Feminist February is going out with a bang. We’re crossing off classics from our movie bucket lists, unintentionally synchronizing our film choices when we’re not even trying, and posting on 2 films for the price of 1.
Paris Is Burning
Where to Watch:
The Uncondensed Version:
This is a classic documentary now, filmed 30ish years ago and giving a mainstream audience the inside story of drag balls in NYC. Classically for drag queens to dress up in a Vegas showgirl style complete with feathers and sequins, ‘80s balls expanded to many categories giving attendees the chance to strut their stuff in military uniform, business suits, school girls, jockeys, realness…there’s virtually no limit to the number of possibilities.
Our first introduction is through Pepper LaBeija, who considers herself reigning queen of Harlem balls (even though not everyone would agree with this characterization). In her own words, “I never felt comfortable being poor, and being middle class doesn’t suit me.” Balls give participants a taste of glamour and fame they otherwise wouldn’t get. One participant calls it a high that won’t hurt you.
Another theme that weaves throughout this film is the family found in ball culture—and the houses that pop up and feud with each other. Many of those interviewed share their stories of being loved but not accepted—or completely rejected by their families. Each house has a mother who leads the family and takes care of them, while unapologetically calling bullshit.
Feuds between houses means a LOT of shade gets thrown, and really aggressive voguing takes place. Willi Ninja is an absolute master of voguing—a dance-off involving moves and poses inspired by fashion magazines like Vogue. His take-down of his opponent revolves around pantomiming applying his own makeup, holding up an invisible mirror, and pretending to apply makeup to his competitor. If you watch nothing else of this, watch that clip. Later, Willi ends doing really well for himself, popping up in music videos, modelling, and doing choreography left and right.
Venus Xtravaganza is a transwoman who participates in balls and desperately wants to earn enough money for sex reassignment surgery. She works as an escort and seems to enjoy the sweetness of some of her clients. Devastatingly, however, we find out Venus was later strangled and found 4 days after the fact. I couldn’t help thinking immediately of the number of transwomen who have already been murdered this year and wonder how much has really changed.
Dorian Corey is one of my favorites—an older and somewhat more cynical drag queen who wanted to be Lena Horne when she was younger. She wraps things up for us with her aloof realism. She had so many dreams when she was younger, but eventually aimed lower. You may want to make a mark on the world when you’re young—but you’ve left a mark if you just get through it. (This is especially badass if you Google Dorian Corey and the MUMMIFIED body found in her apartment after her death. WHERE is the Lifetime movie version of this.)
5/5 Pink Panther Heads
I wasn’t going to go with 5 b/c I feel that’s almost the equivalent of saying “Casablanca is a really good movie,” but there’s no other option. This is a fascinating but balanced glimpse into a culture discriminated against by race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. Even as balls bring them together, they feud and toss insults at each other. Those interviewed are deeply sympathetic but don’t shy away from their flaws and disagreements. Some want sex reassignment surgery, while others speculate those who opt for it may regret it later.
There are lines throughout that are incredibly poignant, especially in light of many featured in this film dying quite young. The subjects of this film are extremely socially aware as well, since most are black, LGBT, and economically disadvantaged in a system that wants to keep it that way.
I don’t think I can review this without at least mentioning that several of the participants felt they were owed money by the filmmakers.
Is this the mother of my blog wife’s house or would she throw some serious shade at it? Read her review here to find out!
BONUS ROUND: I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Since we both watched (and loved) this film over the weekend too, a few words about it.
There’s something slightly Coen brothers-esque about this one–it’s very funny with hints of violence beneath the surface that suddenly bubble up and spiral out of control. So many bodies pile up for a movie about a depressed woman finding her grandmother’s stolen silverware with the help of a neighbor who overestimates his martial arts skills (Elijah Wood [with a beard and rat tail?!?!?!]). Though, of course, that’s not what this movie is really about at all.
This film captures how confusing and deeply disturbing it is to be alive, especially if you are seeking either reason or compassion from your fellow humans. Ruth doesn’t realize how quickly her life can become a (wo)man vs man vs nature struggle, and how easily the lizard part of our brains can take over. I related so hard to Ruth’s feelings of despair about humanity and the world we live in, and her determination to find meaning in the face of really horrible existential questions.
That being said, it really is very fun to watch and has some great comedic moments. Melanie Lynskey is perfect in this role–she looks and acts the way a normal human woman would rather than suddenly absorbing assassin skills while wearing 6 inch stilettos (though I’d watch that movie too). IOU a longer review, IDFAHITWA.
4 thoughts on “Feminist February: Paris Is Burning”
In all the excitement of trying to do this film justice I forget to even mention throwing shading or ‘reading’, dammit. I loved it, as I said to you, it was so much more touching than I expected. We’re choosing films that are too good! So glad also that you love IDFAHITWA xoxo
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Ps. Dorian Corey is my new hero for the mummified corpse detailing. I want that to be a film. PPs. Have you seen Flawless with PSH? I think Rusty might be somewhat inspired by Corey, which is even better! xoxo
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