Sun. Jul 21st, 2019

Retro Review: Jennie Livingston’s iconic ball culture celebration ‘Paris Is Burning’

Venus Xtravaganza. NY Ballroom, 1986.

“We all have at one time or another lusted to walk a ballroom floor. So give the patrons a round of applause for nerve.  We’re not here to be shady, just fierce.”

– Junior LaBeija

From the bars and bath houses of Montmartre of the Belle Epoque to Manhattan’s Hamilton Club in the 1920’s, the metropolitan underbelly celebrated and, at times, sheltered the queer community.  After the riots in Paris and Stonewall, between 1968-69, the disco era nourished the parched roots of ball culture.  Once again, the club scene of lower Manhattan thrived.

By 1990, the ethos of excess manifest in a timely convergence of musicians, fashion designers, and celebrities.  The movement in the heart of New York culture found itself appropriated by pop icon Madonna—her twelfth number one single heralding, ex post facto, the aggressive dance style named for Vogue magazine.  By then, everyone wanted to co-opt the scene’s popularity for their own purposes including, arguably, Jennie Livingston—director of Paris Is Burning.

With grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, support from her relatives (including her uncle, producer Alan J. Pakula), and numerous other donors, Livingston’s provocative documentary explores the underground drag ball culture of Manhattan in the late 80’s.  Filmed from 1987 to 1989, the movie peers inside the lives of Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, Octavia St. Laurent, Paris Dupree, and Willi Ninja, among others.

Widely regarded as ground-breaking not for its style, but its content, Livingston’s documentary ignores these abstractions, focusing on the shared experience of marginalized youth—beginning and ending with a couple of boys who perceptively understand the concept of “found family” better than most adults.

In the intervening years since its release, queer cinema fractured into gay, lesbian, and transgender sub-genres. The seeds of division are evident in Paris Is Burning, but only in the accounts themselves and not necessarily the filmmaker’s omniscient—some would say voyeuristic—bent.  Even so, Pepper’s opinion of sexual reassignment isn’t motivated as much by a disdain for his peers.  Being a woman, he argues, has a greater social cost than holding on to the privilege of being male. The modern aspirational context of ball culture arises out of a need to escape poverty, if only mentally.  Studies have shown that the working poor experience a much higher rate of mental and physical illness aggravated by the stress of operating in a constant survival mode.  The NIH finds that poverty impairs cognitive development, and this can only be worse for marginalized groups¹ who face significant social and economic barriers.

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