For the past few days I’ve had a problem— I can’t seem to stop voguing. When a song comes on or I’m zoned out and walking around my house, I’ll come to and realize my arms are in the air in a symmetrical pattern or wrapped oddly around my face with my lips puckered as it has become almost impulse to simply strike a pose and vogue. I blame the Jennie Livingston documentary Paris is Burning for that. Focusing on drag culture and the drag balls of 1987 in New York, Paris is Burning stuck with me, hard.
After watching it I had almost the same feeling I had when I first watched Harmony Korine’s Gummo, which caused an uneasy feeling with a compelling desire to know every detail of the film’s production and to understand how something could make me feel so uncomfortable. However, the difference in this case was that I wanted to know every detail of the production of Paris is Burning in order to understand how Livingston made me care so much about the different people featured throughout the film, most of whom are only minor characters featured for a fraction of the time as the major characters. The revelation of some of the featured interviewees’ fate in the film’s epilogue left me shocked and near tears as if I actually knew them after this 78 minute film.
Paris is Burning is perhaps one of the “realest” documentaries I’ve ever seen. With its focus on the GLBT subgroup, Paris is Burning documents major players and activities within the ball scene, a scene considered to be the Oscars of the GLBT community at the time. Livingston also creates a fascinating time capsule of late 1980s New York. Shot on 16mm film, many of scenes feature Livingston capturing the hustle and bustle on the streets of New York in 1987, when women showed their importance through shoulder pads in the dresses, when spandex was a must, and costume jewelry was a normal part of fashion. The influence of the world’s biggest show at the time, Dynasty, is not only discussed in the film but shown in its society’s fashion and attitude.
“We’re to be taken seriously dammit! Just look at these shoulders.”
The subjects of the documentary seem comfortable and familiar with Livingston’s presence, so much so that they don’t even seem to notice the camera most of the time. Even when they do acknowledge its presence, they seem to be nothing more than themselves. In scenes featuring prominent drag queen and legend of the balls scene, Dorian Corey, he sits talking comfortably to the Livingston about the politics of the ball culture and the changes he as an older member of the community has witnessed. While discussing highly intriguing critiques on society, he talks slowly and openly, at times not even addressing the camera or Livingston due to being preoccupied with meticulously putting on his makeup in the mirror. Scenes of Corey and other patrons being interviewed play out naturally as if these people were bearing their thoughts and souls to no one else but a good friend. They reveal heartbreaking stories, crack jokes with one another, and at the ball they participate wildly as if no one was around them but their peers.
This comfort may have been due to Livingston’s simplistic way of recording. The lighting in most scenes is natural and the camera seems to be small enough to be inconspicuous. Paris is Burning effortlessly cuts back and forth between interviews with various ball contestants and extensive footage of the antics at the ball. Viewers are exposed to the high energy competitions where guests come dressed in their absolute best, despite the fact that most can’t afford their garments, just to act out their fantasy of being able to strut down a catwalk. Others, however, use the ball as a means to settle the score with rivals on the floor through voguing. Interviews reveal the origins and usage of vouging as well as explain a slew of other terms and jargon used at the time by the GLBT community.
No form of dancing has been cooler, well, except maybe The Macarena.
I not only got a semi history lesson of 1980s GLBT culture from Paris is Burning but I was also inspired and highly entertained by the seemingly magical world of the ball. The subjects of Paris is Burning believed in expressing and being oneself to the fullest no matter how superficial their desires may have been and still may be. The film shows a time where minorities were marginalized as social outcasts because of their sexual orientation, while the majority of the country was able to achieve all the glory and social acceptance that their skin and class could get them. Yet the minorities within the ball culture refused to stay hidden and used the balls to live out their fantasies and dreams, all while being accepted in their community through awards and their legendary statuses. Even if the glory only lasted for a short while it was enough to make their whole lives worth the struggle.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every category in the ball
Take a Drink: for every mention of Dynasty
Take a Drink: when you laugh at the campiness of the 80s.
Do a Shot: every time you feel the urge to vogue