Double Take: 'The Queen' and 'Paris Is Burning'

Thursday, June 27, 2019
A still from 'Paris Is Burning'.

Got to Be Real

by:
Joshua Ray

The mainstreaming of queer culture means that nearly every Target in America has a small and strategically positioned rack of mass-produced rainbow-bedecked accoutrements for customers to own and don for their area’s June Pride festivities. The issue with the community’s representation morphing into corporatized uniformity – an idea antithetical to the celebrations of pride and of queer culture itself – is that it leads to another era of anonymity for the wildly varying non-cishet experiences.

The Lens contributors have mulled over the proliferation of queerness for mass consumption before — see the discussion of last year’s milquetoast gay teen rom-com Love, Simon — but it seems to be growing exponentially in 2019. One could point to Forbes’ recent report that even corporations with financial ties to anti-gay politicians see the benefit of selling their enemies’ lives. Less nefarious is the rise of reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race as a beacon of queer pop-cultural representation. Initially a cult hit buried deep in cable packages on the predominantly gay Logo TV channel, its meteoric rise in industry cred (winning multiple Emmy Awards) and general popularity led to the program shifting to the much wider-reaching VH1 and doubling its weekly running time to two hours per episode. The ouroboros nature of its fandom has led to sharp decline in its quality over its 11 seasons (plus four All-Stars iterations), while another cable network show, Ryan Murphy’s dramatic FX series Pose, has supplanted it as the beloved queer cult object from the past couple of years. An earnest and far more inclusive enterprise than the reality show, the portrait of New Yorkers at the peak of the AIDS epidemic represents a watershed moment in popular art’s front-facing trans and non-binary people of color. 

Aside from its necessity in an increasingly under-attack community, another probable cause for an uptick in the presence of pride-signaling is 2019’s marker as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Not to underplay the significance of their forebears’ role in gay and trans liberation, but much of the pent-up anger and passion that exploded via bricks from the hands of the queer folks (and mostly of color, too) at the Christopher Street NYC bar have driven the subsequent decades’ fights for rights in their communities. Seemingly to mark the anniversary and/or possibly to ride the rainbow wave, distributors Kino Lorber and Janus Films are currently touring two restored cult classics, The Queen (1968) and Paris Is Burning (1991), which coincidentally make for a great double feature about the roots of Drag Race and Pose. Queen and Paris tower above them, however — two glittery and gutsy documentaries that, with incredible insight and clarity, allow present-day audiences to see just how much the sociopolitical standing of queer people has changed and how much has unfortunately remained stagnant.

The Queen

1968 / USA / 68 min. / Dir. by Frank Simon / Opened in select cities on June 17, 1968

Sabrina, the grand mistress of ceremonies for the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest and narrator of Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary about that pageant, The Queen, is keenly aware that the correlations between gender identity, performance of gender, and sexuality cannot be easily solved with some standard equation. She sits in front of a mirror, readying for a show by drawing on exaggerated eyebrows while cheekily illuminating the issue for the viewer:

My name is Jack. Well, my mother calls me Jack – everybody that cares about me calls me Jack. That’s my name, but I work under the name of Sabrina and all the queens all call me Sabrina whenever I see them. I go up to this queen and I say, ‘What’s your name?’ The queen says, ‘Monique.’ And I say, ‘That’s marvelous, darling, but what was your name before?’ And the queen will look at you straight in the eye and say, ‘There was no before.’

The takeaway is clear: For some, drag is performative fantasy; for others, it’s self-actualization. The Queen elides the fact that its emcee is Flawless Sabrina, a pioneering NYC trans entertainer, much as the succinct 68-minute film around her pithy introduction refrains from narrativizing the experiences of its subjects. Instead, Simon shapes his kaleidoscopic microcosm of queer life during the most tumultuous decade of the 20th century through small flashes of personal disclosure. With that, much of what spews forth from these bigger-than-life personalities could easily be tagged as problematic with 50 years’ worth of remove, but the frank honesty allows for discernible hierarchies of racial and socioeconomic privilege to emerge, even among these already marginalized individuals. 

This disparity is made even more apparent when one compares, on the one hand, the cramped and dank Manhattan hotel rooms in which the queens prepare themselves and, on the other, the lavish ballroom in which they’ll eventually perform before a tuxedo- and ball-gown-wearing audience that includes high-society luminaries such as a briefly glimpsed Andy Warhol. Simon’s photographers’ free-form and fluid 16mm cinematography makes great use of these claustrophobic yet dazzling environments – glitter, moldy walls, pounds of foundation, pock-marked faces, overblown mod fashions and hairdos, and more. Simon and his crew forgo traditional setups for a vérité approach, and so The Queen looks, feels, and sounds like Paul Morrissey directed an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. A low-angle shot of the blond-wigged Mario Montez botching “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” as floating bubbles burst into the camera’s lens makes for a particularly striking and hallucinatory avant-pop image. 

The contradiction of becoming the elite’s amusement while fleshing out their own lavish and incredibly important fantasies is heartbreakingly realized in the documentary’s final shot: Rachel Harlow, the pageant’s victor, waiting in street dress for her subway home to Philadelphia while she fondles her measly prize. I’m Miss All-America and all I got was this lousy crown. This is after the real winner of The Queen, Crystal LeBeija — mother of the House of LaBeija, one of the many prominent drag “families” — calls out the competition’s oppressive society-in-miniature that prevented the queen of color from being crowned over a pretty, young, blond one. With her fiery and deserving righteousness, she all but ignites the film’s very celluloid material.

Rating: B+

Paris Is Burning

1990 / USA / 71 min. / Dir. by Jennie Livingston / Opened in select cities on Mar. 13, 1991

Jennie Livingston’s joyous and empathetic Paris Is Burning acts as a quasi-sequel to The Queen by checking in on an offshoot of the NYC drag scene during the latter half of the 1980s: the ballroom scene. That particular phrasing comes across as stodgy (and very white), but that’s entirely its raison d'etre. Balls and their lifestyle are all about repurposing and reclamation. Empty Harlem banquet halls, gymnasiums, and theaters become exclusively queer spaces for people of color to perform and compete in all sorts of personae, redefining the art as not an exclusively outward gender-flipping satire (no, this is not camp) but as a complete realization of wish fulfillment. Instead of only awarding top beauty queen (to be fair, there’s some of that, too), the categories here are military realness, schoolboy/girl realness, luscious body, butch queen, town and country, executive realness, et al.

“You’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive – if I had the opportunity I could be one ’cause I can look like one,” remarks one competitor. “That is like a fulfillment.” That Paris captures the overriding bootstrapping-yuppie milieu of the time is no coincidence, as the ball scene is seemingly born out of Reaganomics. For the underprivileged here, however, all that’s trickled down is the consumerist aspirations with none of the supposed economic opportunity. To label them as consumers is not a criticism of their hopes and dreams – they deserve their piece of the societal pie they’ve helped bake – but Paris smartly observes the ends to which this community’s members are forced for survival. An elegaic coda features the tale of the murder of the effervescent and frequent trophy-grabbing Venus Xtravaganza, whose main source of income comes from sex work. Found strangled to death under a Manhattan hotel-room bed, her death could likely have been prevented if her work were destigmatized and regulated and her trans identity not completely denigrated – an achingly familiar story still being repeated today.

In the face of these adversities, the resilient participants are nevertheless headstrong, made tough-as-nails from their stratified and death-haunted existence (this is peak AIDS epidemic, after all). Their war faces are ones of exuberance and passion, showcasing great autonomy over their own underground haven. Pepper LaBeija (who inherited the title of House of LaBeija’s mother from The Queen’s Crystal) cockily strutting down a makeshift runway, her sequin gown emanating a golden glow, is as radiant an image as any in cinema, documentary or not. That Livingston gained privileged access to this secret world is a miracle, and her film acts as an introductory lexicon to the uninitiated. Title cards announce various sections – “Shade,” “Voguing,” “Houses,” “Mopping” – as subjects humbly define and demonstrate each aspect of their scene. If those words sound familiar, blame today’s appropriation of the ballroom through their familiarity with the Paris-saluting (or is it cribbing?) RuPaul’s Drag Race or Pose, the latter of which is essentially a fictionalized version of Paris. Without even mentioning the great appropriator of the ball scene, Madonna with her song “Vogue,” the film’s aforementioned epilogue aptly touches on the nascent mainstreaming of their sacred society, one that has fully blossomed today.

Regarding its structural invention, Paris becomes the inverse of The Queen. The former lacks an overall narrative conceit but allows characters to speak to their own arcs, while the latter creates a linear story of a pageant through the refracted experiences of its participants. The strategy here allows for indelible humanity, and Livingston’s documentary is one of the great under-studied, under-heralded examples of cinema as an empathetic time machine. Paris Is Burning, with its scant runtime of 78 minutes, bursts with more life in each of its frames than the entirety of the 10-plus-hour, relatively good television show inspired by it, Pose. Capturing these Harlem denizens on celluloid and not making a film this combustible was already likely impossible. By adopting her subjects’ refusal of normativity in every filmmaking choice, the result is the ultimate homage to a lifestyle and people who might have certainly been erased from the cultural consciousness without her gracious document.

Rating: A

The Queen is out-of-print on consumer home video, but Kino Lorber’s new restoration of the film is currently touring theatricially in the U.S. A new home video release is expected in Fall 2019. 

Paris Is Burning is out-of-print on consumer home video, but can currently be streamed on Netflix. Janus Films’ new restoration of the film will be screening at the Webster University Film Series on Aug. 16-17 and Sept. 6-8 at 7:30 p.m.