If ever there was a perfect snapshot in time and place in the world, Paris is Burning was it. This amazing documentary captures a point in time in queer history, showing the world the exuberance, the passion, the struggles, and most affectingly, the vulnerability of the drag community of the late 80s New York. It taught, and continues to teach, the rest of us about balls, vogueing, shade, reading, Houses, and above all else, what the defiant sense of community looks like.
And like the period and characters it documents, Paris is Burning too feels short on time. Its brisk 71 minute length leaves you salivating for more of this world and its characters. The stars shine brightly and the flames burn intensely, but all too quickly and before their time. Nothing encapsulates that feeling more than this shot of Venus Xtravanganza.
By itself, it's a beautiful image, a wondrous snapshot of a person at a time and place. That defiant face and pose. The fashion. The graffiti. That boombox, which not only captures the time period but also symbolizes Venus's (and the other characters') voice that announces to the world that it must be heard.
Throughout the film, Venus, and many of the other characters, have been framed either intimately in private or as part of a group shot at the ball. The private shots expose their personal histories, fears and vulnerabilities. The group shots showcase the fabulous rambunctiousness of the balls and the solidarity and community of the Houses. So when scenes are later filmed in public, these characters, on the one hand, are reintegrated into the outside world, announcing that they too are citizens of this world. But on the other hand, these shots are also a graphic reminder that while they can build walls and Houses around themselves for protection, they too must brave the real world.
So here is Venus, outside in the real world. This twilight shot, by itself, may suggest that, between the harsh light of day and the foreboding shadows of night, there is some beauty in Venus' world. That beautiful pink sunset behind her captures the love, beauty, and perhaps the vulnerability, that she embodies, qualities that befit the goddess after which she has named herself.
But alas, upon the narration of Venus' death, it's not just a sunset that we see in this shot - we are witnessing the twilight of Venus's story. Like the tip of her cigarette, her life shines briefly before her fate draws near, her life shining briefly. In the foreground she defiantly draws her final breath, as in the background, her world is burning and scorching the sky.