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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The True Legacy of Paris Is Burning

I didn't have any classes today, and another issue of the magazine I edit (PLUG: is due out soon... so I wrote a little something! It's about Paris Is Burning, a film I watched (twice) over the weekend. Enjoy!


For a film released fairly recently in 1990, Paris Is Burning has already accrued something of a dark legacy. The majority of its stars are now dead (some in the direst of circumstances); and, even during their lifetime, they fought a bitter backlash against director Jennie Livngston in relation to apparent exploitation (a controversy “settled” with a payout of $5,500 to each). Amidst all the controversy, however, the true legacy of the film is at risk of being obscured: a legacy which continues to burn, and which is as relevant today as it ever was.

Paris Is Burning is a documentary film by Jennie Livingston which documents the “ball” culture of late 1980s Harlem, New York. A ball is an event in which participants compete in various categories and “walk” the floor, vying for trophies by exhibiting legendary status. What constitutes legendary status differs with the category: it might be your fashion, your moves or your “realness” (i.e. the flawless replication of something you’re not).

Drag plays a large part in any ball, of course, but they’re more than just that. A ball is an opportunity for any disenfranchised young person (predominantly black/latino, transsexual or gay) to “be whatever [they] want to be… you can become anything and do anything, right here, right now”. For some (biological men), that might indeed mean becoming a woman, be that in dress, body or both. Many of the film's subjects (most prominently, Venus Xtravaganza and Octavia St. Laurent) were indeed transitioning transsexuals at the time of filming. For others, the escape is simply dressing up as an office executive or an educated college student. These are the “realness” categories: largely a chance for ball-goers to assume the persona of a socioeconomic group from which they are otherwise excluded. To be an executive in 1980s New York, you needed to be white, male, straight. At a ball, all you needed was a suit and tie. Put them on and “you’re showing the straight world that [you] could be an executive, if [you] had the opportunity”. In this sense, the balls provide a temporary portal to a fantasy world where colour, class and sexuality are eradicated.

Pepper LaBeija showing what it means to walk the floor.

But “realness” is more than just imitation. The idea behind the concept of executive “realness” (or whatever other form it takes) is the ability to blend in: to walk down the street and be unexceptional, just another straight man or business woman. “It’s not a take-off or satire, but actually being able to be this: erase all the mistakes, all the flaws, all the giveaways, to make your illusion perfect”. Worth, then, is defined purely by image. For the worth-less, those whose only commodity is their image, it can be a reassuring conception of the world: whatever I look like, I am.

For all the superficiality, however, Paris Is Burning is not a superficial film.  As Angie Xtravaganza matter-of-factly imparts the news of Venus’ murder (“that’s part of life as far as being a transsexual in New York City and surviving”), Venus is shown on screen once more, still alive, blonde hair billowing in the Harlem wind, a boombox sounding out Barbara Mason’s “Another Man” as she casually smokes a cigarette. The scene cuts to another, again of Venus, but this time she’s laughing, audacious: “I’m hungry”, she cackles. As her final onscreen words, they resonate.  

Octavia St. Laurent, transitioning from male to
female at the time of filming
It is to here that the film’s true legacy is traceable. Venus isn’t the only one who’s hungry. Hunger drips from Paris Is Burning. The film’s title itself is a metaphor for hungry ambition (stemming from Willi Ninja’s desire to “take voguing not just to Paris is Burning [a famous ball], but…to the real Paris and make the real Paris burn”). Like Venus, Octavia sits in her modest, shared bedroom, looking up at her magazine cut-outs of Paulina Porizkova taped to the walls: “Sometimes I sit and I look at a magazine and I try to imagine myself on the front cover, or even the inside – I want so much more…I want everybody to look at me and say: ‘there goes Octavia! `” For the disenfranchised, parentless youth, hope should be a historical artifact. What endears about Livingston’s cast, then, is not only that hope is alive, but that it thrives. Within their abnormal lives, Venus, Octavia and Willi don’t just hope for normality. Their hope soars: to stardom, wealth, the cover of magazines…"This is what I want and I’m gonna go for it”, Venus resolves. 

A year later, Venus was dead: strangled and stuffed under a bed in a sleazy New York hotel. Octavia and Willi, meanwhile, both died young in their 40s, neither spiralling to the heights of fame and success they so hungered for. The result is sobering. In the final scenes of the film, Dorian Corey ruminates on the maturation of youthful ambition. “I always had hopes of being a big star”, he admits, “but as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make…some mark upon the world. Then you think, you've made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you've left a mark. You don't have to bend the whole world. I think it's better to just enjoy it.” It’s a clear juxtaposition between the hopeful and the jaded, the young and the old. Corey’s words may well represent the reality, but still Venus’, Octavia’s and Willi’s ring louder. It is the very fact that their ambition can continue to survive in their experience of Corey’s world – of discrimination, alienation, and harassment – that make that so. 

More than twenty years on, Corey’s world is still a very real place: a world where discrimination continues to threaten ambition. In that world, Venus, Octavia and Willi never stopped daring to hope. For all the camp, glamour and ensuing controversy of the film, that is the real legacy of Paris Is Burning.

Venus Xtravaganza

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Willi Ninja did carved a career out for himself before he succumb to AIDS-related illness.

June 28, 2013 at 4:35 AM  

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