June 03, 2012

Realness



To judge from popular-press reviews that greeted its release, Jennie Livingston's film Paris Is Burning (Off-White Productions, 1991) has left a significant number of its viewers pleasantly surprised. What surprises them is not only what was widely registered as Livingston's intrepidness in venturing among the black and Latino habitu├ęs of Harlem's drag-ball scene, which the film portrays, but also—and more significantly—the actvities of the film's subjects themselves, particularly their precise replication (in the context of the ball's regimented competitions) of the styles and behaviors of a range of social types recognizable from daily life, from mass-media productions, or from both. John Howell, commenting in 1989 on rough-cut footage from what was then Livingston's work-in-progress, gives a fairly typical account of contestants' achievement of such "Realness," as it is called in the ball context:

"In costume and poise, these artificial Yalies and businessmen would be utterly indistinguishable from the "real thing" on the campus or in the office. Similarly, any general would salute troops who paraded with the spit-and-polish panache of the voguers who impersonate marines. Every detail is duplicated to the minutest degree, from body language to personality, from clothing to accessories (briefcases, American Express cards, plane tickets, and Wall Street Journals for the businessmen, letter sweaters and textbooks for the students)."

from Private Affairs: Critical Ventures in the Culture of Social Relations
 By Phillip Brian Harper


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