The Eternal Fire of PARIS IS BURNING

Realness, shade, vogue and a revisit of a game changing documentary.

As the final week of Pride month comes to a close, we say goodbye to one of the saddest tributes to one of the most visible communities in recent years. Right now, Coronavirus surges in more than 20 states and threats of shutting down society once again loom large as June nears its end. As always however, there is still the ability to stream. For fans of the show, Netflix recently dropped the second season of Pose, Ryan Murphy’s hit late 80s/early 90s-set drama about the drag ball scene in New York City. With production on the third season at a stand still (again, thank you Covid-19), a rewatch is the perfect way to end Pride month indoors; and let’s face it, until a way is found to both social distance AND shoot a ballroom scene is found, this looks to be all we’ve got. Well, not quite. As it just so happens, this month also represents the 30th anniversary of Paris is Burning, the 1990 milestone documentary which heavily inspired Pose and shed light on a part of society people didn’t really know all that much about. All these years later, director Jennie Livingston’s documentary, which looked at a collection of gay and transexual individuals who gathered together and dressed to the nines in order to walk in New York’s legendary drag balls, remains as breathtaking as ever.

It’s hard to describe just how groundbreaking of a documentary Paris is Burning was when it started hitting the festival circuit back in June 1990. Maybe it was Livingston’s photographer’s eye, her unexplored relationship with the movie camera and the dynamic, mystifying nature of the world she was exploring that collectively made the film a breakthrough in the world of documentary filmmaking. Broken up into sections much in the way traditional docs are, there is an overall run-of-the-mill structure to the film for sure. But the liveliness of the subject, along with the director’s fascination with it, allows for a truly cinematic feel to carry the proceedings. When the camera is focused on the balls, Paris is Burning becomes the very definition of cinema verite as the essence of that world comes alive in all its glory by the performers who wow judges and audiences alike. Even the film’s talking heads segments (usually the most uninteresting part of a lot of docs) jumps off the screen thanks to the life and soulfulness captured in each one of the interviewees. All of them, from Pepper La Beija to the great Dorian Corey, give insight into the world the community made for themselves through the almost otherworldly houses they inhabit as well as the stories they tell and the pearls of wisdom they impart from years of living. “Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world,” remarks Corey while applying makeup in the mirror before heading out for a ball. “Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark.”

Looking back on the documentary now in the age of Pose, I’m not sure a film like Paris is Burning could enjoy the kind of critical acclaim it did when it first came out. The film was hailed as a marvel upon early viewings, generating the kind of buzz and hype that just doesn’t exist today. Sure, a modern take on the subject would no doubt contain importance, but drag queens and transexuals occupy a definite place (albeit, still a small one) in the conversation, that it could never hope to shatter barriers and stereotypes in the way Paris is Burning managed to. The scene in the film featuring Octavia Saint Laurent (herself a transexual) going to an upscale Manhattan department store and waiting amidst a sea of blonde heads to audition for a modeling contract with Eileen Ford remains extraordinary. The bravery and hope Octavia shows in that act can not be overstated and is totally awe inspiring to watch. Looking at the film decades later, it’s impossible not to be motivated and taken by such a moment and the way this subculture created a world which was founded on pride, ambition and camaraderie. The people of Paris is Burning didn’t enjoy many of the rights today’s LGBTQ members do, but they did enjoy a New York that was largely their’s in a way. Sandwiched between the hell hole of the 70s and the gentrification of the later 90s, the New York of Paris is Burning featured genuine street artists in the park, performers on the corner and offered a kind of urban life that allowed the doc’s subjects to be the pioneers they would eventually be seen as.

Paris is Burning wasted no time collecting accolade after accolade from institutions as diverse as the Berlin Film Festival, to the GLAAD Media Awards. Even if a film about the competitive world of opera singing took home the best documentary Oscar that year, the impact of Paris is Burning has endured far longer than anyone could have predicted. Madonna’s “Vogue” was inspired by the ballroom community, who perfected that form of dance long before Madge took it mainstream. Phrases such as “realness” and “shade” originated in the balls by those eager to take home a trophy, while the film itself was inducted into National Film Registry in 2016 by the National Film Preservation Board. While many have called out Murphy for his tampering with history to suit his own “tastes” in some of his other productions, his respect and admiration for Paris is Burning and the people it represented is felt within every episode of Pose. Scenes have been lifted directly from the documentary, Livingston herself is one of the producers and has even directed a season 2 episode. But the way the series succeeds most is by emulating what Paris is Burning did so well: offering an honest, curious and non-judgmental glimpse into a society that so many wrote off and boldly re-introduces it to the world.

Paris is Burning is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

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