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In the latest contribution to Arsenal Pulp Press’s “Queer Film Classics” series, Lucas Hilderbrand sets his sights on that legacy object, the fabulous and enduring cultural phenomenon that is Paris Is Burning. One of the most successful documentaries ever made, the 1991 film follows Harlem Drag legends like Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja and newcomers like Octavia Saint Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza as they compete in Harlem drag balls, dream of fame and struggle as queer people of color in the bustle of pre-Giuliani New York City. Hilderbrand, whose scholarship includes articles on Todd Haynes’ Barbie bootleg, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and an analysis of “The Art of Distribution: Video on Demand,” embraces the rich cultural text with signature breadth and an impassioned personal narrative.
Hilderbrand opens the book with an anecdote, relating how a one-hour drive to first see the film from his hometown of rural South Dakota was nearly thwarted, as its “Unrated” classification barred the then-16-year-old admission to the ball. And so, he snuck in. “I spent the first twenty minutes or so fearing I’d be evicted from the theater… movies had long been a way for me to ‘find my people.’” Such are the narratives that used to categorize growing up queer and coming out with movies. Furtive glances at the underrepresented offered many their first opportunities for identification. These, Hilderbrand reminds, are the tales that informed an entire generation of queers living in the climate from which Paris Is Burning emerged. Paris is a famously complicated text for this kind of identification and projection, however. Despite the controversies in which the film is mired, what endures is its ability to connect with an audience and to provide subversive alternatives and flamboyant potential for queer world-making.
Of course, the story of Paris Is Burning originates in New York City ball culture, which dates back long before discussions of identity politics, between the 1860s and 1890s, where, “regular masquerade balls for members of high society and men’s fraternities… dressed in disguises that were inappropriate to their class and/or gender, offering carnivalesque nights of transgression – inversion even – of their social roles.” In a trim yet cohesive overview that peppers the first two chapters, Hilderbrand recounts the co-opting of these events by homosexuals, for reasons of legal subterfuge, and their eventual explosion, in Harlem of the 1920s, where gatherings could draw upwards of 6,000 revelers. Voguing wouldn’t enter into the equation until the 1960s, where, in the New York City detainment facility of Riker’s Island it would be unceremoniously coined “presentation,” then “performance,” in the mid-1970s. Offering a rich array of reference points– from George Chauncey’s Gay New York to Jayne County’s Man Enough To Be A Woman – this preliminary research is cohesive and startlingly comprehensive for such a slim volume.
The book’s most compelling chapter (Two: Deep In Vogue) sets the cultural scene for the film’s release. After principle photography took place in 1987, responding to an increase in press coverage from party magazines like Details and invites from various fashion lines, ball culture moved downtown. Performers and choreography began to feature prominently in music videos by Taylor Dayne, Jodie Whatley and Malcolm McLaren. Then, Madonna recorded a little song called “Vogue.” Ball culture is referenced throughout her Blond Ambition tour and the resulting tour doc, Truth or Dare – the latter becoming something of an audience primer for distributor Miramax, who released Truth or Dare just two months before they distributed Paris.
The film also hit the market when American film festivals were at their creative (and queer) peak. A remarkably fruitful and social period in independent film culture, accounts from early festival screenings (NewFest, MIX and Sundance) contribute to the sense of frenzy around the film’s release, which Hilderbrand is smart to situate within the New Queer Cinema (which Paris more or less defined) as well as the New Black Cinema, films like Do the Right Thing, New Jack City and Boys n the Hood. The author also considers the pop feminist film wave occurring the same year, with films like Thelma & Louise, The Silence of the Lambs and Nikita, titles that lived a more mainstream life, prompting discussions of women’s rights and LGBTQ awareness at a household level and on the T.V. mode of the era – the talk show circuit. With this groundwork in place, audiences were better equipped to tackle the complex issues presented by Paris: racial otherness, class subversion, gender non-conformity and early transgender awareness. This critical groundwork creates a fertile context, expanding upon pre-existing discourses around the film, which look to post Gulf War neo-conservativism, Reaganomics and the NEA culture wars.
Hilderbrand draws heavily upon personal correspondences with filmmaker Jennie Livingston and editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, to relate their introduction to and involvement within the scene, first by way of still photography and audio interviews. This presentation of production information “from the source” could be read as a journalistic tactic, shying away from an authorial implication of the ethical conundrums that the film perennially presents. Aware of Livingston’s precarious position (as an outsider to the community that she documents), the book works wonders to circumvent this, the film’s most criticized factor. And while readers who enter primed for the film’s famed scandals do get their goss (Dorian Corey’s mummy, the financial fights that performers lodged against Livingston), it is most tastefully rendered, acknowledged if not thoroughly indulged.
Much of the book’s third chapter, “Love Hangover (Debates),” moves through various reactionary approaches taken by academic dissenters (bell hooks, Judith Butler, to name a few). Here, Hilderbrand’s deep-felt love for the text backfires, as few arguments are granted breathing space, beyond summary-like accreditation. Accumulating such arguments, which range from the film’s propensity towards ethnography to the decontextualizing shift in reception, from Harlem Houses (black and Puerto Rican) to West Village arthouse (white), requires further elaboration than can be achieved here. Hilderbrand grants the most leeway to Bruce Benderson, who provides a first-hand account of the mostly-white audience for his screening, the self-consciousness of which, “brought to mind… all of the complications inherent to making art about a community to which you don’t belong… As well intentioned as I believe Paris is Burning is,” he continues, “its audience will take only what they want from it.”
If anyone can speak to the lasting cultural valences and values of Paris is Burning it’s an innovative academic eye like Hilderbrand, who is wise to flag the fact that the title is presently streaming on Netflix and oft-quoted on the reality television sensation, RuPaul’s Drag Race (which, in a fabulously lofty claim, the author asserts as “arguably the most important queer text of the past decade”). As an active participant in New York City nightlife, I can attest to the extent to which that availability and incorporation has impacted a huge (club) cultural reappraisal of the film, from rappers like Azealia Banks, Le1f, and AB Soto, who employ this cinematic glossary as a quick conduit to all things fabulous. To this effect, I longed for a longer final chapter, one that considers the implications of this lexical evolution and retro-appropriation. What does it mean that Paris is an object with “classic” status, a historic document, rather than a vital, hot button topic for current debate? Hilderbrand’s opening fan boy anecdote proves both a strength and pitfall as, on the one hand it situates the writer within a defensive position throughout the book – a critical mindset stubborn against (though not impervious to) much of the negative discourse surrounding the film. The flip of that ardor, however, achieves a surging and infectious sense of excitement, a deeply felt cinematic revelation that I too experienced when revisiting the film via this book, and without which this richly layered analysis would never have been penned in the first place.
Paris is Burning
By Lucas Hilderbrand
Arsenal Pulp Press
Paperback, 9781551525198, 468 pp.