Sunday, February 1, 2015

Drag without Drag

Drag can be a drag sometimes, a rote activity performed because it's "drag," not because it's exciting or unique or funny or astute.  Drag-shows (the ones in gay bars, on Logo, and a lot of other venues across the entertainment spectrum) can become as one-two-three as old-school stand-up routines or kitschy sing-alongs, so self-conscious and people-pleasing you want to push a dollar-bill at it all and then walk away.  I've been to, and seen, a lot of those kind of shows, with lip-syncing queens acting all busy and fierce in shiny costumes that seem worn out as much as the music and poses.  Drag to me is about an off-kilter celebration of what you are trying to emulate; it is askew and yet also somehow straight-on, judgmental enough to make a statement but also lovely enough to rise above the judgment and make a statement about the inevitable worthlessness of every situation, the absurdity of trying too hard to be somebody in a world that usually just does not give a shit.
So with all that said, ladies and gentleman:  Candace Devereaux, as performed by Fred Armisen on Portlandia.  The inaugural episode of the fifth season of the sparkly, slapsticky, on-target sketch show features an all back-story segment (framed hilariously by an innocent newsletter writer stumbling into Women and Women First, wanting some bare-essential information to put into the neighborhood newsletter, and Candace and her partner Toni [played to perfection by Armisen's eternal sidekick Carrie Brownstein] taking it as a major opportunity to tell their story and have it written down).   From this mini-movie, we discover why Candace and Toni wound up in feminist bookstore obscurity.  What I really want to celebrate is Armisen's exactitude and total love for Candace, in which Ms. Devereaux is given to us as an early-90s career woman fiercely focused on being the top dog in a book-store-chain empire overseen by male chauvinist pigs.  It is probably the funniest 30 minutes I have seen on TV in recent years, specific, dynamically stupid, calmly over-the-top, kind of like Armisen himself.
I've seen this episode now about 10 times.  Whenever I feel down or troubled, I go to it.  It makes me lose it every time, especially the gorgeous dance sequence, when Toni and Candace have a dance-off to Snap's 1990 classic, "I've Got the Power" in a fluorescently-lit happy-hour club.  What could have been a drag in this scene turns into a revelation, as Armisen performs Candace's early-90s machinations through a series of horrible and glorious dance moves involving posing like Murphy Brown and pulling her hair away from her face like a super-model with the fan just turned on.  It's all red-hot-camera-sessions, arrogance, and power-envy, blurring into a sort of caricature that isn't a caricature:  it's a portrait, a tribute.  Armisen really seems to love being Candace, inhabiting her life and skin and facial expressions with the ease of Meryl Streep doing a Hungarian accent.  He slips into the guise effortlessly, and then finds huge amounts of joy in playing through her hilarious, professional rages ("We have a story to tell.  So listen.  And WRITE IT DOWN!!!"), her man-hunger, her appetites that seem formed from intense personal politics as well as trends bullet-pointed in a 1992 Cosmo article.  Candace has no shame or remorse about it:  she is goddamn sleeping her way to the top!
I think a lot of the credit has to go to the director of the series, Jonathan Krisel.  He is the perfect documentarian for drag.  He lights, photographs and edits this episode with the deft, hilarious care he does in all the other Portlandia episodes, giving both Armisen and Brownstein a stage on which to be totally stupid and perfect.  There are scenes in "The Story of Candace and Toni" that seem to be mocking and/or paying homage to great 80s and 90s glossy thrillers like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, and a number of Demi Moore vehicles where she played a hot executive in search of either a lover or a killer or both, all of that simulacra fashioned into a love-letter to Candace's persistence in being Candace, her flourishes, her furies, her wonderful Candace-ness.
This is the kind of drag I'm talking about:  dumbfoundingly on-target, effortlessly silly, and a tribute to what is being mocked while mocking without any reverence or fuss.  And it is so hilarious I can't stop going back to it to find some other morsel of joy. 
Candace Devereaux for President!