Paris Doesn’t Always Have To Be Burning


“The House of Xtravaganza. The House of Ebony. The House of Dupree. Who the hell are they?” asks the narrator of the fundraising trailer for the acclaimed documentary Paris Is Burning. The trailer’s answer? “They’re nobody in society’s eyes. You know they’re somebody when they’re in that little ballroom. Other than that, nobody knows who they are.” Here the film’s creator, Jennie Livingston, implicitly acknowledges what she elsewhere plainly states: despite its later fame, Paris Is Burning was a difficult project for which to obtain funding. Thus ending the trailer in this fashion reveals just who Livingston imagines the audience to be. Come in, take a look, the trailer says to an abstract and amorphous “you”: somebody able to determine who is and is not “nobody.” But this distinction is conditioned upon a particular narrative set forth at the expense of others: these nobody somebodies have to be extraordinary, charismatic, and sensational. The camera doesn’t like the boring, darling.

The trailer is included in the new Criterion Collection edition of Paris Is Burning, the cult-classic film documenting queer Black and Brown ball and house culture in 1980s New York. The film follows notable house mothers like Dorian Corey, Pepper LeBeija, and Angie Xtravaganza and elaborates extensively on the categories of the balls, the idealization of bourgeois white fashion and culture by many of the ballgoers, and the house formations. And the trailer, along with other new footage, allows new questions to be asked about this classic. In the three decades since its debut, the film has garnered much critical attention, most of which has asked: What right did Livingston, a white queer filmmaker, have to make the film at all?

For example: bell hooks’s oft-cited essay, “Is Paris Burning?,” questions Livingston’s directorial gaze and postulates that the film merely reifies the allure of Eurocentric bourgeois whiteness to a white audience. José Muñoz identifies the film as “a highly sensationalized rendering,” “overexposed,” which “glamorize[s] the experience.” A New York Times article in 1993 documents the ravages AIDS wrought upon the ball communities and cites lawsuits against Livingston for their share of the profit by ball members featured in the documentary—all of which highlights how the material realities of HIV/AIDS and poverty were glossed over in the film.

But with access to the new footage in the Criterion edition, such earlier questions give way to another, perhaps more engaging one: How else could this documentary have looked? What might have been different if we had been able to pay attention to the queer-of-color ordinary? The additional footage allows us to examine what else is possible, even from a film so often viewed, taught, and analyzed for decades. More important, how else might the lives and contexts of the people documented in Paris Is Burning animate a politics for the queer of color today?

Paris doesn’t always have to be burning. What we get in this outtake footage—unlike in the original documentary—are filmic snatches of the ordinary: brief close-ups of nonverbal interactions like walking down the street side by side; glimpses of dialogue in Spanish; a writer discussing craft. These scenes create a temporality outside the narrative framework of Paris Is Burning, outside the charismatic and larger-than-life productivity the documentary demands. The footage presents moments in which Paris has yet to burn, when we do not have to think of it as a past gone or a future foreclosed, and these queer lives go on in all their idleness, laughter, and ordinary splendor. The outtakes prompt us to imagine what else was edited out of the feature-length movie, all the footage of trans and queer people of color just simply being and knowing among ourselves.


The House of Xtravaganza goes to Washington. Angie Xtravaganza, mother of the Xtravaganzas during the filming of Paris Is Burning, ushers the children of her house onto the bus that will transport them from New York City’s Union Square to the US capital to perform in a ball. “Arriba! Montate! Pa’tra, entre,” she says, lobbing commands in a Spanish distinctly Puerto Rican, distinctly Nuyorican.

This footage is an outtake compiled in the Criterion Collection edition of the documentary, yet it is the first time we hear the house mother speaking Spanish on film. In the short sequence documenting the road trip to Washington, we see her speaking Spanish often, in momentary shots of her in pink rollers, chatting and cracking up with the other girls. An emphatic Angie sputters from the lap of another, “Ay lo que ha hecho, loca!”

Many of the other Spanish-speaking women do not make an appearance in the documentary. Carmen Xtravaganza, highlighted in a beach scene in the original film, rehearses a playful rhyme about a grandmother and her reluctance to have queers in the house: “Mi abuelita pego un rebalon. Con el coño partio un escalon. Y lo cuatro pilon que lo que tenia, ahi mismo se los dejo. I said, ‘Toma, tu me arza, maricone no quiero en mi casa. Porque parten lo plato y la taza.’” To someone who grew up with Puerto Rican and Nuyorican Spanish, the language in this footage feels special, familiar, an intimacy across time and space. Its omission from the documentary is a loss, the “what could have been”: a fuller sense of the everyday ordinariness of trans and queer Puerto Rican living.

Another such scene appears in an outtake titled, “Carmen and Octavia in Times Square.” The clip opens with Carmen Xtravaganza and Octavia St. Laurent walking down a Times Square street, examining switchblades and trying on sunglasses in a tourist shop. It ends with the two leaning against a parked car in front of the Times Square Hotel, on what looks to be a summer night, talking about their hair, hanging out, killing boredom on a New York City street.

We also see some people not featured in the film. For instance, Marcel Christian, who is not identified in the documentary, details in the outtakes how he creates what he calls “Idle Sheets”: witty pamphlets about etiquette and decorum handed out during the balls. The intention is to remind others that these gatherings are about having fun and fostering camaraderie. He’s the writer of the balls, but we don’t get to see that in the film, perhaps because talking about writing doesn’t have as much glitz and glamour as the visual theatricality of performance.

Another outtake, “Let’s Play Lawyer,” features several unidentified children hanging out on the West Side Piers. The clip shows one of them explaining the intricate rules of the game and the subsequent confusion. A game played in the throes of boredom, when trying to pass the time.

how else might the lives and contexts of the people documented in “Paris Is Burning” animate a politics for the queer of color today?

It’s easy to see why this footage didn’t make the cut: none of it added to the narrative constructed within Paris Is Burning. There are no catchy moments of ball culture. There’s no shade being thrown or extravagant posing. There are no ballgoers being innovative, overly fun, or performative; no readily consumable practices or quips to offer the viewer. I wouldn’t even call this footage “scenes,” because there is little narrative or telos. I’ve written elsewhere on Paris Is Burning and the need to think of the everyday in relation to queer-of-color life. But what if such ordinary, everyday life was considered worth watching in the first place?

The bulk of the outtakes is extra interview material with Dorian Corey, Pepper LeBeija, and Venus Xtravaganza discoursing on topics such as religion and war. As important as this footage is, it still seems coordinated by the intentions and desires of the documentary’s narrative.

This is not to say that the footage of the ordinary, like walking through Times Square or taking a road trip, taps more into the real—as if capturing the authentic minoritized experience were even possible, as scholars and critics of documentary film have long argued. Scholar and documentary filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha articulates how the celebrated realism of documentary for minoritized people produces not truth but particular meanings, filtered through a Western, white, and patriarchal lens. These majoritarian framings are aesthetically executed through camera work like the wide angle, which is considered more objective. “Documentary, in recording historical reality, incites a desire for the real both as knowable, and hence mastered by our knowledge of it,” writes Elizabeth Cowie, elaborating on how the desire for the real and authentic directs how audiences relate to the subjects contained within documentary film. Bhaskar Sarkar and Janet Walker, in their introduction to Documentary Testimonies: Global Archives of Suffering, note, “Video testimony visits but does not inhabit the traumatic past any more than it does ‘the real.’” In their formulation, documentary film is but a representation of the experience and suffering of a person, among countless possible others. These critics highlight how documentary’s realism, a claim to truth and to showing life as it actually is, does not automatically produce ethical and emancipatory projects. What the camera documents is always mediated in some way.


So why look at recordings of the mundane and ordinary? Because this footage provides an example of what else could have been, of how else the film might have attuned its viewers to everyday queer-of-color life. The documentary’s narrative framework prioritizes ball culture, language, and style over the material realities of its protagonists’ lives, like poverty, anti-Black racism, houselessness, trans violence and death, and HIV/AIDS. There is even less space to account for the ordinary existences of these people who must always be charismatic, performative, and innovative.

This narrative framework appeals to a white, cis, hetero viewer, allowing them to more readily consume and accept the Black and Brown trans and queer people on the screen. This is made strikingly evident by the Criterion Collection’s inclusion of the Paris Is Burning ball members visiting The Joan Rivers Show in 1991. Rivers barrages the cast with questions about the origins of the balls and how they work. Repeatedly, house mothers like Dorian Corey and Pepper LeBeija try to speak to the racial specificity of the balls and houses, and how white queer people don’t want to be associated with Black and Brown queers. Rivers doesn’t pick up on these comments until midway through the interview, when she asks, “Does color count in the homosexual community?” All the queens vigorously nod and “Mmhmm” in the affirmative, with Dorian Corey stating, “Like in any other world.”

Awestruck—but only momentarily—Rivers quickly moves to the next race-free talking point. Preoccupied by the novelty and fun of the balls, Rivers cannot confront the specificity of queer Black and Brown experience that structures them. The interview shows how the film’s narrative emphasis on showing the viewer the ball culture and language comes at a price: it precludes a more expanded and contextualized view into the lives of the people involved.

This question—How else could the documentary have looked?—matters. And it is pertinent today, when the lexicon, dance, and other cultural aspects documented in Paris Is Burning are voraciously consumed and used on shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and in memes and GIFs on social media, in TikTok videos, and in other corners of US and world culture.

In fact, the culture of Paris Is Burning has become so pervasive and embedded that many people no longer realize these that forms and styles originated with Black trans and queer people. Instead, over time, with constant repetition, Black trans and queer styles and cultural production have been abstracted into the general “queer culture,” losing the historical specificity and material labor that created them. Paying attention to the ordinary joy, pleasure, and boredom of marginalized lives can help address the constant flattening of social differences, as well as the appropriation and exploitation of people and cultures.

To cultivate this ability to pay attention, we can look to films and shows—such as Tongues Untied, Moonlight, We the Animals, Looking for Langston, and Pose—that allow room for the queer Black and Brown ordinary: moments to just be; moments of pleasure, rumination, and boredom; filmic existence that doesn’t have to be about pain or violence, or being extraordinary or exceptional.

Perhaps the difficulty of achieving an expanded understanding of queer-of-color life is that narrative, assembling scenes into a linear and cohesive form, all too often demands stakes and storytelling conventions that cannot account for the ordinary. The ordinary defies stakes; the everyday refuses narrative enclosure. Whiling away the hours against a car in Times Square, playing a game on the West Side Piers, or cracking jokes in Puerto Rican Spanish on a road trip has no sense of beginning or end, no sense of urgency or point to be made. The point is the living: the luxuriating in the momentary banal, dallying away the mundane days, for all to see.

 

This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames and Ben Platt. icon

Featured image: Brooke Xtravaganza in Paris Is Burning (1990). IMDb



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