Paris is Burning (1990; Jennie Livingston)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, July 5, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Released in 1990 but immersed in the ethos of 1980s New York, Paris is Burning still feels like one of the most intimate and empathetic portraits of gay and transgender life ever put to film. Director Jennie Livingston never made another feature film, but the ground-breaking Paris is Burning became a cultural touchstone nonetheless. Shades of Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust in that regard.
Paris is Burning captures the roots of “voguing” in a scruffy 16mm time capsule, albeit one digitally remastered by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The film looks inside the world of balls, fierce yet inclusive competitions where contestants walk the floor in themed categories. Contestants get judged on their talent, but also on their ability to pass for their straight counterparts. Meanwhile, the top performers become micro-celebrities and “house mothers.” These meager rewards only inspire people to fight harder for their “status in the ballroom.”
More than anything, Paris is Burning is a thoroughly entertaining performance film. Beneath the theatrical trappings, though, sits layer after layer of poverty, neglect and abuse. Without ever exploiting her subjects, Livingston manages to navigate those dueling moods of celebration and depression. Most of the performances revolve around seemingly unattainable fantasies of not just stardom and wealth, but love, happiness and normalcy.
Of course, Livingston also indulges in a fair amount of amateur-hour photography, but the film opens with a ton of energy and sustains it throughout the 78-minute running time. Much of the credit must go to the candid and likable performers, as well as an airtight and unrelenting edit. However, Livingston’s complete lack of judgment is integral to a film that marked an end for some, but a beginning for many more.