There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
Paris is Burning is Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary about the subculture of black and Latinx gay men and transgender women who competed in drag balls in New York City in the late 1980s. A Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner and a surprise arthouse hit, Paris is Burning is a landmark film in queer cinema, which introduced a lot of straight audiences to the economic struggles, creative expression, and communal spirit shared by some incredibly inspiring, entertaining individuals.
Why watch now?
The new FX drama Pose debuts this Sunday night at 9PM ET.
Co-created by Glee and American Horror Story producer Ryan Murphy (who also directs the first two episodes), Pose takes place in the same drag ball scene as Paris is Burning. It follows the rivalry between two fictional cliques, the House of Abundance and the House of Evangelista, as they dress up and strut the runway at competitions hosted by the hilariously acid-tongued Pray Tell (Billy Porter). The first 20 minutes or so of Sunday’s premiere rolls out almost like a restaged, miniature version of Livingston’s documentary. Murphy and his writing / producing collaborators Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals introduce characters whose personalities and problems echo the Paris is Burning bunch. In both documentary and TV series, the models and dancers at the balls run the gamut, from those just a few bad breaks away from working the streets (if they aren’t already) to people hustling their way through the New York arts and fashion industries.
Pose also expands on one of Paris is Burning’s subtler themes. At various points in the film, Livingston contrasts the drag performers with ordinary, affluent New Yorkers, walking down busy Manhattan sidewalks. It’s often hard to tell which of these two groups is more “real,” which of them are fashion models or Wall Street power players and which are simply costumed as such. Pose elaborates on those subtle distinctions with a subplot involving Stan (Evan Peters), a rising star in the Trump organization with an obnoxious boss (James Van Der Beek), a pretty wife (Kate Mara), and a secret relationship with Angel (Indya Moore), a trans woman. The show aims to capture some of the diversity of New York in the ‘80s, while also emphasizing the idea that, whether rich or poor, everyone in the city is pretending, in one way or another.
Who it’s for
Anyone interested in how mainstream American pop culture has evolved since the 1980s.
At the time of its release, Paris is Burning was marketed as a sort of origin story for Madonna’s song and video “Vogue,” which was inspired in part by the abstracted, semi-satirical form of catwalk-posing at drag shows. In the decades since, the influence of the balls — spread by this documentary — has been absorbed into dance and fashion, intentionally and inadvertently. The notion of glamor as something the underclass can imitate and thereby claim was evident in the rise of the “Chav” in the UK and the legitimization of “Waacking” as a form of street-dancing. And then, of course, there’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, which turned drag ball culture into a televised competition. Because of LGBTQ culture’s impact on the mainstream since the ‘80s, the competition scenes in Paris is Burning don’t look strange or dated. The performances are lively, passionate, and quite familiar.
The performers’ dramatic posturing is more recognizable, too, after decades of reality TV series about artists, aristocrats, and wannabes. Livingston’s subjects are eclectic, from the delicate ingénue Venus Xtravaganza to the wizened veteran Dorian Corey, but they all seem to take at least some comfort in their own theatrical self-mythology. Even before Paris is Burning validated their nightlife, these performers were already talking about themselves and their various victories as “legendary.” Corey admits to being wary of the status-obsessed youngsters on the scene, summing up the fabulous folly of human desire with the movie’s beautiful final line: “If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high… hooray for you.” But even Corey believes that what they’re doing matters: this band of outcasts using theft and ingenuity to make a welcoming home.
Where to see it
Netflix, which currently features a handful of other titles relevant to Pose, including the documentary The Death and Life of Marsha Johnson (about a drag pioneer) and the Dirty Money episode “The Confidence Man” (about how President Donald Trump cemented his brand during the wealth-obsessed ‘80s).