Paris Is (still) Burning, the 30th anniversary of a masterpiece

The iconic queer documentary by Jennie Livingston charting New York’s ‘ballroom culture’ is as relevant and powerful as ever 

By James Anderson    Above image: (Ronald Grant Archive)   Wednesday 3 June, 2020   Long read 

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Many lovers of pop music in the late-20th century were first made aware of the vogueing phenomena through two particular songs. One was Madonna’s Vogue, which reached number one in 30 countries after its release in early 1990. The other was Malcolm McLaren’s preceding Deep In Vogue, released during the summer of 1989 and hitting the number one slot in the Billboard dance chart. Both of these singles and their accompanying videos referenced New York’s ‘ballroom culture’, the little-known scene that had spawned vogueing, prior to it becoming an international dance craze. 
 
However, it was Jennie Livingston’s documentary, Paris Is Burning, that celebrated the true underground origins and audacious spirit of vogueing. The film paid homage to the marginalised black and Latinx trans women, drag queens and queer youths whom, away from the mainstream, had innovated the Harlem-based ‘ballroom’ scene and vogueing since the 1970s. Made with grainy 16mm film during the latter half of the 1980s by Livingston, a former Yale art student, what Paris Is Burning lacked in budget and technical expertise, it more than made up for in sheer colour, drama and boldness.  
 
Despite earning great critical praise after its completion and release in 1990, Paris Is Burning remained a cult film for years – screened mainly at art-house cinemas, or passed around on scratchy video cassettes among in-the-know club kids. (These days, it’s a popular choice on Netflix). The documentary introduces viewers to the alternative communities, named ‘Houses’, which are formed and overseen by older House ‘Mothers’, who look out for the often homeless and skint youths that congregate around them. Against a backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, the hostile Reagan-era presidency and the ‘greed is good’ creed of the 1980s, times are seriously hard for many of Paris Is Burning’s protagonists. We see them hanging out on the streets, at the derelict piers, and in run-down rented flats.
A woman dancing.
A group of people celebrating.
But at the balls, staged in scruffy community centres or faded former theatre venues, they reinvent themselves with amazing costumes and clothing (self-made or stolen from boutiques), complemented by elaborate make-up, hair and accessories. Members of each House then compete against each other in different categories to be more glamorous, more ‘real’, richer and more fabulous-looking, more ‘butch’ or more ‘femme’. As they each walk the ‘runway’, a panel of judges comments and questions their authenticity and impact – whipping the audience into a frenzy of enthusiasm or affectionate antagonism. The kids parody and mimic the poses of high-fashion models on Paris catwalks and in advertising campaigns, or pin-striped executives on Wall Street, interspersed with rapid yet graceful dance moves, the nimble power of which make your jaw drop. The whole effect is exhilarating and thrilling. 

London-based fashion designer and nightlife icon, Michael Costiff, who ran the legendary drag night, Kinky Gerlinky, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, recalls attending various Paris Is Burning-era New York balls in the city. ‘Everyone took the competitions very seriously,’ he confirms. ‘Each category was endless, with lots of disputes about authenticity of designer labels. Furs were checked for realness and everybody in the crowd had an opinion. It was a hoot and went on for hours.’ The singer and model, Roy Brown, who has worked with Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, Pet Shop Boys and Neneh Cherry, among others, was also an occasional visitor to the Big Apple at the time. He and his choreographer/ dancer friend, Les Child, hung out with the Paris Is Burning gang, while the documentary was actually being filmed. As soon as they returned to London, they and a group of friends formed the House of Child, bringing the very first wave of vogueing directly to the capital’s club scene. Brown summarises the core preoccupation of Paris Is Burning as: ‘Community – as found in the houses and the support for anyone who was cast out by their families, or those whom society and the establishment thought didn’t fit in. They found a haven where they all fitted in and were celebrated.’

'Paris Is Burning’s universal message is of acceptance, aspiration, love and community, which remains as relevant now as it was back then'

The themes identified by Brown are further explored throughout Paris Is Burning in tender, intimate interviews with the older and younger figureheads of the scene, including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, Kim Pendavis, Dorian Corey and Angie Xtravaganza, who talk of their dreams and the problems they face. Some are sex workers, others desperate for gender reassignment surgery. Many of them have been totally rejected by their own families and most of them have no money. The majority of them are, sadly, no longer alive. Despite the challenges they discuss during the film, they have bravery, talent and attitude in spades, which is in part what makes Paris Is Burning so inspiring and iconic.  
     
In the years since its release, the film and the vogueing scene of the 1980s have provided ongoing inspiration to newer waves of creatives and culture vultures. It reverberated through the wildest 1990s club nights – at the Sound Factory in New York, or Kinky Gerlinky in London, for example – and was emulated in a myriad music videos throughout the same decade. Various 21st-century fashion designers and brands, including Hood By Air, Raf Simons, New Power Studio and Kim Jones, have at different times referenced this iconic moment of fierce New York cool in their collections and on runways.
Two drag queens.
The massive global success of RuPaul’s Drag Race – with its witty put-downs and love of a painstakingly put-together ‘look’ – owes a clear debt to the fierce spirit of the trailblazing individuals who starred in Paris Is Burning. More recently and most notably, the ongoing TV drama series, Pose, has explored NYC’s ballroom scene of decades gone by. Its talented transgender cast and poignant yet uplifting storylines clearly nod to the lives and adventures of Paris Is Burning’s core personalities. One of the episodes was even guest-directed by Jennie Livingston. 

To mark the 30-year anniversary of the documentary, a digitally restored version of it has now been issued on Blu-ray. This is accompanied by an hour of previously unseen footage, plus other related commentary and interviews with film critics and historians. There’s also a lavishly designed booklet, all of which have been curated and released by The Criterion Collection. It is a fitting tribute to a film that’s achieved cultural and social reach far beyond the ballroom or the dance floor. Even as far back as 1991, Jennie Livingston was brilliantly articulating Paris Is Burning’s universal message of acceptance, aspiration, love and community, which remains as relevant now as it was back then. ‘This is a film that is important for anyone to see, whether they’re gay or not,’ she told the Orlando Sentinel newspaper at the time. ‘It’s about how we’re all influenced by the media; how we strive to meet the demands of the media by trying to look like Vogue models or by owning a big car. And it’s about survival. It’s about people who have a lot of prejudices against them and who have learned to survive with wit, dignity and energy.’ 

criterionchannel.com
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