The Party

The first thing you notice is that it's black and white! (Remembering that some movies fool you by opening with black and white, only to crush your spirits by switching to color.) Then a familiar voice: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension...” I'm just kidding—but at the end of this terrific experimental comedy, it did occur to me that it's a slightly extended Twilight Zone episode. I mean that as the highest compliment. As is my custom, I went to the theater knowing as little as possible about the movie, so when I got home I looked up the director, Sally Potter, and realized I have not seen anything by her previously, and will now look forward to checking out some of her work. I was familiar with all seven of the actors, however, and they're all very good. I can't tell if something is shot with film or digital anymore, but the black and white cinematography looked really good, and I think more movies should be b&w, particularly if they feature acting and faces (as opposed to cartoons and explosions) because b&w intensifies faces. I was also noticing details more, like fabric—which led me to think, for the second movie in a row, that what the cinema is really missing out on is exploitation of the olfactory realm—though how that can be accomplished is up to some future genius.

The Party (2017) is barely feature length, and essentially one extended scene in one setting (the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and just outside a house). It doesn't feel like a play, however, and actually feels more like an entire season of an ensemble television drama insanely compressed into seventy-some minutes. This compression is where the comedy lies—much more so than in the vicious and cutting dialogue; much of the ongoing joke is that these people are so unpleasant that the relentless dispensation of information and lack of breath from one hyper-dramatic moment to the next is actually a relief. God help me if this is a party I find myself at anytime soon. Or worse, the normal person, “sane” version of how the party was “supposed to” go—the congratulations, the polite announcements—if the hidden resentments, the deep-seated hatred hadn't bubbled to the surface.

I know I said I'm going to write about movies without worrying about giving anything away, but in this case, even a rudimentary plot summery will ruin the viewing experience for anyone who hasn't seen it, and if you have seen it, there is no point. I will mention that there is a gun (which enters in about the first four seconds), three blows to the head, and lots of vomiting. Also, some absurdly copious burning food kitchen smoke. And one texting phone, with an annoying (are there any other kind?) tone. Anyway, what I am going to do is present a couple of theories that occurred to me about the formation (and perhaps meaning) of this story—which seem obvious to me, and therefore might be subject of some other article or online discussion group, but I've read nothing, and this is straight from my mind, hours after watching the movie. Also, I might be totally off base, but the fact that I'm still thinking about the movie is a good sign.

Theory one is that this movie is a sequel/remake/parallel universe re-visitation of St. Elmo's Fire (1985)—which is one of the worst movies ever made, but somehow irresistible for its train-wreck quality and unintentional humor. That movie also has seven main characters, all personal and professional acquaintances and friends, with messy histories and uncertain futures. Each character embodies a “type” (“the yuppie,” “the party girl”)—badly written, overwrought, ridiculous—to the point of hilarity. I could imagine a writer/filmmaker using that movie as a starting place, imagining these characters thirty years down the road, but instead of maturing and expanding their horizons, they spent too much time with each other with, for some reason, in an unhealthy insularity. Of course, it doesn't quite fit, since The Party is comprised of half old friends and half newcomers to the group—and also, there's the character we never actually see, who is the “wild card”—and I don't know who in St. Elmo's Fire that would be. Still, it's worth considering.

Maybe my second theory is more plausible, and that's that this movie is based on the Gilligan's Island (1964) TV show. The clue here is that The Party's unseen character is named Mary Ann—we keep hearing about this Mary Ann—the one person who is late to the party—but seems to be at the center of everything that is going on. On Gilligan's Island I always felt that Mary Ann was the most intriguing character because she is the only one who is not a “type”—and I realize that she's the “farm girl”—but I think she's meant to be a stand-in for the viewer—the normal person—while the rest of them are various versions of ridiculous. And I realize The Party has an extra character—but the character of “Tom”—who brings the gun, the coke, and the bad intentions to the party—I see as the weekly Gilligan's Island “intrusion.” Essentially, these seven characters have achieved an ideal, isolated existence, and with each episode, a new outside force is introduced—the threat being that they will be “rescued” (and thus, The End). Anyway, you can do worse than to write a story with the characters from Gilligan's Island as a framework model of your characters (I have done it).

I think it's a real failing of movies to want to make sure you know exactly what's going on and why, so when it's over you feel satisfied and forget it fifteen minutes later. Longer and more overwhelming isn't necessarily an improvement, as far as I'm concerned. Being crushed under the weight of a movie isn't my idea of fun, nor is being suffocated by its immensity. Sometimes I really value that feeling of “what just happened”—in life, and in art. Though there are times when you do appreciate being crushed by a movie (in particular, the rare story that's sad and real), and would rather not talk about it, sometimes it's nice to meet for coffee after it's over and talk about it. Or if you don't have anyone to talk to, you can write an article, and if you're lucky, get paid a kernel of popcorn per word.

Randy Russell 3.12.18