Paris is Burning
Dir. Jennie Livingston
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 75mins
The very final line of Jennie Livingston's award-winning documentary Paris is Burning goes like this: "So this is New York City, and this is what gay life is about." Whether Livingston gave them the line to say as some sort of perfectly beautiful coda I'll never know, but what a line?! Upon watching Paris is Burning I was struck by the surge of feelings I got. This movie should be a must-see for every gay man, every queer film lover, every documentary lover and, I guess, any film love in general. It is exuberant and boisterous and a time capsule of an era of gay life that has vanished forever.
Filmed in the years from 1987 to 1989, Paris is Burning goes into the underground queer movement known as the "ball culture". Sure, jokes are easy, but it's an immensely important fixture of gay culture in the 1980s, especially when it comes to African American and Latino sub-cultures. As somebody who missed this era of gay life completely, it was an eye-opening and fascinating look at one of many areas that we, as a minority, have come from. I can't help but, sadly, imagine that if a movie such as this were made today that all the vicious "straight-acting" gay people that have spread through the internet like a plague would just want to tear it down as another way that the GLBT community is bringing themselves down from the inside. Internalised homophobia is rampant, but you can't say the people in this film have an ounce of it.
The film follows several influential members of the ball movement, both older and newer generations. It's amazing to watch people like Dorian Corey bemoan the new directions that it has taken - more Dynasty lookalike contests, not enough Marlena Dietrich! - as someone who has seen it all and who is about as jaded by the scene as you can get. And yet it is a part of him and something that helps complete him. I can't say I know many gay people nowadays who feel as complete as the transgenders and drag queens that populate Paris is Burning.
The "ball culture" as it is revolves around competitions in which gay men and women parade about like models on a catwalk, showing off all sorts of fashions. Trophies are handed out to the man who most looks like a woman, the man who can impersonate a straight man the best, the man who can do the best voguing and even simple things like who looks best in a business suit. The issue of voguing is actually quite interesting too, since the year this film was released was right when Madonna was launching the dance into the stratosphere of public awareness with her hit "Vogue". In fact, in 1991 two documentaries - this and In Bed with Madonna - both feature voguing. It's not hard to see why Madonna took a liking to it, with it's exotic nature and elongated body parts oozing raw sexual confidence. Of much lesser fame is Malcolm McLaren's "Deep in Vogue", used on the film's soundtrack, which had caught onto the rising tide of voguing a full year earlier.
What Paris is Burning does most of all, however, is shine a line on this moment of time. It was a time when AIDS was prevalent (as it still is, let's be frank), a time when it was still "shocking" to be gay and to be so in public was unheard of and a time when New York City was run on the streets and had the personality of a dangerous, feral cat. Nowadays with gay people entering mainstream culture, we seem to have gentrified ourselves. We're no longer allowed to be "flamboyant" or "camp" because to do so means that we're going back to the time represented in this movie. A time when we had no rights (as opposed to the few rights we have now, naturally) and a time before we were seen as legitimate human beings by, if not all, at least an increasingly sizable portion of the public.
Nowadays it's shameful to be seen cavorting around because, as some will say, if you do you're turning back the hands of time and damaging the "hard-fought reputation" of straight-acting gay men everywhere. A movie such as Paris is Burning, and the people within it, are to be celebrated as people who were doing their bit in the fight for gay rights by showing that they never backed down from themselves. They never shied away or hid from themselves or the public. And when the scene comes around late in the film in which we learn of the brutal death of a transgendered woman, it will hit you like a tonne of bricks. People are still dying because of homophobes, but to be yourself in the time of Paris is Burning was one of the bravest acts you could do. And, it must be said, it's the very same today. As a minority, we'll never get anywhere by pretending to be someone we're not and these men and women were forging their own identity and their own mindset for life. Everyone can learn something from Paris is Burning and everyone must see it. A