Combustible Celluloid
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With: Andre Christian, Dorian Corey, Paris Dupree, Willi Ninja, Pepper Labeija, Junior Labeija, Venus Xtravaganza
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Jennie Livingston
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 78
Date: 09/13/1990

Paris Is Burning (1991)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Beloved Vogue

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Shot on 16mm, Jennie Livingston's dazzlingly entertaining 1991 documentary captures a portion of Harlem's "drag balls" for outsiders to savor. Drag queens apparently beg, borrow or steal anything they can to dress up and walk in these balls, in the hopes of winning a prize or becoming a star for a night. Many of them privately address the camera and talk about their need for escape and their dreams of real-life stardom. Most drag queens belong to a "house," adopting a fictitious last name, such as "Xtravaganza" or "Ninja," but living with others who care about them. Livingston takes a special interest in the blonde, petit Venus Xtravaganza, who unfortunately dies before the movie finishes shooting. Though Paris Is Burning received overwhelming critical acclaim and enjoyed a relatively successful theatrical run, it was denied an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.

Miramax released this film on DVD in 2005, and though the fashions have aged, the ideas and attitudes have not. The disc includes a commentary track and outtakes. In 2020, the Criterion Collection released this essential film on a vibrant new Blu-ray, clean and bright but still looking like a raw doc shot on film. (It was restored in 2K with director Livingston's supervision, and comes with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.) Bonuses include a new conversation between Livingston, ball community members Sol Pendavis and Freddie Pendavis, and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris; more than an hour of outtakes; the commentary track from the 2005 disc; an episode of "The Joan Rivers Show" from 1991; an interview with my friend, San Francisco filmmaker Jenni Olson (The Joy of Life, The Royal Road), on the impact of the film; a trailer, and more. The liner notes booklet contains essays by Michelle Parkerson and Essex Hemphill.

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