A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 414 – Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning – April 18th, 2011

I had heard about this documentary ages ago. I think we had a copy at the video store Andy and I worked at when I was in college and I know for certain that it was shown for a couple of classes. But I never saw it. I knew it existed and I had a vague idea of it being about drag culture in New York. But I never took the classes it was shown for and I never grabbed it from work so I never really got the specifics until I started poking around online after reading some comments about one of the contestants on this year’s RuPaul’s Drag Race.

One of the places I frequently read (though almost never post to – I’m a lurker by nature) is Television Without Pity. The forums on there can be horribly biased towards their favorites, and back when a certain show I enjoyed was still running I had some issues with the person they had reviewing it, but overall I find that there’s some good discussion. And frequently there’s a wealth of information on things I myself have no experience with. So when the Drag Race forums were discussing Mariah Balenciaga there were mentions of the House of Balenciaga, and they weren’t talking about the fashion designer. They were talking about drag balls and the Houses that compete in them. I had to know more and knowing more led me back to this title. So we bought it and tonight we watched it as RuPaul’s Drag Race draws to a close (finale next week).

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this documentary. On one hand, I knew it would be showing me a culture that I am not at all a part of. I knew that I would be learning new terms and cultural history that I’ve never really been exposed to. In many ways, I expected a lot of the content, but it still felt fresh. Even so clearly dated from the eighties, it felt fresh. Perhaps because it’s new to me. You can know a concept and still not be acquainted with the reality. And this documentary might not have been made by someone from inside the community it documents, but it does present some pretty impressive reality.

The movie has a variety of types of shot. There are interviews with many of the key members of the scene as well as some lesser knowns (at the time – I have no way to judge how successful any of the up-and-coming members ended up being after the filming was over). They tell the viewer about some of the history of ball culture and how it came to be and where it began and how the Houses started and what the current state of it all is at that time. They talk about voguing and shade and realness and fantasy and passing. There’s plenty of footage from what looks like one or two balls, complete with several different costume categories, dancing competitions, arguments over rules, requests for stolen items to be returned, etc. And then there’s footage of many of the people involved just out and about in the city, hanging around with each other, showing off their fabulosity, chatting about why they’re into the scene, what they hope to accomplish and how they live their lives.

It would be incredibly presumptuous of me to try and explain what the documentary explains, but I’ll give the basics. Drag balls as shown in the documentary are sort of competitive parties. Various attendees dress up for different categories and we’re not just talking ballgown and swimsuit here. We’re talking everything from passing as straight (male or female) to specific careers and situations. Executive wear, student wear, high fashion, first time in drag. And that’s just the fashion, though I certainly don’t want to give the impression that it’s at all minimal. It’s fantastic and very clear right from the outset that tons of time and effort and money go into these looks. They’re stolen or created or bought, sometimes at the cost of buying food. This is a big deal. But then on top of it is the dancing. And it is amazing to watch. Madonna’s version is so very tame in comparison to what these folks were doing in a banquet hall in the middle of the night in 1988. Through it all the audience cheers and jeers and gets up close to get a good look at what’s going on. It is utterly unlike anything I have ever seen or lived.

Also unlike my own personal experience are the Houses. They’re described as surrogate families or gay street gangs who fight through dancing and fashion. The Houses have parents who lead the groups, take in new members and help them out. The people in the documentary are mostly African American. Most are gay and many aren’t just drag queens, they’re transsexuals at various stages of transition. They are people whose families have rejected them or who’ve left their families preemptively to avoid rejection. On one hand, I wish there wasn’t such a need for groups like these to form. On the other hand, the need exists and I’m glad that the Houses are there and provide the support and kinship that they do. In an ideal world people’s families wouldn’t reject them for their sexuality or gender identity or for being themselves just because being themselves isn’t “mainstream”. But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where over twenty years later I know there are still people who need those support networks because they have no others.

So it’s not just about a bunch of drag queens getting together to out-stomp each other in fabulous gowns. It’s about community and family and the difficulty of living day-to-day for most of the people involved and how these balls are their escape and their connection to each other and a common interest and passion. And oh, some of the people in this movie break my heart. Venus Xtravaganza, particularly, who is so clearly talented and determined and amazing, and who was murdered in a hotel room before this documentary was finished. And there are two boys who show up a few times, thirteen and fifteen and hanging out outside one of the balls. I want to know who they were and what happened to them. What they went on to do with their lives because they were so obviously taken with the balls and wanting to be a part of it. The fifteen year old claims his parents are gone and he lives with a friend. And I want to believe he did something amazing but I don’t think they give their names and I don’t know. As is made clear from so many of the people in the documentary, life for many or most of the members of this community isn’t easy.

The trouble I run into with this documentary is that it makes me feel like a voyeur. And really? I am when it comes to a culture like this, so far removed from my own life. I’m a white straight cisgendered woman who grew up in the suburbs. I went to a private school and a small women’s college. I can work a pair of heels, but that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve remotely got in common with anyone on the screen here. And it’s an uncomfortable feeling. But that’s valuable too. Because I’d rather know that there are things outside of my experience than go through life assuming that my experience is universal. Which is likely the point of this documentary being made. But still, it was made by a woman who wasn’t part of the community herself. It wasn’t one of the members of the group who went and got a grant to make a movie about the balls and Houses and culture. It was someone from outside. Which immediately makes it a display. As candid as the interviews are and as real and honest as the footage is, it’s still being put together from the outside. It’s frustrating, because it’s valuable, but it’s also problematic.

Still, I’m glad we have it and I’m glad we watched it. I’m under no illusions that the culture exists for me to take in, regardless of shows like Drag Race. The culture existed then and exists now for the people in it. They are their own audience and their own judges and while many of the people in the documentary say they want to be known in wider circles and achieve fame more akin to, say, RuPaul’s, the balls themselves aren’t there for that. But I am glad I got to see them. I’m glad I know a little more about it all than I did earlier tonight.


April 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Paris is Burning

April 18, 2011

Paris is Burning

Another thrilling conclusion to another hilarious and wonderful season of RuPaul’s Drag Race is rapidly approaching, so Amanda and I splurged a bit and got some appropriate movies to watch on Monday nights for the next couple weeks. (As a result Amazon now thinks I’m a homosexual black man. I’m not complaining because some of the resulting suggestions are rather interesting. I’m just saying.) One major lasting impression from watching this movie is that I am very much an outsider looking in here. RuPaul’s brilliance lies in the ability to make the spectacular world of drag accessible to all, but this documentary comes from a different time, almost from a different world.

This movie drives home the astonishingly difficult circumstances that some of these people lived in, and celebrates the strange world they crafted for themselves to belong in. I cannot even imagine how harsh life must have been for an impoverished gay black man in New York City in the late eighties. This movie doesn’t actually dwell on the challenges of such a life, but it points out, in a sort of off-hand manner, that this is the life many of the people featured here are living. They’re ostracised for being gay (particularly in the frightening world of the AIDS epidemic) for being black, for being poor, and for being, in many cases here, transvestite or transsexual. Some of the people interviewed talk about being cut off from their biological families. They talk about how obsessed popular culture is with being rich, white and heterosexual. But they talk about this within the context of describing and explaining something wonderful and special that has come into existence to provide a place where these people can revel in who they are and take delight in a culture of their own.

I’m clearly the target audience for this film. It’s a movie made to introduce people like myself, affluent and privileged people who have no experience in this world at all, to its concepts, vocabulary and a few of its inhabitants. It purports to be a documentary about the Ball scene, and it is, but in order to explain the Balls it has to explain so much of the rest of the culture. It defines terms like “Shade” and “Reading” which are familiar to me from Drag Race but would not have been otherwise. It introduces the concept of the Houses – a combination of gay street gang and surrogate family. Through interviews and footage from a few Balls it explains a little about how this blending of beauty pageant, dance-off, and extreme costume ball came to be and how they influence the lives of the people drawn together to compete in them.

To tell the truth I found the world and the characters who inhabit it much more interesting than the film made about them. I appreciate Jennie Livingston’s documentary style – letting the subjects tell their story in their own words through interviews – but the film overall felt scattershot and disorganised. Maybe it’s that I’m so used to the reality programming of today, which uses a heavily over-produced version of the same style. Today’s shows are edited to create story arcs. They have writers and producers who use off-camera prompts to steer interviews and keep things on message. They create an environment of stress, sleep deprivation and in the case of Drag Race of alcohol consumption which is carefully crafted to generate drama for the cameras to capture. In contrast this movie is just some interviews about similar subjects edited together. It doesn’t attempt to craft a story from them or use them for its own ends. I suppose I appreciate that restraint, because there are some powerful stories here that could have taken over the project but which instead feel like footnotes.

Take, for example, the heartbreaking tale of Venus Xtraveganza: found strangled and stuffed under a bed after giving interviews in this movie about how dangerous it was to turn tricks in the city for a living. She’s so full of dreams and optimism in these interviews, and her death is hardly mentioned in the film. Such a story could have taken over the entire movie, but instead Venus’ Xtraveganza mother Anji just sadly shrugs and says it’s the kind of thing that happens to people in her world.

In contrast to that harsh world we have the glamorous but competitive land of the Ball. The best part of the whole movie is seeing all these people doing the walk, demonstrating their skills be it “realness” or “vogue” or just plane fabulous over the top drag. I love watching Willi Ninja doing his thing. I love all the fantastic drag queens. I love the high class glam and the feathers, ruffles, fur and fans. Most of all I love the catty MCs who bring the whole event to life. I can easily see how this escapist world became such a sensation for these people. It’s like PAX is for me: a convention where you can celebrate who you are with like minded people. Heck, I even want to dress up for my convention. So maybe although I live in a completely different world from the people in this film I find it easy to feel a kinship with them. I just couldn’t ever hope to be half as fantastic.

April 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment