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:
by Junyoung Choi, Gabriela Horwath, Tomas Pacheco, Alan Countess, and Wyn Veiga
Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is Burning explores the nooks and crannies of Harlem, painting vividly the ball culture’s cultural importance in celebrating the drag style and hitherto marginalized gender norms through the transgender families and their flamboyant fashion shows.
Observing the endeavors of New York’s ball culture through the lens Livingston has picked out, both writers Judith Butler and Erving Goffman would likely concur that personal and group identities are reinforced socially through dramatic performances, but would fall short of agreeing on whether there truly is an internal core being expressed. However, if the two theorists sat down and spoke to reach a conclusion, they would most likely agree that the many different categories in the balls helped most people participate in the performative act and present their parts while making explicit the rather flexible nature of gender. Finally, both scholars would also be astonished and disturbed by the growing impact of one’s exposure to the media’s mundane normalized social expectations.