I’m trying to convince my flatmate to watch a film. I have to be careful in how I sell it, because she won’t watch a horror movie and I appeal to her as a philosophy and literature student. I say it’s underground, a cult thriller. Other than arts students with the time and stubborn patience, who else is watching cult films?
A film primarily creates a world and a cult film creates a world so removed from our own it requires a new language. That an annexation of our reality requires an annexation of our language is something I learned from queer cinema.
Paris is Burning is a documentary that comes with a glossary. Based in the 90s it is considered both cult and quintessential in queer cinema.
It gets it’s title from a ball, the term is defined in the documentary, a ball is essentially a competition and an integral part of the queer black and latino people who created it. The ball circuit is full of large and flamboyant characters.
Paris Dupree vogues on stage with her cigarette between her fingers. Smoke hangs helically in the air. The documentary is often narrated by the unnamed presenter at the ball. He calls out the categories: “Category is Butch Queen First Time in Drags at a Ball” Ironically-butch drag queens walk the runway and form a line for the judges. The crowd replies with cheers and hisses. The categories themselves can be the source of humour. One category is school where the participants dress like school girls and school boys. This may be the campest moment in the history of cinema.
I find the most perverse category to be realness. Realness, explains the ageing Dorian Corey, is a drag queen or a trans woman who can at the end of the night take the train or bus home in feminine clothes without being assaulted. To be ‘real’ is to pass as your cisgender heteronormative counterpart. It is perverse because this is not parody, it’s about survival.
Before a litany of queer terminology entered the mainstream lexicon, Paris is Burning was presenting a gay language through cinema.
The films achievements are twofold. It’s funny and it’s informative. Humour in this stylised documentary anticipated reality television as a genre. Paris is Burning lives on in both memes and through the cult but increasingly mainstream Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
The film I’m trying to convince my flatmate to watch is Under the Skin. It’s a film about an alien infiltrating the human race. Scarlet Johansson plays an alien driving a van in Scotland. She seduces and preys on men taking them back to her spaceship. It took a sophisticated eye to convey the shifting allegiance and espionage of Scarlet Johansson’s character. The complex inner life of predator and prey is presented with the clinical gaze of a nature documentary.
The film comprises of barely audible conversations with the alien and men she asks for directions. We watch from a voyeuristic corner in her van. She presses a key into a house and they follow her inside with the promise of sex. Inside is an alien slaughterhouse where she traps her victims. We see meat being funnelled.
The danger that comes with sexuality here has a parallel with the fear the AIDS crisis casts over Paris is Burning. Venus Xtravaganza is a young trans woman who started out wanting to be a drag queen. She tells the interviewer she stopped working as a prostitute because she’s afraid of AIDS. She say’s she’s meeting up with a friend, and that he’s paying her but it’s platonic. Minutes later the screen is black and we read that Venus is found dead, strangled under a bed in a motel.
Venus is arguably the tragic heroine of the documentary, she lays on a bed recounting how she left home at 14 and what she wants from the future.
These are films that demand a second viewing. They demand it because they are an abstraction of our world, a closer analysis is necessary. Anyway, my point is that the gay films I had to watch when I was younger sets a standard for ambitious films.
Images are stills from Paris is Burning and Under the Skin.