Northern Star: On Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee, and Laura Palmer

[TW: Detailed account of sexual abuse]
[Spoilers: Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Twin Peaks: The Return]

My angel does heroin,
It could be called a home,
For someone who never heard bed time stories,
She doesn’t know happily ever after
Only a window

My angel was raped

Her best Sunday dress
burned in effigy

My angel doesn’t have a saviour
Only a heavenly father
Daddy’s little girl

My angel is crimson

Too unclean to ever be a lamb
Only ever a second thought

My angel waits
her gaze lingering
an image of a bedroom door

Turning,
a light shining through
Leaning, Leaning
On the Everlasting Arms

My angel screams
and I listen
-An excerpt from my journal. Written the morning after Twin Peaks ended

I sit in the darkness of my bedroom staring at the posters I have on the back of my bedroom door wondering if I’d get to sleep that night. Sometimes I’d get peace, but on occasion the door would crack open and monsters would come inside. That’s how I internalized it at a young age, but when I grew up I had the knowledge to put it into words: incest. My father knew that I was feminine. He knew before anyone else. In an attempt to curb my own fascination with things like dresses and makeup he would come into my room, abuse me and mutter things like “this is what happens to women. Do you want this?”. Mourning the death of his son, and destroying his daughter. It was an attempt to control my body. It was power and dominance. That’s all rape is, but in addition to taking my body he took my family and my home. There was no sanctuary. A wounded animal returns to its home when they know they’re about to die, but I had no such place, because my own predator stalked in my bedroom. Laura Palmer is the single most important character in all of film or television for me, because she knew this too. 

I. The Prom Queen and the Angel

A mother (Grace Zabriskie) caught in the reverberations of a traumatic whirlpool wallows drunkenly into frame, taking a picture of the prom queen who was her daughter (Sheryl Lee) by hand and smashing it into the floor. Twenty five years earlier, a father (Ray Wise) cradles that same picture and dances with the photo, with the prom queen’s face always present in his outstretched arms. The mother grips a piece of shattered glass in hand and plunges it into the image of her daughters face repeatedly, wailing, screaming and echoing the primal upheaval that has reshaped her entire life into a cesspool of damnation, by way of grief. The camera idles closely to her, slowly zooming, until we see the fractured image of her daughter torn to shreds. Twenty Five years earlier, that same father rapes his daughter, and she is murdered by his hand. The image of Laura Palmer, and by extension Sheryl Lee, in the work of David Lynch, is one of dissonance. She’s the perfect good girl (as described by Jennifer Lynch in The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer) and the tormented martyr who chose to die. In Fire Walk With Me she was laid to rest, finally, peacefully, given an angel. Laura was saved by her decision to succumb to death with the introduction of a supernatural ring she slipped on her finger, which trapped herself in a heavenly space. She was away from BOB, her father and David Lynch. But it is happening again.

The soul of Laura Palmer has lingered throughout the career of David Lynch ever since her body was found wrapped in plastic on a cold shore in the sleepy town of Twin Peaks. She has haunted the filmmaker, much in the same way she has Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan). Cooper, himself, being a manifestation of David Lynch’s obsession of consistently returning to Twin Peaks in the desperate hope of saving the girl who began as a corpse, and slowly evolved into a messianic image of grace.

Lynch has a warehouse of actors he loves to work with who each have their own contextual relevance within his work, but Sheryl Lee holds a special place. She is the martyr in which David Lynch funnels his greatest streaks of empathy for humanity’s unfairly damned. Nearly every woman in the work of David Lynch since Twin Peaks has been a manifestation of Laura Palmer in some way. In Mulholland Drive Betty (Naomi Watts) is a goodhearted person attempting to help another woman in need while also trying to make it big in Hollywood, but is poisoned by the toxicity that rests within the system. Nikki (Laura Dern) is also an actress, but her reality is unfairly ripped apart by a cursed film script which she dared to verbalize in Inland Empire. Both of these women are pummeled by gendered violence: a trope that lingers in the blood of all of his motion pictures, and they are all in a sorority with Laura Palmer: the girl he couldn’t save.

Even in the beginning of Laura Palmer’s imagery in the work of America’s greatest surrealist filmmaker, Lynch showed a grief in the destruction of this poor girl. In the pilot of Twin Peaks the melodramtic reveal of Laura’s dead body is later proceeded by near constant images of family and friends sobbing hysterically over this girl they loved. Everyone was in grief over her death, whether they realized it or not. They were mourning her, but they were also despondent over the death of their own town. For with Laura’s death, so went the soul of small town America, but what Lynch wants us to know is that there was no soul there to begin with, and there was always horror behind closed doors. It was the case in Blue Velvet when doe-eyed boyscout Jefferey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) peaked behind the curtain of a nightmare with perverse interest, and it was the same here. There’s always horror behind the suburban image of the American subconscious, but we hardly ever want to fully reckon with these things, because we want to act like fathers aren’t capable of raping their own children. Twin Peaks is honest in pointing out the rot at the centre and the show is still dealing with the ramifications of that knowledge. “How could this happen? Did you even want to know?” To paraphrase a statement between FBI agent Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer) and Special Agent Dale Cooper at the close of the Laura Palmer investigation back in season two. They ask who BOB might be, and ponder if he’s a supernatural entity, and whether or not Laura’s father may have been innocent at heart. Maybe Bob’s just the evil that men do, but that would require us to ignore that men do evil. One of the first images of Twin Peaks: The Return recontextualizes the moment from the Pilot where Laura’s best friend, Donna (Lara Flyn Boyle) notices an unnamed, faceless high school girl running across the school’s front lawn screaming, but now it is a slow motion image (later again in Black and White) with a deafening howl that would foreshadow a show gripped with the pain of Laura Palmer’s lingering trauma and the death that changed Twin Peaks forever. This is blood that stains eternal, and horror that doesn’t leave once its nested in the body of small town America.

Laura Palmer is the only innocent in the wake of all this tragedy. In the work of David Lynch the image of Sheryl Lee and Laura Palmer outside of Twin Peaks rings with angelic grace. In Wild at Heart, Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are starstruck lovers pulled apart by circumstances completely out of their control, but throughout it all, their love persists. It’s perhaps Lynch’s most simplistic film in terms of plot, following a linear, if jagged, path from sweeping romantic love, to heartbreak and back again, bathed in the romanticism of 1950s culture fused onto a distinctly 1990s backdrop and flavour. Near the end of the film, after Sailor has gotten out of prison, he meets up with Lula once more only to break her heart, and tell her they can’t be together, but an angel intervenes in the way of David Lynch’s own Glenda the Good Witch played by none other than Sheryl Lee. David Lynch is obsessed with The Wizard of Oz going as far as to call it a “life-changing film” in Chris Rodley’s career-spanning book of interviews with the filmmaker, Lynch on Lynch. Sheryl, as Glenda, convinces Sailor to go back to Lula, thus being a guardian angel for two potentially brokenhearted souls. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, all Laura ever wanted was an angel.

The image of Sheryl Lee as a pure force and catalyst for good in Wild at Heart is not unlike the image of Lee in episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return where the image of prom queen Laura Palmer is surrounded in an orb of effervescent golden light. In the context of the nuclear horrors and origin story of BOB earlier in the episode, it creates a fulcrum where Laura is the one sacred image in the world of Twin Peaks, and by extension in the work of David Lynch. She is a Joan the Maiden figure for Lynch; a crystallization of Lynch’s key interest in redemption through violence, and the unfairly maligned purity of a girl who does not deserve her fate, but nevertheless falls in the wake of such horror.

II. There’s Fire Where You’re Going

David Lynch is but a single artist, and the sheer power of Laura Palmer’s presence would not shake with contextual totemic magnitude if not for the unparalleled work of Sheryl Lee within the Twin Peaksnarrative. Since her face was revealed in the opening moments of the pilot for Twin Peaks she has haunted the series. Her mere appearance was enough to shake the foundations and preconceptions of what audiences in the early 90s considered fun, kitschy, Americana. The series was never about its eccentricities. They existed on the surface as a way to lull viewers into a false sense of security. They would believe that within the centre of Twin Peaks, there too would be goodness, but at its heart Twin Peaks is a series about trauma, and the lingering, generational effects it can have on a personal level and a more widespread community. Nothing within Twin Peaks exists only within itself, when we know that hidden beneath the plaid skirts, mugs of damn good coffee and cherry pie there was a dead girl, and her name was Laura Palmer. Sheryl Lee would be the only catalyst in which she could come to life and give this series meaning. Ironically, when she was given a chance to finally speak in the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me, her truth was ignored by audiences and critics alike. No one saw Laura Palmer. Not in Twin Peaks. Not in the film community. Not on planet earth. At her funeral her former boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) screamed that “she was in trouble, and no one bothered to help her. We all killed her”. These words were gospel, and at the time Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was considered the biggest failure of David Lynch’s career.

What lives inside Fire Walk With Me is the unbridled, brutal honesty of a girl suffering at the hands of incest. When we’re first introduced to Laura Palmer in Fire Walk with Meit is through a tracking shot. It’s jolting and startling to see the image of the girl who washed up on the shore given life. No longer an object. She’s living, breathing, and going to school just like everyone else, but there’s something subtly off about the way she carries herself as if her body is functioning on auto-pilot while her mind races away somewhere else. She trudges more than walks and her awkward, if sweet, interactions with a fresh faced Donna Hayward, now played by Moira Kelly, create an immediate dissonance between the two characters. There is no way for viewers to see Laura Palmer without the context of the image of the dead girl, and Sheryl Lee understands that central idea in her body language. As if, she too, understands her place in the world is one of temporary residence. No one lives, but usually we do not resign ourselves to death in the way that Laura Palmer has as a result of years of sexual abuse. She carries the grief, disgust, self-hatred, and exhaustion of someone whose body is out of their very control. There isn’t a way to understand what a body is if you’ve never been given the opportunity to live within your own skin without someone taking everything from you. Since the onset of puberty Laura has been violated, and with the ongoing changes in her body she has seen a world that views her through the same lens her abuser does. The eye of David Lynch’s camera lingers letting Sheryl Lee’s performance do the talking, leaning inward when necessary to create the illusion that there isn’t space between the audience and Laura Palmer. It is up to us to feel empathy for her and listen to her cries. She cannot be ignored like Bobby said she was at her looming funeral. We have to see her.

The true depth of Sheryl Lee’s performance is the entire reason Fire Walk With Me resonates. In this film she casts a shadow in which every other actor in the work of David Lynch must stand. “The Girl in Trouble” being Lynch’s favourite narrative pathway, means that all the women who live within his cinematic world are torchbearers of Laura’s poor soul. Sheryl’s performance is mostly realized within her facial reactions and physicality within any given scene. Extreme close-ups are occasionally employed to amplify the sorrowful look within her eyes or the gulp that slides down her throat before saying “There wouldn’t be any angels to save you” when talking to Donna about floating in space. Sheryl Lee plays the role with an agonizing closeness, her fragile body imbued with the realization that what’s happening to her will never stop. She’s too far down the rabbit hole and there’s no waking up for Alice. Death becomes a constant fixture within her thought process. In The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer Laura thinks about death as a release from her day to day violence, both self-inflicted and by others. Sheryl Lee took the textbook written by Jennifer Lynch and wrangled the soul of Twin Peaks away from David Lynch, Kyle McLachlan or Dale Cooper and fixated it firmly within this girl dying from incest. She gave Laura dexterity, life and dreams beyond the corpse she would become even in resigning herself to death, and her struggles rang true for girls like me, who experienced incest. Girls who burn brighter in the dark.

Laura chose to die. It is the only way she can grasp at any sort of agency within her own life beyond numbing herself out on drugs and alcohol. When she eventually meets BOB//Leland in the abandoned train car her arms are tied behind her back, further stripping her of any sort of defensive maneuvering. She wrote frequently in her diary that she knew the day she’d die was coming, as BOB’s attacks grew more violent and enraged. Within the text of the Secret Diary some 15 pages or so have been ripped from existence. The missing pages are BOB’s admittance of defeat. He’s afraid, tortured of a girl growing more aware, and stronger, through her realization that to give herself and her body up meant BOB could no longer have his twisted idea of fun. Laura’s decision to die grants her the ability to have a body for what could be the first time in her life. This is co-signed through visual imagery both in Fire Walk With Me and the pilot for Twin Peaks. In Fire Walk With Me it’s her cathartic realization that she’s in a heavenly space when an angel hovers over her. The angel, being a protective symbol for Laura, due to her fondness for a painting of a similar angel that hung in her bedroom. In the pilot, it’s the reveal of her body, a complicated image due to her lifelessness, but upon Laura’s face is an expression that isn’t trapped in fear or wracked with tears, but one of rest. A close-up of her grey, decaying face summons the rapturous crescendo of Angelo Badalamenti’s score further cementing the idea that this is a moment of peace. A smile, because it’s over, but it wasn’t.

III. The Three Deaths of Laura Palmer

And I wait, staring at the Northern Star
I’m afraid it won’t lead me anywhere
He’s so cold he will ruin the world tonight
All the angels kneel into the Northern Lights
Kneel into the frozen lights

And they paid, I cry and cry for you
Ghosts that haunt you with their sorrow
I cried ’cause you were doomed
Praying to the wound that swallows
All that’s cold and cruel
Can you see the trees, charity and gratitude
They run to the pines
It’s black in here blot out the sun
And run to the pines
Our misery runs wild and free
And I knew, the fire and the ashes of his grace…

-Courtney Love, Northern Star, 1998

On October 3rd, 2014, David Lynch and Mark Frost simultaneously tweeted “That Gum you like is going to come back in style. #damngoodcoffee” This joint message sent film fanatics and die hard Twin Peaks fans into a frenzy. Was the show coming back? Was there going to be a movie? Could all of this be real? We all desperately wanted David Lynch to return to the cult phenomenon, but we never asked ourselves what the price of that would be in a narrative context. We were full speed ahead, no matter the costs. The coffee, Audrey’s dancing, Special Agent Dale Cooper, all of it would be not only nostalgia for the weird, but a new passion project from one of Cinema’s finest directors. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into, and that was exciting. What happened was something we could have never expected, which was unsurprising in some regards, but the connotations of what David Lynch and Mark Frost had actually cooked up had deeper ramifications of the universe they created together in the late 80s, and on the image and body of Laura Palmer within Twin Peaks.

In tenth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return there is a long scene where The Log Lady (Catherine Coulson) not so cryptically tells Deputy Hawk (Michael Horse) about Laura. She tells him that “Laura is the one” and to remember that information. It is a mission statement if anything on the true nature of Twin Peaks and the work of David Lynch as a whole. Everything traces back to her and runs through her narrative and image. She is the image over the credits. She’s the body that washed up on shore. She started it all. Any connotations of Cooper’s narrative or how he would get back into his body after BOB invaded in the series finale of the original run are smokescreens for the actual mystery of Twin Peaks. Lynch is on record as saying he would have never solved the mystery of Who Killed Laura Palmer? If it had been in his hands. Showtime gave him that opportunity and with it recontextualized the very nature of many previous images in the lexicon of Twin Peaks. The most notable of which being Laura’s happy ending in Fire Walk With Me, which is now whisked away into a temporary place of satisfaction rather than a permanence of tranquility. Dale Cooper, in his over-eagerness throughout the entire run of Twin Peaks to save Laura Palmer, misunderstood the entire basis for her messages to him. Laura didn’t need saving. She needed justice. She told him as much in The Red Room, but he couldn’t remember who Laura’s killer was. He didn’t listen.

This continues in the most recent incarnation of David Lynch’s masterwork, where Cooper, being personified through Lynch’s willingness to keep the aura of Laura alive, undoes the very thing she achieved in her final moments. In episode seventeen of the revival, through the shows mythology on electricity and alternate dimensions, Dale Cooper finds himself hiding in the bushes moments before Laura walks to the haunted train car where she would die. He steps out of the shadows and guides her by hand. Dale says that he wants to take Laura “home”, but for an incest victim there is no home. Home is the point of trauma. Home is the point of total loss. If your family DNA is the connective tissue which gives you life then that is burnt by fire and turned to ash when the very person who helped bring you into the world fractures your very existence. Dale Cooper does not understand this and after a momentary walk through the Douglas Firs Laura vanishes, the only thing left being an echo of a scream. Her destiny is altered and thus her image. Her body never washes up on shore. Pete Martell (Jack Nance) goes fishing, Josie Packard (Joan Chen) applies makeup, Laura never dies. This is not a moment of reconciliation and joy for anyone. It is a failure, a stripping of her agency and a true death.

The image of Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer is further complicated by the following, final hour of Lynch’s magnum opus when Cooper tries once more to bring Laura Palmer home in an alternate version of the world he used to reside within. When he comes into contact with Laura, now going by the name Carrie Page, he insists that he’s an FBI agent and he needs to bring her to Twin Peaks, Washington. She’s unsure of this man, but either through a familiar recollection of Cooper’s face or the fact that she needs to get out of dodge anyway she follows. And they travel down the darkened road of America with only headlights to guide them through the tar. Something immediately feels off in this silence, this Cooper and this reality. The sense of dread can be felt in the abandoned buildings they drive past. This is a dead world. When they cross the bridge into Twin Peaks there’s something immediately wrong. Carrie doesn’t recognize any of it, and as they get closer to her alternate reality childhood home there is still nothing to remark upon. This doesn’t change when they ring the doorbell, talk to the owners or step away from the house. It is a failure on Cooper’s part to bring her here and while Carrie tries to console him, Cooper finally says something that unlocks the repressed memory of Carrie Page and Laura Palmer. “What year is this?”. The camera sits firmly on Laura’s face as she beings to crack. There’s a cut back to the house where Sarah Palmer can be heard saying “Laura?!” and then everything falls. She screams, her face stricken with complete horror. The lights go out on the world, and Laura Palmer dies again.

The essence of this final sequence is one of a lingering trauma within the heart of Twin Peaks. Dale, never considered that this may be the most horrific place to bring a victim of sexual abuse. It was never a nuanced idea for him to think beyond his “by the book, goody-two-shoes, idealism”. He never considered the girl, and neither did the Twin Peaks audience. Fire Walk With Me was famously rejected by audiences and critics alike, Laura’s dead body has been made into toys, Killer BOB was made into a cute popfunko figurine, and Entertainment Weekly never even bothered to cover Fire Walk With Me in their magazines celebrating the Twin Peaks revival. Laura Palmer was never taken seriously, and by extension, it feels like my own past trauma wasn’t either. The image of her screaming face hangs over me, reminding me everyday that there is no scrubbing the past out of existence, and the place of my own personal hell still exists. The posters I stared at with anxious terror are still up. The tv which sometimes lit the room in a flickering haze when I heard the door creak is still hung on the wall, and my father still walks this earth. The only thing keeping my own peace of mind is miles and distance, but that is not permanence. It is not reassurance. It is not sanctuary.

The final image of Twin Peaks is Laura whispering into Dale’s ear as the credits roll. It is a recreation of the first image in the black lodge all the way back when Laura whispered to Dale the first time, but it is different now. Dale is frozen in horror this time, and Laura’s face is obscured. She is not whispering “My father killed me”, but something different. Words we never hear, but can infer. “You Killed Me”, and in such Lynch damns himself, Cooper, and the audience who never weighed the cost of what Twin Peaks coming back meant. Laura spoke, and this time she was heard.

“My mind and my life had been completely occupied by you. You came to me morning, noon, and night—especially night. That was your time, the darkness of midnight. You continually wove your spirit into my dream world, revealing bits and pieces of yourself, myself, and our fears and struggles. The thing I remember most about you, though, Laura, is your loneliness. That loneliness haunted me. Walking back into my empty hotel room by myself each day, left to deal with the fragmented pieces of my own life, your loneliness would still fill my room. My prayer is that you are now someplace where you are truly loved and at peaceful rest.”

Much love and gratitude,

Sheryl Lee

Diary entry taken from Welcome to Twin Peaks. Com. 1992

Body Talk: Conversations on Transgender Cinema with Caden Gardner: Part Five


Body Talk is an ongoing series of transcribed conversations on Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write a book on the subject. This part is on Jennie Livingston’s seminal documentary, Paris is Burning.

 

WILLOW MACLAY : God, please just let us celebrate while we’re here. Let us dance and open up the world to one another.”That’s what I wrote in my letterboxd blurb hours after having first watched Paris is Burning in 2014, and after revisiting the film a few days ago, in 2018, not much has changed. To watch Paris is Burningas a transgender person is completely overwhelming. It’s the cinematic equivalent of someone dying of thirst suddenly having a waterfall dropped on top of them. Underneath the cracks, hidden in a back alley, on an abandoned street away from the eyes of the world there’s life, bristling and bursting with pride, beauty, vanity and love for one another. Our brothers and sisters and everyone else inbetween can grasp at something that’s real. A reality where we can exist, and not press up against the limitations of flesh, but grab hold of a dream and christen it as us. In this building, a true safe space, where dance, music, sex and identity collide into one we’re the stars of the universe without the undue burden of a racist, sexist, transphobic society that wishes to plunge us and everyone like us back down into the earth. The Ball Culture in Paris is Burning is an overpowering experience, because it’s like an alternate reality where we can flourish on our own terms and gives dignity to the transgender body as not only something valid, but something beautiful while also not bullshitting us about the struggle it takes to merely make it to your next day as a trans person. You and I are cloaked in an armour of whiteness which gives us distance to the folks in this movie while also protecting us from a lot of the danger and difficulties present in this movie that’s made up almost entirely of LGBT persons of colour, but their struggles, happiness and desires are lateral to our own. We want what they want. There’s a unifying theme in being trans that connects all of us through dysphoria and desire, and Paris is Burning understands this by presenting that idea as a matter of objective fact while letting QTPOC hold the frame and own the film, and thus their story. I think Paris is Burning is to this day the greatest film ever made about transness, and I’m curious if you feel the same way Caden. 

 
CADEN GARDNER: Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning was one of those docs that I always heard about, but its currency and legacy was more in the words than the images, and despite its popularity and box office success it’s shamefully not on home video. I knew a little about Ballroom culture and I obviously knew about drag, but I had no idea how much it intersected as this mosaic of time and place with Paris Is Burning, particularly about trans people. I saw it around college and was floored. We see these matriarchal houses (the leaders of the houses, regardless of sex and gender are referred to as ‘Mother’) of performers thriving at the ballrooms and many have dreams that expand far beyond the ballroom floor. We see Octavia St. Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza talk about what they want as trans women. They talk about gaining superstardom or even just security like many women of their time wanted, while they also share their struggles with the limitations of their body and social status. They both lay on bedrooms when talking to Livingston, formally this is like a shot/reverse shot, and in their testimonials, they are literally laying down in the place of dreams, but when we see them on the streets and on the ballroom floor, they have star quality. You cannot teach that.

Even if their lives as trans women of color (and in Venus’ case as a sex worker) are far different from my experience as you said, they want what you want and what I want. One of the first things Venus talks about is getting gender affirming surgery and talking about her current differences, but saying it so matter of fact, without shame. Non-fiction films are the rare outlets for trans people to have control of their narrative and their voice in ways fictional films cannot and have not allowed. There has never been a fictional film about transness like Paris is Burning and for me it is the gold standard, the North Star in a lot of ways to transness on film. The effortless simplicity of merely letting these trans women talk, and, of course why wouldn’t Livingston do that? After all, she is talking to stars. 




 WM: I was a little bit older than college age coming around to this film the first time. I had been out a couple years up to that point, but I admittedly didn’t know a lot about transgender history and I hadn’t seen much in the way of LGBT cinema. I was under the same roof as my parents and if they ever caught me watching a movie like Paris is Burning there would have been consequences. That didn’t mean I didn’t sneak around and watch things like the HBO series, Six Feet Under or even something like Brokeback Mountain, but transness? Forget about it. I don’t even think I learned about the film until I saw fellow, transgender film critic, Alice Stoehr write about it on letterboxd and that’s when it sort of entered into my headspace. I haven’t seen anything quite like it since. There have certainly been a lot of films to follow in its footsteps like The Aggressives, Kiki and the more recent, Shakedown, but Paris is Burning is certainly the first of these observational documentaries about trans people to truly leave an imprint on cinema. There’s pre-stonewall documentaries floating around like The Queen, but that film never made nearly 4 million dollars at the box office and formally doesn’t approach Paris is Burning in terms of pure craft. You can certainly see the visual and structural influence that followed.

Paris is Burning shines brighter than all the rest, because its heart is in truly cinematic images, and it’s not merely Livingston’s touch which brings this out, but the trans women and drag queens themselves. These people are bigger than life and damn sure wanted viewers to know it.Their hearts are in the movies, like there’s that scene where house mother Dorian Corey talks about how the balls begged for participants to model themselves after movie stars like Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe and for a later generation that shifted to the models that graced the pages of fashion magazines like Vogue. So there was already an innate cinematic quality to the bodies on screen (which is bittersweet considering cinema doesn’t recognize these bodies as valid), but Livingston sprinkled in a lot of other little formal wrinkles which makes the film feel different from your standard documentary. Frederick Wiseman’s name is in the thank you credits so his observational techniques seem like they mattered to Livingston, but even when she does things like talking heads segments there’s a lived in quality surrounding the people when they’re discussing their lives, because we see them sewing while they talk, or sitting on the beach, or smoking in their den. It’s vastly different from the fussy, empty rooms and uptight interview segments you normally see in documentary filmmaking, so even when the film goes for more traditional storytelling elements seen in the documentary film Livingston does something different, and she hardly deserves all the credit because she isn’t the one sewing, making up their face or decorating their living room. It’s life in every corner of the frame, and that’s the touch of the trans people and drag queens who were interviewed, not hers. 



CG: The testimonials are so essential and there is not a single patronizing moment from Livingston in how she employs formal qualities. Most documentaries on trans folks are guilty of partaking in that very thing, even if they are doing us a solid in presenting our lives (I’m talking about Southern Comfort and which, you know, that title still makes me eye-roll despite how much I love who the subject is). There is that moment where Octavia St. Laurent is walking among the Ford Models and we get Eileen Ford herself talking about womanhood and trying to reconcile that with the feminist movement and how Octavia’s presence on the periphery of that scene just shows how much there is to go and how much consideration still needs to be paid to let her and others in to the world where they are as valid as any supermodel for Ford Models. Livingston says nothing beyond getting that footage. Octavia is not listening in on that interview by the TV journalist and Eileen Ford, she’s just there to meet and greet her idols. But the moment is still so perfect. Octavia’s difference is invisible and there whether she was trans or cis, she passes in a way that flies completely under the radar. It’s a complicated, daring image of differences that we know as an audience and as she knows, but the public doesn’t, and isn’t her invisibility among a crowd of women something of an end goal in our own wants and desires? Some cis people get so confident that they can pick all trans people out of a line-up, but Octavia flies in the face of that. I think Livingston does understand that and that was why she kept that footage and in that presentation in that particular way. 



 WM: Desire is so important. Octavia wants to be like any other model. Any other woman, but also something more extraordinary. My own desire is enough to confirm my feelings of gender. It didn’t matter so much if I didn’t ovulate, because my desire to be a woman was so overpowering that I gave up everything to become myself or a version of myself that I wanted to see brought into existence. To remake my body in my own image. That’s what Venus is talking about when she references wanting to have vaginoplasty, and when those words are spoken aloud in this movie it is really overpowering. It’s like you said earlier, this is not comparable in narrative filmmaking where putting that desire to image has probably never been achieved. The documentary realism of films like Paris is Burning open up about innate desires and needs and gives their characters room to speak about “why” this is important to them. It’s a rather low bar to clear to merely state “I want to fix my body“, but the light behind her eyes when she’s resting on her bed and the dream of knowing that this is what she’s aiming for is undeniable. The sad matter of fact is that being trans is also a constant struggle of not getting what you want, and sometimes we have absolutely no control over that whatsoever. And that’s Venus’s story. She’s only one of many LGBT persons of colour in this movie, and I like that Livingston gives you the full scope. Not everyone in this movie is trans, but the gay drag queens, the butch lesbians, and the gay men vogue all alongside each other, because ultimately we’re the only other people we’ve got. The only people that really really care about us are us. And I wish we’d be wise enough to try and mend whatever problems we’ve had as a community that have divided us over the years, especially between drag queens and trans women, because in this movie they have each others back in a way that only family can. 

 
CG: Paris Is Burning reflected the late 1980s New York ballroom scene that was in-between the bankrupt, sleazy New York and the Giuliani-era 1990s clean-up and Disney-fication of Times Square. It’s a real snapshot of a time and it is really fascinating to look at people in that period who are both informed by their surrounding culture but also seeking out this scene because they are not getting their fill from the outside world. Paris is Burning was shot amid the AIDS crisis and it is acknowledged in the film multiple times (notably, Venus mentions that a man recoils at her when he finds out she has a penis and immediately just assumes she has AIDS). The viewer is seeing an underground sub-culture and the sub-cultures within that sub-culture deal with an American presidential administration that ignored the AIDS crisis for long as they could and a culture at large that was getting increasingly more conservative with the rise of evangelical Christianity. We see people maligned by society, a lot of them running away from hostile situations, to New York and finding their tribe in Houses. These matriarchal Houses, of performers, artists, and models that we see are also support systems of elders, friends, brothers, sisters, teachers, and students of the scene. But there is always reality lingering, such as Angie Xtravaganza, the Mother of the House of Xtrvaganza, reflecting on Venus’ murder (she had to identify her corpse). Angie’s reaction is fascinating, and our friend Carol Grant noted itin her Letterboxd review, that she is not crying, histrionic, or in any high key. She is very solemn and resigned all while being so eloquent and missing somebody important in her life. But death is the reality of her daughters in the House of Xtrvaganza and to any trans woman in New York. Being transgender involves a lot of risk and a lot of danger. It’s a game of survival, and the deck is stacked in particular against transgender people who are not white. Not every one leaves the ballroom with a breakout. In fact, many of the performers and figures featured in Paris is Burning are dead. I remember somebody on Twitter noting this fact that most of the people in Paris Is Burning are dead and how their own reaction was shock but so were the responses to it. And part of me wanted to just say, ‘And why are you people surprised?’ Trans people get targeted all of the time, and are at a much higher risk for violence, and to bring back up the AIDS crisis, QTPOC were at the low-end of the totem pole for an era that already dehumanized, shunned, and were ashamed of people with AIDS. 



 
WM: It’s vitally important to look at Paris is Burningfrom the perspective of a specific time period, and also of our own history as transgender people. In all the discussion that there has been recently about a transgender moment or with some level of exposure being put on our lives there’s been a near total neglect of what came before, and even trans people are not great in honouring history in our pursuit to keep our language and ideas on gender updated. But we’ve almost always been around, and likewise so has the ball culture in various forms throughout history. Morgan Page is something of a modern day transgender historian and her podcast on the subject, “One From the Vaults”, is necessary listening for anyone with a passing interest in transgender history. We’re oftentimes taken from this life too early for reasons that are as wide ranging as transphobic violence, suicide or AIDS, and we need to do better to honour our history and those who came before us. Paris is Burning is essential in this regard, because these images last. I think about Venus Xtravaganza twirling her hair by a boombox and and a Carmen frolicking on a beach before stating “I AM MY OWN CREATION!” so frequently. That’s eternity, and that’s what cinema can offer, and what it so rarely has for people like us.

I almost believe that documentary is the only way to directly address transness in cinema. When filmmakers have tried to directly make movies about transness they have more often than not failed. Something like The Danish Girl ignores dysphoria for fetishization, TransAmerica is a family carnival, and even recently, A Fantastic Woman is an exercise in sympathy via punishment. Even when transgender people make their own films it is oftentimes too soft a presentation of what is essentially a hard life. It can be good, but there has to be a flipside otherwise the film is dishonest. Where are the moments of “I AM MY OWN CREATION!“? I’m not sure there are any, but I think of the ingenuity of the trans people in Frederick Wiseman’s, “In Jackson Heights”, and the sensuality of the trans women in “Hookers on Davie“, and the vibrancy of everyone at the ball in “Paris is Burning”, and those people stick out to me. If we’re going to have a new transgender cinema and a new language in live action then we have to learn to apply these images and characters to narrative filmmaking. 



CG: I love that moment with Carmen and Brooke at the beach singing that verse from ‘I Am What I Am’/’We Are What We Are’ from La Cage Aux Folles. That musical and A Chorus Line were really the first Broadway musicals to center around gay characters that made their sexuality part of the identity, and in La Cage’s case, drag queens are at the center of the story. It’s so spur of the moment and something you can absolutely imagine them doing off-camera to each other, and that’s what’s fictional films. Sure, there is always some level of artificiality in fictional filmmaking but most trans movies rooted in original storytelling are missing the part you bring up. Something that feels like it does not have to be about respectability, martyrdom, polemic, or an object of fascination for cis viewers with only a surface level interest in our lives. For cis viewers the fascination is the trans part and nothing more. Venus, Octavia, and Angie are fascinating to me because they have so much confidence, dreams, philosophies, insights, and self-worth that you can form a full person for each of them. All of the subjects in Paris Is Burning are that way. Even the MC at the Ballroom contests with just his diction and mic work is amazing. You feel like you are hearing all of their stories and learning something without it feeling like homework.

There is an anthropological quality a la Wiseman in dropping in on a world from the outside- yet still maintaining a populist streak in feeling open, educational only in this is not using academia for validation of these subjects and lives. I think an LGBTQ person from that world would have made a different type of documentary in that respect, and who is to say how different or better, worse that would have been. Livingston does not really check her privilege in the documentary, prefers invisibility, but she has no interest in making subjects of this documentary people reacting to her subjects which I think other documentarians trip up on that when dealing with similar subject matter. Who would want to hear cops or the Johns or the gawkers who get their heads turned or the Giuliani types that made political promises to ‘clean up’ Manhattan and Times Square from these ‘freaks’ or, my favorite moral panic term, ‘sodomites’. No need to dignify or check in on the outside world, as if anything, they more than have had their time in the culture and places of power. 



WM: Right. I think one of the most beautiful things about Paris is Burning is that Livingston doesn’t chase leads in the way a lot of documentaries about LGBTQ people do. She doesn’t go ask the parents of the performers questions like “when did you know your child was different? etc, etc”. Most films about transgender people are obsessed with details like that, and it’s purely a cisgender curiosity. One of the more interesting formal qualities are the instances where one character is out in public, outside of the safe space of a ball and Livingston catches in frame an onlooker. She never lingers on the images of cisgender heterosexual, white people looking in, but makes sure to point out in the image that their presence still condenses the world into their mold. And that’s even present in the Dorian Corey testimonial we mentioned earlier where she discussed dressing up like Marlene Dietrich. Beauty, and an accepted idea of what is womanhood by the public at large is white and cisgender. It effects everything. You need look no further than Madonna taking Vogue from everyone here and turning it into her thing. Culture is shifting slowly and slightly in this regard where there is more people to look at as a model of hope whether that be cis black women like Beyonce and Rihanna or in the transgender scope of things with women like Carmen Carerra and Laverne Cox. There are more images appearing, even if it is slower than we’d all like. 

 
CG: It is fascinating again how the legacy of the film, not so much the film itself but the testimonials of those figures from that scene, hit mainstream culture. It wasn’t images but in language, terminology, and, of course, dancing. Those who refer to voguing or even the terms shade, realness, reading, etc. would have no idea where it came from first. I heard the term ‘throwing shade’ recently on one of the most red meat, masculine, straight cis male platforms there is: sports talk radio. Perhaps that accelerated with RuPaul’s Drag Race and how internet culture, and especially in memes, have run with those terms. Fragments in Paris Is Burning have probably been seen by millions in GIF form in all likelihood. It is a little frustrating in that sense, as Livingston presented and those performers gave so many memorable moments of movement and in words, but people are sharing images of Drag Queens and trans women without name or credit of who they are and what work they’re sourcing. Twitter now just has a GIF search engine where getting a GIF from Paris Is Burning does not even mean you have to type in Paris Is Burning. At risk of sounding overly serious, I do find that a problem as far as losing history. People have their own ways to discover transgender identity and drag, but just having things unattributed can lead to a lot of future confusion and even people getting history flat out wrong. One of my problems with even the way this film is shown is that it is often in college classrooms and instead instructors wanting to mine through more of this underground, hear more of these people, learn more about their ways of life, they just would rather give the class reading material of bell hooks and Judith Butler coming from different sides of this film. I have a liberal arts degree but I think making this film part of academia misses the point of who Paris is Burning is about and who it is for. It’s for people like those two young gay street kids with infectious smiles despite being in an almost modern Dickensian situation. Ultimately, the film wants its audience to be as open as its subjects are. I think that is what true populist art is. Paris Is Burning’s audience is mostly white liberal students and academics when it should be broader and the broad audience are getting fragments of Paris Is Burning without even knowing it. And that is frustrating, as you mention how seeing images of trans people or people in a scene can be validating and even life-saving for any person, anywhere. I think there is slightly more visibility but it still comes with certain gawking and fascination as a cultural object than a three-dimensional person. That’s no knock on women like Laverne Cox or Janet Mock, but more about the dominant society’s slow-footedness.



WM: I think you can chart your original point of the film being populist art and needing to be taken out of the classrooms and out of gender studies courses to my original experience of not having heard about the film until I was already out. The thing about art about outsiders and minority groups is that it usually ends up out of our reach, and with the death of the video store and homogenization of streaming options with Netflix’s near monopoly it gets even dicier, unless you’re torrenting your own history. To give you an idea of my own personal experiences with movie theaters I’d have to take you to small town rural Kentucky where there’s just as many churches as people living there. I’m only barely exaggerating. But the cinema that I grew up with had 4 screens and was strictly limited to whatever Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp or Arnold Schwarzeneggar was blowing up that week. When I grew up and had access to a car I was still 4 + hours away from any independent cinema and growing up poor meant that wasn’t an option. Now that I’ve grown up and moved to Newfoundland to both chase my dreams and live with the man I love I find myself in a similar tricky position with cinema where there just isn’t that much to offer. If I’m going to a rep screening it’s probably for something like Michael Mann’s HEAT. It’s not going to be a film starring the Chelsea Girls y’know? But I think we need to ask ourselves questions about access to movies and how these are shown. Paris is Burning and movies about LGBT people need to be shown EVERYWHERE. We’ve seen the kind of impact something as nice and easygoing as Love, Simon has had in mainstream cinemas recently, but there’s got to be more, and in the case of trans people where we are not even close to being a mainstream commodity for studio filmmaking a movie like Paris is Burning becomes even more vital and important. Watching something like Paris is Burning is so overwhelmingly life-affirming, even when it is depressing, that it would likely be an important moment for anybody who was questioning their gender. There’s more to cinema than relatability but there’s sheer fucking power in seeing someone saying something and you immediately recognize yourself in the image. It makes it seem like we actually can make it out here on our own. We don’t have to die by our own hand, because we came into life under difficult circumstances. 

 
Love, Simon has me thinking about mainstream progress, and what that even means and how it’s hijacked by some level of conformity. For LGBTQ people progress has always been slow and when it has come it’s been breadcrumbs. Even if we look at this in terms of cinema trans people certainly existed as long as cinema has, but in the 100 plus years people have been making movies there just hasn’t been that much we can gravitate towards that isn’t in some way rooted in societies fears over transgender people. We can even see this in Paris. Venus is killed because she’s transgender, because she has a non normative body in the eyes of cisgender society and I find that tragic beyond words, because that fear of being expunged by some random person in society is real for us. The only real problem I have with Paris is Burning is that it ends on her death, because even in the negative moments of the film and the unfortunate circumstances of life there was always this affirmative, positive, glowing quality surrounding everything. I think if a trans person makes the movie it probably ends with a glow rather than an obituary. But even with that complaint and the controversy surrounding the payment issues and later fame (and I side with the performers on this, not Livingston) I think this is the best movie about transness ever made. It functionally shows us, warts and all, as a people, how we come together as family and survive and live the best we can, even when we know society would watch us die and turn a blind eye to our bodies. They always have. 



CG: Even though I grew up in a blue state, where marriage equality was law before SCOTUS, and not in a place hostile with people transitioning in its laws a la North Carolina, I grew up around people who didn’t erase LGBTQ lives, but barely acknowledge them. I only had Jerry Springer type-shows, reality shows, and an occasional National Geographic special to see trans people, and that is itself a mixed bag. The cliffnotes version of my high school is Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon but for the Trump era. I was queer and disassociating. It was mostly a blur with very little worth holding onto.

My high school was full of people who made AIDS jokes on the regular, were hostile towards gay men, and in health class, transness was never spoken about and homosexual sexual activity was not even touched, despite there being an after school special that my health class watched about AIDS with Harvey Fucking Fierstein in a supporting role about how straight can get HIV/AIDS too! The closest gay bar was a 30 minute drive on a good night, and most of the queens there were just the same tired lip-sync act of ‘And I’m Telling You’ from Dreamgirls (the only difference being if the queen chose Jennifer Holliday or Jennifer Hudson) complete a dramatic, “cathartic” wig removal finale. With the exception of me seeing a Todd Haynes film in a theater as far as watching ‘a gay movie’, I mostly used the internet and TV to check out New Queer Cinema of the recent past with Gregg Araki and even kitsch pastiche like Charles Busch filling my interest. I look back at what stuff I used to get my fill with mixed feelings because I wonder if my liking of the things were because I was that desperate for anything to validate my experience (I am afraid to revisit Hedwig & The Angry Inch). But as noted in the Boys Don’t Cry Body Talk, I still feel like I am searching for myself on-screen that is not covered with dread and an air of tragedy. It took me more than half of my life to discover that something like By Hook Or By Crook existed, a true indie, that was hiding in plain sight with the internet. It is one of those films that I wished I watched as a teenager. 



WM: I feel like to I’m still looking for a single movie where I feel seen in a way that feels validating rather than fatalistic. I think, because of my past history with childhood sexual abuse and my upbringing as a transgender person I gravitate towards films where the main character dies in some form or fashion or is shattered by a traumatic event. I like severe art because my mental health is fucked and sometimes that can be the only thing that feels like an antidote to a poison that runs through my veins, because of things in the past I had no control over. I write poems to Laura Palmer and bury myself in the body of the alien from Under the Skin, because at one point in my life their fate felt inevitable, and those characters and movies certainly help me, but I do wonder how I’d respond to a trans woman version of Cher Horowitz (Clueless) me on my best day, the brighter side of my life. I have no way of knowing, because no such film exists, and I’m not expecting to see something that feels real and magical in the way my life sometimes is now. It’s something I’m tired of waiting for, and I know other trans women are too. I’m tired of watching the movie about transphobia or the movie about transition. What I want to see is a movie about a transgender person. Person being the important word. 

 
CG: I honestly do not know how a mainstream trans story by Hollywood would look like. And I am morbidly curious about the reaction. I think about Paris Is Burning with Willi Ninja, how his voguing got associated- many still decry co-opted- with Madonna and her dancers (many of whom were from that ballroom scene) with ‘Vogue’. Even the mainstream, polished version of that scrappy but glamorous sub-culture, now with the avatar of one of the biggest pop stars in the world making this underground dance (that had been a staple in black and Hispanic parts of New York City for decades before) her signature, had a lot of the mainstream in a culture war. There was panic and foaming at the mouth. Madonna’s dancers had to face off against pastors for making out, talking frank about sex, and their scandalizing dancing from the Blonde Ambition Tour and the documentary Truth or Dare. That seems to still be how the media operates, which does concern me. 



WM: Things haven’t really changed that much since then either. There’s definitely been some drawback to our increased visibility. The murder rate is up, new legislation seems to be introduced almost daily to keep trans people out of bathrooms and sexual assault centers. The two of us specialize in understanding media and art, but as trans people we have to learn about things like legislation. Within the United States government things like employment protection, legislation and basic human rights are things we’re always lagging behind compared to our cis counterparts. I don’t think cisgender people take us seriously most of the time. They want to be seen as progressive and forward thinking, but won’t actually take the time to listen or care about us, and that goes for cis gays as well. We struggle to find our place in the world and it can feel downright debilitating to feel like you’re out here on your own, and this is coming from a small town girl who didn’t have anybody. I was branded the queer of my school almost immediately and it was unbelievably hard at times just to even gather the courage to go to school. I didn’t see a way out for myself, but if I had seen Paris is Burning when I was fourteen or fifteen it would have been nothing short of life-changing, and that’s why I think we have to do better at getting this movie out there to younger people. So they can see themselves, create their own stars, and maybe they won’t feel so alone in the world, because if there’s anything Paris is Burningis about: its family. 

 
CG: I feel like cis people view trans people in the media as something where it is a ‘gotta hear both sides’ attitude of half-brained dialectic that they can’t quit. If I have to see another trans woman have to sit next to right wing transphobic chode Ben Shapiro for another debate about trans people in public life or in popular culture, I am changing the channel. However, I am suspecting that will be the case if there is a mainstream trans film that comes up in the near future. Will it be worth fighting over? Will it be worth the price of admission? We can hope, but the current mainstream Hollywood that is still shaking off some decades-long trans panic but I still think we are stuck in objects of fascination and gawking phase at the moment.

People are probably wondering what we could be complaining about given the progress and gains that our cis allies see. Those people love to retweet our stuff share another trans person’s point of view to show they are woke about us. I want to think they are trying but it can be awkward, as though we are supposed to instruct them and tell them not to just see things at a surface level and that there has to be more done, primarily in understanding us. There are also those who seem to think that one experience made visible represents our own community. My eyes roll out of my head in people thinking that Caitlyn Jenner (editor’s note: she’s the worst!) represents the trans community at large or that Dave Chappelle ignores statistics of violence against trans women of color taking transness as a vanity act just for rich white people, which is the exact opposite of Paris is Burning. And then there are the people who cannot stop telling you how much they love Transparent and are surprised you don’t love it as much as they do. Bless their hearts.

Paris Is Burning remains a monument. That scene, as it was in the late 80s, has disappeared and so have the most of the people in it. But it is a vibrant document of a time in a city where there was a congregation of people putting on a performance while also getting to experiment and be themselves, carving out any space they can to be real. 
ADDITIONAL READING//VIEWING