More than once in the documentary Paris Is Burning, director Jennie Livingston takes her cameras to the streets of midtown Manhattan, where ordinary-looking people shop, eat, walk, and talk. She then returns to the basement gymnasiums where her film's subjects dwell, performing for one another in elaborate drag balls. For the subset of the New York gay community depicted in Paris Is Burning, "drag" doesn't mean sequins and feather boas. Their balls have categories like "military," "executive," and "schoolboy." The idea is for the ball-walkers—mostly black, all gay—to look as real as possible. At a glance, most don't look too different from nighttime TV soap stars, fashion models, or the casual Manhattanites above. And as the movie plays on, it gets harder to separate how people look from who they are.
When Paris Is Burning was made in 1990, it was linked to Madonna's song and video "Vogue," which had origins in the stylized, catwalk-spoofing dancing of New York drag balls. The liveliness of those performances ups Paris Is Burning's rewatchability, as does the way—like The Endless Summer and only a few other documentaries—it preserves a remarkable, exotic little world. Paris Is Burning encapsulates New York at the end of the '80s, examining how a group of outcasts made a home there, using theft and ingenuity. The ball-walkers' exaggerated self-regard helped. In the film, they refer to themselves as "legendary," because of the number of oversized trophies in their apartments, and they divide themselves into "houses," just like the top fashion designers. Their houses are like gangs, cliques, and families all in one, and when they stray from those houses, some get into trouble.
The too-late-in-coming Paris Is Burning DVD serves as a kind of elegy to the "legends" who've succumbed to HIV or sexual violence. Before the movie wrapped, one of its brightest characters—Venus Xtravaganza, a Holly Golightly of the drag scene—was beaten to death in a prostitution transaction gone sour, and since Paris Is Burning's release, two of the scene's elder statesmen have died. Livingston's commentary track begins with a dry written statement, but she loosens up quick, swapping behind-the-scenes stories with members of her cast and crew, and sharing info about what's happened to everyone since. They're all audibly shaken by the loss of Dorian Corey, described by Livingston as "the brain of the film." Corey's the veteran who laments what the drag scene has become—"Not about what you can create, but what you can acquire"—and he's the one who sums up the human need for exhibitionism with the movie's wry final line, "If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high… hooray for you." Corey says it all, cynical and plain, while laboriously dabbing on his makeup.