Balls of steel: Paris Is Burning
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
by Edna Snarik
Paris Is Burning is a truly remarkable film. An expansive and emotive documentary lovingly directed by Jennie Livingston, in the 18 years since it was released it’s become a cult classic. This month it receives a full and long overdue DVD release.
Based around footage recorded in the mid-late 80s, Paris Is Burning chronicles the ball culture of New York City at the time – the flamboyant gay and trans-gendered party scene peopled largely by young, poor and dispossessed blacks and Latinos. Though it is, for the most part, a film a concerned with the pursuit of fun and escapism, it doesn’t shy away from addressing what its protagonists are striving to escape from - serious issues and pressures to do with race, class, gender and poverty in contemporary America, not to mention the overbearing spectre of AIDS.
“I love it as it's a tale of creativity and loss, comedy and tragedy, fierceness and tenderness,” Horsemeat Disco’s Luke Howard tells me. Horsemeat will be hosting a special screening of the film this Sunday 26 April, at The Eagle in London SE11. “It's importance has increased over time as most of the main protagonists - Dorian Corey, Peppa Labeija, Angie & Venus Xtravaganza, Willi Ninja, Kim Pendarvis - have since passed away. It's a wonderful tribute to their lives as legends of the ball community of New York.”
The really compelling thing about the film is the competitiveness of its protagonists: the action centers on the complexly-structured Ball competitions in which contestants, sticking to a specific category or theme, must “walk” and be judged on various criteria, including the beauty of their clothing and the “realness” of their drag. Given how squalid and poverty-stricken the contestants’ day-to-day lives invariably are, it’s astonishing to see the seriousness with which they throw themselves into the Ball competitions, applying every last cent and shred of energy they have into looking fabulous. It’s an admirably defiant, fuck-you stance which we can all learn a great deal from.
The ball “houses” and their inhabitants act as surrogate families and care centres for younger, more vulnerable ball-walkers – many of whom have have been thrown of their own homes by homophobic parents and have had to turn to the sex trade, shoplifting and other indignities in order to stay afloat. Livingston, who never had any formal film training, spent seven years capturing revealing interviews and monologues from her unbelievably colourful cast. It’s a labour of love, a wholly heartfelt project, and that love really comes across – the ballers might be outcast and marginalised, but Livingston doesn’t portray them as freaks or caricatures. Rather, they’re human beings, trying to get along, staying optimistic even when tragedy seems to be ever-present and all-pervasive.
“When I saw Paris Is Burning on a big-screen, the humour and the pathos really made me cry ,” Luke says. “When Angie Xtravaganza recalls the death of her main ‘daughter’ Venus it's absolutely heartbreaking.”
Paris Is Burning also documents the origins of “voguing” , the dance style made famous by Madonna on her song ‘Vogue’. Voguing was a dance style which found ball-walkers freesing and striking a glamorous pose – as if being photographed for the cover of Vogue. Most recently, Hercules & Love Affair - a band openly in thrall to New York's gay history - recruited a pair of strapping vogue dancers for their live shows.
So what of the music in the Paris Is Burning? And how has the film influenced Horsemeat Disco?
“Well, the music in the soundtrack is very Horse Meat," Luke says. "Cheryl Lynn ‘To Be Real’, MFSB ‘Love Is The Message’, Barbara Mason ‘Another Man’, Adonis ‘The Poke’, Diana Ross ‘Love Hangover’ and First Choice ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’ are all in there, so we all live for that.
“Those children created their own culture over there. They invented a set of rules for the balls, they created a new way of dancing, they reinterpreted the family and they introduced a whole new vernacular to the gay world - that's how influential ball culture has been.
“Just knowing what they ren were up to at that time in New York, all the drama, the competitiveness of the balls and the supportiveness of the houses - it's all important for all of us to learn about. As the MC at one of the balls says at the beginning of the film: 'Learn it, and learn it well!'"