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Mar 12 2015

Visual Index ~ Paris is Burning's Best Shots

For a film that's less than 80 minutes long,Paris is Burningcontains at least that many worthy topics of discussion presenting quite a challenge for Best Shot participants.You could write 80 articles on it on entirely different subjects.The documentary was an instant sensation winning the Sundance Film Festival in January 1991,and opening that summer to big box office ($3.7 million...which was quite a lot for a documentary).It landed on top ten lists,won critics prizes and generated yet more press when it was horrifically snubbed by Oscar in the Best Documentary Feature category.The film documents NYC's ball culture in 1987 with a few scenes from 1989.By 1989 you can already feel the scene changing,being coopted,and about to be appropriated for one of Madonna's biggest hits.

My choice and a few more words on this landmark film after this gallery of incredible images.PLEASE NOTE: Next week's topic for Tuesday March 17th (St.Patrick's Day) is the classicTHE QUIET MAN(1952) set in Ireland starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara.Like Paris,it's available on Netflix Instant Watchso I expect y'all here Tuesday night with your choices.

Best Shots according to 21 Fine Cinephiles Round the Web

(in no particular order)
Click on the photo for the corresponding article.

Queerer Things- Category is FAME PROXIMITY
* this was my own runner up shot

Nebel Without a Cause- Category is WALKING

Best Shot in the Dark- Category is RITES OF PASSAGE

Paul Outlaw- Category is UNSOLVED MYSTERIES



Bennet Prowser- Category is MOTHERING

Video Valhalla- Category is KNOWING YOUR SHIT

I Am Derreck- Category is OLD SHOWGIRLS MUST GO ON

The Film's The Thing- The Category is HOUSE ISNOTA HOME

Dusty Hixenbaugh- Category is MOST FAKE REALNESS

A Fistful of Film- Category is HOGGING THE SPOTLIGHT

Sorta That Guy- Category is ASPIRATIONAL DREAMERS

The Entertainment Junkie- Category is BEING YOUR TRUE SELF
*this would easily make my own list of five best moments in the movie which is saying a lot since every moment is grand.

Lam Chop Chop- Category is TWILIGHT OF VENUS

Out to the Movies- Category is VOGUEING


The Spy in the Sandwich- Category is UNLIKELY HEROINES

Dancin Dan on Film- Category is THE SHADE OF IT ALL

Film Actually- Category is  HIGHS THAT WON'T HURT YOU
* This image was also "under my consideration"

When I first saw the film in the 1990s I absolutely loved it -- Dorian Corey remains my favorite character with Octavia St.Laurent as a distant runner up -- but I'll admit that I thought of it mostly as One of the Greatest LGBT documentaries,even One of the Greatest LGBT drag documentaries.I don't know how I reduced it and ghettoized it to that degree since its concerns are so wide-ranging.In fact,there's not much drag in at all really.Not in the traditional sense.Just in the RuPaul sense.

We're born naked and the rest is drag.

It's far more concerned with aspirational realness and socioeconomic disparity and the dichotomous pain of wanting to be someone else while also wanting to be your true self.Given the many advances in trans awareness in recent years,it's almost shocking to here so many trans women telling their stories onscreen but using antiquated language to do it.But it was the shadow side of capitalism,the aspirational distortion of the media ("Dynasty"is name-checked several times) and the poverty that hit hardest in 2015 when gay rights have made so many strides and the gay community is far less ostracized than it was in the AIDS fearing eighties.But poor is still poor,redistribution of wealth still goes up rather than down,and motherless street kids are still motherless street kids.

Best Shot.Nathaniel's Choice- Category is ISNT IT PAST YOUR BEDTIME?

They treat each other like sisters.Or brothers.Or mothers or,you know,like I say,'oh,that's my sista,' because she's gay too and I'm gay and she's a drag queen or whatever.

That's why it's one of the film's masterstroke to talk to two very young kids,baby gays if you will.We don't learn their names just their ages,13 (left) and 15 (right) though their faces suggest the reverse.They seem impossibly young given that our only context of the world they inhabit is the older hard-living queens who are the bulk of the film's talking heads.We never see them within the context of the balls or in their own apartments like the other characters,just on the street outside at 2 or 3 AM.They're cheerful and funny,already fully aware of the gay community as adoptive family...which is fairly young to know that,at least in 1987.Absentmindedly,the older one's fingers repeatedly play with his friend's tank top as he talks about community 'religious people want to pray together.gay people want to be together.' He claims he doesn't have a mother -- and shrugs off further questioning with something that looks like a smile but doesn't look at all happy.They look far more innocent than you realize their lives could possibly be and you know that rough lives of poverty and ostracization await them.

At Sundance earlier this year I went to a special presentation for this film's 25th anniversary.Jennie Livingston was asked about these kids and she freely admitted that it was an incredible good fortune to find them and have them speak so much of the film's thesis out loud.Unlike most of the other characters featured,she has no idea what happened to them or who they became.Sitting in my seat I wondered if they were even alive,then shuddered at the thoughts since they'd only be in their late 30s now.

Paris is Burningis not just as good as remembered,it's better.Time has been incredibly kind to this authentic snapshot of a lost moment in cultural time just before it was co-opted,just before it vanished and years before its entrenched concerns were (best case) transformed and mainstreamed or (worst case) rearranged and renamed,but wholly recognizable today through the same scars and similar tragedies.

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Reader Comments (15)

I'm so ashamed I hadn't heard of this film until recently so thank you for picking this for HMWYBS.I've seen in twice in the past few days and it's just so good...and essential.

March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

i was dismissive of the film when it came out (and was a whole lot younger) but with repeated viewings over the years it really is a testament to survival - maybe you just have to be older to appreciate it,as dorian corey says:
"Everybody wants to make an impression,some mark upon the world.Then you think,you've made a mark on the world if you just get through it,and a few people remember your name.Then you've left a mark.You don't have to bend the whole world.I think it's better to just enjoy it.Pay your dues,and just enjoy it.If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high,hooray for you."

March 12,2015 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Have you been to a ball,Nathaniel?

March 12,2015 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

It took the entire film for me to appreciate it's themes in full,and even though I wasn't taken with it entirely,I can't help but be glad I finally saw this.Thanks for raising awareness,because,like I said,I've never heard of this one before I saw it on your list.

Can't wait for next week!

March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Poo I guess mine was forgotten in that reminder post on Tues night.I don't have a twitter so it was the only way of getting it here,through the comment section.

Anyways here it is


March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

A round of applause for all these great articles!Hooray for you!

I LOVE those two kids.The first time I saw this,I was kind of shocked that they were SO young and SO open about who they were.It really drove home the old adage of "the more things change,the more they stay the same",as even today many gay kids of that age would be afraid to be that open (although probably not many in NYC).

I was also kind of shocked to see that Jennie Livingston hasn't done much of anything since this film.Did she say she was working on anything when you saw her at Sundance,Nathaniel?

March 12,2015 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

BTW I love that those two street kids were highlighted here just as they were bookends in the movie.I'm not surprised no one ever knew what became of them since they were clearly plucked off the street and then presumably went back to it when the camera finished rolling.The audio commentary on the old dvd with the director and Freddie Pendavis,the amusing kid who explains 'mopping',says just as much and is pretty illuminating as well and makes for an interesting (at that point,15 year) retrospective.

I loved that you chose this film for HMWYBS because as far as I'm concerned,it's one of the great American social docs ever made and only through its enduring strength do we now get to see some serious esteem held for it.

Can the Criterion Collection add it to their canon of amazing doc titles now please?Thankssss.

March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

I'm old enough to have seen it in theaters when it first came out and having seen it again just a few years ago,I agree it has aged extremely well.Funny,poignant,bursting with energy and realness,and finally just plain profound.Everyone who hasn't seen yet,do so immediately.

March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I'm LIVING for this categories.

March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

I love those two kids.Like Denny,I'm blown away by how certain of themselves they are.They're so young,yet in a movie where so many subjects incorporate play and fantasy into their lives just to push through,they're the grounding element.

March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

I saw this in the movie theater when it came out and I immediately put it in my Top Ten Films of the 90s.At the time I saw it I had already graduated from grad school,left the Mormons,and started my life and yet I felt like I suddenly knew nothing at all about living.

March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

A great film...both uplifting and tragic

March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

'religious people want to pray together.gay people want to be together.'

That has stuck with me since seeing it nearly 25 years ago.So much wisdom from a teen.And a little child shall lead them,right?

March 12,2015 | Unregistered CommenterNewMoonSon

Just finished reading all the posts,awesome stuff.Thanks again for choosing this film,Nathaniel.It's amazing.

March 13,2015 | Unregistered CommenterSquasher88

So did we all win in our categories as well?mama needs a trophy.

i almost went with those two young boys as well!so young and out so late - NYC in the '80s must've been such an interesting place.but they really go along hand in hand with my whole family theme.

March 13,2015 | Registered Commenterabstew

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