Tuesday 18 August 2020

slow reviews | movies | 1995

Party Girl

Pamela Hutchinson on a cult film that heralded the age of streaming

For film fans, 2020 has been the long, locked-down summer of streaming. In the UK, 1.8 million new customers paid for digital video streams during this period, boosting the number of movie-streamers to a record high of 5.5 million. And it only took 25 years for us to pick up the habit.

Long before Netflix ditched its little square envelopes, indie-comedy Party Girl, the story of Mary, a debauched Manhattan club kid who falls in love with a falafel vendor and finds her true calling as a librarian, made its first appearance on the shiny new World Wide Web.

On 3 June 1995, minutes before it was projected on the big screen at the Egyptian in Seattle, Party Girl premiered online, streaming to, apparently, “several hundred people worldwide over a CUSeeMe reflector at Point of Presence Company’s offices” in the downtown area of the city. Leading lady Parker Posey was there in the office, rather than walking the red carpet to the cinema. She pushed the button on the stream and introduced the movie, while NBC News cameras caught the historic moment for those who were elsewhere, or simply didn’t have the bandwidth.

Like the idea of video-streaming itself, Party Girl was a bit of a slow burn. By rights, it should have been a hit after making a splash at Sundance. Director Daisy Von Scherler Mayer’s comedy is an impressively credible portrayal of the NYC mid-90s club scene; Posey’s performance is deliciously exaggerated; and the script is packed with zesty one-liners. Not to mention the fact that the soundtrack is full of danceable gems (Deee-Lite, Run-DMC) and that Mary’s wardrobe is a scene-stealing mix of borrowed designer gear, vintage finds and eccentric styling (a jumper worn as a bolero, four T-shirts layered at once, and endless hotpant-and-chunky-heel combinations), all curated by costume designer Michael Clancy.

Sadly, though, Party Girl made just $472,00 at the box office, but that’s not the end of the story. Party Girl’s stature has risen with the years and now it’s a genuine cult classic, celebrated for its hipster cameos (legendary drag queen Lady Bunny appears), that time-capsule soundtrack, and its highly influential fashion sense.

There’s a certain authenticity to Party Girl that transcends its life-lessons-of-a-rich-girl plot, too. As Von Scherler Mayer told Vogue recently, the aim was to “make a movie that stars all the people that are the side characters in other movies. Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks go up and get a falafel from a stand—well, forget about Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, why not have a movie about the falafel vendor?”

There’s another reason for the film’s longevity. It’s a pre-social media film, with entirely analogue obsessions – vinyl, books, even the research skills Mary learns have been rendered quaint by Google – but it’s tailor-made for today’s internet, composed entirely of poses, outfits, gags and sight jokes that are made to be memed. Party Girl was born online, and thrived on Tumblr, one GIF at a time.

A quarter of a century later, you can catch Party Girl in its natural habitat, streaming online at Amazon Prime.  

Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill  

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Pamela Hutchinson

Pamela Hutchinson is a film critic and historian. She founded the Silent London website, and wrote the BFI monograph on ‘Pandora’s Box’.