Recommended Viewing Situation:
Sewing bigger shoulderpads into that $500 Yves Saint Laurent Laurent dress you mopped and ignoring your House Mother’s advice to take up the hem.
Running Time: 71 Minutes
Format: 16mm and 35 mm colour film
Director: Jennie Livingston
Writer: Various (documentary)
Awards: Numerous, including Outstanding Film (Documentary) at the 1992 GLAAD Media Awards, Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival.
It’s not just the winning. It’s the giving too’.- Kim Pendavis (7.21-7.26)
Pepper LaBeija’s entrance into Paris Is Burning is quite possibly the best anyone has ever made onto a screen. Maybe the murderer’s introduction in ‘M’ or Dr Frank ‘N’ Furter coming descending from his laboratory are better better choreographed, but LaBeija’s entrance has the advantage of being real. The crowd legitimately goes wild, and so they should. There are hoops, swirls, feathers. There are opera gloves. There’s so much gold lamé you could clothe three Marilyn Monroes and still have some leftover. As the MC says; clear the floor.
Paris is Burning is one of those films I was supposed to watch. You know how it goes. Female writers are supposed to read A Room of One’s Own. Black film-makers are supposed to watch For Colored Girls and The Color Purple. Pity the Irish; they’re expected to tackle Joyce. And for us queer brown writers-for-performance Paris Is Burning is considered part of basic education. I resisted watching it for a long time, more out of bloody mindedness than anything. If there’s one thing that gets up my nose it’s doing something because it’s expected. Why should I watch it?
Because it’s bloody fabulous, that’s why.
Released in 1990, Jennie Livingston’s documentary is a deep dive into the drag balls of the late eighties. This is none of your before-the-watershed, uber-glam, sponsored-by-Absolut drag. These are the queens before we knew they were cool. The outfits are wilder in both look (category is: military, banji (sp?) girl, nude, Wall Street.) and provenance (hand sewn, dumpster-rescued, shoplifted from boutiques), Through Livingston’s lens -and it’s a controversial lens, make no mistake-we meet a cast- no, a community- of stars who are brimming over with glamour, irony and joy. The fact that we meet them just as the AIDS crisis is beginning to rip through their world- many, if not most of those featured in the documentary did not survive to see it released on DVD in 2005- means that the highs are higher and the lows hit you like a sucker punch.
The film is aimed at the uninitiated; viewers today might be familiar with the language thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race and the inevitable drift of queer creativity into straight culture, but at the time drag balls were a world apart. For this reason, Livingston sectioned the film into definitions. In ‘House,’ Dorian Corey tells us in a drawling voiceover that
A House? A House, let’s see. Let’s see if we can cut it down sharply; they’re families. You can say that…. it’s like a gay street gang.
In fact, parts of the film have some of the of the tender, hardscrabble feel of a home video. Among them are the sections where Pepper-out of drag in a silk shirt and crucifix, talks about his position as the house mother, the 2 a.m. interview with a couple of teenage boys who are hanging out on a street corner, the warm- and heartbreaking in hindsight- interviews with Venus Xtravaganza. Other sections are shot with real production value. The shots of Willi Ninja (the man who taught Madonna to vogue) and Paris Dupre dancing it out are heightened and slick, with stylised composition and- for the time- innovative angles. The two styles play on each other just like the two sides of the lives the film documents. One is high glamour, high art, achingly self aware. The other is sincere and intimate.
As documentary goes, it’s a real masterpiece but it’s hard to see the artistry on display (both that of Livingston and of the people she portrays) through the controversy that’s surrounded the film since it was released. Livingston was accused of a kind of cultural voyeurism and of misrepresenting herself to the participants. bell hooks raked her over the coals for leaving many of the queens’ aspirations to whiteness unchallenged, thus creating “ a graphic documentary portrait of the way in which colonized black people (in this case black gay brothers, some of who m were drag queens) worship at the throne of whiteness, even when such worship demands that we live in perpetual self-hate, steal, lie, go hungry, and even die in its pursuit.”
As reads go, it’s not the snappiest, but the mud sticks. For her part, Livingston reminds us that she was an unknown, untrained documentarian, that everyone involved gave written consent for their roles in the film. Her defenders point out that, as a white woman, for her to twist the words of people of colour to something more ‘appropriate’ would have smacked of white saviour-ism. There’s a lot to recommend the film too; we barely hear the stories of trans women in their own words today, and there, in 1983, is Venus Xtravaganza asserting her identity with almost tangible dignity. Or is she? As her story progresses through the film- no spoilers here- a few questions begin to crop up. Are we talking about her life or looking at her? Humanising or deifying?
You’ll make up your own mind, but for my part I think that whole conversation misses the point. The people we encounter in Paris Is Burning are shown as complicated, and the human experience involves some cognitive dissonance. Octavia St Laurent can wish desperately to be one of the white women she sees on the covers of magazines and also be the unashamedly black, perfectly poised performer she is. Paradoxical ways of being are only what we’d expect from a group of people embroiled in the business of making beauty out of the scrap around them. And there is a sense, real or not, that the people in Paris Is Burning are ultimately calling the shots on how they want to be seen through the film. They’re not stupid; in fact they have a hard won knowledge of exactly what it means to be looked at.
For me, watching this film is a series of unrolling revelations. It feels a little like coming to a home I didn’t know I needed. The bald faced resilience of the ball participants is a balm to anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider and that reaction can’t be dismissed. When the participants start talking about the idea of the ‘Houses’ as a family I am surprised, always, to find the beginnings of a lump in my throat. I’m not alone either. Before writing this feature I confined a few of my queer friends to a room, gave them a ration of popcorn and forced them to watch. And something happened to them. They twisted in their seats, leaned forwards or reeled back. Things happen to you in the watching of this film, things shift. They happen in the realm of the body and meaning- what the theorists call the semiotic realm. We know it as the place from which our realest feelings spring; the gut punch of humiliation, the heartburst of love. This is a film which changed me.
But perhaps that’s because of who I am, because of where I come from. Perhaps it will be different for you.
Indeed those of us who harbour a sincere identification and love for Paris Is Burning belie the vehement dismissal of the film by many of the surviving participants. Many of them feel cheated by the film, exposed, pried upon. Many but not all, not all of the time either.
Which of these views trumps in the legitimacy stakes is hard to say. This is a tricky film full of tricky people made by a tricky filmmaker, and the most tantalising thing about it is that, maybe there’s something going on you don’t get.
I’ve probably watched Paris is Burning about eight times now- three of them to write this feature. And there is something hiding there. Something in the juxtaposition of image and voiceover, in the slightly knowing loop of the camera as it takes in the participants.
Some people would call it irony. There’s the suspicion that the way Livingstone frames the queens would have fallen differently into the sitting rooms of middle America in the late eighties than it did through my computer screen. That there is something voyeuristic going on; someone peeking in on your communion and laughing up their sleeve. What? And who?
Maybe the answer is that what the people who made this film- both in the action and the editing suite- have managed to create a kind of cultural looking glass. It shows you as much about yourself as anyone else.
Which, I suppose, begs the obvious question: are you brave enough to look?