I first saw Paris is Burning at HotDocs two years ago. And it made my already uncontrollable homosexual being into an incoherent mess. It was fabulousness. A window to a world, as cliched as that sounds. I was once a teenage immigrant who dreamed of running away. And finding myself in the village and be beautiful like all the other village gays. Which is what the people featured in Jennie Livingston’s classic documentary must have wanted and done.
Of course I find it problematic to fetishize the lives of these people. The film lets us experience the fantasy or the realness but it also exposes the harsh realities behind it. Netflix just made this film available in Canada, perhaps not for the first time. I’m happy to hear this news. It’s in knowing that more people will be able to watch a film I can call ‘Grey Gardens’ but gayer. And it earns than title because there are actual gays here.
Paris is Burning looks at the ball culture in NYC, an intersection of subcultures within subcultures. It’s not like the gay discos or bars. And it’s not quite the drag scene even though the people in this scene do drag. These people do not lip synch to songs in front of a crowd. Although yes, we see a scene like that here. In the ball scene, gay men and trans women dress up and get trophies. They get trophies for winning in certain categories like body or fashion.
Some of the categories like the military and ‘town and country’ make sense. Those institutions are notoriously racist and homophobic against the ball culture’s mostly black and Hispanic members. But the one that struck me the most is ‘schoolgirl realness,’ which has a high school theme. Which made my relatively sheltered mind asked myself ‘they allow gay people in high school, right?’
That scene, along with the whole film, is a stark reminder of my privilege. I use that word reluctantly because I have three strikes against me but it’s still a fitting word for me. I am lucky to have lived in a homeless shelter. Or to have bigger hurdles barring me from inclusion into the most basic of North America’s institutions. To have the insurmountable and stigmatizing hurdles these people here have faced, and strongly.
The goal now is how to let people outside the community see beyond the camp. At this point I’ll just resort to talking about the new things I see in the film now. The second time I saw it was in a university, where I reminded myself of the controversies surrounding it. One of the ball queens featured in it, Octavia St. Laurent, called it a terrible movie. And I wanted to know what she saw in it that was terrible. Maybe it was the below the skirt camera angles.
Livingston, a lesbian director, employs this as well as many male gaze-y techniques. Or the use of the word ‘men’ stinging to someone like St. Laurent who is a woman. LGBT people are vulnerable. Straight or straight passing people misunderstand us on a personal level. That misunderstanding sometimes feels deliberate even from well meaning allies. Imagine that vulnerability expanding exponentially when they’re in front of a camera.
I feel as if the Paris Ball mirrors the other ball in the real Paris. That Paris Ball started two years later than the film’s release. But seems more legitimate because the debutantes there have ancestors from noble families. The older Paris Ball uses rundown Masonic temples of pre-Giuliani NYC. But that’s the one that a film immortalized. With people whose quotable wit and dreams have influenced the way children like me talk and walk.
Paris Is Burning is now streaming on Netflix.