Sunday, February 5, 2017

Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)

Even though this warning might be a little too late (the film is over twenty-five years old). I still think people should be told not to go overboard when it comes to doing research about the eccentric cast of characters who appear in Jennie Livingston's legendary documentary, Paris is Burning. Why? Um, isn't it obvious? Like I said, the film is over twenty-five years old. Meaning, you shouldn't be surprised when you find out that a large number of the cast have passed on. (A large number? They're all dead!) Okay, calm down. The film isn't really about that, it's a celebration of a unique subculture that emerged out of New York City. And that culture is called ball culture. (Isn't this that Madonna movie about voguing or some gay shit like that?) Ugh. Can you believe this? It's almost as if my inner-jagoff is trying to get a rise out of me. To answer your question: No, this isn't that movie. Sure, voguing was an important part of ball culture, but it's about more than striking poses and letting your body move to the music. The film, like all great documentaries, exposes a rarely seen part of life, specifically, LGBTQ+ life. And, for a change, it shows black and Latino gays and trans people doing stuff in an actual movie. Hell, I bet even most New Yorkers at the time had no idea what was going on in their own city. I mean, to call the people seen throughout this movie marginalized would definitely be an understatement.

My favourite non-ball element of the film was the director's constant juxtaposition between the late night balls and daytime New York City. The shots of white New Yorkers going about their business was shockingly awful. Seriously, some of the people they showed walking down the street looked like they were going to a 1980s costume party. Granted, I love the '80s. But even I was like, damn, that's way too much hairspray, girl. And it didn't help that some of the men looked like poster boys for a new strain of diarrhea-causing douchebaggery.
The other of part of the juxtaposing (that's a word, right?) I liked was how it showed that the ball-goers were clearly not welcome in the day-to-day world of late 1980s Manhattan. However, instead of sitting around feeling sorry for themselves, they banded together to create a community. A mini-microcosm where fabulousness is not frowned upon, but celebrated.

Actually, I think that's a bit of an understatement. These people are basically living Liquid Sky, but for real. (You're probably the first person to compare Paris is Burning and Liquid Sky.) I don't know about that. But both films do have a lot in common. Mainly, they're both about groups of people living on the fringes of society who reject traditional gender roles and like to express themselves via jerky dance moves.
The only difference being, I don't recall anyone in Liquid Sky receiving a trophy for giving the best shade. (The best what?) Shade. According to Dorian Corey, a veteran ball queen, it's when you don't have to tell someone they're ugly because they already know they're ugly. That's shade.

Shade is just one example of the unique phraseology used throughout this film. Of course, most viewers will no doubt be bewildered by some of the language. I know I sure was. Thankfully, each phrase is given its own chapter.

Did you know, that before you throw shade someone's way, you usually "read" them first? It's true. Reading is when you point out someone's flaws in a witty manner. Reading then shade. Remember that, kids. As for "realness." That's when a ball performer is able to pass as heterosexual. Sub-categories of "realness" include "thug," "executive," and "schoolboy." And, of course, there's "mopping." Which is basically someone who is obviously wearing an outfit they shoplifted.
If the sense of community wasn't enough. Each ball performer belongs to a "house." Which is a kind of a group or family. And if the leader of the house is, let's say, named Willi Ninja, all other house members adopt "Ninja" as their surname.

So, as you can tell, the film is not only entertaining, it's educational as well. (Then why did you look like you were on the verge of tears at the end?) Oh, you know, I like watching queer people acting fierce and junk. (No, there was something else going on.) Okay, fine. Her name is Venus Xtravaganza (a member of the House of Xtravaganza ) and her story broke my heart. I should have known, given that this was a LGBTQ+ movie, that things would end tragically.
Yes, most of the (main) cast have passed on, which is tragic, too. But Venus Xtravaganza doesn't even make it to the end credits. Now, I don't want to say exactly what happens to her, but... Ahh, fuck. It's just so depressing. Being that she was a trans woman sex worker in late 1980s New York City, it shouldn't come as a shock (in other words, her life was basically always in danger). But still, hearing what happens to her was like a punch to the gut. I'm sorry to end my review on such downer, the film is pretty uplifting in places. Plus, it takes place in New York City in the 1980s. But the death of Venus Xtravaganza was... you know... *takes a deep breath* devastating.

André Christian, Dorian Corey, Paris Duprée, Eileen Ford, Junior Labeija, Pepper LaBeija, Benny Ninja, Sandy Ninja, Willi Ninja, Avis Pendavis, Freddie Pendavis, Kim Pendavis, Sol Pendavis, Stevie Saint Laurent, Octavia St. Laurent, Anji Xtravaganza, Brooke Xtravaganza, Carmen Xtravaganza, Venus Xtravaganza


  1. A must see film for anyone interested in subcultures. Even if they weren't aware they were interested in this particular subculture, its the people that make it so engrossing. And Venus was a pure gem. "Your just an overgrown orangutan!" Fucking gold.

    1. Judging by the huge response I got on a recent Venus/Paris is Burning photo-set I posted on tumblr (400+ notes after only a couple of days), the legend that is Venus Xtravaganza is stronger than ever.

  2. Isn't that also the title to a Dokken song?

    1. A version of said song is apparently on The Dream Warriors soundtrack.