In 1990 Madonna put out “Vogue,” a hit single and music video that featured the arrestingly graceful and aggressive, semaphore-like dance of the title, derived from the poses of models in the eponymous fashion magazine. Madonna learned this dance from Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, later himself a famed dancer, choreographer, and recording artist, whom you can see competing in one of the “house balls” featured in Jennie Livingston’s now-classic documentary “Paris Is Burning” (1990).
Xtravaganza’s surname comes from the House of Xtravaganza, one of several such houses in New York City ruled over by a “house mother.” These groups provided support for LGBTX members of the African-American and Latinx communities, many of whom had been rejected by their families and would otherwise be destitute, homeless, and victims of homophobic violence.
The houses compete at the house balls not just in dancing but also in numerous, elaborate, often-satiric drag categories. They range from Femme Queen Realness, in which male contestants are judged for their success at transforming themselves into a cisgender female, to categories that imitate stereotypes of straight male authority, such as Executive Realness, Military Realness, and Bangee Realness, which an emcee describes as, “the gay basher who beat you up on the way here tonight.”
Far from exploiting an exotic subculture, Livingston presents it as a canny mirror of society in general. She also gains intimate access to several of those whom it has nurtured, ranging from an aging queen who expresses her wisdom in droll bon mots to a frail, beautiful transgender youth whose vulnerability might break your heart.
“Paris Is Burning” opens in a digitally remastered print at the Kendall Square Cinema on August 2.
In a memorable scene in Steven Spielberg’s 2002 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s story “Minority Report,” the hero, played by Tom Cruise, is fleeing the authorities. He tries to walk nonchalantly through a futuristic shopping mall but he keeps triggering hologram advertisements addressing him by name, thus revealing his presence.
Today the reality is less cinematic but more insidious. According to Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s “The Great Hack,” the data collected by such social media platforms as Facebook has undermined democratic systems of government from Trinidad to the United States. A major culprit is the now-defunct firm Cambridge Analytica, which collected, “weaponized,” and sold personal information, both willingly and unwittingly volunteered by millions of users, to parties and candidates seeking an electoral edge.
Amer and Noujaim focus on Brittany Kaiser, a former Cambridge Analytica employee turned whistleblower who had participated in the firm’s involvement with the Trump campaign. She breathlessly rushes from an undisclosed location in Thailand to London, New York, and Washington to testify before various investigating committees (including that of Special Counsel Robert Mueller).
The filmmakers also follow the progress of David Carroll, a media professor at the New School for Design, who took the company to court to force it to reveal what personal information it had gathered about him and to whom they had sold his information. Enhanced by quasi-Spielbergian animated graphics, the film unfolds like an espionage thriller in which, as one journalist says, “Nothing is what it seems.”
“The Great Hack” is available on Netflix.
Taking stock of Woodstock
Now that the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing has passed we can return to Earth and celebrate the 50th anniversary of another cosmic event, the Woodstock music festival.
As Mick Richards’s documentary “Creating Woodstock” demonstrates, the August 15-18, 1969, pop extravaganza, with its half-million attendance, was as complex in its planning and as precarious in its execution as the NASA space mission.
It all began when the heir to a denture-cleaner fortune and his business partner were working on a TV pilot about crazy entrepreneurial ideas. They decided to drop the TV show and develop one of the proposals, which was to open a recording studio in Woodstock, N.Y., where Bob Dylan, the Band, John Sebastian, and other musicians had residences. Someone suggested the backers skip the recording studio and just have a concert featuring those superstars, who would then attract more big names. Then they searched for an outdoor venue and after two hippie-hating communities rejected them, Max Yasgur at the last minute offered his dairy farm, and the rest is history.
Much of this is familiar from other films, such as this year’s “Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation.” Richards doesn’t offer the performance footage of that documentary, let alone Michael Wadleigh’s three-hour epic “Woodstock”(1970), which screens at several local theaters on Aug. 15. Go to www.fathomevents.com.
Instead, Richards spent 30 years culling archival footage and interviews with participants to come up with some fascinating anecdotes, details, and insights. Like how the organizers didn’t invite the Rolling Stones because they were worried that their new hit song “Sympathy for the Devil” might provoke the crowd — a fear that proved well-founded four months later when the Stones’s disastrous Altamont concert exploded into deadly violence. Or how the show escaped being shut down by a health inspector because his teenage daughter wandered off into the crowd and he had to spend the next three days looking for her. Or the vivid recollections of the overpowering stench and acres of debris left behind when the show was over and everyone had left.
Still, one question remains unanswered: Did Woodstock really happen? Or was it an elaborate hoax fabricated in a Hollywood studio?
“Making Woodstock” will be available on DVD starting July 30 and can be streamed starting Aug. 13.
Go to cinemalibrestudio.com/creating-woodstock.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.