Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Paris is Burning" (1990)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*
"We're not going to be shady, just fierce."
"O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E. You own everything. Everything is yours." 
We define our lives in terms of spaces: indoors and outdoors, the bedroom and the kitchen, the shoe department and the dress department. There's home and there's work, and even if you work at home, you likely have a separate room - a separate space - as your office. It's such a natural organization for us that if one space intrudes upon the other, we rebel in unhappiness, craving a way to escape it and make it separate again.

We do this socially, too, and not always for the best. We see certain subsets of the population as having spaces of their own, divided by metrics such as race, gender, class, sexuality, age, nationality, or faith, just to name a few. These are metaphorical spaces, but the result is the same: the spaces are, in the eyes of too many, meant to be exclusive, with as little overlap as possible. When I was in undergrad, I remember a professor of mine stating that North Carolina, for much of its history, was defined by a mindset of "a place for everyone, and everyone in their place." Unfortunately, that's still all too much the case in many places.

None of these ideas are particularly new, of course. They date back decades, and you can read the works of tons of activists and theorists that are much more eloquent than myself. But space is a critical aspect of Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary about ball culture in 1980s New York. This is a film about a group of people - gay and transgender, almost all of whom are black or Hispanic - carving out their own spaces, creating a place for themselves in a world that was (and still is) willing to ignore them.

More after the jump.

The history of gay America - or any minority America, for that matter - is stacked with the oppressed finding spaces in society to call their own. The ball culture presented in the film is one of decadence, in which the participants - each belonging to a "house" - compete for trophies in a wide variety of categories, the ultimate goal being "legendary" status. In many ways, it brings to mind the speakeasy culture of the Prohibition era, in which otherwise-"straight" men would seek out male lovers; though the identity had not yet been solidified in the national lexicon, underground extralegal activity provided a space for other activities that were against the social norm. But as the figures Livingston interviews - house mother Pepper Labeija, Willi Ninja (who was a major influence in the popularity of "voguing"), Freddie and Kim Pendavis, and Venus Xtravaganza, among others - point out, the balls are much more than just competitions. They're makeshift homes, a place for lost and lonely youths and adults to come together in a spirit of unity.

Moreover, they're a place for performance. The ball is not just a space for people to come together, but a place for them to mold the space into an alternate version of American society in which they - gay, transgender, black, Hispanic - are afforded the same status as straight white men. They act out getting into prestigious universities such as Yale, becoming executives of multi-million-dollar businesses, and serving their country in the armed forces. The balls come to represent the world as it should be: a place where they can be accepted, given opportunity, and treated as equals, all while being fierce as hell.

What's fascinating about Paris is Burning, though, is the way that Livingston frames the spaces in the film. Scenes that take place at the balls are shot with wider angles, placing more distance between the subjects and allowing the audience to see the scale of the rooms. The film opens up these spaces, to the point where at times it feels like the camera is sitting in the balcony with the spectators. Check out these two frames:

Notice the depth of these shots, how there's enough space behind the foreground to suggest that these are fairly big rooms. The lower shot may not have the grandiosity of the upper, but the trophy-lined tables and voguing participants gives the room a sense of openness.

Now compare them to these three shots, taken from the "talking head" interview segments with some of Dorian Corey, Pepper LaBeija, and Venus Xtravaganza, respectively:

The interviews take place away from the balls, and in tighter close-ups. The space they occupy has been reoriented to be small, more cramped, with the subject of the frame seemingly squeezed into its confines. Particularly in Corey's shot, filmed in a dressing room, it seems as if they have all been placed back in the "closet," no longer openly able to flaunt their true selves and pantomime their dreams of acceptance. It's a remarkable visual contrast that Livingston has created, putting the grand fantasy next to the constricting reality like this. It forms a bold statement about how these people are having to live their lives, their only crime being being themselves.

Which makes the following shot so startling when it shows up in the film.

*Best shot*

Brooke Xtravaganza and her girlfriend, Carmen Xtravaganza, are on a beach. As Brooke brags about her recent successful sex-change surgery, she twirls around on the sand, and both begin singing in overly-theatrical voices, "I am what I am, I am my own special creation." It's a moment of pure, unbridled ebullience, most striking because it takes place not in the ballroom, but outside, in the public space. They're celebrating themselves in an open space, a space they share with everyone. It's the moment in the film where the performance in the ballroom becomes a (tenuous) reality in society at-large. For the briefest of moments, spatial distinctions fall, and what's left is joy, singing, and dance.


Shane Slater said...

Great choice. It's really quite startling when we get to that scene. The face that it's not just any public space, but one that encourages you to flaunt your body.

abstew said...

love the idea of spaces defining us at particular moments and within these frames and especially how free they are in the space of your best shot!