liberal movie or WHAT. (Aside from the weird depictions of Mustafa, the hot falafel vendor.)
K: That's interesting. I guess Mary at the end does sort of fulfill my childhood dream that you can be a bitch but also be a good person, which has remained my goal in life: to be good if not always nice. I think at the beginning, not having any context for her backstory (a dead mother who, as her godmother constantly reminds her, was all over the place like she is), watching her prance around parties makes it hard to imagine how she'll have any kind of redemption.
That being said, watching her prance around parties is super fun; it's amazing how easily nostalgic I can get watching movies about New York City of my childhood. I feel like we spent at least five minutes trying to figure out what exact corner Mustafa's falafel cart was on (Lafayette and the very small Jersey Street, right by the Gawker Media offices, if you're curious) and how there's now a Brooklyn Industries there. Watching Mary's New York did make me a bit nostalgic for the dream-ideal of the city in those days, when paying your landlord in cash was par for the course and the classes weren't so divided that you actually could meet a falafel guy on the street and have sex with him in a public library at night.
Okay, that plotline was insane though.
Lafayette Street below Houston in 1995 (the blue building is now a Brooklyn Industries).
J: Haha, YEAH, that plotline was pretty crazy, but Mustafa was hot as hell. Part and parcel with the Old New York scenery was her incredible loft (in Soho? in Chinatown?), which is huge enough to allow her DJ friend Leo not only to live there, but also set up his DJ equipment and store crates (along with her racks of designer clothing, at least some of which she procures by "shoplifting" at bougie house parties).
We really should talk about Leo, played by Guillermo Diaz; his whole life goal is to get a gig as the house DJ at Rene's, the hottest club in town, and through that he finds love with a girl named Venus—"just Venus." She's basically a paid cage dancer/party starter for the club, which seems like such a '90s thing, even though I'm not sure if that even existed. It seems '90s to me because of Club MTV, I guess. Anyway, Diaz is especially hilarious in his interactions with Rene (played by Donna Mitchell, who was in Olive Kitteridge AND The Exorcist). Those scenes gave us one of the funniest scenes in all of independent cinema: "Imitate a Cat Puking."
K: Wow your Guillermo knowledge goes deep. He was definitely a part of some of the more random moments that both made Party Girl seem like such a weird movie but also made it strangely realistic. Like the scene where he gets in the shower before Mary because he wants to use it first but she needs it also so she jumps in after him (naked, obviously). Despite being platonic friends and him having kind of a gay vibe before this, they kiss, naked, briefly, but then that's the last you hear of it. Did that come out of nowhere? Yes. But after I thought more about it, it felt sort of realistic, in the way that sometimes friends who aren't really into each other but who find themselves in a situation where they might hook up have a brief dalliance?
Moments like that made me feel as though movies today (or even plenty of movies made then) are so formulaic anything that's not expected feels out of place to watch. Yeah, there were lots of ridiculous things happening, but perhaps they only felt ridiculous because I hadn't seen them before. It's probably equally ridiculous—to use an example from every teen movie ever—to expect two star-crossed high schoolers to fall in love and spend the rest of their lives together, so why should a little romance between a falafel cart man and the girl that gets her hangover food from him seem that out of place? Or that a cage girl and a DJ would lock eyes from across the room and that would be it?
Venus, club dancer/Leo's love interest.
On the note of realism, the more Mary got into her library job, the more I vibed on the movie. It felt so true, her commitment to being good at something that mattered. As much as I like parties (and definitely spend more time at them then I do in libraries), it's interesting to me that you loved those party scenes so much when you were younger, because watching Mary on drugs at her like...Middle Eastern-themed raves...made me itchy.
J: Ha, YEAHHH, see also Mustafa's character, and Mary's Salome dancing—that's obviously the most glaring thing that was "acceptable" back then that no one would try now, but I also think that part of it was to show that Mary was still an asshole, even with her brief dalliance with not being one; that she was making Mustafa into this hot Other and not respecting his person and jumbling up all sorts of cultures into one themed freaking rave. I think I was more interested in the dancing and the music, to be honest—the club-kid It Twins, who were NYC nightlife luminaries/alleged ecstasy dealers who dressed alike long before Andrew Andrew; the drag queens (that's the infamous Lady Bunny in the beginning); and the drag queen Natasha Twist ("NAT-A-SHA!") at the more low-key party, in which Mary's wearing sequin cap sleeves and elbow-length satin gloves, which, I DIE. Probably part of why I idealized the movie was because it felt so true-to-life, something through which I could live vicariously, and it was only later that I realized how based in reality it was.
Also, as noted before, Mary's godmother, Judy, was played by Sasha von Scherler, the mother of Party Girl's director and cowriter Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Judy acts as Mary's moral compass in the film, but she's also envious of Mary's life—she's going through menopause and having regrets about not going to more wild parties as a young woman. There are quite a few subthemes about women's agency, actually—the biggest turning point for Mary comes when Nigel attempts to sexually assault her while she's drunk and tripping on an unnamed drug that will "make my unborn children grow gills."
K: Mary is really strong-willed, and that's perhaps her most endearing quality. She is not a wallflower and she goes after she wants when she wants it. Sure, it made her kind of an asshole sometimes, but I think that was partly because I kept forgetting she was supposed to be 24; even when she's a mess, you're never really worried that she isn't going to figure something out eventually. In that way, I get why watching this movie when you were younger would have made you want to move to New York because despite how over-the-top and undesirable a lot of her activities were to me, her general attitude left me wishing I was a little more like Mary out in the big city.
In short, this movie was not what I expected but what I expected was pretty off-base and I found myself pleasantly surprised! Which is maybe not what you want to hear when you've carefully handed your favorite, life-altering movie over to someone in the desperate hope that it will move them as much as it moved you?
J: It's okay, Kate. I am a whole lot older now, and can now go to raves whenever I want to. Also, I have seen it approximately 350 times so you will never change my mind. THANKS FOR COMING OVER ON A WEEKNIGHT, THOUGH! Let's go to a party! Soho has changed!
K: Ugh boy has it ever. That falafel dude is nowhere to be found.
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