Saturday, October 17, 2009

Screen Queens: Paris Is Burning

Matt Canada here with another edition of "Screen Queens". Last week we looked at To Wong Foo, a mainstream lighthearted approach to drag queens and their fab subculture. So this week, a more realistic, nuanced, and sensitive approach to the same subject. Jennie Livingston's seminal documentary Paris Is Burning is a film I have been trying to find for years now, and it more than lives up to its reputation.

The film examines New Yorks mainly black and latino ball subculture, in which groups of queens, termed Houses (ex. House of Labeija, House of Xtravaganza), compete for prizes in categories like 'Realness' (most able to pass in the straight world), 'Pretty Girl', 'High Fashion Winter Sportswear', 'Miss Cheesecake', and 'Town and Country' to name just a few. Livingston's camera explores the lives of the different types of members within these Houses: famed drag queen Dorian Corey; House 'Mothers' Anji Xtravaganza, Wili Ninja and Pepper Labeija; young and beautiful transgender women Octavia St. Laurent; and gay men like Andre Christian. The documentary details the slang, rituals, and harsh behind the scenes realities of the balls, focusing partly on the hustling and stealing it takes many people to survive and still look glamorous for the ball runways. However, most importantly the film explores how this specific group of disadvantaged people has responded to oppression.

Paris Is Burning is a defining film of early 90's New Queer Cinema, and it stands virtually alone amongst the classics of this collection of texts, as a film which deals with ethnic/non-white gay culture. The only other contemporaneous film I can think of which deals with gay minorities is Isaac Julian's Looking for Langston (1989). There have been some -- notably bell hooks -- who have critiqued its counter-cultural position and non-white address because it was authored by a white women, but I don't think this line of thinking enriches any discussion, appreciation, or understanding of the film. Livingston focuses on the disadvantages of the combination of race and sexuality and therefore exposes the inequalities inherent in society at large, as well as a gay movement which purports to speak for everyone. The black and latino drag queens and transgendered women are viewed as excluded not only from straight society, but also from the predominantly white gay culture. The non-whiteness and queerness of the ballers excludes them from any substantive form of power, fame, success, and money. The balls then act as a means of appropriating, claiming, and legitimising the right of this group to success and wealth.

In the words of Dorian Corey (pictured)
In real life you can't get a job as an executive, unless you have the educational background and the opportunity. Now the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of people have a hard time getting anywhere, and those that do are usually straight. In a ball room you can be anything you want, you're not really an executive, you're looking like one, and you are showing the straight world 'I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity I could be one because I can look like one', and that is a fulfillment.
This really sums up Paris Is Burning's raison d'etre: showing how ball culture responds to and resists domination and oppressions of the mainstream.

The film is incredibly complex, yet endlessly enjoyable. The costumes, cattiness, wit, and excess of Hollywood's representations of drag culture are present in spades in Livingston's documentary. However, the director and her subjects situate these characteristics beside the reasons for why they have developed and the functions they serve. By placing the realities beside the glamour and the realness, the viewer enjoys the camp while critiquing the systematic oppression.

This is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It's exciting to see how much this film has to say and how exquisitely it says it. Also, on an Oscar note, apparently there was outrage when it failed to secure a Best Documentary nomination... Scandal!

[Nathaniel's note: Matt's right. I remember this scandal well. Though IMDB lists Paris is Burning as a 1990 film, it was released in 1991 and became a major arthouse hit earning nearly $4 million at the US box office. That's a lot of $ for a gay documentary at the box office. It wasn't the only high profile snub for documentary that Oscar year either. Two very famous showbiz docs, Madonna's frisky tour diaries Truth or Dare and the behind-the-scenes-with-Coppola doc Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse were also snubbed. Here's an old article from EW on the controversy. It was written by none other than Jeffrey Wells.]

What do you readers think of this movie and its relation to more mainstream and lighthearted depictions of drag culture?

Paris is Burning
is available for purchase on Amazon and for rental on Netflix, Blockbuster and GreenCine



I'm glad you covered this movie. I always wish more people had seen it -- so entertaining and evocative -- but you tend to become more obscure than you should be these days when you're unavailable on home viewing formats for a chunk of time.

thank god that's over and it's out there.

I do think this is also a rich companion piece to Truth or Dare in a fun edgy mainstream reminder of the homage / appropriation / repurporsing that happens (think Vogue) with lively subcultures.

Michael Parsons said...

Such a scandal. What a year it would have been to have a gay themed documentary nominated along side one chronicling our fearless leaders tour.

Another Oscar snub for the gays...there are too many to count.

pony said...

They do show Wili Ninja's moves being used by Madonna in Vogue here, right? People don't talk about this movie half as much as they should. I don't know if it's widely considered "great" or a "masterpiece", but it's my second favorite documentary ever, right after "Gimme Shelter". The stories those people have to tell! How lucky are we that mousy Jennie Livingston was there to get it all on film for us! (and then the bitch didn't do anything else for a decade and a half, but anyway...)

Mason Mahoney said...

Just added this to my Netflix queue!

I had no clue about the drag house culture until I saw Wig Out!, a wonderful play by Tarrell McCraney that was much talked about a year or so ago. I would bet that the two pieces would be interesting to compare.

Glenn said...

Oh man, I just saw this film for the first time recently too and also wrote about it and spoke about it on a radio show I do.

It really was fascinating seeing the gay scene as portrayed from the side of blacks and latinos, which is something we rarely even see today let alone in 1991. It's an astonishing film, and even better documentary and should be seen by every film lover (especially if you're gay). Such an amazing, trailblazing tribute to these men who, today, would be seen as too flamboyant or too camp and would be seen as taking gay people back to the stone age because all those straight-acting gay guys think it's horrific. Those people annoy the hell outta me.

The documentary committee, however, screwed up A LOT at the start of the '90s. Paris is Burning, Truth or Dare, Roger & Me, Hoop Dreams, etc. And then consider that now something like March of the Penguins is an Oscar winner and it's hard to imagine they didn't just flush out all of the old branch members and replaced them.

CanadaMatt said...

It really is shocking that it didn't get an Oscar nomination. At least Hoop Dreams got a Best Editing Nomination and a Criterion release to keep it profile and reputation up. Paris is Burning was only released on DVD in 2005, and only released full-stop in the UK in 2007. For a documentary that was a theatrical hit, this is almost unheard of.

Also in Drag Queen Film news Ryan Reynolds looks to star in a rom com that sees him dressing in drag to befriend and win back the girl of his dreams. haha At leas Hollywood never changes, you have to applaud them for consistency.

Arkaan said...

Shocking? No. The documentary branch, for the longest time, was right up there with the score branch as the laziest voters, who equated most important with best. Additionally, they liked their documentaries to be strictly businesslike, in both subject and execution (none of Michael Moore's "writing" or Errol Morris' recreation). Keep in mind this group of voters excluded The Thin Blue Line because of that DESPITE the fact that it basically exonerated a man from prison.

Only recently have they started to suck less. And only a little.

John said...

Check out Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs for another nonwhite documentary about gay culture.

Branden said...

I own this movie. I watch it repeatedly. Now, drag queen is played for comedic effect. It something to laugh at, but this movie shows that people live this life. It could be painful, heartbreaking. This is the life they have chosen.

Anonymous said...

As for the Oscar snub, homophobia and racism might have had something to do with it. But Oscar didn't start embracing "indy" films at all until the small film distributors got bought up by the majors.

bell hooks is a boob, btw. lol