Paris is Burning Still on Fire…

by Lisa Kirchner

“Your son is a woman!” cried a strange voice at me from my friend’s answering machine. “Oh that’s from Paris is Burning,” he explained later. “You never saw that?” The rising inflection in his voice telling me I should. A gay black man who grew up in the deep South, Willy was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the film that taught him he could make his own community. About time I saw this thing.

The film documents the houses that poor gay men flocked to as far back as the 1960s, according to one of its interviewees, Dorian Corey. The houses provided shelter to some, but more importantly held balls that epitomized a certain style. (Madonna’s “Vogue,” is taken from the ball culture.) Clips from the balls are interspersed with commentary from “children” (hopeful up and coming ball talent) and “legends” (established acts). According to the legendary Corey, in the early days the balls were all about emulating the Las Vegas showgirl style, but had lately become all about labels. This was shot in 1987 and 1989, and I daresay that now, most of these guys wouldn’t make it through a reality makeover show without some major changes. And this is one of the film’s finer points–celebrating “the best” in fashion is an ephemeral pursuit. Yet with his wizened reminiscences (“as you get older… you think you’ve left a mark on the world if you just get through it…”) Corey makes it meta.

“They’re all dead now,” Willy tells me, after I’ve watched it. “AIDS or just getting beat up.”

And this reminds me to blog about it. We are all, after all, ephemeral. All communities are fragile, worth cherishing, and celebrating.


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