Wednesday, October 5, 2011

VIFF 2011: “The British Guide to Showing Off”

Imagine a beauty contest where the contestants do not represent nations, but totally cockamamie ideas. The entrants comprise men, women and everyone else on the sexual identity continuum. You are permitted to bring assistants to help you carry your train, which is attached to the replica of the Empire State Building you are wearing on your head as a hat on top of your bright pink wig. The entrants’ names are “Miss F*** It”, “Miss Trailer Trasher”, “Miss Beauty with Cruelty” and “The Princess of Whales”. Contestants often appear in full kabuki makeup, and some discovered the wonders of body glitter and full blue facial wear long before the Blue Man Group formed. Welcome to the Alternative Miss World.

Jes Benstock’s kooky but ridiculously funny British documentary The British Guide to Showing Off charts the history of this ludicrous but infamous slice of pop culture. Originally started as a one-off event by British conceptual artist Andrew Logan, distinguished as the only living artist in the UK with his own museum, the pageant started on a lark in 1972 and was so notorious that it attracted the likes of Andy Warhol and his Factory, Derek Jarman and Leigh Bowery, who often competed as a contestant (he was “Miss F*** It”). The initial event was so jam-packed that the hip and notorious of London climbed through the windows to enter the venue, and even David Bowie, at the height of his Ziggy Stardust phase, was turned away at the door. Logan was a man who threw the Sex Pistols a Valentine’s Day Ball. In other words, he was – and still is – so cool that the board of education officially shut down school. The film’s quirky style is best exemplified by matching narration with first-person-account interviews interspersed with pop-art graphic design straight out of old Monty Python skits and pop-up books, mixed with live archival footage.

The Alternative Miss World (AMW) has been staged sporadically over the years, about once every three years or so on average, with minimal corporate sponsorship (if any) and a lot of chutzpah. Anything could happen. One of the earliest pageant hosts was no less than legendary drag artist Divine. Heck, Logan’s entire family, regardless of sexual orientation, participated as judges, participants and in any capacity the show needed. (AMW developed a reputation for being all-inclusive in terms of its contestant roster, and everyone was welcome to compete more than once.) As its notoriety grew, the spectacle encouraged more and more incredulously inventive entries, and celebrity judges over the years have included the famed fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, comedian Billy Connolly, producer Brian Eno, venerable character actress Sian Phillips and Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes. As the show gained further status as one of the must-see cultural celebrations, it occupied a strange place in British art and culture as an art show never fully assimilated into the mainstream. One year, a British politician actually participated in bizarre costumes designed by filmmaker Sam Taylor Wood.

What The British Guide to Showing Off captures is the spirit of the AMW as culture evolved. This venerable yet still edgy art spectacular has survived the punk era, the New Wave-Romantic age, the outbreak of political hip-hop and the co-opting of queer imagery into contemporary culture, and is still standing. You can see its influence everywhere, from the imagery of electronic musicians such as Goldfrapp and Ladytron, to high fashion (the likes of John Galliano discovered AMW after the 1981 show and have claimed it as an inspiration) and to Tilda Swinton’s red-carpet sartorial selections. Perhaps the most popular artist who embodies its spirit and fuels her creative image with it is no less than Lady Gaga. When she emerged around 2008, few in the mainstream had seen her style before, and while one can credit her with innovation, one cannot help but view her designs and image as being influenced by the AMW. In fact, I would not be surprised to see her pop up in the next AMW pageant, whenever that might be.

The British Guide to Showing Off is one of the most joyous, raucous documentaries in recent years. It’s a little hard not to be, given its subject matter. The film is presented at the Vancouver International Film Festival by local LGBT newspaper Xtra!, and screens on October 9, 10 and 13. For ticket information click here