Paris Is Burning
August 5, 2014 2:20 PM   Subscribe

Full Doc - 1:16:27 - slyt: "Paris Is Burning is a 1990 documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African American, Latino, gay and transgender communities involved in it. Many members of the ball culture community consider Paris Is Burning to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the "Golden Age" of New York City drag balls, as well as a thoughtful exploration of race, class, and gender in America."
posted by marienbad (25 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Has this really not been shared on Meta before? Wow, that's a surprise.

I grew up in rural Arkansas and the nearest VHS rental place to my home inexplicably stocked a copy of this within a year or so of its release. I was 13-ish when I first rented it based on the cover alone, with no preconceived notions of its contents other than Madonna's "Vogue" had something to do with it. I thank the heavens perpetually for the grace that brought this to me at such a pivotal age. I felt goosebumps from the moment the show started until the credits rolled, then immediately rewound and watched again.

Let the quoting begin.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:37 PM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Absolutely compulsory viewing, but make sure you clear some time for a good cry as well.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:37 PM on August 5, 2014


Even though I was a teenager when I came out, I was still pretty sheltered and suburban when this came out (I was 22 at the time). It was one of my first views of "big city" gay life, and I ate it up with a spoon.
posted by xingcat at 2:41 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wonderful, strange, artful film filled with one-of-a-kind talent. (For those familiar with Dorian Corey, here's a Google Books link to an article describing some mysterious things that came to light after Corey's death...)

From Ebert's review:
Some of the reviews of "Paris is Burning" have called the movie depressing - because the dancers are pretending to be the kinds of people who would not accept them in real life ("After all," one person says, "how many gay black males are there in the business executive ranks?"). I was not depressed. What I saw was a successful attempt by the outsiders to dramatize how success and status in the world often depend on props you can buy, or steal, almost anywhere - assuming you have the style to know how to use them.
I wish every person who uses the term "throwing shade" to mean "verbally insulting someone" would be forced to sit and watch this film. (Really I wish every person would be forced to...)
posted by sallybrown at 2:42 PM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

Has this really not been shared on Meta before?

I found this via hippybear's Gay Documentaries FPP, where it is mentioned, but it is in parts and no longer available in that form.
posted by marienbad at 2:54 PM on August 5, 2014

I was a co-leader of the student group BiGLARU (bisexual, gay, lesbian alliance of Rutgers U) in the mid 90's and we screened this film after some hard work tracking it down (thanks to Kim's Video, NYC). We knew then that it was important, just not really sure how. All of our culture was important to us, having lost /still losing people to AIDS and the general climate for us queer folks. It's great that this doc has a sustained presence and I appreciate seeing it on the blue.

I also want to second sallybrown's comment about the language and casual use - a friend told me last week that "throwing shade" made it into a Jeopardy answer... I just can't... While it ultimately isn't for me to say (and it's not really my primary community), I know that I revere and protect a culture that exists in deference to, despite, in opposition of, etc etc the homogenous culture by which it is surrounded.

posted by con_text at 3:01 PM on August 5, 2014

Watched this last month at our local film club, and thought it was a poignant, moving documentary. And heartening watching how people carve out defiant joy even when the world is against them.
posted by reynir at 3:08 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

This video contains content from SME, The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA), LyricFind, BMG_Rights_Management and Miramax, one or more of whom have blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.
Sorry about that.
posted by semmi at 3:32 PM on August 5, 2014

A stone-cold classic. Those looking for a modern treatment should check out Leave It On The Floor.
posted by mykescipark at 3:32 PM on August 5, 2014

Here's another short documentary about voguing featuring many of the same people. It's a lot more superficial, but it's nice to see some more footage of the people in Paris Is Burning.

Paris Is Burning is an amazing movie. There's a weird, sad coda to this film. It's something I'm glad I heard about after seeing it, so I recommend clicking the link only after watching the film.
posted by Kattullus at 3:56 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, god, the memories on this one. I saw it again the other day on Netflix, when I realized it had been nearly a decade (agh! so old!) since I'd seen it last. And what a thrill of nostalgia, to see Dorian back at that mirror, putting her face on, listening to that gravel-throated voice. She hypnotized me when I was young--at my school's dollar theater, I'd go see this again and again, and just watch her, fascinated. Eventually we had to see it and discuss it for queer studies classes--talking about the economics, the politics, all the focus on the youth, aaaaaanalyzing, but all I wanted to do was watch that queen put on some makeup.
posted by mittens at 3:57 PM on August 5, 2014

This video contains content from SME, The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA), LyricFind, BMG_Rights_Management and Miramax, one or more of whom have blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.

Sorry about that.

Anyone else in the USA able to view this?

(oh. Hi, semmi!)
posted by trip and a half at 4:04 PM on August 5, 2014

bell hooks: Is Paris Burning?
posted by inertia at 4:05 PM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

On a fluffier note, I did get a kick out of Icona Pop's video homage.
posted by Badgermann at 4:34 PM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

katullus, thanks for the extra Willie Ninja clip... I could watch him vogue in fringe all day!
posted by NorthernAutumn at 4:43 PM on August 5, 2014

trip and a half, I got that message too. :( In the US.
posted by bobobox at 4:51 PM on August 5, 2014

Badgermann: On a fluffier note, I did get a kick out of Icona Pop's video homage.

That's a lovely video. Also, it features José, the same (I'm pretty sure) dancer you see as a young wunderkind in the short doc I linked to. I'd wondered what happened to him. I've stopped Googling dancers from that time because their stories are usually so depressing, but it looks like he's made a career out of doing what he loves. It's heartening that even out of times and places where the odds are stacked against survival people can get through and thrive.
posted by Kattullus at 5:10 PM on August 5, 2014

I co-founded the Gay-Straight Alliance at my high school as well and, young and out of ideas, I showed this and the Harvey Milk documentary far too many times.

Drag culture and language has so quickly permeated the mainstream in recent years; it still shocks me to hear white folks throw around "shade." Indeed, this documentary should be compulsory watching for anyone who enjoys RuPaul's Drag Race, votes YAAAAASSSSSS on Buzzfeed, or listens to the aforelinked podcast. Know your history!
posted by youarenothere at 5:50 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Another reason why this documentary is important is because it also documents what is essentially the origin story of House music - as in House of Chanel and such - and part of the origin story of Turntabilism as it's own performance beyond DJing.

It also tangentially illustrates how hip hop used to be basically totally LGBT-friendly, instead of the misogynistic, hypermasculine crap it's been for the past 15-20 years or so. Both house and hip hop have their roots in earlier disco and club culture, which was also heavily gay and open.

This origin story of House music is even more important today with the advent of "big room" or "festival" house music (See: Swedish House Mafia) and the fans that have no fucking idea or clue that House music was initially music rooted in gay culture, that the reason why people wear outlandish costumes to festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival (or even buy crappy disposable day-glo festival rave uniforms) is because of drag queens and drag culture, which evolved into club kid culture and even more outlandish costumes.

Granted, the kids going to these festivals today don't face the same challenges, and being gay or queer is generally much more accepted than it was in the past so they mainly don't need to understand - but this doesn't excuse the objectifying/misogynistic sexual culture that is prevalent at modern, mainstream EDM festivals and in the newer EDM club scene where it's a lot of dudebros trying to hook up with woogirls, and things are the same as it ever was in the meat-market straight club world except with watered down house music and house music culture, all surface and no substance.

I am, of course, biased and irritated by this development in House music and culture, because for a decade or almost three - house music club nights were safe places for people to dance without being groped, hit on, touched without permission or grinded on without so much as a hello just because you're dancing to a beat. Predators spiking drinks wasn't a thing. People bumping and grinding on the dance floor wasn't a thing. People (even couples) danced solo, but together with the group. It's what trance or house dancing was all about, because it doesn't lend itself to couples dancing like a tango or 2-step, because you have to be able to move much more freely and interpretively to the music, even if you're just shuffling or waving your hands around.

So over the last 5-10 years, I've watched some of my favorite kinds of music spaces and clubs become yet another straight singles hook-up party. I've had to guard female friends from being groped on the dance floor or having their drinks roofied. I've had people disgrace what was to me, essentially, the closest thing to a real church that I've ever found.

And it sucks. EDM sucks, dudebros. Go home. Go back to listening to aggro testosterone fueled power rock or whatever. Go back to Dave Matthews Band or Nickelback or whatever, and take Swedish House Mafia and Avicii with you. Terre Thaemlitz and Doc Martin are not for you, unless you're willing to respect and stop being such a goddamn ignorantly offensive dudebro.

I know I'm violating Jack's House and Jack's rules, here, by not accepting everyone with open arms. I understand this is very anti Jack. But I don't think Jack ever saw his favorite clubs get overrun by roid-raged dudes in Ed Hardy t-shirts and Tapout baseball caps trying to bump and grind random girls while listening to shitty faux-house auto-DJed by a computer and the winner of a popularity contest who singular musical talent is throwing cake at teenaged girls in bikinis at an outdoor festival at night. I don't think Jack ever had to walk a roofied girlfriend home from a club. Frankly, I think Jack's riotous indignation and righteous outrage would be beyond fierce if he did see these things.
posted by loquacious at 6:12 PM on August 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

loquacious: I shared your quote online and apparently it's not entirely accurate.
posted by divabat at 8:44 PM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

divabat: Storify confuses and scares me, but I am more than willing to be corrected.

I am generalizing some, and extrapolating less - but this is the oral history I've learned from numerous people in the House music scene and gay community growing up, but I'm relatively young compared to the actual age of House music, and I started with Acid House and Detroit Techno in the very late 80s as a teenager, on through the 90s in LA's house and underground rave scene. So I was far removed from original sources in Chicago and NYC, and the dance music underground is nothing if not rife with wildly inaccurate oral histories.

I guess one mistake I made that I can own up to right away is mis-defining hip hop as what was white and/or mainstream-accessible post Afrika Bambataa electro-funk, rap and breakbeats, the stuff that actually first broke out into mainstream success. I know it predates this by a decade (just as punk predates the Sex Pistols) but I honestly don't know much about hip hop prior to this era, but I'm not unfamiliar with funk and jazz. I'm just not as historically confident about the connections and evolution before that.

As for Terre Thaemlitz, I was wrongfully name dropping. I love her as a DJ and curator, is all. I'm not associated with her, and I'm unfamiliar with any existing politics or history there, and I'm not a subscriber to her newsletter or politics. My opinions are mine. At most I've glanced at her web page a couple of times in my life with regard to gender fluidity and gender politics.

I will also admit it's wrong for me to be defensive or a gatekeeper about house music and house culture - especially considering I'm a relative newcomer - but particularly because I believe in the transformative power of music and dance. The stawman hypothetical dudebro I'm irritated by may be the one person on the dancefloor that needs it the most, and may find reflection and personal self-transformation there. I just wish he could do it without grabbing the asses of my friends or trying to start drunken fights with people.

Goodness knows there was a time that I was totally ignorant of what house music even was, even as I lucked out and as I was falling deep (heh) into the heart of LA's house music scene. Or gay/trans culture. And politics. And I did find my time there transformative, as it opened my horizons to a million other things.

So, yeah, mea culpa. Do feel free to update and educate. I'm listening.
posted by loquacious at 11:02 PM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'll post an update - I know fuck all about house music, but when I shared your quote on social media Natalie Reed replied, and I thought I'd storify it to put all thr tweets in one place.
posted by divabat at 11:06 PM on August 5, 2014

divabat: Cool. It's not super-important and it's orthogonal to the main point of the documentary and this post, but for whatever it's worth, my oral history comes from sources that include actual club kids and drag performers from my heyday in the house music scene in LA, which has/had a really strong scene during that era and a lot of crossover traffic with NYC and Chicago.

(I have no idea how many times I've seen classic house DJs like Frankie Knuckles during that era in LA. Dozens? In the beginning of my dance music history I didn't really pay attention and I wasn't really alone. (Sure, I/we were high as the fucking sun most of the time.) There wasn't as much rock-star grade DJ worship going on back then even for major players like Frankie Knuckles or Juan Atkins or whoever, and often DJs were hidden away in booths or behind walls of speakers, as dancers and participants focused on each other and the music, not on "big name" acts presented up on stages. Because these were parties, not concerts, and there's a functional difference between the two.)

But oral histories (and club kids!) being what they are, it is of course highly likely these are their own retconned oral histories that they also received and mis-remembered, telephone-game style.

I do, however, think that the "warehouse" or "these are the house records of our resident DJs" wikipedia definition is also valid and accurate, and I forgot to include that in my comment, and I think that the origins of the word are mingled between the Ball culture origin, because that portion kind of predates Chicago house and The Warehouse club.

Oral histories about popular culture genres and subgenres are weird, especially when it involves a bunch of really high weirdos.
posted by loquacious at 1:04 AM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I love the hell out of this, saw it in the theater in high school, and once got grounded because my mom picked me up in the street at 6 a.m. hanging out with a drag queen named Paris Couture and it made her late to work on a Wednesday.

It was a magical, scary time to be young and alive. If you enjoyed this, Brooke Candy's OPULENCE video heavily quotes/references Paris is Burning lyrically ("I own everything, baby!") and the subsequent House/drag/club kid 90's culture that followed (visually): [NSFW/SLYT]
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:21 PM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

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