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An Immersive Observational Doc: Paris is Burning (Criterion Collection)

By Gary M. Kramer.

Jennie Livingston’s vibrant, groundbreaking 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning, about the Harlem drag-ball scene, has been digitally remastered and released by Criterion on DVD and Blu-ray. The film, which was part of the New Queer Cinema movement, remains a stunning achievement thirty years after its initial release. (It played to sell-out crowds at the Film Forum in New York City during its most recent theatrical revival.) And with the popularity of TV’s Pose – Livingston even directed one episode of the hit series – now is as good as time as ever to watch, or revisit Paris Is Burning.

The documentary is immersive and observational. Livingston drops viewers onto the 1987 New York City streets as well as into the ballroom, dressing rooms, living rooms, and bedrooms of her subjects. What the various African American, Latinx, gay and transgender interviewees discuss is visibility – or the lack of it. What the Balls do is provide opportunities for expression, identification, aspiration, and self-worth in world of racial, social, and economic inequality. This point is hammered home by almost every subject, but it remains as important today as it was when the film was made.

Paris Is Burning has plenty of joyful moments. The first time Pepper LaBeija struts on the floor, in an utterly fabulous outfit, and sporting some attitude, it is impossible not to get caught up in the excitement. Livingston shoots the ballroom scenes like an anthropologist, showing the performers in their environment without judgment or interference. When a fight breaks out over the costume of a dancer, the cameras capture the moment in all its glory.

Throughout the documentary, Livingston provides a primer on the terminology used in this subculture, such as “House,” which is described as a “gay street gang,” run by a “Mother.” The members “fight” (compete) at a Ball by “walking a category.” Categories, such as “School Girl,” “Town and Country,” and “Executive Realness” are defined to explain how looking as much as possible as the straight white counterparts – e.g., a businessman – may be the closest someone at the Ball might get to being a businessman. This is, the film explains, not a takedown or a satire; for black, gay men there are few or no opportunities to live that dream outside the Ball. Performing is as close to reality as it gets. The images of opulence, from magazines and TV’s “Dynasty” provide these people of color the opportunity to dream and spark the ambition to live and look as good as a white person.

This is an affecting moment, but the personal stories recounted in the documentary are even more moving. Pepper LaBeija talks about her father and her mother discovering her being a woman and the heartbreaks that occurred. Likewise, Venus Xtravaganza talks candidly about being a trans sex worker (and dealing with abuse and her fear of AIDS), as well as her desire to get surgery. And Dorian Corey, an aging drag queen, who is interviewed putting on her makeup, doles out observations, anecdotes, and advice about the drag scene and how it has changed over the years. Her comments are, arguably, the most poignant.

Paris Is Burning also addresses homeless queer youth as one young man describes “mopping,” a term for stealing food. This interview emphasizes how many of these gay, minority youths are hungry, and live by their wits on the streets because their families disowned them for being gay.

One of the more interesting segments of the film features Octavia Saint Laurent visiting a call for models at a department store. But Livingston’s inclusion of interviews with Eileen Ford and scenes of successful models is a misstep. These moments take the story out of the insular community and plunge it into the real world. In doing so, Livingston breaks the spell she casts. Her film is much better when she contrasts street scenes of rich white people with her subjects, showing who and what these ballroom performers are trying to emulate or aspire to be.

But this minor flaw aside, Paris Is Burning remains a lively portrait of an underground community. Since the film was made, ballroom culture has been appreciated and appropriated – Madonna’s “Vogue” elevated the scene, and Willi Ninja, one of the film’s subjects, achieved some crossover success. Later, Pose has become a breakout show. Livingston’s extraordinary documentary paved the way. It remains, in the words of the drag-ball scene, “Legendary.”

The Criterion Blu-Ray includes a new conversation between Livingston, ball community members Sol Pendaid and Freddie Pendavis, and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris; Over an hour of never-before-seen outtakes; audio commentary from 2005, featuring Livingston, ball community members Freddie Pendavis and Willi Ninja, and film edited Jonathan Oppenheim; an episode of The Joan Rivers Show from 1991, featuring Livingston and ball community members Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Freddie Pendavis, and Willi Ninja; the trailer; plus an essay by filmmaker Michelle Parkerson and a 1991 review by poet Essex Hemphill.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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