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Film / Paris Is Burning

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"Some of them say that we're sick, we're crazy. And some of them think that we are the most gorgeous, special things on Earth."
Venus Xtravaganza

Paris Is Burning is a 1990 documentary directed by Jennie Livingston about queer counterculture in New York City in the mid-to-late 1980s, primarily through ball culture. The film was the end product of Livingston taking an interest in the culture while studying film at NYU after graduating from Yale, and took six years to produce.

It mainly follows several drag queens and transgender women influential to the culture of the time, revolving mainly around their participation in drag balls, which were essentially beauty, fashion and dance contests. It also largely talks about intersectionality of race and class as well as LGBT+ identity, how they deal with issues such as AIDS, racism, poverty, violence and homophobia, and the common slang they use (ex: "shade", "reading", "legendary"). Also shown is vogueing, which got its start in this culture, and with the first outside mention being in a song that samples the movie (and then shortly afterwards again more famously by Madonna).

Featured in the film are other discussions about belonging, centered around the "houses" of the ball world (imagine maybe mafia houses but really camp instead) and the sense of community they provide, as they largely function as surrogate families welcoming those rejected by their own families. So strong is the feeling of acceptance offered that many youths who would not be able to afford food or rent would put their efforts into stealing clothes because of the life given at the balls.

The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival and was added to the National Film Registry in 2016.

Nothing to do with the film Is Paris Burning?, except for an obvious joke with the title.

Paris Is Troping:

  • Ambiguous Gender Identity: The performers range from gay men to trans women, hitting on everything in between. In 2 cases it is said that a performer is trans, in 1 case a gay man announces that he loves to dress in drag but doesn't want to be a woman ("that's going too far"), and for the rest part it is completely unstated — including many who have had different stages of gender surgery, some who dress feminine publicly all the time, etc. But it doesn't really matter.
  • Documentary: Of the camp subculture among gay and cross-dressing men and trans women in late 1980s New York, centering on their lavish, campy fashion balls.
  • Downer Ending: The next-to-last scene reveals that Venus Xtravaganza, interviewed at length throughout the film, was found strangled to death in a hotel room.
  • Flaw Exploitation: The read, baby. The best way to throw shade is to read someone and make that precise, almost offhanded shot that gets under their skin and destroys them.
  • Homophobic Hate Crime: Venus Xtravaganza, a trans drag performer/sex worker profiled in the film, was murdered whilst the documentary was being filmed. Her murder is still unsolved but it is generally thought that she was killed by one of her clients when he discovered she was trans.
  • Interchangeable Asian Cultures: A shot focuses on Ninja's Chinese porcelain statues when he talks about wanting to go to Japan.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Used for just about every still picture in the film, be it photos of the interviewees, or advertisements for drag balls and the like. Most of them are panned and zoomed.
  • Modeling Poses: Throughout the film as various transgender and drag queen people strike modeling poses in the Balls. There is also a discussion of vogueing, the dance, and how it grew out of the dramatic poses that models strike on the runway.
  • Pig Latin: A completely random moment near the end has a young man on the street demonstrating a variation of Pig Latin in which you add "-ug" to the end of words instead of "-ay".
  • Shout-Out:
    • The title is a play on the book and film Is Paris Burning?, which is about the liberation of Paris from the Nazis in 1944; or possibly just to the question Hitler posed, asking if they (the Nazis) had succeeded in segregating the community (70 year old spoiler: Paris was burning, but in rebellion rather than subjugation). The theme obviously continues into this documentary, as well as the puns on featuring the latest fashion of Paris and being "flaming gay".
    • Near the end, an interview subject says "Bring the camera over, Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up."
  • Stealth Insult: Or rather "shade", which is stealth insults as raised to an art form in black and Latino queer communities. As explained by Dorian Corey in the documentary, "Shade is I donít tell you youíre ugly, but I donít have to tell you because you know youíre ugly. And that's shade."
  • Stock Footage: A Channel 4 New York news report about a voguing competition held to raise money for AIDS research.
  • Talking Heads: Pepper LaBeija, Kim Pendavis, and others appear onscreen to talk about the gay and drag queen scene in NYC in the late 1980s.
  • Tragic AIDS Story: Some of the performers, most notably Venus, mention their fear of contracting AIDS. Though Venus dies from a transphobic attack, several other people featured in the documentary did die of AIDS after its completion.