Paris Is Burning
Where does voguing come from, and what, exactly, is throwing shade? This landmark documentary provides a vibrant snapshot of the 1980s through the eyes of New York City’s African American and Latinx Harlem drag-ball scene. Made over seven years, Paris Is Burning offers an intimate portrait of rival fashion “houses,” from fierce contests for trophies to house mothers offering sustenance in a world rampant with homophobia, transphobia, racism, AIDS, and poverty. Featuring legendary voguers, drag queens, and trans women—including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, and Venus Xtravaganza—Paris Is Burning brings it, celebrating the joy of movement, the force of eloquence, and the draw of community.
Having recently received a 2K restoration, Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning receives an all-new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The restoration was sourced from a 16mm interpositive.
I didn’t have high expectations but what has been pulled off here is remarkable. The most surprising and striking aspect right off is how gorgeously the colours have been rendered. This is a colourful, bold looking film, and the colours are rich and bold, perfectly saturated, with no signs of bleeding anywhere. Reds and greens are remarkable, and I was equally stunned by the yellows, blues, and the various neon colours that pop up. Their balanced nicely, not leaning too cool or too warm, coming off about as natural as they possibly can. Blacks are a bit of a mixed bag, sometimes looking deep and rich, others a bit washed, but this looks to come down more to the lighting utilized during filming. Shadow delineation can also vary from shot to shot because of this.
The film is very grainy, getting incredibly heavy at times, but the digital encode handles it all extraordinarily well. The grain doesn’t look noisy and holds a natural look. This also aids in the details, which are sharp and crisp, though a shot can go out-of-focus from time to time, not too surprising considering the film’s off-the-cuff feel.
The restoration has also done an exceptional job cleaning up the material: I only recall a few minor blemishes popping up (little dots or specs) but nothing else. It’s an incredibly clean and surprisingly vibrant image in the end, one of the better surprises I have had so far this year.
The film comes with a lossless PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack, though a rather robust one with an impressive level of range. Dialogue doesn’t show too much fidelity, coming off flat in the end, but the film’s music mix sounds amazing, despite being limited to one channel, and the actual drag shows, with their own music and screaming audience sounding from the background, come off impressive as well. Though I can be mixed on remixes, I almost feel a 5.1 remix would have been warranted (with the mono track still available as an option). As it is, though, it’s a rather lively monaural presentation.
Miramax/Disney had released a special edition DVD for the film back in 2005 with a couple of features. I haven’t seen that release, but Criterion has ported over the material found on that disc, even significantly updating one of them. First from that release is an audio commentary featuring director Jennie Livingston, editor John Oppenheim, and ball community members Freddie Pendavis and Willi Ninja. I was cringing at the track right off the bat, as Livingston pops up obviously reading from a prepared statement, explaining her reasons behind making the film. It’s a well-meaning intro but incredibly static and I dreaded this was going to be the structure of the track. Thankfully this isn’t the case. After Livingston’s reading the other participants show up, and the track then becomes a looser, and far more entertaining affair.
Oppenheim maybe pops up a couple of times, and the only big comment from him has to do with planning the structure of the film, a difficult task considering all of the footage that was shot. Livingston covers this as well along with the technical details behind the film, but the track really comes to life when Livingston, Pendavis, and Ninja talk about filming, the time period, and offer more about the drag-ball scene. It’s also beneficial for the further insight into certain topics that the film either glazes over or ignores: there is more about the houses, about the competition categories, about preparations, and we also get more backstory behind a number of people that appear in the film. It’s a good track, so don’t get thrown off too early by Livingston’s introduction.
To follow that, Criterion has recorded a new group conversation featuring Livingston, ball community members Sol Pendavis and Freddie Pendavis, and moderated over by filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris. Impressively it doesn’t repeat much from the commentary, other than some details about how the film came together, though Livingston manages to get into more detail about how she got the financing. Pendavis talks significantly more about his military service and how he was discharged after he was caught participating in the drag balls (Livingston also gets into more about her fascination with the military category of the drag balls). Touching on other subjects, including finding the focus of the film, the conversation proves to not only be informative, but it’s also incredibly entertaining and quite funny. It runs 30-minutes.
The previous DVD from Miramax/Disney included about an hour’s worth of outtakes from the film, but Criterion one-ups that disc here by including 110-minutes’ worth of outtakes. I can’t speak as to whether everything from the old DVD is here, and since there was so much footage shot it’s possible not everything made it over and most of the material here is new, but it would be hard to imagine Criterion didn’t at least carry over what was on the old disc. At any rate, the footage has been divided into 21 sections, with most of the footage being from interviews, and they have been grouped by participant or subject matter. Dorian Corey probably has some of the more interesting footage (in one sequence gun shots are heard in the background, and sadly it sounds as though that was normal for the time), and there’s some good footage where various participants talk about religion. There is also some more footage from the balls, and an extensive amount of footage from a drag-ball in D.C.
All of this footage is great but the most fascinating section has to do with “Idle Sheets.” Marcel Christian appears in some of these outtakes to talk about these, explaining they were just little booklets/sheets that were made up for the balls with the purpose of offering the audience something to read while the ball was “idle” (nothing going on). These sheets would offer information about the houses, categories, or just some randomness that Christian came up with (like the ABC’s of Ballism). What’s most valuable here, though, is that Criterion provides high-definition copies of these sheets and offers samples for you to view. This has the unfortunate side effect of cutting over footage of the interview, though it would have been just talking-heads footage (some ball footage does appear at least). The whole outtake section is great, but I was most appreciative of the information around the idle sheets, which I’m pretty sure were never mentioned in the film, and I don’t recall them coming up elsewhere in the features.
Criterion next includes an 11-minute interview with experimental filmmaker Jenni Olson, who explains the importance and impact of the film, saying it both “embodies and transcends” queer cinema. She also offers a history of queer cinema, right from the early days, all the way through to the 70s and 90s (where LGBTQ representation was usually not flattering) and how things have progressed since. Also here is a new 9-minute interview with the current mother of the House of Xtravaganza, Gisele Xtravaganza, who talks about the film’s impact on herself and helping her feel that she belonged to something after feeling lost for years. Both are excellent inclusions, and yet they’re oddly not listed as supplements on the back cover, as far as I can see.
The trippiest feature on here, though, is an entire 44-minute broadcast of The Joan Rivers Show, which aired on August 8th, 1991, promoting the film’s release in theaters. Livingston, Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Willi Ninja, and Freddie Pendavis all appear as guests. This was obviously targeted at a general daytime audience in the 90s, so don’t be surprised by some of the less-than-sensitive moments (and Rivers does seem rather bewildered at times, though is definitely game), but it’s still loaded with some wonderful stuff. On top of the fun little bit where “voguing” is being demonstrated (and since the Madonna song “Vogue” was released the year before it’s referenced heavily here) the participants explain the drag-ball scene to the audience, the idea of the houses and what a mother of the house does, and there is discussion about what they each enjoy about the scene. Dorian Corey’s participation may be the most rewarding aspect, especially since he gets quite personal, particularly about surgery he regrets that he had. It’s a byproduct of its time obviously, but it’s still a great little document and I’m so happy Criterion went through the trouble of licensing this.
The disc then closes with two trailers: the fundraising trailer, which is what Livingston put together to show to investors before she actually started making the film; and then the Janus re-release trailer, touting the new restoration. We also get a 37-page booklet, featuring an essay by Michelle Parkerson, along with a reprint of a 1991 review of the film that appeared in the U.S. edition of The Guardian and was written by Essex Hemphill. Criterion’s notes warn of dated language regarding gender identity (despite not placing a similar warning to accompany the episode of The Joan Rivers Show included on the disc), and I admit I probably missed exactly what they’re referring to, but the review keenly targets the social issues brought up in the film, from gender and sexuality to race. Other than Olson’s interview the disc was lacking an academic slant, but this archival review more than fills that hole.
In all it’s an impressive special edition, filled with insightful and entertaining material, and I’m sure fans of the film will be thrilled going through all of it.
A really strong release, Criterion offers a superb digital presentation and fantastic roster of supplements to compliment the film. Highly recommended.