When I first saw “vogueing” — that is, the manufactured version of it presented in Madonna’s “Vogue” video — all I wanted to do was define it. It’s a dance, but it’s about rigidity. It’s gay, but it’s a pantomime of commonplace fashion spreads. It’s self-presentational, attitudinal, geometric, contorted, winkingly narcissistic, actually narcissistic, and stony-smirky-silly-serious fierce. It’s a mirage, but it’s undeniable. It’s just the best. And when you see the real thing as presented in the unforgettable 1991 documentary Paris is Burning, you realize that the act of “striking a pose” is just a warped-ass, queeny way of being yourself in the face of your real-life hardship, minority status, and what the world’s done to morph you and your flagrant gayness into something much less OP-U-LENT.
I’m obviously preaching to the realness choir here, but there’s a thundering righteousness to the subjects of Paris is Burning that is just timeless. For newbies, Paris is Burning chronicles vogueing balls (or “voguing” — my spelling invariably will flip several times throughout this post, I’m sure) in Harlem, spectacles of dance, runway strutting, and decadance where mostly black and Latino gay (or trans) men competed for adoration, respect of their colleagues, and huge trophies in the late ’80s. Many of these queens were hustlers and thieves in their day-to-day lives, which explains how some of them acquired the dramatic furs and evening gowns of the runway competitions, but there’s a defiant joie de vivre about every ball denizen here. Ambition. Intention. A husk of rouge and foundation.
The vogueing in the movie sort of reminded me of So You Think You Can Dance, which is so far the only thing I’m truly torqued about this summer. I guess Kylie Minogue’s “Timebomb” is up there too? And the sun. I like the sun. But the point is, I wanted a reason to revisit Paris is Burning for the Best Movie Ever section because 1) it’s rewatchability factor is staggering, 2) it’s got unforgettable characters, and 3) nothing could be cooler, funnier, more truthful, more tragic, and real. Real. It seems like a word that doesn’t matter anymore, but it’s the only word that can accurately describes Paris is Burning’s harsh sparkle. Here are five reasons it may be the executive realness of all cinema.
1. Every queen is my favorite.
You may have noticed that I’m obsessed with ranking people and things, which is why I’m sad to report that every queen featured in Paris is Burning is my favorite. They are unrankable elites. Let’s start with the late Dorian Corey, one of the film’s many featured queens who gives killer quote. (Though as far as I know, she’s the only one to have killed, mummified, and hidden the body of man who tried to attack her — allegedly.) Dorian is the film’s calmest and wisest voice, and she legitimizes drag ball culture with one unassuming insight: “If everyone went to balls and did less drugs, it’d be a fun world, wouldn’t it?” She also speaks of Lena Horne as a muse, and I have to award snaps for that.
Legendary ballroom master Willi Ninja is another treasure of the film, as is the wan, sighing Venus Xtravaganza, a young queen who’s both coquettish and truly dangerous. We learn a horrifying secret about Venus at the film’s end, but before that, she unleashes a gnarly quote justifying her perilous prostitution gigs. Ahem: “A woman, in the suburbs, a regular woman, if you want your husband to buy a washer and dryer set, I’m sure she’d have to go to bed with him, to give him something he wants, to get what she wants. So, in the long run, it all ends up the same way.” A stinging indictment, no? But it sounds sincere and empathetic coming from Venus, as she’s sporting a cheeky grin and wicked Jessica Hahn hair. Never forget the fresh Pepper Labeija, the Pendarvis clan, or drag runway star Octavia St. Laurent, who looks like Jody Watley’s hair-whipping twin sister.
2. Gays. Love. Categories.
Paris is Burning ingeniously chronicles drag balls by defining their each round of play with big title cards and explanations. Among the categories: “Schoolboy/Schoolgirl Realness,” where a queen wears preppy Yale clothes and imitates a rich scholar, “Town and Country,” where contestants dress in equestrian regalia and mimic country-club flair, and “Luscious Body,” where a queen saunters around in her birthday suit and flaunts her lusciousness. The sheer amount of categories makes these drag balls seem like their own Olympics. I’d like to see Pepper Labeija whip out a discus from her purse and toss it at the crowd of aghast spectactors. Or Willi Ninja use samurai methods to clear the high jump. Fierce forever.
3. The hilarious and STRICT ballroom rules
The categories of play sound fun and kitschy enough, but you have to remember that very strict barristers judge the contestants. During a more glamorous round where queens dressed as high-fashion ladies, the announcer enforces a mandate on accessories. “Now come on, it is a known fact that a woman do carry an evening bag at dinner time. There’s no getting around that,” he proclaims. “You see it on Channel 7 between All My Children and Jeopardy — Another World, Dallas, and the whole bit. You have to carry something. No lady is sure at night.” At another juncture, a contestant is criticized harshly for wearing a fur coat that isn’t manly enough for the themed round. He protests loudly and loses that battle before Dorian Corey can lift an eyebrow.
4. Bizarre and eye-popping celebrity cameos
I’d say Paris is Burning’s most underrated feature is a newscast of New York celebrities commenting on the art of vogueing. Broadway legned (and Tony magnet) Gwen Verdon notes, “It’s just so theatrical! And oh, the energy! It’s just terrific.” Fran Lebowitz pipes in with an assertive, “It’s institutionalized showing off. But not without its entertainment value.” The movie spends much of its runtime allowing drag practitioners the chance to explain what they do, so the glimpse of mainstream outsiders is kind of surprising and cool. I only wish they could’ve gotten tape of Madonna during her episode of VH1’s Behind the Music describing what vogueing is: “It’s so arrogant and presentational and there. I think it’s hilarious.”
5. It deals with ALL the big issues.
Paris is Burning is half about art, half about survival. Director Jennie Livingston may not have picked up an Oscar nomination for making this exceptional film, but she exposes us to a world of dynamos who escape to ballrooms as a means of transcending lives of derision, abandonment, poverty, and in many cases AIDS. There should’ve been a ballroom category called “A Little Too Real-ness” for those participants in the section devoted to imitating “the boy that probably robbed you a few minutes before you came to Paris’ ball.” These aren’t people who simply want to forget their problems; they want to own, explore, and artfully recreate the homophobic influences that linger outside the ballroom doors. As one queen notes, “When you’re gay, you monitor everything you do. How you dress, how you talk, how you act. ’Do they see me? What do they think of me?” And in the ballroom, you’re still monitoring everything you do — but it’s because you have a chance at earning gay fame and immortality instead of dour consequences.
What are your favorite moments, lines, and artists in Paris is Burning? I’ll personally go with the ball announcer’s rhyming proclamation, “Is this realness or not? Let it be motherf*cking hot.”