#84) Paris Is Burning (1990)

paris-is-burning-poster

#84) Paris is Burning (1990)

OR “Vérité, You Stay”

Directed by Jennie Livingston

Class of 2016

The Plot: Focusing on the LGBT Ball Culture (aka The House System) in 1980s New York, “Paris Is Burning” centers around the ceremonial balls in which people walk the runway in drag (or a variety of other categories) to win prizes and trophies for their houses. Among those featured are house mother Pepper LaBeija, vogue dancer/aspiring performer Willi Ninja, Xtravaganza child Venus, who is saving her money for gender confirmation surgery, and Dorian Corey, a drag queen from an older generation who has a lot to say about “the children”.

Why It Matters: The NFR quotes Guardian writer Ashley Clark, who said, “Few documentaries can claim to have sparked as much discussion and controversy as [Paris Is Burning]”. The NFR’s write-up concludes by saying that the film “has greatly influenced popular culture.” Well duh. That’s why it’s on the list. That’s in your mission statement.

But Does It Really?: “Paris Is Burning” is the right documentary at the right time. It invites you into the culture and shows you that there are so many more layers to the gay community than most people preconceive, especially by conservative 1990 standards. Film is the perfect outlet to record a legacy and a culture that still struggles to find mainstream acceptance. And this film captures all of it at a time when, tragically, the culture was in serious danger of becoming extinct. I am delighted that “Paris Is Burning” has finally made the cut.

Shout Outs: Pepper LaBeija is watching “Ghostbusters” in her home, and later on makes a “Sunset Boulevard” reference. The film ends with a lip-sync of “Over the Rainbow”.

Everybody Gets One: Jennie Livingston was fresh out of Yale when she started documenting the ball culture seen in the film. Although she has only made a handful of films since “Paris Is Burning”, she continues to lecture and teach film throughout the country.

Wow, That’s Dated: The category is: ‘80s Realness. From camcorders to “Dynasty” to Paulina Porizkova, this could only be New York 1987.

Title Track: “Paris Is Burning” is the name of Paris DuPree’s grand ball and is said only once about halfway through the film.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Paris Is Burning” was one of many universally acclaimed documentaries of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s that failed to receive a Best Documentary nomination, eventually leading to the Academy’s decision in 1995 to review and tweak that category’s nominating process.

Other notes

  • This film does an excellent job at bringing you into this world, which must have been especially impressive in 1990 when exposure to this culture was at a minimum. I also applaud the film’s ability to create sympathy for these people without resorting to any sort of cinematic manipulation. The mere reportage of it all shows you how difficult life is for everyone.
  • Let’s get this out of the way right now; in addition to her long reign as a drag queen and being the glue that holds this film together, Dorian Corey had one last surprise for everyone. After her death in 1993, a mummified body was discovered in her home that had been dead for approximately 15 years. Dorian Corey had a literal skeleton in her closet.
  • Some argue that the film’s focus on pageantry is mere spectacle, but that’s completely ignoring the chapter of the film that discusses the various categories. As explained by those interviewed, the balls are never just about putting on a dress. For this group it is about escape and finally being allowed to be the kind of person society will not let them be. Through that escape comes acceptance within their community, something no one in this culture feels when they’re out in “White America”.
  • Speaking of, does anyone know who is on the Forbes magazine cover featured in the White America segment? I assume they’re all conservative enough that it would kill them to find out they’re in this film.
  • Kinda hard to pull off “mopping” when you have a camera crew following you. Also, who knew that Roy Rogers were still a thing?
  • As far as I can tell, the LGBT modeling community is small, but finally getting there.
  • Surprise cameos from ball judges Fran Liebowitz, Geoffrey Holder and Gwen Verdon! God bless a movie that can bring those three together with no questions asked.

Legacy

  • Voguing was still pretty underground during the making of the film, but during post-production Malcolm McLaren’s song “Deep in Vogue” (mentioned by Willi Ninja in the epilogue) brought the dance to a larger audience. Of course, as is often the case, voguing didn’t become a phenomenon until a straight white person did it.
  • Surviving members of the film were further documented in 2006’s “How Do I Look?”
  • “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has carried on a lot of what this movie stands for in the form of a reality TV competition. Season 6 contestant Vivacious was one of the few remaining “club kids” as depicted in “Paris Is Burning” to compete on the show.
  • Deemed by some a spiritual sequel to this film, “Kiki” is a look at ball culture and the LGBT community in whatever we’re calling this decade. The twenty-teens?

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