Until recently, film had been synonymous with spectacle or entertainment: in a word, it was one more consumer good.
"Towards a Third Cinema," a manifesto
Paris is Burning is a 1990 documentary film by Jennie Livingston. This documentary explores the gay ballroom, drag culture in Harlem. Most of the people interviewed in the film achieved a fair degree of celebrity after its release. In the April of 1993 following the death of the mother of the house of Xtravaganza, Angie Xtravaganze, the New York Times ran a piece titled "Paris Has Burned," an essay about Angie. Here is a paragraph from the essay that is worth quoting at length,
Though she was only 27, Angie had been a mother more than a dozen times. Not in the usual way; she was biologically male. "But a mother is one who raises a child, not one who borns it," Hector [a member of the house of Xtravaganza] pointed out. And as mother of the House of Xtravaganza, Angie had taken many rejected, wayward, even homeless children under her wing; she had fed them, observed their birthdays, taught them all about "walking the balls." Competing in categories like High-Fashion Eveningwear and Alexis vs. Krystle, Angie was legendary, a Queen among queens, achieving in fantasy what the world had denied her in reality.
The characters of these house mothers and the nature of the relations they foster within their houses are relevant to any reading of Paris is Burning. Angie died from an AIDS-related liver disease. She was on hormones to maintain a soft feminine appearance. In the film there is a scene in which a group of men, some of them drag queens but not all, suckle on her breasts. The camera captures a run-down, shabby neighborhood, and then a group of men proclaiming Angie their mother. In fact in Paris is Burning Angie could easily be mistaken for a woman.
When I watched this film, I became really interested in the house of Xtravaganza because of Angie and also because of Venus Xtravaganza. Venus was killed during the period in which Livingston was making the film. She was a transgender in NYC who worked as a prostitute in order to save enough money to undergo a sex-change surgery. She was found in a hotel room four days after her death. Livingston interviews Venus only once in the film. During this interview, Livingston asks Venus about her dreams for the future. Venus' reply is arguably understandable, but also surprising. Venus tells Livingston that when she is fully female, she wants to get married, live in the suburbs, have a washing machine. She dreams of the typical bourgeois life. The life-style that she is too different—as a transgender, poor, non-white—to embody.
Paris is Burning enters a space at the fringes of mainstream American society. The expected reaction to have as a spectator watching these atypical modes of existence unfold is to feel uncomfortable, find the images indigestible. The spectator should feel disturbed by sights of awkward bodies that cannot be defined, movements and gestures that do not fall neatly into the repertoire of appropriate female or male movements and gestures. However, this is not the reaction one gets. It is likely that people come out of the movie-theater feeling that these black (or Latino) gay men are victims. In fact the undertone of the Livingston's remarks on the film reveals that she thinks she is doing them a service. Here is another quotation from the Times "drag queens can't. "If they wanted to make a film about themselves, they would not be able," said Ms. Livingston, who grew up in Los Angeles and is a graduate of Yale University." Livingston is a white lesbian film director. She, however, still has the white-man burden mentality as these comments reveal.
bell hooks wrote about Paris is Burning in her book Race and Representations. Here is one point hooks made about the film:
Watching Paris is Burning, I began to think that the many yuppie-looking, straight-acting, pushy, predominantly white folks in the audience were there because the film in no way interrogates "whiteness." These folks left the film saying it was "amazing," "marvelous," "incredibly funny," worthy of statements like, "Didn't you just love it?" And no, I didn't just love it. For in many ways the film was a graphic documentary portrait of the way in which colonized black people (in this case black gay brothers, some of whom were drag queens) worship at the throne of whiteness, even when such worship demands that we live in perpetual self-hate, steal, lie, go hungry, and even die in its pursuit. (149)
hook's observations shed light on the meanings of Venus' dream of living the bourgeois life. Livingston's work in constructed in such a way that she does not "interrogate" whiteness. As such, Livingston does not completely oppose the System, the hegemonic modes of thinking. This is an important assertion in the face of the wide-held belief that Livingston is a radical filmmaker whose films testify to social injustices. This is not to discredit the film, however. Instead, it reveals a necessary aspect of cinema's function in society.
The film interrogates gender in an interesting way, which undoubtedly has something to do with Livingston's own interests. It reveals some of the causes underlying social injustices. The film might have changed the trajectory of some people's lives by making them celebraties even if briefly. Yet, at the same time the film also has helped maintain a particular relation of power. As hook's comments reveal, this film reproduces ideology in an important way. Cinema's role in society is interesting to explore. Away from close text filmic analysis, it is rewarding sometimes to step away and ask how cinema contributes to the creation and maintenance of social power relations. Although this might not be the most interesting conclusion to some people, it is worth it to remind oneself of the necessary political and historical dimensions of film-making, and film distribution. Let me end with a quotation from Marx: "it is not sufficient to interpret the world; it is now a question of transforming it."