Before we go into it, thanks again to the fierce Nathaniel Rogers for hosting this amazing series over at The Film Exprience, and for giving me the perfect excuse to watch Jennie Livingston’s fabulously sober portrait of the New Yorkers that got together to “vogue” before the terms entered Middle America’s Walkmans thanks to Madonna.
It’s almost clever that the filmmaking in Paris is Burning, a movie about people who dress themselves up in the most glorious fashions, seems to operate under the assumption that “less is more”. Livingston understands that the best way to understand this cultural phenomenon is to see what it’s like to be there. She turns us, the audience, into the young ingenue that hops on the bus and moves to New York City. There we go to our first “Ball”, and we learn all about the culture by listening to the “Mothers” and “Legends”. We learn about rivalries, and history, and the dark side of living in this world. We hear different things from different people, and it’s up to us to make our own conclusions.
That makes the movie sound a little too much like a “choose your own adventure” book (another staple of the 80s?). In any case, the interviews are invaluable. We’re dealing with people who are enjoying every minute of being filmed, and Livingston makes no effort to hide the fact that we are watching them operate in the comfort of their homes. Just looking at how they “act” for the camera is fascinating in and on itself, but there are certain moments in which Livingston juxtaposes other scenes over the interview’s audio. These juxtaposition are often clever, and on occasion very powerful.
That’s where my pick for Best Shot comes in. The movie makes clear that walking at the “Balls” is a fantasy, but also a statement. These are people who have been cast away from society for being “fundamentally different”, but that by dressing up as the people they can’t be, prove how people inside society depend on costumes and props to be who they are as much as they do. That is why it’s so touching when Venus Xtravaganza tells us why she wants to be a “spoiled white girl”. And that is why I love the moment in which a young black man (who is not identified within the film) dresses up as a business executive and fiercely walks from one end of the “Ballroom” to the other. Once he has crossed the room, he strikes a pose. The movement starts out with him raising his fist in the air as if alluding to the “black power” movement, and finalizes in a runway-style, feminine, positioning of the fist over his head. If this is not a beautiful piece of symbolism, then I don’t know what it is.