My favorite episodes of Hit Me with Your Best Shot are invariably those where Nathaniel throws the widest curveball, and this week’s subject is certainly that. For the first time in six seasons, he’s assigned a documentary: the critically acclaimed, groundbreaking Paris Is Burning, a 1990 film about the drag ball culture in New York in the late 1980s. It’s been on my must-watch list for ages, and it deserves every inch of its reputation. The subculture it depicts hasn’t really become any better-known in the intervening quarter of a century, even though elements of it have become damn near mainstream, so the documentary’s mission of exploring the very unique behavior and vocabulary of its chosen subject, in considerably detail and with zealous ethnographic objectivity, remains fresh and interesting; meanwhile, the film has also taken on the quality of a time capsule, bringing life back into a long-dead portion of New York. It has aged as well as a documentary possibly can, all the more so since its trenchant depiction of the pressure points in America along racial, economic, and gender-identity lines applies every bit as well to life in 2015 as in 1990, sadly.
All that being said, this is not “Hit Me with Your Best Short-Form Review”. And selecting a documentary for this game makes for an unusual challenge. Watching a documentary with an eye towards picking a single image from it proved to be a revelatory experience: it reveals how much this particular documentary, anyway, thrives less on the narrative within the frame than the narrative that comes in the pairing of image and words – director Jennie Livingston’s approach to constructing the film rather conventionally combines a wide range of narrators, over images of the things they’re describing, mostly. Or sometimes the connection between speech and visual is more abstract, which is when it’s at its most potent. Either way, the film works beautifully. But many of the best and most penetrating moments are too reliant on the words being spoken under the image to make their full impact.
Paris Is Burning, among a surprisingly large number of thematic strands for such a short little film (the agreed-upon running time is 71 minutes; confusingly, the version streaming on Netflix is five minutes longer), spends a great deal of time discussing appropriation as an extension of fantasy: that the drag balls provide a space for the participants to perform an identity that they don’t possess, in a place where there is no judgment or danger about doing so. This includes performances of straightness, wealth, and white-collar employment in addition to performances of femininity, and my fascination with the film’s class-based argument almost sent me to select a shot about how the poverty-wracked black, gay artists in the film mimic white businessmen, except that Conrado at Coco Hits New York already picked basically the exact shot I’d have used, for almost exactly the same reason.
So on to my runner-up:
There’s enough of a touch of irony here that I’m pretty sure the moment was staged to a degree that most of the highly observational film isn’t but then, we know from Herzog that truth is more important than scrupulous fact in the making of documentary. We have here Octavia Saint Laurent, bright shining star of the House of Saint Laurent, one of the most competitive families in the ball scene; and she is staring through the store windows at a dress by that other Saint Laurent. With one fluid pan, Livingston shows both Octavia’s view of that dress, and then separates her from it through a pane of glass, a clear cage that silently reminds her and us that in the nice high class rich white people world of Yves Saint Laurent, people like Octavia and her family don’t count, and indeed don’t exist.
And thus, appropriation; thus the alternate reality of the balls, where the people marginalised for a kaleidoscopic array of reasons could insist on their right to be, and to live out the identity that the power structure of society at large blandly denied to them. The film discusses empowerment openly and repeatedly, but mostly only alludes to the kind of repression that the balls seek to redress; it’s in a handful of individual shots and montages that mainstream culture and its normalising straightness is depicted with explicit force. And none of those moments are so persuasive and effect as this, where the simple elegance of the visuals and the look of hopeful longing on Octavia’s face make it clear how much she wants what’s just out of her grasp. All of Paris Is Burning argues strongly for how the balls matter; this moment is the most direct argument why they matter, and for that reason it gets my vote for the best shot of a film that’s made up of almost nothing but memorable moments.