Michael Alig · Mob Myths · Girl Detectives
Plus projects we're looking forward to in 2021
|Best Evidence||Dec 28, 2020||5||1|
“Party monster” Michael Alig has died. I could have sworn I ported over my 2017 write-up of Ramon Fernandez’s Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig last year, but I can’t find it in the B.E. archives, so here it is.
Ramon Fernandez's Glory Daze: The Life And Times Of Michael Alig is a weird, dark little number...like its subject
"King of the Club Kids" Michael Alig got in an argument with his friend-slash-dealer-slash-hanger-on Andre "Angel" Melendez on St. Patrick's Day, 1996. Melendez attacked Alig, Alig's friend Robert "Freeze" Riggs came to his defense, and the next thing they both know, Melendez is rotting in the tub in a cocktail of ice and Drano and an era of NYC nightlife is crashing down around everyone.
I lived in Manhattan when the Melendez murder went down, and for me, Glory Daze is like a yearbook of what it was like to be in the city at that time, to witness the end of its transition from burned out Warriors-scape to orderly tourist attraction, when my friends and I went out late and stayed out later and almost nobody had internet at home. We weren't into that club/rave/E scene, really -- occasionally a friend would know a guy who slept with a guy who knew a doorman, and we could get into Twilo at like 7 PM on a Sunday, before the "real" clubbers got there; we went to Squeezebox a lot -- but I use the word "yearbook" advisedly. If Manhattan was like a school, Alig and his club kids were the cool theater crowd who spent the entire school day in the bathrooms smoking and piercing each other's ears.
It also feels in retrospect like the time when "famous for being famous" began, that Alig and his painted coterie fidgeting on the set of Donahue and trying to explain their fake-it-till-you-make-it charisma to the olds and squares begat Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, and Fernandez, who's directing his first feature, does an outstanding job collaging a time machine back to the late '80s and early '90s. He gets eeeeeveryone to talk to him -- Michael Musto, James St. James, lawyers, promoters -- and furnishes an account of the crime from Alig himself, who in his middle age has started to resemble Joshua Malina. Two thirds of the way through the film, Alig is released from prison and must learn to navigate a very different city and world (...smartphones) than the one he left, but as he and St. James take a nostalgia tour of their old haunts and contemplate the waterfront where Alig and Riggs disposed of Melendez's dismembered body, you might wonder whether Alig is all that different. Does his compulsive drive towards the very center of attention allow any genuine remorse, or just a facsimile to avoid censure? When he breaks down in a talking-head interview, is it because he's truly sorry for the havoc he wreaked, the life he took? Or is he just overwhelmed by having to start over?
I can't say, and Glory Daze smartly doesn't take a position; at times it can feel like the film is a bit too taken with, for instance, Patricia Fields's claims that the club kids were the vanguard of a new downtown creativity, the heirs to Warhol's Superstars, but at the same time, letting assertions like that (and Alig's too-chatty account of the murder and body disposal) speak for themselves is the smartest commentary a documentary on this subject could provide. It's a bit awkwardly structured -- Alig's return to the world seems like it should come either earlier in the film or later -- and sometimes the shot composition is strained, but it's leagues better than Party Monster: The Shockumentary and an expert time capsule of the 212 at that time. — 2/13/17
I also thought I’d reviewed St. James’s Party Monster (sometimes pubbed under the title Disco Bloodbath), somewhere, but I can’t seem to find the review; I recall enjoying it while thinking it had some…credibility issues. In any event, give Glory Daze a look if this era is of interest; you can stream it with Amazon Prime. — SDB
With the best-of lists dying down here in the last week of 2020, it’s time for those most-anticipated-of-2021 SEO thirst tra— er, “pieces” to roll out. Among the properties I’m hearing chatter about:
Landscapers “explores the lives of convicted killers Susan ([Olivia]Colman) and Christopher Edwards and asks how this devoted and mild-mannered couple came to kill Susan’s parents and bury them in the back garden of their Mansfield home in the U.K. Their crime remained undiscovered for over a decade.” Alas, this isn’t the project’s only true-crime connection, as Alexander Payne is out as director/exec producer as of October — thanks to COVID scheduling conflicts, according to him and the production, buuuut news of his exit “comes less than two months after Rose McGowan accused the director of raping her when she was 15 years old.”
Monster Preacher, Oxygen’s two-hour special on Gary Heidnik. Granted, Oxygen is doing the chattering, and it seems like a missed opportunity given how many men of the cloth are felony shitbirds — why just one special with that title? why not a series? — so maybe we’re all better off checking out 2011’s The Factory instead? (Or maybe I need to make a list of the ripped-from-the-headlines cretins Dallas Roberts has played in the last 10-12 years, because yikes.)
Only Murders In The Building, a Hulu original sitcom “about true-crime-obsessed residents of an apartment building who find themselves involved in a murder mystery.” The show stars the two most bearable of the Three Amigos, and Selena Gomez. I am cautiously optimistic, but this is a really tough tone to get right.
And I hope The Lady And The Dale gets a drop date soon; that’s the one from the Brothers Duplass about the trans Anna Sorokin of auto manufacturing. …You heard me. — SDB
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Paying subscribers have a Notorious New Jersey review coming in a day or two; in the meantime, check out Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece on the mythology — lazy, yes, but also handy in organizing our ideas of the world — of the New York Mafia. Growing up in a part of the country where the Mob was a mostly-uncommented fact of life, like jughandles, I liked Gopnik’s meta take on the received lives-of-the-unsaints stories of organized crime: “Generally, in Mob stories, the cute bits are not real, and the real bits are not cute.”
The only aspect of this…ascension of the New York gangster to remote-folklore status, I guess, that I wish Gopnik had pushed harder on is the idea, absorbed by tri-staters of my generation as children, that the Five Families didn’t present a danger to “civilians.” You didn’t mess with them, they wouldn’t mess with you; the violence, the fear, the bigotry, the grotty parallel world through which the wives floated, waiting for deaths not their own — if you personally didn’t owe them money or threaten their territories, it had nothing to do with you. This isn’t true, of course, and we’re grownups; we all know without Gopnik having to remind us that Francis Ford Coppola may have imbued the origins of the New York Mafia with the nobility of world-building in desperation, but The Godfather is not a documentary. (It is, however, a board game.)
But there is a powerful nostalgia for the old-school Five Family gangster and his codes — and the map those codes provided for the uninitiated. In a world, after a year, of chaotic evil, the idea that certain sorts of tragedy can absolutely be avoided is a soothing one, and the purveyors of that tragedy just men holding lines. (It was said in the down-the-shore/Philly precincts of my family that Nicky Scarfo’s “problem” was the drugs that prompted him to color outside those lines. Not the shootouts and the car bombs per se; the lack of discipline.) If Gopnik decides to come back to the subject from that slightly shifted angle — or take on the Philly mob — I’m here for it. — SDB
I’ve just finished Sarah Weinman’s fantastic Unspeakable Acts, which reeeeeally made me miss the Best American Crime Reporting series. Not that Otto Penzler has nothing better to do, but doesn’t it seem like someone should revive it? Someone whose name rhymes with, Iiiii don’t know, “Farah Feinman”? I understand the grim realities of publishing (and IP law), and it’s not like Weinman has nothing better to do either — but Unspeakable Acts is everything I loved about TBACRs, with the added bonus of a more activist curatorial eye.
There’s also an Other Notable Crime Stories section at the end, which I have already laid the groundwork for blaming for why I didn’t tidy up the basement like I swore on a stack of Bloodletters and Badmens I would do this week. “It’s for the readers!” I’ll definitely surface a few of Weinman’s picks, like Marin Cogan’s 2017 piece for Topic.com, “The Girl Detectives.” It’s about “a student club devoted to solving crimes, one that's taken seriously by law enforcement,” but it’s also about more than that — about that meta motive for consuming/confronting true crime I sometimes talk about, the drive to control the story that’s told about you (and avoid it ending in your death).
They follow you from your youth: the warnings from well-meaning loved ones not to walk home alone at night, the exhortations to never leave your drink alone, the litany of behaviors cautioned against because they might give a dangerous person some kind of opening. You see the news stories about women and girls who have gone missing or been murdered, girls you knew, or didn’t know, but could imagine being friends with. You hear the stories about the women who go missing and don’t get enough coverage, because the they aren't conventionally pretty enough or white enough or virtuous enough to be taken seriously by law enforcement and the media.
Another interesting aspect of the piece is that Cogan asks the club members why they think it’s mostly young women, and accepts their answers relatively easily. The relationship of the genre to gender is both very straightforward and Möbiusly complex, and this approach just lets it be that. (I think the same piece written this year might have looked harder at 1) what appears to be the near-total whiteness of the group, and 2) the assumed cooperation with/need for approval from law enforcement.) Good piece; I look forward to bringing you more highlights from Weinman’s biblio.
As for UA itself, I tore through it; some stuff you’ve read before (and may end up re-reading, as I did), other stuff you can’t believe you never read before. It’s exactly the experience of TBACR, truly: “Okay, editor of this year’s: show me something. …Hey, this is something!” Universe, hear my resurrect-that-series cry. — SDB