Paris is Burning – Assertive Stance and Construction

Assertions Made in Title Cards 

by Mimi Taylor

In the essay “When is a Documentary?: Documentary As a Mode of Reception” Dirk Eitzen lays out the argument that “what distinguishes documentaries, and nonfiction in general, from fiction” is whether it makes sense to ask the question “Might it be lying?” (89). To support his argument he draws on semiotician Sol Worth’s essay “Pictures Can’t Say Ain’t,” where Worth makes the argument that pictures cannot lie (Eitzen 89). Eitzen extends this argument to “everything in movies that does not have the character of an express metatextual caption or label” (91). According to Eitzen, movies merely represent “a space, action, or event” (91), and “project a world” (91), until some “metatextual caption or label,” usually in the form of a framing device, asserts meaning. In the case of Paris is Burning sometimes the “metatextual caption or label” is a literal label, in the form of a title card.

Paris is Burning imposes meaning on the projected worlds of the movie through these title cards. For instance, early on in the film this title card is shown:

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followed by clips from a Ball in Harlem:

Without the title card, the clips would not carry the assertion “THIS is what a Ball is.” They would merely “project a world” that happens to be this ball at this time.

When the film later shows “voguing,” it uses the same style of title card:

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followed by clips of people voguing:

Again, without the title card these clips would not carry the same definitional and assertive quality. They would just be people dancing. But now, the movie is asserting that those dance moves ARE voguing. Each title card and succeeding clips serve as encyclopedic entries for each topic, and provide a clear assertive stance for the film. Paris is Burning sets out to define these people/places/things for the viewer, which makes it fair for the viewer to ask “Might it be lying?” and settles itself into documentary genre.

Music in Paris is Burning

by Meira Chasman

The documentary relies on its soul, funky, almost techno soundtrack to portray a very specific tone of freedom, joy, intrigue, and maybe a bit of danger.

The song “Got to be Real” by Cheryl Lynn is used on multiple occasions, each to explore a slightly different claim about the nature of identity and blending in. effects.

Realness, in this case, refers to the desire or necessity to fit in, to appear normal and privileged and unbothered. This is a classification that came up in balls under multiple categories (military, executive, real girl, etc.) Here, “got to be real” refers to this simultaneous desire to stand out and blend in: extravagantly showing off your ability to blend in with straight people on a runway is fun, therapeutic, and ironic.

“Got to be Real” returns at about 47 minutes in, when we watch a competition between Octavia and another queen to see who passes more as a cis woman. We hear the judge ask guiding questions such as, “Is this realness or not?” “Feel the flesh, or whatever it may be. Is it soft or not?” Posing appearances as simple yes or no questions invites people to think about the absurdity of dividing gender into rigid categories. Does something as arbitrary soft skin make somebody a woman? Are the categories of man and woman arbitrary as well? This second use of the song reminds us of the first meaning of realness: to show off your ability to blend in. This second use asks, what qualifies as realness? When does one finally cross the line into blending in, and is that line inherently arbitrary?

to be real end credits

Finally, the song plays one final time during the end credits. Here, the song just feels like an invitation to be happy and to live your own life without judgement. It feels like a call to stop taking things so seriously and to abandon the arbitrary borders around identities that we set for ourselves.

Insert Shots in Paris is Burning

by Adayan Munsuarrieta

During some interviews within the film, Livingston incorporates insert shots that relate to the narrative being conveyed by interviewees. Although some filmmaker’s consider editing to only serve as a “fictionalization” of their factual material since it reorganizes images, Livingston uses insert shots as a form of asserting the tangibility of the dreams that interviewees. 

In the five minutes into the film, we are introduced to Pepper Labeija discussing the significance of balls to members of the LGBTQ+ people during that time. During this part of the interview we see images of magazines, beauty products, models, and high-end clothing as back to back insert shots.

Here, we are able to see some of the things that Pepper Labeija “always felt cheated out of.” Livingston’s purpose here is to help the viewer’s have a reference of what people in balls wanted to feel, the sense of glamour and importance that comes with luxuries like Vogue, makeup, and modeling.

Another instance where Livingston uses non-diegetic insert shots to assert the unfair reality of what people competing in the “realness” category were working to defy is around the 18 minute mark. Here we see shots of heterosexual white couples casually roaming the streets. Meanwhile, we hear how the interviewee contrasts how “when you are a man and woman you can do anything” but “when you are gay you monitor everything you do.”

Here we are able to see how the heterosexual couples are recorded outside during the day to show how they are always visible while the gay couple is being recorded inside at night to emphasize how they do not have the same privilege. The placement of these shots is used to assert a reality that balls attempt to highlight through their “realness” categories and serves as a transition into that discourse. Therefore, it becomes clearer how the use and organization of insert shots in Paris is Burning is meant to draw attention to and assert the injustices that the interviewees aspire to defy.

One thought on “Paris is Burning – Assertive Stance and Construction

  1. Ian Bryce Jones May 28, 2020 / 11:54 am

    Mimi, Meira, and Adayan –

    I really like how your three separate sections, though written independently, coalesce into an overall picture of Paris Is Burning’s rhetorical style, with each subsequent section complicating the last.

    Mimi, you had in some ways the simplest job, looking at how the film, in its straightforward use of language, approaches the task of assertion. To say this was the simplest task is to in no way demean how you’ve handled it! Your treatment of the intertitles is rich and well thought-out, and I really appreciate not only the invocation of Eitzen, but also Worth’s essay, which you do a good job of explicating.

    From here, each subsequent author builds on Mimi’s foundation. Documentary filmmaking is about more than just putting together titles to announce subjects, and then illustrating them with footage. It’s also about music, which can add commentary and potential irony. And it’s about editing, and the ways in which insert shots can provide their own form of (non-linguistic) commentary through audiovisual juxtaposition. Meira and Adayan, the way you guide us through these developments is great, and I like how, by the end of the whole post, the reader has a good sense of the full palette of expression on offer in Paris Is Burning. The rhetoric of assertion in documentary cinema ties in aspects of the written word, but it also includes a rich range of other techniques – every technique we’ve looked at so far in the class, in fact, from lenses to editing to sound design to narrative structure.

    Thanks for the wonderful cross-group member conversation on this topic! I thought your post came together very nicely.


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