Questioning the Gaze and Studying Ballroom Culture

cover of Paris is Burning, depicting smiling ballroom participants

Image Credit: Wikipedia

I was initially going to begin this rumination with the pretty dull introductory phrase “In Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning,but before the virtual ink had dried on the virtual page I was struck with pretty massive doubts. In what sense could Paris is Burning really be solely attributed to Jennie Livingston when the movie's energy, its drive and message, clearly came from the lives of the New York City ballroom scene participants Livingston interviewed? So would calling Paris is Burning a collaborative documentary effort solve the issue of artistic attribution? Well, kind of, but that seemed to somewhat cheapen the lived experiences of the ball culture community by reducing them to stylized components in a cinematic production. Calling an interviewee an artist leaves over some troubling remainder, a residue of “real life” that doesn't make it into the credits. Even more troubling was the threat of de-centering Livingston's gaze as the focusing lens of the documentary. If it felt wrong to implicitly give Livingston all the credit for the film, it felt worse to call the piece a purely collective effort when Livingston's preferences, questions, decisions and selections dictate the entire film.

Halloween, People Watching, and Fashion

A photograph of a person in clownish garb holding a stuffed toy that is vaguely shaped like a human chromosome. He/she is wearing a giant bulbous wig made of colored pieces of fabric. The caption provided says "I'm not a homeless person. I'm Tim Burton's reimagining of a homeless person."

Image Credit: Halloweenorwilliamsburg.com

Halloween season put me in mind of the hipster-bashing tumblr Halloween or Williamsburg that emerged around this time last year.  The microblog features crowd-sourced photos of people in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, whose over-the-top fashion choices cause daily confusion about whether or not it is Halloween.  The website’s wittily-captioned parade of fools is relentlessly funny, though it inevitably delivers a slightly skewed version of reality. (I've never been to Williamsburg, but I imagine not every resident reaches for the costume box when they get dressed every morning.) But that’s partly why the site offers such a satisfying experience. Scrolling through its photo logs is like going people watching and seeing only the “gems.” It’s like a walk down Telegraph Avenue sans the drab-looking Cal students. 

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