Doc of the Day: Paris is Burning Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Paris is Burning

Posted in Days of Docs by - December 31, 2011

We close out the year with a look at the underground drag queen “ball culture” of New York in the 1980’s.

Poster courtesy of Seattlest.

Dir. Jennie Livingston, 1991, 78 min

I don’t like to play favorites, because I love all kinds of films (I believe open-mindedness is one of the keys to being a good critic), but if I were forced at gunpoint to pick a favored genre of documentary? It would probably be the subculture film. I love learning new things, mainly because I’m an insufferable know-it-all with a trivia fetish, but also because it’s so cool to see yet another example of how wide and diverse the world is. Paris is Burning has a focus so specific to a time and place that it will probably stand alone for the rest of time, so it has the added benefit of acting as a historical piece. I learned more things about New York gay life in the eighties and “voguing” than I thought was possible. More than that, though, this doc is an intensely observed piece of human interest, and that’s where its true value lies.

In the 1980’s, gay youth in the inner city, bereft of homes to live in, banded together for protection and community. A culture of cross-dressing emerged, in which various “Houses” developed “Balls,” style competitions in which drag queens would duel in “walks” to see who could best pull off their look. Despite the intricate system of rules that’s been set up, the movie parcels out exposition at a steady rate, making it easy to take in and comprehend. The film alternates between long monologues from various figures within the community and examples of different styles of walk. There’s also “voguing,” which is basically dancing through posing. Madonna got it from these guys.

Walking is actually a far more fascinating phenomenon than you’d think. It’s not just a bunch of queens getting together to be “FABULOUS” just ’cause that’s how they roll. Their style and actions are all highly deliberate and deeply thought out. These are people marginalized by society for being black, male, and gay, and they’ve found a vehicle of both self-expression. For instance, “Real” style has contestants dolled up in imitations of how people dress in legitimate walks of life. A man whom society will never allow to be a businessman can make a statement with their walk. Putting on a suit and tie and strutting his stuff becomes a cry of defiance against those who won’t accept him. The same goes for men trying to look as much like women as possible, or to look as straight as they can, or whatever.

As outrageous and funny as the Balls are, the movie’s life comes from the monologue segments. These people are easy to mock, but there’s real humanity under all the makeup and fabric. Almost all of them are homeless, whether due to intolerance or the plain neglect that’s heartrendingly common to all on the street, gay or straight. They all struggle with poverty; one subject admits to shoplifting, while another talks candidly about working as a prostitute. The specter of AIDS looms large, and a cursory Wikipedia search shows that almost all the people featured in the film died of the disease.

And yet this doc isn’t sad. The drag queens won’t allow it. Through their hardship, they are determined to find whatever happiness they can. The competing “Houses” aren’t just teams for the Balls, they’re makeshift family units. There are “mothers” and “fathers,” and everyone is a sibling, and together they take care of one another. Though the world has rejected them, they’ve carved out some love for themselves, and it’s touching to behold. Growing up, I never understood where gay flamboyance came from, but now I do. It’s a rebel “fuck you” to the world, a stubborn refusal to allow oppression to keep you down. That’s what this film is all about: letting your FABULOUS light vanquish the darkness around you, even if that light is destined to fizzle out all too soon.

As great as it is to learn about a subculture, the real value comes in identifying why people take part in that activity, how it fulfills a need in their souls. Paris is Burning is great because its focus is people whose lifestyle is a relieving balm on deep, ugly wounds, and it does a wonderful job of laying bare that injured heart. It’s equal parts melancholy and joyful. It’s especially impressive considering that it’s the d├ębut of a completely untrained filmmaker. Jennie Livingston apparently never made anything afterward that lived up to this work, but this alone justifies her in my eyes. If you can handle the overwhelming overwhelmingess of ball culture, this movie is a must-see.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

Leave Your Comment

%d bloggers like this: