Paris is Burning

Dir: Jennie Livingston, 1990. Starring: Carmen and Brooke, Andre Christian, Dorian Corey. Gay Cinema.
Paris is Burning
If, at some point, the world burns to a pulp and only one film can be loaded onto an escape pod for future generations to glean some insight into all that was remotely worthwhile about human beings and society in general, you could do worse than nominating Paris is Burning for such posthumous preservation. At the very least it might make some of us look better than if some turgid superhero epic ostensibly depicting epic struggles of great societal importance was chosen in its place. Forgive me for mentioning but after just sitting through The Dark Knight Rises and subsequently observing all manner of literate and engaged humanities majors discuss the Dickensian implications of such a stupid, stupid movie in painfully earnest detail that completely ignored the fact that it was a goddamn movie for children I am ready for California and its most famous culture industry to sink to the bottom of the Pacific. Like now. We don’t even get good trash any more. Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a more relevant film to understand American psychology than anything Christopher Nolan, with his cheesy conceptualization of urban politics as an “us” vs. “them” struggle, has come up with. But I digress; this is an opportunity to talk about a truly epic film: the ferocious extravaganza spectacle-cum-urban-oppression-slum-saga Paris is Burning—at the very least the most important film ever made.

As is always the case in the United States, a small marginalized group—in this case, black, gay folks—creates a subculture of such magnificent vitality and militantly glamorous urgency—in this case, the Harlem Drag Ball scene of the late-‘80s and early ‘90s—that the only end result can be its utter annihilation as collateral damage in the larger story of poverty and racism that is the dominant narrative of AmeriKKKa and for the opportunistic capitalist sex mercenaries (in this case, Madonna) to cannily co-opt their electric pleasure art into a 1990 pop hit cassingle called “Vogue.” Now, “Vogue” was a great song and a noble tribute to this Harlem Drag Ball culture that Paris is Burning depicts but it’s still a subcultural Occupation that created a revenue stream that went directly into the granny panties Madonna wore under her Victorian costume from that one MTV Video Awards performance she did of the song whilst bypassing the originators completely.  So forget her for a moment and let’s go back to this black-flesh-ensconced-in-crushed-red-velvet-counter-narrative-protest-to-the-World-of- White-and-Straight that Paris is Burning represents.  

The film is a story of dreamers living out their Hollywood fantasies within the filthy confines of a Harlem gymnasium rented just for the occasion. In this world they take control and this poverty row becomes a catwalk of desire. The desire for luxurious feminine power is what they express, in heels and large feathers and rouge; they relegate their oppressors to zero status, just for a night. These talented flash boys and gurrls and star crazy children escaped the turmoil of a difficult home life to make it to New York City where they contend with the gutter and all its shit screams while gazing up at the penthouse, lips curled; they want in. So much pain, poverty, and tragedy exist in this world. But the makeshift families of performers are resilient and take care of each other while remaining fiercely competitive within the milieu of performance at the same time.

It’s a whirlwind of emotion I must admit I felt guilty for even witnessing for fear that my scopophilic gaze was objectifying a divine ritual. Just as the blessed artifacts of the funeral rites of aboriginal cultures don’t belong in a museum for us to contextualize I couldn’t shake the feeling that my comfortably middle class white ass didn’t belong in their more refined company. I was a visitor to a foreign land and as Jarvis Cocker once said, “everybody hates a tourist.” I also remember reading somewhere that "the white liberal is the V.D. of the revolution." Oh snap! Still, Paris is Burning is such a mega experience it is better to watch the film, to experience it as a religious ceremony and hope you get it right, than to hide from or ignore it as the sole province of its creators. Even if we who are not them are not worthy of it we must try and try again. Oh bondage, up yours! Let’s have a kiki.


Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 9, 2012 9:01pm
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