26th BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival: Leave it on the Floor
While arts funding cuts mean that the Bird’s Eye Film Festival is stuck in the doldrums this year (thanks Tory government!), the BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival has fought off austerity to return for its 26th year, bigger and queerer than…er, last year. It’s long consolidated its spot in London’s LGBT calendar, but there’s no reason to think that sexual proclivities limit the scope or the appeal of the programme (unless you only go to the cinema to pull, in which case you belong to a minority group that I just made up, and you should probably have your own alternative film festival). Read More…
I was pretty much sold on Leave It on the Floor soon as soon as I read the words ‘musical’ and ‘inspired by Paris Is Burning’ in the same context. However if you’ve never seen the latter film you won’t be aware of what an awesome premise this is—so for the benefit of the uninitiated, here’s a handy guide.
Paris Is Burning is the landmark 1990 documentary by Jennie Livingston which depicts the vibrant but clandestine world of underground drag balls in 1980s Harlem. This scene was home to black and latino gay and trans. men who didn’t have one, most having either run away from or been kicked out of their own, and it provided them with surrogate families in the shape of the various Houses (kind of like a queer Harry Potter). Everything revolved around the balls, where Houses would compete against each other for trophies in the art of ‘walking’: essentially a (really entertaining) dance/sport/fashion-show hybrid where contestants are judged on their ability to pull off various looks and out-vogue each other. Here’s a clip:
The most interesting categories of these competitions weren’t for the outrageous, custom-made haute couture drag queen outfits, however, but those in which the goal was to achieve ‘realness’ by imitating, as convincingly as possibly, the appearance of a member of straight society, whether it was a businessman, military or Ivy League college student. On the one hand being able to be ‘real’ was part of everyday survival for these groups—standing out as queer meant being exposed to the very real possibility to having the shit kicked out of you, in some cases fatally so. On the other, though, the fact of being able to successfully masquerade as straight undermines the very notion of gender roles, inasmuch as if they can be easily imitated, they can’t be very secure in the first place. This is the theoretical concept known charmingly as genderfuck, to use a Genuine Academic Term. No really.
And so to Leave It on the Floor, and if you think the prospect of a musical set in the drag ball scene sounds amazing then a) I know, right? and b) alas, you’re going to be disappointed . Director Sheldon Larry has apparently been nursing the idea ever since he saw Paris Is Burning in the 90s, and was spurred into action when he discovered that the ball scene still exists, and has in fact spread to 15 U.S cities including LA, where the film is set. Like Livingstone, Larry spent a lot of time ingratiating himself with the scene’s community to the point where they’d participate in his project, and Leave It on the Floor stars several of their number, including towering gaydonis and star-in-the-making Phillip ‘Princess’ Evelyn. He also brought in Beyonce’s creative director and choreographer to arrange the musical numbers.
The film follows Brad, who gets kicked out by his mother after she finds out that he bats for the other team. Homeless, he stumbles upon the ball scene and into the arms of the House of Eminence, with whom he builds a new life. It’s a hackneyed plot that’d be fine if the numbers were any good—Singin’ In the Rain is hardly Shakespeare—but they’re not.
Now, when you consider yourself a greater authority on the art of musicals than a gay director you might begin to question your sexuality, but Larry seriously doesn’t know what he’s doing. Every song (most of which are bassy, contemporary R’n’B style fare) is shot at eye-level, with the camera at a such a close proximity that the choreographed dance sequences, which might be fairly impressive given the right camera angle and distance, are instead ruined by the kind of careless framing that’ll
have Fred Astaire spinning in his grave. There’s maybe something to be said for the way that the gritty realism of the film’s urban setting creates an ironic juxtaposition with the general ridiculousness of bursting into song—one number takes place in a prison visiting room—but it’s an irony that seems accidental as opposed to cleverly subversive.
And that’s the problem. Whereas Paris Is Burning was witty and entertaining while simultaneously providing a valuable commentary on gender politics, Leave It on the Floor feels sanitised. The fact is that, by the time that Livingstone’s film was released, everyone was already familiar with voguing—not from the Harlem ball circuit where, as her film documented, the iconic dance style was invented, but from Madonna, who plagiarised and popularised it as part of her own artificial postmodern persona, so even then the scene had begun to lose its identity. Yes it’s still going, but now, in Larry’s film at least, not only has the threat of violence that made their earlier incarnations seem far bolder now largely disappeared, but, at the balls themselves, ‘schoolboy realness’ categories are followed by gay guys dressing up as Lady Gaga, eradicating any remaining shred of subversive value that the scene had twenty years ago and instead seeing it swallowed by the vacuum of mainstream culture.