For a film that's less than 80 minutes long, Paris is Burning contains at least that many worthy topics of discussion presenting quite a challenge for Best Shot participants. You could write 80 articles on it on entirely different subjects. The documentary was an instant sensation winning the Sundance Film Festival in January 1991, and opening that summer to big box office ($3.7 million... which was quite a lot for a documentary). It landed on top ten lists, won critics prizes and generated yet more press when it was horrifically snubbed by Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category. The film documents NYC's ball culture in 1987 with a few scenes from 1989. By 1989 you can already feel the scene changing, being coopted, and about to be appropriated for one of Madonna's biggest hits.
My choice and a few more words on this landmark film after this gallery of incredible images. PLEASE NOTE: Next week's topic for Tuesday March 17th (St. Patrick's Day) is the classic THE QUIET MAN (1952) set in Ireland starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara. Like Paris, it's available on Netflix Instant Watch so I expect y'all here Tuesday night with your choices.
PARIS IS BURNING (1990)
Best Shots according to 21 Fine Cinephiles Round the Web
(in no particular order)
Click on the photo for the corresponding article.
Queerer Things - Category is FAME PROXIMITY
* this was my own runner up shot
Nebel Without a Cause - Category is WALKING
Best Shot in the Dark - Category is RITES OF PASSAGE
Paul Outlaw - Category is UNSOLVED MYSTERIES
ANTAGONY & ECSTACY - Category is STAGED TRUTH
CineMunch - Category is TEMPORARY PERMANENCE
Bennet Prowser - Category is MOTHERING
Video Valhalla - Category is KNOWING YOUR SHIT
I Am Derreck - Category is OLD SHOWGIRLS MUST GO ON
The Film's The Thing - The Category is HOUSE IS NOT A HOME
Dusty Hixenbaugh - Category is MOST FAKE REALNESS
A Fistful of Film - Category is HOGGING THE SPOTLIGHT
Sorta That Guy - Category is ASPIRATIONAL DREAMERS
The Entertainment Junkie - Category is BEING YOUR TRUE SELF
*this would easily make my own list of five best moments in the movie which is saying a lot since every moment is grand.
Lam Chop Chop - Category is TWILIGHT OF VENUS
Out to the Movies - Category is VOGUEING
Coco Hits NY - Category is FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE
The Spy in the Sandwich - Category is UNLIKELY HEROINES
Dancin Dan on Film - Category is THE SHADE OF IT ALL
Film Actually - Category is HIGHS THAT WON'T HURT YOU
* This image was also "under my consideration"
When I first saw the film in the 1990s I absolutely loved it -- Dorian Corey remains my favorite character with Octavia St. Laurent as a distant runner up -- but I'll admit that I thought of it mostly as One of the Greatest LGBT documentaries, even One of the Greatest LGBT drag documentaries. I don't know how I reduced it and ghettoized it to that degree since its concerns are so wide-ranging. In fact, there's not much drag in at all really. Not in the traditional sense. Just in the RuPaul sense.
We're born naked and the rest is drag.
It's far more concerned with aspirational realness and socioeconomic disparity and the dichotomous pain of wanting to be someone else while also wanting to be your true self. Given the many advances in trans awareness in recent years, it's almost shocking to here so many trans women telling their stories onscreen but using antiquated language to do it. But it was the shadow side of capitalism, the aspirational distortion of the media ("Dynasty" is name-checked several times) and the poverty that hit hardest in 2015 when gay rights have made so many strides and the gay community is far less ostracized than it was in the AIDS fearing eighties. But poor is still poor, redistribution of wealth still goes up rather than down, and motherless street kids are still motherless street kids.
Best Shot. Nathaniel's Choice - Category is ISNT IT PAST YOUR BEDTIME?
They treat each other like sisters. Or brothers. Or mothers or, you know, like I say, 'oh, that's my sista,' because she's gay too and I'm gay and she's a drag queen or whatever.
That's why it's one of the film's masterstroke to talk to two very young kids, baby gays if you will. We don't learn their names just their ages, 13 (left) and 15 (right) though their faces suggest the reverse. They seem impossibly young given that our only context of the world they inhabit is the older hard-living queens who are the bulk of the film's talking heads. We never see them within the context of the balls or in their own apartments like the other characters, just on the street outside at 2 or 3 AM. They're cheerful and funny, already fully aware of the gay community as adoptive family... which is fairly young to know that, at least in 1987. Absentmindedly, the older one's fingers repeatedly play with his friend's tank top as he talks about community 'religious people want to pray together. gay people want to be together.' He claims he doesn't have a mother -- and shrugs off further questioning with something that looks like a smile but doesn't look at all happy. They look far more innocent than you realize their lives could possibly be and you know that rough lives of poverty and ostracization await them.
At Sundance earlier this year I went to a special presentation for this film's 25th anniversary. Jennie Livingston was asked about these kids and she freely admitted that it was an incredible good fortune to find them and have them speak so much of the film's thesis out loud. Unlike most of the other characters featured, she has no idea what happened to them or who they became. Sitting in my seat I wondered if they were even alive, then shuddered at the thoughts since they'd only be in their late 30s now.
Paris is Burning is not just as good as remembered, it's better. Time has been incredibly kind to this authentic snapshot of a lost moment in cultural time just before it was co-opted, just before it vanished and years before its entrenched concerns were (best case) transformed and mainstreamed or (worst case) rearranged and renamed, but wholly recognizable today through the same scars and similar tragedies.