Bird Watching – Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning”
For a period of time in the mid-to-late 1980s, first-time documentarian Jennie Livingston took her camera into the world of New York City’s “ball” scene, a phenomenon amongst minorities in the gay community of that area and time. Many participants competed in the raucous events; with a form modeled on fashion shows, they allowed just about anyone to show off their look in a number of different, often highly creative, categories. It feels hard to explain; seeing it in action is the best way to understand the process and significance of the events. Though one participant sums up the value as “I went to a ball, I got a trophy, and now everyone wants to know me,” something much deeper than that was also happening. Livingston’s film captures some of a fascinating moment in social history.
We see interviews with many subjects, most of whom are shining, witty characters, glad to offer opinion after opinion. The core of the film, for me, rests with three people of different generations who speak to the ball scene in ways that give us a picture of its evolution over time. These are Dorian Corey, an old school stage drag queen who speaks most blatantly about the way things in the late 1980s compare to what came before; Pepper LaBeija, a mentor of sorts to many of the younger participants in the scene, and the mother of the House LaBeija; and Venus Xtravaganza, a young pre-op male-to-female transgender individual who fancies herself an up-and-coming star and belongs to the House Xtravaganza.
“I come from the old school of big costumes, and feathers, and beads,” Corey says. “And they don’t have that anymore. Now it’s all about designers. And it’s not about what you create; it’s about what you can acquire.” The materialistic bent she laments is described in more forgiving tones by LaBaija, speaking of the youngest participants: “Some of them don’t even eat; they come to balls starving…they’ll go out and they’ll steal something and get dressed up and come to a ball for that one night and live the fantasy.” This theme of being able to present oneself as whatever one might want to be permeates the film. Venus Xtravaganza is the most blunt about her hopes: “I would like to be a spoiled, rich, white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it, and they don’t have to really struggle…”
One of the things I admire most about drag is its ability to celebrate excess while feeling inclusive rather than exclusive. We don’t have to look at the extravagance in terms of money; we can look at it in terms of having an individual personality to offer, and then letting that be expressed with showmanship and sequins. Almost everyone interviewed in this film discusses at some point what they would do, how life would be different, if they were rich. “America’s nice. You can do what you want if you have the money. You can be what you want, certainly. Look at me!” says one subject, who has been able to pay for several surgeries on the way to gender reassignment. The statements made about the gap between those With and those Without remain steadfastly relevant in today’s scene of Occupy movements; for the subjects in the film, this chasm intersects with many others.
But let’s back up for a moment: what’s a “House”? Taking terminology from the great fashion houses, these are smaller communities within the greater ball scene—essentially self-selected families. This aspect of the scene speaks poignantly to what those within it get out of it. Many of these people have been essentially excommunicated from their oftentimes already troubled families, and the Houses are a way to solidify a commitment among individuals; to make a team; to cultivate a specific image. Beyond the term “House,” we learn much more specific terminology and fun slang throughout the film, highlighting the importance of the shared vernacular. And what else did this culture invent, besides dozens upon dozens of categories to walk, and impressive, blistering slang? They invented the style of voguing we now associate with Madonna. Watching this performed in the film is a pleasure.
I feel like I should have seen this film forever ago, but it was only barely in my conscious. Like most “should have seen forever ago films” I finally get to, it was because I came across a mention of it in a piece online, and immediately jumped over to Netflix to see if it was streaming. (Yes, it is.) Controversy apparently arose after the film was initially distributed; some of those featured sued Livingston and Miramax Pictures for a share of the profits. (Several details on this are described in an interesting New York Times article from 1993—itself an informative glimpse into the way the mainstream media spoke of this type of fringe society at the time. One is reminded that things haven’t come so far in the present, in that respect.)
Paris is Burning is both delightful and sobering to watch, the creativity and humor of its participants intersecting with frank appraisals of the everyday tragedies of their lives—poverty, discrimination, violence, the AIDS epidemic that cannot be denied. Whatever the controversy, I am glad that Livingston was able to document this bit of history. She has also made several acclaimed short films, including Who’s On Top?, and recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for a new feature length documentary, Earth Camp One. You should watch her first film, and afterward watch the extraordinary bonus time capsule I came across on YouTube: Livingston and several of the cast being interviewed by (and educating) Joan Rivers on her ’90s talk show. I’ve embedded the first clip of this below.