Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Paris Is Burning

Written for the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series hosted by the wonderful Nathaniel at The Film Experience. Pick your "best shot" from the week's movie and join us!

I don't really know how to talk about Paris is Burning.

When something is as groundbreaking, as important, as Jennie Livingston's documentary is, how does one even begin to talk about it?

I'm not a queer theorist. I've never taken a gender studies class. I'm just one gay man out of thousands, who did (truly, truly terrible) drag once in college as a favor to a friend. And when talking about drag queens, as RuPaul's Drag Race has shown recently, it is very easy to step in it without even knowing.

Paris is Burning remains an essential watch to this day primarily because it so excellently captures a specific time and place and people that no one else in America was looking at: The Drag Houses of New York City in the late 80s/early 90s. In fact, people still don't really look at them, outside of the few who have made Logo's reality competition series a minor cable hit (the impact of the show outside gay culture is minimal).

And on top of all that, Nathaniel wants us to pick the film's "Best Shot". Documentaries are not generally known for their cinematography,  as they generally go about telling their story as truthfully as possible. In documentaries, words are usually more important than pictures. And here, a lot of the film's most arresting images stand out because of the fabulous creatures that fill them - the drag queens that positively set the screen on fire with their Charisma, Uniqueness, Nerve, and Talent - and not really for any particular genius of framing or motion or lighting. WHAT cinematographer Paul Gibson's camera captures, in other words, is far more interesting than HOW he captures it. Not that there aren't some lovely images that capture 80s NYC perfectly, as the below image illustrates.
All of this is to say, what I find to be interesting about this film is probably mostly on the surface, and comes from my perspective as a performer who is gay. There are more important things that the film is saying, I'm sure, but I don't feel equipped to really talk about them. I can only speak to what I responded to most in the film.

I've seen Paris is Burning twice over the past six months now, and for me, the heart of the film is in the recurring interview scene of Dorian Corey in her dressing room putting on makeup, endlessly preparing for a ball. Corey has a very dry sort of wit, and it's these scenes that contain the most history of drag/ball culture, as well as general information on being a drag queen (it's Corey who provides this legendary definition of shade: "I don't tell you you're ugly, but... I don't have to tell you, because you know you're ugly."). When watching a documentary, I find it even harder than in a narrative feature to separate an image from the words that accompany it, and the combination of images and words that had the largest impact on me was this one:
"I always had hopes of being a big star. And then I looked - as you get older you, you aim a little lower. And you say, 'Well yeah, you might still make an impression.' Everybody wants to leave something behind them - some impression, some mark upon the world. And then you think you left 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. Pay your dues. And enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high? Hooray for you."
Corey is usually quite animated when speaking in other points in the film, even when focusing on putting makeup, but this entire clip (by far the most close-up we have ever been to any of the interview subjects in the film) is spoken with the kind of world-weary resignation of a past-their-prime performer who never hit the big time and is trying to save face, or convince themselves that it's okay they never hit the highs they just knew they were going to reach. Or maybe it's the last sigh of someone who has endured more hardship than anyone should have to take in one lifetime, putting on a brave show for the cameras. Or maybe, just maybe, it's only the sound of someone who is too intently focused on their makeup to sound like they really genuinely mean what they're saying. It's just enough to make you question whether or not Corey actually believes these words.
And that last bit? "Hooray for you"? THE SHADE. But who is it directed toward? The young kids who she excoriated as people who "wouldn't know what a ball was if it knocked 'em in the head"? The clique-y houses, to one of which it does not appear Corey belongs? Or the heterosexuals who run the world? The ones who the ball contestants dress up as, both to mock and to show that, in Corey's words, "I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity, I could be one. Your peers, your friends, are telling you, 'Oh, you'd make a wonderful executive.' Now, the fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life. That is just a pure thing. Black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and the ones that do, are usually straight."

Hooray for you, straight, white world. You are fine just as you are. You can walk out the door with nothing on and no one would bat an eye and you would still have your money and your respect and your social standing. But the subjects of Paris is Burning can not. And if they did, they might not make it back to their homes alive (RIP Venus Xtravaganza). In order to go out, to be who they are, the subjects of Paris is Burning (and the generations of gay men who have come after, be they drag queens or otherwise) have to spend hours in front of a mirror, telling themselves whatever they need to in order to give themselves the confidence and self-esteem they need to get the only honor they can: A trophy from a ball. They will in all likelihood not get the chance to be an executive, or a movie star, or even a suburban housewife. But for those precious few moments when they are walking in a ball, they can own the world. Just like you do every day.

If I had to guess, that is the ultimate message of Paris is Burning. That when these enterprising people couldn't get anywhere by being themselves in the "real world", they created their own space, a safe space, where they could not only be themselves, but be rewarded for being the best version of themselves they could be. It's the story of America itself, and these people, who you would likely only look at with disdain or confusion if you passed them on the street, are living that story every damn day, no matter how hard it gets or how few people notice they're here. But here they are. And here they'll stay.

*                               *                               *

This shot also sticks out in my mind because of two other scenes that had an impact in 2014: One in the film Belle, in which Gugu Mbatha-Raw's colonial-era mulatto woman, born into wealth in a society that does not know how to handle her, sits in front of a mirror and tries to wipe off the color of her skin, wishing that she could somehow not be what she is. The other, in the TV show How To Get Away With Murder, in which Viola Davis's black attorney sits in front of her vanity and removes the makeup and wig she has to wear in order to command respect on a daily basis, and under which she hides the scared, uncertain parts of herself. It's interesting that these scenes, both undeniably powerful, involve someone taking off (or trying to take off) makeup.
Rewatching Paris is Burning for this project, I couldn't help but flash back to these scenes (particularly Davis's) whenever Corey popped back up onscreen. Annalise Keating showed her true colors by removing, but Corey - and the rest of the cast of Paris is Burning, for that matter - are only able to become their true selves by adding. Makeup, wigs, clothes... only by putting these things on can they be who they are (or would like to be) at their core.

I don't know what my larger point is here, or if I even have one, but it was something that struck me.


  1. This post is incredible. Your larger point is made extremely well, rest assured. In fact, it's posts like this that are helping me to process the film better and actually appreciate it even more. Just incredible.

    1. Thanks! I actually feel better and better about this post the more I read it lol.

      It's a totally brilliant film, but I feel like nearly all of its brilliance is in the subtext - you really have to look beneath what is being said to who is saying it, as well as where, why, and how it's being said. And only then does it reach its full power.

  2. Great writeup Daniel. Dorian Corey is so fascinating. Great call on those other makeup scenes too, it's such a powerful trope in cinema. One of my favourites in that regard is Glenn Close at the end of 'Dangerous Liaisons'.

    1. Thanks, Shane! Yeah, it really is a long-standing powerful trope, isn't it? LOVE that scene in Dangerous Liaisons.

  3. fantastic post, daniel! there's something so intimate about watching someone putting on or removing their make-up. and it always feels like dorian is the one, perhaps because she's seen it all, that isn't afraid to let the camera (and audience) closer.

    1. Thanks! It's interesting that I always feel like I know Corey much less personally than just about everyone else in the film, but this moment, especially since the camera gets so close, is possibly the most intimate, revealing moment of the whole film - even considering how guarded and aware of the camera Corey is when compared to say, the scene on the beach.