Although Livingston talks to a wide range of performers and community members, the film is largely built around footage captured at the 1986 Paris is Burning ball, and devotes most of its running time to its exploration of the ball scene, in which gay, lesbian, and trans men and women dress up, often in drag, and compete against one another in various themed competitions for their peers to judge. Through the ball scene, Livingston finds her subjects, which include Pepper LaBeija, Angie Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja, all of whom are mothers of Houses (houses LaBeija, Xtravaganza, and Ninja, respectively), under which performers compete in the balls. There are also members of the various houses: Freddie Pendavis, Venus Xtravaganza, Junior LaBeija, and further members of the scene, such as Octavia St. Laurent and Dorian Corey.
If there's anything that leaps out at a viewer watching Paris is Burning for the first time in 2020, it's how contemporary the movie still feels, and how the movie perfectly illustrates how POC and/or LGBTQ people are erased from the roots of popular culture. Terms like "shade," "fierce," "gagging," "legend, "snatch," and "kiki" -- some of which are so mainstream now you could hear them on a network sitcom -- were essentially introduced to the cultural lexicon through Paris is Burning. The notion of sex work as something that modern political candidates would need to have a position on is just becoming normalized, and yet many of Livingston's subjects speak openly about their experiences with it, including Venus Xtravaganza, who goes into depth about her positive and negative experiences hustling. One picture of Corey in costume, wearing a jungle-ish outfit and carrying a snake over her shoulders, evokes Britney Spears. Even some of the most timely fictional features don't feel as up-to-the-moment as Paris is Burning does.
The bittersweet flipside of this is recognizing how little has changed. The documentary is full of people speaking to their dreams of a future in which they are accepted and free to ascend to the heights of financial freedom or even fashion stardom that is afforded to everyone else, whether that's indirectly (the "banjee realness" competition, which is about how well the performers' outfits, including military uniforms and business suits, could blend into straight, white society) or directly (St. Laurent, warmly imagining a future in which she is a runway model). Almost all of the participants talk about seeking refuge in the Houses and with the House Mothers as an escape from their real houses and real mothers and fathers, which in turn dives into class commentary and racial commentary, such as Venus Xtravaganza talking about sex work, or Freddie Pendavis describing his method of scoring free food from a Roy Rogers burger joint. The vast majority of the performers in the film have passed away -- murdered, succumbed to AIDS, or a lack of financial/emotional support. The movie also feels like a key piece of evidence in the ongoing contemporary debate about the commercialization of queerness, and whether or not something like ball culture is actually served by a show like "RuPaul's Drag Race" or an HBO Max competition. As with so many landmark portraits of queer culture, there is the nagging sense of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."
And yet Paris is Burning, despite these elements, is a joyous experience even now. Performers like Willi Ninja, Venus Xtravaganza, and Octavia St. Laurent may no longer be with us, but their vibrance, their life, their humor and vitality, is preserved in Livingston's documentary. Modern documentaries can sometimes feel like video Wikipedia pages, filled with experts and first-hand eyewitnesses conveying information, but Paris is Burning is alive, crackling with energy and wit, with Livingston's camera sometimes whipping around to find a new angle or get another person in the shot. If ball culture was once a rebellious act, and modern televised versions are a corruption of it, the scene was captured at its peak. It is hard not to consider the sad things that happened during or after the film was released on an intellectual level, and yet there is hardly any of it (with the exception of Venus Xtravaganza's death) in the film itself, which is energizing and invigorating. Like the best documentaries, Paris is Burning is a vibrant snapshot of a specific subculture at a moment in time, soaking up the earnest details and electricity of living in that moment. A remarkable, enduring achievement.
The Video and Audio
Following the archival extras and the new deleted scenes, there are some new interviews produced by Criterion. The centerpiece interview is a conversation with director Jennie Livingston, subjects (or "talkers") Sol Pendavis and Freddie Pendavis, and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris (29:59). Sol and Freddie talk a little about what their lives were like before, during, and after the production (including the changing landscape of both the LGBTQ community and New York City). Livingston talks at length about how the film came together, from her initial inspiration through to financing, and then crafting the film with Oppenheim, as well as her complicated feelings about the film's impact and influence. Harris serves as a sort of moderator, providing questions and his own commentary, as well as his experience directing his own films. They also lament the number of subjects who are no longer with us. Although Sol can sometimes be hard to understand (subtitles on all of the extras would be appreciated), and it feels as if the piece could maybe use some archival photos or clips from the film that could appear on screen silently while the participants speak, this is a lively and entertaining chat.
There are also two more new interviews not mentioned on the packaging: One with experimental filmmaker Jenni Olson (10:39), and the other with Gisele Xtravaganza (9:22), current house mother of the House of Xtravaganza. Olson talks about her personal history with Paris is Burning, positions it within the history of queer film, of African-American film, and trans film, and how film history inevitably reflects cultural history. She touches on the subtle but important difference between a documentary that is aimed at explaining its subjects to an uninformed audience, and a documentary that simply lets the subjects express themselves in the manner they want to do so, as well as the notion of the documentary as a form of activism. Gisele talks about how important the film was in her journey coming out as trans (she was originally going to be a monk!), how important the House of Xtravaganza was to her as a Latinx woman, and how important she feels the film still is today. As both of these are from people who did not work on the movie, they're arguably less essential than the longer conversation, but both are worth a look.
The disc wraps up with a couple of archival extras. First is a complete episode of "The Joan Rivers Show" (43:56) featuring Livingston, Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, Freddie Pendavis, and Ninja. This program is a good example of the difference between the types of documentary that Jenni Olson was talking about, with the episode clearly designed to explain the culture to Rivers' mainstream viewers, but it's still a worthwhile inclusion (although, be warned, it's an older program, and some of what's considered "polite" have shifted over the years even if the overall tone of the piece is warm). Finally, the disc closes out with two trailers, one of which is again not mentioned on the packaging. The unadvertised one is Livingston's fundraising trailer (5:37), which she mentions in the new conversation piece. The other is referred to as the "theatrical trailer," but it is actually a restoration trailer produced for the premiere of the new 2K on this very disc at Film Forum in NYC. Unclear why the film's actual theatrical trailer is not included.