It is vexxing, grotesque, erotic and sensual, seductive, liberating, alien--all of the hot-button words we have, at present, come to associate with beauty.
You want me to say who I am and all that?! (demure)
Paris is Burning (1990) if you haven't seen it, is a quintessential New York film--a glimpse into what anthropologists will refer to as the metropolitan male sexual paradigm of the post-modern era. The film is charming, humorous, enlightening, gritty--certainly disturbing for the uninitiated. The director in you will love Jennie Livingston's and Paul Gibson's set up. The poet in you regards this as one of the most quotable films of all-time. The cast of characters--and they are characters....
The good Queens of Paris's Ball are the mothers of a generation of self-styled legends. The House of Labeija. The House of Ninja. The House of Xtravaganza. These are the old crews--ala The Warriors but a little less tame than any of the post-punk gangs of that fictional New York City. What is absolutely striking about the film is not the surface idea of a cast of Live Queens--as may be the case perhaps for the uninitiated--it is the way the film and its characters discuss candidly the issues of late 80's New York and America. Press play--the film is immediately sincere, but in no naive sense of the word. Sincere--not quite cynical, certainly hopeful--definitely unshy.
Perhaps my favorite scenes are of the two Latino boys out on the street at 2 am--just after the introduction of Venus Xtravaganza. One is slighter and more fayish (15) with his arm draped arm the more boyish (13--sipping a Sunkist). They are both asked what they're doing out so late and--of course--where's your mother?! The fayish boy responds "I don't have a mother." The director chooses then to have Pepper's voice, over the scene of these two boys, lamenting the sad past that breeds many young legends and Queens.
Yet another question present here is the glorification of whiteness--socio-economic whiteness--let's be clear. We must consider the arguments of Bell Hooks--and rightly so--but again consider this world as a bulwark against the entropy that is: surrendering the ego for the sake of the social structure. The men and women, the Mothers and Legends of the film (particularly Venus who is outwardly expressive of her desire to be a spoiled white woman) are enacting a Bluest Eye mentality. BUT they are also resisting this Bluest Eye mentality in the formation of the House and the Ball. These two acts/traditions gather the community--almost entirely Black and Latino--in a space that may reflect the garb of white america, but does not expressly reach for or attempt to be that world. Pepper, at one point in the film, directly acknowledges his manhood and the satisfaction of knowing that he could never change--that he could never know what or how a woman feels. His only experience, he acknowledges, is as a man or as a man dressed as a woman. So it seems to me they are glorifying the black male figure, despite its vestiture. It is its own sovereign entity with its own legislation--an exclusive zone that is simultaneously the American commodity and the American satire--a reflection of White American narcissism. White America (what we can consider white america) could NOT know itself as an entity without Paris, synecdochically speaking.
It becomes a question of distance and negation.
I cannot entirely agree with Bell. Much of that issue comes from the directorial choices of Jennie Livingston and Paul Gibson who frequently juxtapose the real talk, the dark secrets of these Queens with shots of white America's socially acceptable fashion model. This, in effect, creates/draws an unfathomable distance between the protagonists of the film (blacks and latinos) and the penelope figure (whiteness). In drawing this distance Livingston builds the pseudo-drama and pseudo-peril of entertaining a lifestyle that is "irrational", i.e. How does a black man ever become a white woman? This technique is frequently draped over black narratives to portray an impossible, almost tragic ineffectuality. Seriously? But, returning to my point, I found the characters of this film to be so incredibly beautiful in their experience, in their bravery and singularity--how could this be tragic? How could this simply be an aping of white america? Let's rid ourselves of the stigma and rhetoric of the bluest eye and focus on the dynamic of the spectator. We are aware of this odd fetishization enacted--but perhaps we should be looking outside of ourselves for the cues that provoke early infatuations (obsessions) with whiteness?
Who is watching? Who is telling the story--your story? Who is attempting to co-opt or eat (like Pac Man) the subversive exclusivity and warmth present at the inception of these communal gatherings. Hip Hop holds the same nativity story. White America (What we can consider white america) cannot deal with Black people in love with each other in places where white folk don't fit in. As well consider that the subject of black male sexuality is something that sits on everyone's subconscious. Generally as a thing provoking fear or suspicion. (Most people don't even know that Andy Warhol was a dandy drag--and no one cares, because he was "cool white Andy")
The truth of the matter is that Paris's Ball is a gathering of beautiful, exclusive individuals. Who let Jennie in? Did she even pay admission? (Actually she didn't--the actors saw little of the film's fiscal rewards) Claiming white guilt is no absolution. But here is another fact--each of the characters wanted fame and rockstar status. Essentially, each became rockstars. Like any good rockstar--many met violent/painful or conspicuous ends. It's a question of perspective then. Do you find Jim Morrison tragic? Do you find Jimi Hendrix tragic? Donald Goines? Plath? What about Rimbaud? What about Keats?...
--Andrew E. Colarusso
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