Paris is Burning (directed by Jeannie Livingstone) is a documentary about the ‘drag balls’ which brought both style and substance to the gay and transgender scene in New York in the 1980s. It’s a film that was brought to my attention primarily because I’ve just discovered RuPaul’s Drag Race (and love it a little bit too much), in which loving references are constantly made to Paris is Burning. I was intrigued – clearly it is a source of great inspiration for those involved in the drag scene. I have to admit, naïvely, the idea I started to form of the film in my head was of a sort of real-life The Birdcage (1996), full of vibrant and lovable camp characters, with all the tragic aspects of the ending of Rent (2005) thrown in to round-out the less glamourous aspects. I was expecting a camper-than-thou, life-affirming, feel-good, come-as-you-are drag spectacular.
In fact, it’s quite a different beast. As a whole, Paris is Burning is a melancholy movie, with a focus on the bleakness of life versus the escapism of the Harlem Ballroom Scene. The ‘balls’ are where contestants gather to ‘walk’ under a range of different categories; categories so disparate that it seems as if something has been especially created to allow everyone to fulfil their fantasies or to parody something that may be far from their own lives. Those who take part in these parades are awarded marks according to their naturalness. It’s all about who can come across as the most real. At the same time; as we watch these displays unwind, we can’t help but ask questions about what ‘real’ really is… is it a gay man imitating a ‘straight’ look to perfection. Or a young woman who can ‘serve’ the genuine look of a college girl?
We all need a place where we can be ourselves and I found myself asking, if not for these balls and the community which developed around them, where else would these people have gone? How else would they have coped with the vast gulf between their hopes and dreams and their real lives. To me, the film develops into a pensive consideration of how vulnerable we all are, and how precarious our dreams. It’s a film about searching for some kind of way to belong and finding family wherever you are shown love and acceptance.
The film is structured in a way which both explains the drag scene to cultural outsiders and then zooms in on the lives of specific members of the community. Livingstone uses intertitles featuring ball terms which are then explained through interview footage; terms such as; ‘reading’, ‘shade’, and even ‘voguing’, a term which has long been a part of mainstream culture and which we see demonstrated so boldly by Willi Ninja during the course of the film.
In this documentary, New York, and the States in general, come across in two very different ways. It’s where this eclectic group of people are marginalised; some living in virtual poverty and surrounded by crime. Yet, America is also presented as the destination which can grant the power of surgical sex changes (not that that’s the end goal for many drag queens, of course), and of course the location of the ballroom scene.
The way in which Livingstone compiles her footage really highlights that painful youthful agony of wanting and hoping and wishing for something in earnest. This is sadly underscored by the knowledge that these desires remain so impossibly aspirational. There is an ‘I want…’ intercut section where interviews between two transgender women are set side by side. Octavia, of the House of Saint-Laurent, a black and beautiful trans-woman, is pictured dreamily on her bed and gesturing upwards at a wall of posters of her idol. She tells us her dreams, “If that could be me, I think I would be the happiest person in the world… I believe that there’s a big future out there with lots of beautiful things…” Counterpointed with Octavia’s confessions are those of Venus Extravaganza, a pale, blonde haired sex worker who explains, “I want a car. I want to be with the man I love… Somewhere far away, where no one knows me. I want my sex change. I want to live a normal, happy life.” These moments of wide-eyed dreaming are heart-breaking in their openness. Octavia and Venus contemplate the value of a “normal” life, but at the same time their hope is to be a “complete woman”, where they imagine themselves rich, famous, flawlessly beautiful and on the covers of a magazine. Set against this is a scene which takes place during try-outs for a female modelling agency, where a harsh-voiced executive type explains, “Everybody who’s young has a hope and a dream. And I don’t think that it’s ever been any different in the history of the world.” This “hope and a dream” is not unique to the drag scene, it’s universal.
It’s shortly after Octavia and Venus share their dreams to camera that the filmmakers cut ahead to the end of the 80s. The intertitles inform us that Venus Extravaganza has been brutally killed and, as the cloud descends, we are also reminded of other dark threats to this community; HIV and AIDs. Indeed, many of the other figures featured in Paris is Burning died in the 1990s of AIDS related complications.
The embodiment of unfulfilled dreams is the aging drag queen Dorian Corey. In his now oft-quoted words he tells the camera, sounding somewhat disillusioned with life, “Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world.” Soon, however, Dorian tells us, we accept the fact that “you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name…” With a nonplussed tone, Dorian finishes, “If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.” The sense of his words, however, is that he knows it is already too late for him.