sundance 2021

In Weirdo Night, the Avant-Garde Fights Dirty

Jibz Cameron as Dynasty Handbag in Weirdo Night. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Sometime during the shutdown, everything turned experimental. Given the necessities of online production, even the most mainstream projects are now out there in the aesthetic vanguard: Theater benefits push the digital form; fan-written TikToksicals explode assumptions about authorship; glossy cooking shows reassess notions of nearness. The markers of avant-gardism are now ubiquitous.

But there is still a bright line between what looks experimental and what is genuinely radical. Some shows fly their freak flags by choosing length over accessibility—do anything for four hours, and casual viewers will definitely drop away—or by pushing their audience rather than drawing them in. Aficionados call this rebarbative quality “difficulty,” though the word has a condescending vibe. “Oh, sorry this clown covered in prunes was too difficult for you” is a heck of a thing to say to someone, especially if you want them to go to the prune-clown show.

But I can’t lie. There are parts of Weirdo Night (The Movie), in the New Frontiers program at Sundance, that are not easy. Jibz Cameron’s filmed variety hour (in fact, only 42 minutes) isn’t hard to watch per se, but it’s certainly disorienting. If I had to name the feelings it evokes, I’d say they alternate between delight and, oddly, shame—at least, it gave me that millipede skitter in the gut, that icy finger on the neck. Typically, being a critic is about cataloguing pleasure. But there’s no English vocabulary for our creepy-crawly, anti-enjoyment appetites, even if we have them.

Cameron has been performing for much of the past two decades as the persona Dynasty Handbag, first in New York, where the downtown scene still throbbed with the echoes of the Pyramid Club, and now in Los Angeles. She’s both underground and established, a bridge between the greats of ’80s and ’90s avant-garde performance (the Wooster Group, Dancenoise) and this generation’s spate of feel-weird clowns and alt-comics. Handbag is a fauvist portrait of pushed-too-far womanhood: Joan Crawford, if Joan had retired to Florida and been run twice through a carwash. (Her costumes involve exaggerated and smeared eyebrows, high-cut leotards, blown-out shapewear, big floral shoulder pads.) On a certain circuit, she’s a titan: The theorist José Esteban Muñoz has placed her in a pantheon of artists exploring “queer failure,” since her performances often include serial humiliations accruing into a kind of teetering grandeur. In normal times, Cameron does her own wildly adored cult shows and hosts cabaret evenings—Weirdo Nights—at Zebulon in L.A. Under Dynasty Handbag’s contemptuous eye, these club nights have become a collection point for neo-vaudeville—some of it celeb-adjacent (Jack Black doing stand-up), much of it super-gay and freaky.

Weirdo Night (The Movie) is simply another edition of the variety series, this time performed under pandemic conditions and shot by Cameron’s partner, the filmmaker Mariah Garnett. Garnett’s camera is ruthless in showing how pathetic it is to play to an empty Zebulon. “Hello, NOBODY!” cackles Handbag, while wriggling through a Sprockets-y dance. The camera pulls up and back as far as the little room will allow. Yep, nobody. But Handbag is pretty sure she’s got an audience. “There’s ghosts,” she insists into an unnecessary microphone. “I stepped on a cum stain on my way up here, and there’s people in that.” She mocks her followers, particularly the types who show up at Weirdo Nights for a glance at K-Stew. (K-Stew, like everybody on Earth, is not there.)

Keeping her six-foot distance, Handbag brings up a string of artists, though none seem to impress her. Some contributors have sent in remote video works: Morgan Bassichis sings about the joys of the bathtub from said bathtub, and Sarah Squirm’s “No Respect” short is a drag Rodney Dangerfield routine, which turns into chainsaw horror out in the desert. Other acts actually walk onto the Zebulon stage with Dynasty, like dancer BiBi Discoteca; the goth-dada band Smiling Beth; and alt-comic Patti Harrison, fronting a band called Dildo Police, which plays a rage-noise anthem that goes, “I AM NOT GAY! I AM NOT GAY! I AM SO STRAIGHT I CAN’T IMAGINE BEING GAY!” Harrison wears one medical mask over her eyes and another over her mouth, and the two flap together like the jaws of a serial-killer Muppet. The band files offstage. “Jeez Louise, good riddance,” says our host, sighing.

Garnett’s translation of Weirdo Night from real-life club event to the screen is perfectly judged, in that it—like Dynasty Handbag—is bent on making the show harder instead of easier. Sound echoes bizarrely in the unoccupied room, empty chairs are often included in shot, and though the acts are gorgeously framed, when Cameron is onstage, the lens either tucks right up under her chin (she talks into a banana like it’s a phone, takes her pants off, collapses) or peers down like a security camera. Weirdo Night (The Movie) is full of beautiful textures, like the deep-blue light pouring onto a chair, which turns the ugly plastic into a Dan Flavin installation. But it’s also about Weirdo Night (the event) being broken; it was already a cavalcade of broken things intent on further breakage.

The stuff in Sundance’s New Frontiers is, by design, a smorgasbord from the future: It includes a virtual-reality visit to the International Space Station (I wept into my Oculus VR helmet for 30 straight minutes because space is beautiful, goddamn it), and a series of immersive Black cyberutopias called Traveling the Interstitium With Octavia Butler, designed by a supergroup including idris brewster and Stephanie Dinkins. Emotionally speaking, everything I saw in New Frontiers apart from Weirdo Night seemed gentle. Either it was reparative (Dinkins has another immersive piece called Secret Garden, which lets you wander among huge flowers as Black women tell difficult family stories) or bent on building empathy via experience (e.g., the VR television show 4 Feet High, about the sexual adventures of a girl who uses a wheelchair).

So what the heck is this movie doing at Sundance anyway? I don’t mean to get tangled up talking about the line between theater and cinema, a line I don’t much believe in anyway. Yet … Weirdo Night has a stage in it, and the New Frontiers program is supposedly about what’s happening next. VR is clearly next; immersion is next. Stages were being chipped out of rock before there were chisels. Yet despite the artists’ old strategies—Dildo Police sounds like the ’70s, Dynasty Handbag dresses like the ’80s, and Smiling Beth looks like the ’90s—they all feel like pioneers because of the endlessly refreshing newness of not giving a shit. A refusal to soothe or seduce is the last, unassimilatable quality of the true fringe. Any aesthetic can be appropriated and turned toward audience building, engagement, sales. Not caring about that garbage is what makes you free.

In Weirdo Night, the Avant-Garde Fights Dirty