A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , ,

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