Paris Is Burning ★★★★½

2017 Queer Films Challenge - Week 16
Everyone must watch Paris is Burning.

Admittedly, I don't see as many documentaries as I want to. More or less, it's slightly tougher for me to dissect what goes into making a great documentary aside from the technical level and what it sets out to achieve. There's ones I can call very solid pieces of work (Bowling for Columbine and Dogtown and Z-Boys), and ones that are failures (Room 237 and everything by Dinesh D'Souza). Early on when looking at a few more and nailing down everything they consist of, it took time to say with confidence upon added viewing that Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning is one of the finest documentaries ever made. Going upon thirty years after its first moments were filmed, and several rewatches of my own, the claim still rings true. It's the very example of something made to inform what was so underground at the time and carried a variety of interesting themes along the way.

The black/Latino gay ball subculture wasn't new to me, but it was full of enough information pieced together to deliver its facets clearly. All of it connected in a seamless manner for the most part as some perspectives give way to others to collect ruminations on the many themes covered. There's a big disparity when it comes to fame and expectations out of life when comparing Octavia St. Laurent and Dorian Corey, Corey being the aged drag queen who strives for simplicity while Octavia dreams endlessly of being lavish in the style of an outrageous starlet, too the point of shoplifting. This is but two of the different worldviews swapped through the film when it comes to wants out of the world. There's a masterful back and forth between Octavia gushing about her fantasies of a modelling career while Venus Xtravaganza wishes for life as a housewife after getting gender confirmation surgery. Both are aware of the leaps and bounds that need to be taken being trans and of color, but it's still beautiful to imagine. The sharp contrast of trans women compared to gay men in the film is notable especially in the bittersweet gut punch of the ending, showing Willi Ninja achieving his dream of bringing voguing to the mainstream and overseas while Venus suffers the fate of being murdered. Just earlier in the film, he's made a clientele out of educating women how to be more feminine. The volumes it speaks about the unity of queer people but the combined bigotry always has a hand over it is deafening.

Most of the film's achievements lie in the editing, for which Jonathan Oppenheim was snubbed big time. The last mentioned connection between spoken themes and disparities work well, but that's to say nothing of the rapid-fire coverage of the different categories of the balls and the combination of image with voice-over. The strong image of a black gay ball dancer draped in the American flag while someone discusses the strong line against the demographic and their need to survive is a powerful image. It doesn't lack for cleverness as the bold white intertitle of "Mother" appears onscreen as Angie Xtravaganza gets her breasts jokingly suckled by her house children. The handling of so many themes and presumable mountains of footage is pinpoint perfection on Oppenheim and Livingston's effort, even when it has its moments of haphazard subject changes. Documentary lives and dies on its editing as well as the information, and when something is as strong on this level, it's a success.

A favorite film of mine, seeing Paris is Burning another time made a worthy watch and especially helpful in my future documentary project. It probably can function as a how-to for many others because there's so much it does right in the name of what it exists to do and how it's communicated. Only now does the film become relevant by reexamination and direct discussion on the problems it arises, but that doesn't mean it was a loss in its time. It gave light to a group and got a discourse started. Perhaps delayed, but better to be presented in a correct time than none at all.