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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.


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Sunday, March 08, 2015

entry arrow12:02 AM | Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (1990)

Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (1990) has remained for me an essential title for the ultimate in film experience since I first saw it. When I am asked what my favourite documentaries are, this is one of the top five titles I could readily rattle off my head, alongside Microcosmos, Helvetica, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, and The Celluloid Closet. It is a cult film for understandable reasons: it demands repeat viewing, if only for one to spot certain details or drama you've never paid much attention to before; and there is of course its status as a cultural fountainhead. For those of us who became enthralled with Madonna's Vogue music video, directed with incredible panache by David Fincher, this was the film to excavate to find out where the mainstream culled its dance moves from the underground culture it was cribbing.

I see this film perhaps once a year, and often despite myself. I love it, but it is ultimately a sad, heartbreaking documentary, albeit a riveting one. In wanting to capture the underground ball culture of Black Harlem in late 1980s New York, Livingston also managed to capture in film the grittiness of the everyday lives of her subjects, the eventual hopelessness of their dreams and wishes, and the murderous end of some of them. And yet, despite all these, what keeps me returning to this film is the memory I have of how strangely warm this film is, how loving of its subjects, how curious and respectful of their foibles and their glittery lives. Its contradictions are also equally riveting: it is a spectacularly rough film, but also undeniably elegant.

Going through it once more for Nathaniel Rogers' Hit Me With Your Best Shot series over at The Film Experience, I took note of the shots that somehow made me pause, and I realised these were of scenes that underlined for me the film's themes...



The alienation of so many street-bred youths in a city that does not want them, for example, and the search for non-traditional families that would accept for who they are...



The yearning for elegance and beauty that seem perpetually out-of-reach...



The delightful raunchiness of the balls they indulge in, where they all compete in the name of escape, and in the name of being able to live the upper-class dream denied of them...



The sheer inventiveness they have in the language of dance as a showcase for a totally different kind of fighting...



The universality of our fervent pipe dreams...



And the longing for freedom, for becoming comfortable in the skin we want to live in...

But my choice of best shot is this...



A casual shot of one of the film's unlikely heroines -- Venus Xtravaganza of the House of Xtravaganza -- walking down the streets of New York with a determined look on her face even as her eyes betray an innate sense of being lost in a cruel world. The filmmaker's shadow hovers over her figure -- the only time we truly see Livingston's meticulously unobtrusive presence in the film. And somehow the shot also foreshadows the film's one great tragedy. (But no spoilers here.)

It still confuses me how this film missed out on a much-deserved Oscar nomination. Perhaps the queer subject matter derailed its chances? But time is the ultimate arbiter for a cultural product's longevity. Twenty-five years after its release, Paris is Burning still remains relevant and riveting.

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[1] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich





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