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Always on Sunday / Stormé / Paris is Burning

Paris is Burning
February 27, 2022 - 7:00 pm
In-person: 
filmmaker Jennie Livingston.

Pictured Above: Paris is Burning (dir. Jennie Livingston, 1990)


Always on Sunday

1962

Formed in Los Angeles in the early 1960s by cinematographer Ray Harrison and a group of his queer friends, the Gay Girls Riding Club (GGRC) became an underground sensation in the pre-Stonewall Southern California gay rights movement. From its equestrian-related social origins all through the early 1980s, the group became a powerhouse of gay social life and culture by sponsoring elaborate social events, drag balls, trips, as well as the production of four elaborate and campy short film satires of popular movies from the era.

Typically screened only at gay bars and private events, the four GGRC films were seemingly epic in production value considering their underground guerilla-style origins and their outrageously irreverent (and illegal) seizure of heteronormative locations and spaces. Their most flamboyantly opulent effort was the drag retooling of the 1962 Bette Davis and Joan Crawford Warner Bros. classic aptly retitled What Really Happened to Baby Jane? (1963). While the production lends a keen eye to fastidiously recreating many of the details and scenes of the original classic (including the use of a Rolls Royce), this camp version has the Blanche Hudson character healthily hopping up in the closing beach scene and handing sister Jane an Oscar (which Davis notoriously lost to Anne Bancroft).

Always on Sunday abandons scene-for-scene recreations of the Jules Dassin international hit Never on Sunday (1960), and plays like a much shorter gender-bending comedy sketch with only a light contextual nod to the original classic. Unlike the strictly drag retelling of the Baby Jane story, Always on Sunday seems to focus more on the fluidity of gender roles and norms, as well as masculine experience and presumptions in relation to the homosexual experience.

In a queer historical context, the subversive GGRC films and the group’s larger cultural impact are an important pre-Stonewall, mid-century representation of cis-gendered drag culture. In a way, GGRC began to lay the foundation for the hugely successful and popular drag culture scene popularized by RuPaul’s Drag Race and the like, that now thankfully embrace a wide variety of diverse non-binary, gender-fluid community members.

Todd Wiener

Digital, color, 10 min. Director: Connie B. Demille of the Gay Girls Riding Club.

Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box

1987

African American gay and lesbian activist, academic and award-winning independent filmmaker Michelle Parkerson’s career blossomed out of the dynamic LGBTQ+ Washington, D.C. club scene in the late 1970s—a period of Black, gay renaissance for the city. A frequent contributor to feminist newspapers and gay periodicals, Parkerson gained much early community praise from her frequent poetry readings and performances, often partnering with her progressively queer contemporaries well into the 1990s.

A passionate advocate against racial and sexual discrimination, Parkerson served on numerous local and national human rights groups and coalitions. By 1987, she was the co-chair of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. These passions are reflected in her non-fiction representations of the African American experience, which celebrate the community’s pride and steadfast resilience in the face of oppression. These emphases are particularly evident in an essential trio of Parkerson’s works: her documentary about jazz legend Betty Carter; her 1995 film about self-described "Black lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet” Audre Lorde, and her 1991 short film portrait of drag king Stormé DeLarverie.

Parkerson’s Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box tells the vital tale of legendary performer and activist Stormé DeLarverie, set against the history of the celebrated Jewel Box Revue touring company, the U.S.’ first racially integrated drag show. This film highlights DeLarverie’s engaging personality in a quietly intimate manner. The charmingly reflective DeLarverie almost appears to be at odds with her larger-than-life historical presence within queer history and culture. In addition to her infamous drag king persona, Stormé is commonly referred to as “the Rosa Parks of the gay community” and is widely credited as being one of the first people to throw a punch at the NYPD during the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Pakerson brings Stormé’s historical story into the present of the 1990s, where the icon is working as a bouncer in a women’s bar and still performing in her unique, powerhouse style.

Todd Wiener

Digital, color, 21 min. Director: Michelle Parkerson.

Preservation funded by Criterion, The Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation, Outfest and Sundance Institute

Paris is Burning

1990

Shade. Realness. Opulence. In the 30 years following the release of Paris is Burning, the lexicon of drag has firmly established itself within the cultural mainstream. But for the queer and trans Black and Latinx subjects in Jennie Livingston’s (b. 1962) documentary of the New York’s Ballroom scene in the late 1980s, the community formed around the competitive world of drag was a matter of survival. With scintillating looks and fierce determination, the newcomers and veterans of the Ballroom compete late into the night in juried contests of themed categories with a particular eye towards “passing,” the ability to convincingly blend into straight society’s normative ideas of class and gender. From the physically demanding, precise improvisation of Voguing, the ball-walkers seek patronage and protection among chosen families known as Houses, which vie to attract up-and-comers to bolster each crew’s reputation.

Shot in the assembly halls and gymnasiums of the Elks Lodge and YMCA in Harlem and the street hangouts of Washington Square Park and Christopher Street Pier, Paris is Burning maps working class realities in the face of austerity, acknowledging the underlying threat of raced, gendered and classed violence in pre-hypergentrified Manhattan.

Made over the course of seven years, Livingston’s film ignited controversy upon its release. Against the backdrop of the Reagan-era culture wars, the devastation of the AIDS crisis, and battles over obscenity in works publicly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the politics of film’s exploration of racial, sexual, gender and class identity were the object of adoration as well as critical and academic scrutiny—in particular Livingston’s position of privilege relative to her socially marginal subjects. The filmmakers faced accusations of ethnographic voyeurism and cultural appropriation, with a number of the film’s subjects reevaluating their participation in the project after it became a surprise hit for distributor Miramax. However, Livingston’s nuanced and compassionate filmmaking enabled her subjects to speak at length about the intersecting realities of race, class, gender and sexuality, while creating a visual record of a creative milieu that continues to have a tremendous cultural impact.

Brendan Lucas

DCP, color, 78 min. Director: Jennie Livingston. With: Brooke Xtravaganza, André Christian, Dorian Corey, Paris Duprée, Pepper LaBeija. Preserved by The Criterion Collection/Janus Films in conjunction with Outfest, Sundance Institute, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.