Hair Ball

Wigstock lovingly documents New York's premier drag event

Somewhere in the middle of Wigstock: The Movie, I stopped taking notes and gave in to the silliness of it all. Fretting about accurate descriptions of loopy outfits and getting bitchy quotes down precisely seemed antithetical to the experience director Barry Shils set out to deliver -- a fluffy, feel-good flick that celebrates the boys who would be girls.

Wigstock does for lower-Manhattan drag queens what Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning did for the uptown set, minus (for the most part) the cultural, racial, and media commentary. The film takes its name from an annual conclave of hair-hoppers that began 10 years ago in a neighborhood square. The event became so popular it now takes place on a pier, which makes for some pleasantly incongruous shots in which fluorescent-haired performers flail in the foreground while huge tankers mosey into the harbor behind them.

RuPaul and Lypsinka are among the headliners. Alexis Arquette, Lady Kier (the Deee-Lite singer says drag queens taught her all she knows about "glamour"), Misstress Formika (who opens the show with a rousing "Age of Aquarius"), Crystal Waters, Joey Arias, and the Lady Bunny, one of Wigstock's originators, also appear. The Dueling Bankheads, complete with black patent leather purses and Tallulah's exaggerated gestures and hairdos, turn in a brief but captivating performance.

Half, if not more, of the enjoyment of drag derives from the process of transforming oneself. Conscientious transvestites often spend weeks preparing for their second or two in the spotlight. Shils follows Los Angeles underground icons Arquette and Beat to costume and other shops for interviews with proprietors and customers. At the Patricia Fields wig salon, they peruse deluxe models and get the dish on who's the most demanding queen (Flotilla de Barge, with the Lady Bunny a close second).

Having two Angelenos at the forefront of Wigstock is odd -- they come off at times as interlopers at a quintessentially New York event. Beat and Arquette have their moments, though, particularly while flirting ("You look just like David Hasselhoff") with a guy who tells them about the tattoos he got in prison. Unfortunately for Beat, after boasting about how much she's going to "kick ass onstage," her number is dismal.

Even at 82 minutes, Wigstock goes on too long and suffers from intermittent visual ennui. Lip-syncing performers may hold interest at an outdoor gathering, where distractions abound, but on film a two- or three-minute number can feel interminable. Shils wisely cuts often to the flamboyant crowd -- 20,000 attended the 1994 affair -- though the device loses its effectiveness after an hour. Despite its drawbacks, Wigstock captures the exuberance and frivolity of a minor New York phenomenon and does so without pretension or condescension.

The Movie
opens Fri,
June 23,
at the
Lumiere
in S.F. and
the Shattuck
in Berkeley.

 
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