by Jack Waters
Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 72-73
On a recent lecture engagement I was at Bowdoin College, the volatility of representation issues became glaringly apparent in a discussion following LINDA, LES AND ANNIE, a documentary depicting a female-to-male sex change. Several women in the audience took exception to Livingston's claim to be able to speak both for men and for the lesbian point of view from which she/he evolved. Jenny Livingston, director of PARIS IS BURNING, implies being a lesbian (Outweek No. 94) and Madonna does not but says she's had "lesbian experiences." The two women's recent films have in common representing the cultures of gay men and/or people of color. In Livingston's case, this mix of cultures is that of the voguers who comprise the subject of PARIS IS BURNING, and in Madonna's the background chorus and dancers from the Blond Ambition Tour, the topic of TRUTH OR DARE. While both directors may be giving experience and exposure to the individuals from whom they draw material, each director has much more to gain materially as privileged white members of this society.
Both women have achieved a level of relative success (Madonna far more so than Livingston) in areas dominated by men, and that fact is a testament to their intelligence, strength and determination. But some disturbing questions linger. Do the two films' success depend on the entertainment industry's exploiting a sensibility in a way to which the originators of that sensibility have little access. Given their expository formats, how much do the two films reveal of the inequity of such a system?
Livingston as a lesbian may speak from the perspective of a minority in that respect. However, Madonna is in no way stigmatized as a sexual or racial minority, though she is quite marvelously outspoken about counter-establishment views on gay issues and other body/gender political subjects. In some of her on-stage attitude and behavior, she might however be viewed as exuding a lower middle class sensibility and could conceivably speak as someone from working class origins if for no other reason than for the garbage-eating period she endured in New York as a struggling performer. Livingston is of upper middle class, Bel Air California origins and the niece of director Alan Pakula, yet she never mentions these Hollywood connections.
While Madonna's TRUTH OR DARE success depends on the perception of intimacy and the self-revelation of her "private life," Livingston's PARIS IS BURNING relies on an attempt to obscure and distance her persona from the work. In the Outweek interview she mentioned that she feels too close to her own life to make a film about it. She said,
In the context of the article, her stated feelings imply that her film be divorced from a political reading with no obligation to any community except that of a general public (read mainstream). The fact that she refused to show PARIS IS BURNING at a Lesbian and Gay Film festival expressing her concerns about the film's ghettoization in a gay milieu (NY Newsday) speaks more to marketing concerns than aesthetics. Now that the film is in mainstream distribution, she faces a concern about ghettoization regardless of the fact that only through the gay festival circuit (San Francisco International, New York International, New York Experimental) did PARIS IS BURNING originally gain visibility.
The Village Voice mentioned that a new soundtrack by the pop group Deelite would accompany the film in its major distribution. It will have come a long way from Harlem of the mid 80s. The film will be relegated into the realm of the entertainment industry. The film's popular and commercial success benefits the director far more than its subjects for the simple reason that she is white and well connected and they are not. The film's business dealings, often seen as peripheral, affect its integrity both as social commentary and documentary. Since the film's release, some of the performers have complained in print in the New York Daily News that they were misled about the payment for their participation. According to the Daily News, the very title, "Paris Is Burning," was stolen. It was the name of a drag ball whose creator was not even credited for it in Livingston's film.
PARIS IS BURNING is an affecting film that explores a social scene that has too long deserved recognition for the contributions it has made to contemporary culture. Jenny Livingston deserves credit for taking the initiative in presenting some of the creative personalities responsible for this culture, rather than taking surface elements and processing them for mainstream consumption as Madonna does. Nevertheless, I wish to make some observation about the film's formal approach. Even without prior knowledge of the director's white middle class background and her family ties to the Hollywood film milieu, a tenuous anthropological presence is felt. The presence of an off-camera director/ interviewer underscores the subjects' status as "Other." This device has the effect of distancing the observer (and the director) to the extent that the film presents the ball queens as anthropological subjects rather than as people. The film in fact screened at the Margaret Mead Film Festival.
A central problem lies in the film's inherently misleading documentary approach. The documentary says, "This is truth. What you are seeing is 'real.'" To postulate any work of art as a precise representation of actuality is always questionable, especially since cinema takes as its base the photographic, so that the documentary nature of the medium is assumed. To direct, shape and control the point of view is part of what makes a work "Art." Pretending or intimating that the authoritative manipulation does not exist is dishonest and verges more on mere artifice. That PARIS IS BURNING (like many documentaries) lacks any reference to this point is particularly ironic in light of the concept of "realness" which permeates it (them).
Livingston is wise to allow the subjects the narrative voice rather than to impose a detached voice over. The immediate effect is one of the Ball Queen's prerogatives in her own realm. One wonders though whether this tone of candor is also a stylistic device used to hide the implicitly dictatorial nature of the documentary narrative form? Bold titles are inserted which act as headings for sections that define the terminology of the Balls, thus imposing a systematic structure comprehensible to a white mindset, which might not necessarily be inherent in the language of the Ballroom. Perhaps this need for codification relates to the surface hierarchy of the Ball categories and the transient "realness" that would appear to embrace (bind) them. But because the film does not greatly expand or challenge the standard documentary format, it cannot provide a deeper interpretation of the situation. The linear, commodity-conscious Eurocentric gaze tends towards a constrictive hierarchical perspective. The editorial choices heighten our awareness of the subjects' "imitation" of western values. PARIS IS BURNING does not particularly engage itself with potentially Afrocentric values recalcitrant in the collective unconscious. Examples of this are the tribal aspect of the Houses and the shamanistic attributes of the transvestite Mothers common in many nature cultures. The importance of the ritual of walking a ball in transcending systematic oppression is there if one seeks it, but the film gives the prominent impression that balls merely imitate a fashion show — emulate a "lifestyle."
Where the commoditization of the black gay condition may be subtle in Livingston's film, Madonna is in many ways more direct. The verité form in which Madonna presents her TRUTH OR DARE also invites questions as to the matter of control and honesty in projecting a media image. Certainly the film shows enough footage of Madonna's "unflattering" side, and concert footage is spare enough to narrowly avoid the generic pigeonhole of the "Rocumentary." However one must still consider that the primary purpose of the film's release is to make money-after all this is not made for the Margaret Mead Film Festival — hence the proselytizing of the Madonna myth is seen here as a process of concealment through transferal and mystification.
This is subtlety evident in her exploitation of the exotiphobia/ exotiphelia dichotomy which so obsesses our western culture. Whereas the exposure of unorthodox sexuality might be a revelation to the target audience to which Madonna directs her mass appeal, the psycho-sexual dynamics of race which Madonna exploits is still not being dealt with as directly as it could/should. For example, while the stereotypes of female vulnerability and sexual strength are being "fucked around with," their relation to white exploitation does not go far beyond surface titillation.
Equally imperious is the "Motherly" attitude towards her "all ethnic" troupe of dancers. Since she is so clearly the boss, and a white one at that, the mistress/slave association is unavoidable. One thinks of a benevolent Scarlet O'Hara dominating the loving and beloved servants of the plantation. Her image in this context is easily read as a reiteration of the Great White God(dess) symbol we are all so tired of. Madonna emulates the "ethnicity" of her background performers while retaining her white status. Note the impact of the visual contrast of Madonna in her heightened blond whiteness against the background of all that black skin and hair. Standing out prominently she symbolizes a privileged status, which can only be held by depriving others.
This kind of usurpation of style from non-white performers is nothing new. Her admitted crossover success came with her first video when audiences realized the white face behind the heavily R&B influenced sound. But one hopes for more from her implied goal of reforming the music industry. She said it wouldn't be homophobic when she's through with it and she has recognized the indivisibility of racial and economic oppression from the fight against sexism and homophobia. Hopefully now she'll focus on the complexity of the interplay between race and economics as well as the sexuality which she is so directly confronting. She'd do well to disassociate her identity with the stereotypical role as female performer. She herself has suggested producing James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, an early work by a gay writer of color whose posthumous exposure has been long overdue.