In 1994, filmmaker Beth B made a short documentary that follows two New York drag performers: Vanier (pronounced "veneer," fittingly) and Sherry Vine (above). High Heel Nights is only ten minutes, but it's visceral, revealing filmmaking, a reminder that, while drag queens have become highly present in mainstream society thanks to cultural mainstays like RuPaul's Drag Race, that wasn't always the case.
Some of Beth B's film is devoted to "man on the street" interviews in which she asks regular joes and janes what a drag queen is, and most of them are unable to answer, or only give tentative guesses that mainly relate to "a man dresses up as a woman." As we hear from Vanier and Sherry's male counterparts, Mikel and Keith, there's much more to it than that. Both subjects give incredible insight to what drives them to put on the wig and the heels and perform. Mikel talks about the process, "the breaking down of Mikel and the building up of a whole new character," and though "in general [he likes] who Mikel is," Vanier has qualities that Mikel lacks. He assumes that one day, as he continues to perform and learns more about Vanier, those qualities will also be integrated into Mikel. The process isn't only cosmetic; it's transformative and emotionally instructive.
Over shots of Sherry Vine's stirring performance of "La Vita 'E Rosa," Keith says the same, that Sherry Vine is able to do things that Keith isn't; she's quicker witted and braver. He also revealed something fascinating: he's always been in touch with his feminine side, but since becoming Sherry Vine, he's now more in touch with his masculine side when he's Keith than he ever was before Sherry. On the outside, these characters - these veneers - mask the person beneath, but within, they're more themselves than they've ever been. It's beautiful, and speaks to the power of drag. While many drag performers embrace the culture because they love to entertain, drag doesn't exist merely to entertain us. It's far more personal, and more metamorphic, than that.
With penetrating, up-close looks at a few drag performances and cosmetic transformations, High Heel Nights puts us in the audience of mid-'90s East Village drag culture, but through Vanier and Sherry Vine, the film also puts us onstage. Powerfully edited and narratively complete, High Heel Nights is just what a documentary short should be: economical, compelling, meaningful and informative. And it's the kind of thing you'll never see anywhere else; the film doesn't even have an IMDb credit, much less a trailer or home video release. Fandor's got a massive selection of independent feature films, but its shorts selection is abundant and thoughtfully curated, as well, and High Heel Nights is just one of many, many films that everyone should see but almost no one has.
Interested in this subject matter? Check out The Heels Have Eyes, a coming feature-length documentary about the majorly happening Denver drag community.
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