If Madonna and McLaren served up the glamour that many of the ballsters themselves wanted, Jennie Livingston brought the grit in her low-budget, amateur documentary. Portraying drag balls and the lives of their community in 1980s New York City, Livingston organized her footage of balls and interviews with participants through a sort of glossary featuring slang from the scene. Intertitles announce these terms, followed by definitions from her respondents and demonstrations from the balls and streets. Examples include activities like reading, throwing shade, and voguing as well as ball categories like banjee boy and butch queen first time in drags at a ball. The following clip features Dorian Corey and Venus Xtravaganza defining reading and shade.
Livingston’s lexical approach is both a model and cautionary tale for our own digital documentary approach to REACH LA and its house/ball scene’s repertoire. On the one hand, Livingston respectfully frames her respondents not as mere users of vernacular but rather as creative writers and scholars of their own discourse. Paris is Burning emphasizes that speech acts and personal narrative are as important as embodied performance in this subculture, especially as the film shifts from intertitles to a more standard documentary narrative of the lives of ball divas and Venus Xtravaganza's (unsolved) murder in its second half. Throughout, ballroom footage is the main attraction.
On the other hand, Paris is Burning’s intertitles give the impression that the film is made by an outsider for outsider audiences. As a white and relatively affluent cis-lesbian, Livingston’s passive-participant-observer role inevitably extended a long history of critiques about ethnography and documentary. Although Livingston herself claimed that “the documentary was truly written by the ball people themselves” and eventually paid the main respondents, she was nonetheless (unsuccessfully) sued by a number of the cast members when the film did unexpectedly well at the box office. Questions about Livingston profiting from a form of cultural appropriation were no doubt compounded by the tragic fact that most of the primary cast died of HIV-related illnesses in the years after the film’s release.
While film critics broadly loved the movie, feminist and queer theorists immediately responded in more ambivalent terms. Indeed, the film’s legendary status may have been sealed as much by its capture of the “golden era” of the ballroom, before the cultural mainstreaming of voguing, as by its status as an emblem of the symbiotic nature of queer culture and academic theory in the 1990s. Lucas Hilderbrand's monograph on the film provides a thorough outline of critical and scholarly debates about Paris up to 2013. We touch on some key moments here, in rough historical order, as they relate to the difference between documentary film, our goal of digital archiving, and other forms of exhibition.
In the same year of the documentary's release, queer of color scholar Robert Reid-Pharr claimed that Paris’s failure to adequately interrogate systems of oppression places the film's valuation of black spectacle in concert with nineteenth-century minstrel shows. In 1992 bell hooks leveled a damning black feminist critique of the film, accusing Livingston of a white imperialist gaze that in turn supported what she saw as some of the casts’ own uncritical worship of white femininity. Among more positive early assessments, white-cis-gendered queer theorist Judith Butler seized on the ball scene, as portrayed in Paris, as yet another example of her thesis that gay drag inherently deconstructs essentialist ideologies grounding gender norms. Butler herself would go on to be critiqued by scholars like Jay Prosser and Viviane Namaste for appropriations of trans existence as proof of “gender performativity” while disregarding actual trans lives. The most salient analyses of the film contextualize the material conditions of Paris’s content and production. Homing in on content, Chandan Reddy links the invention of the ball “houses” to how a combination of housing policy and homophobic expulsion from heteronormative family units has created queer of color poverty. Phillip Brian Harper reads how the very lawsuits against Livingston have become part of Paris is Burning’s legend that open to larger questions about "social critique" and the "limits of social agency."
For a low-budget feature made by an amateur filmmaker, Paris is Burning seems to have done at once too much and not enough. Through dialectics of privacy and publicity, ballroom and courtroom, Livingston’s agency through funding access and legal knowledge plays out against the ball children’s agency over their live performance as both subjective expression and commodity. As our next section attests, the cultural status of both Paris and the house/ball scene has changed significantly in the era of the digital.