Paris Hilton’s Tears

January 11, 2011  |  By
Filed under: Essay

Nick Ut, _Paris Hilton is seen through the window of a police car as she is transported from her home to court by the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department in Los Angeles on Friday, June 8, 2007_, 2007; Associated Press Images; © Nick Ut/The Associated Press

In 2004, I really wanted to try and watch 1 Night In Paris, or at least to try and see what it looked like. The stills that accompanied news articles about its release made it seem like a painting: the scene seemed so green, filthy, the Rembrandt-light of surveillance footage. Not real sex with real bodies, but colliding glass and Black American Express cards.  The sex of 1 Night In Paris was not caught by paparazzi — instead it’s an extravagant display of self-administered surveillance. Unless you’re suggesting Paris Hilton could be her own paparazzi. Which I’ll buy.

The urge I felt to see 1 Night In Paris wasn’t exactly for utilitarian erotic satisfaction. Instead, a chastely optical erotics, a pleasure in Paris’s performance of “an heiress making an expletive sex tape as if it were authentic surveillance,” and the pleasure of participating in that. Whatever the erotic content of 1 Night In Paris, the satisfaction was in the acquiescence to its contours of commodification and fetishization; the way it absolutely sold the “peek,” always according to its own thresholds and jurisdiction — the very opposite therefore of an authentically illicit “peek.”

Well, I shouldn’t say it “absolutely sold me,” because as much as I wanted to see it I couldn’t find it. Lost in the labyrinth of celebrity porn sites and ads popping out of the labyrinth’s walls like abyssal riddles, themselves labyrinthine, I got lost. I gave up. Once I had enough resolve to walk up to the porn store by my house whose marquee had read Spend 1 Night In Paris all Autumn, and then amended for the holiday season to read The Perfect XXXmas: 1 Night In Paris. I walked to the door but just ended up pacing out front.

Nick Ut’s Paris Hilton is seen through the window of a police car as she is transported from her home to court by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in Los Angeles on Friday June 8, 2007 is part of the magnificent Exposed show on the third floor of the SFMOMA. In the next room there’s another photo by Ut, the famous picture of Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked and screaming from a napalm attack in Vietnam. The pictures, as it happens, are taken on the same exact day, 35 years apart. The first time, the uncanniness of standing in front of the older picture and glancing at the wall text, the syllables of the artist’s name slowly infiltrated my consciousness and expectation, leading to the recognition that these were works by the same artist. I hurried back to Paris.

Another critical note about Ut’s picture of Hilton going to jail is that it is, by all including his account, a failure. It’s the photographer next to Ut, Karl Larsen, who takes the finally canonical shot of Hilton’s tears. It’s Larsen’s that will light up the perfunctory Google image search. Ut’s picture, in stark contrast to the overcast horror in the photo of 1972, almost appears as if it were taken in the same room in which One Night In Paris goes down. Only in daylight. You can’t see the stars in daylight, but, you know, they are there.

Ut’s photo is cut more or less in half, diagonally, with a reflection of … what? Another car’s door? There’s something gorgeous about how whatever it is divides the picture into two, since the experience of seeing it generates a stream of doubles. The spectator and the commodified object (the photo), the photographer and his subject, the inside and outside of the cop car, and ultimately the tears of Phan Thị Kim Phúc against the tears of the heiress. There are two men in the background, not cops. You can’t see their faces, but their bodies look ambivalent, tired, already over the drama of the scene. And in that way they echo exactly the soldiers lining the road down which Phan Thị Kim Phúc runs.

Nick Ut, Terror of War: South Vietnamese forces follow terrified children running down Route 1, near Trang Bang, South Vietnam, June 8, after a misplaced American napalm strike. Girl at center had ripped off her burning clothes. She suffered back burns. The firebomb was dropped by a Skyrider plane, June 8, 1972, 1972; International Center of Photography, New York, The LIFE Magazine Collection, 2005; © Nick Ut / The Associated Press

You can’t see but infer Paris’s tears. Her mouth is open, eyes closed. Mid-sob. The photograph freezes the sob into total expectancy, and thus prolongs it eternally. The very left part of her face is cropped, the vertical line bisecting her right eye where it meets the glass of the cop car. The eyes of Paris Hilton. I read a gossip blog that ridicules one of her eyes for being “wonky.” The blogger calls her “Wonky McValtrex.” As a talisman I adore it. I adore saying the syllables: Wonk-y Mc-Val-trex. Looking at Ut’s photo, though, I experience such radiant pathos for Paris that his pseudonym for her sounds excessively mean. Wonky eyes crammed tight and sieving tears.

Where the line crops her eye and meets the glass of the cop car, a gleam of red — the flushed cheeks of Paris meet the red, swirling light of the juridical. The rouge, howling light of the police. When I lived on Shotwell Street, the guys on the street would always indicate the approach of a squad car by a shrill whine. Onomatopoetic neighborhood solidarity. “Mrs. Officer.” But in the picture, what is the source of that light? The police? The paparazzi? The picture feels like it’s being taken in the car, it’s so close, highlighting the impossibility of proximity. The rest of the car is a kind of dull metallic gray, in slight contrast to Paris’s cute jacket and total contrast to the thrumming reds and that bright light of warning. The space between the back of Paris’s head and the boy’s jacket is in the exact shape of a black tornado. The gloomy tornado of squad car interior. Exactly bisecting the photo vertically, it makes the distance between her and the boys allegorical. I fought the law and the law … well …

The cop car itself is a metonymy for a world into which Paris is not prepared. I’ve relived her walk from the mansion to the car over and over, the whole walk made infinitely more uncomfortable by the din of photographers and reporters. Far from the mere translation of her body from the comfortable psychoarchitecture of the manor to the pre-prison confinement of the squad car’s backseat, the walk in my mind represents the initial experience of the juridical in the life of Paris.

Obviously, on second thought, her whole life had been an experience of the juridical: as a very rich person whose money derives from the subjugation of slave labor around the world, she had of course lived through the juridical as it strove ceaselessly to protect and maintain her wealth and power. So what I should say is, this walk from the house to the car is a walk to the other side of the law. An intense experience, no doubt. And Paris Hilton is hardly the only person to burst into tears in a similar situation. I mean, arrested.

On Saturday I stood in front of Paris Hilton for twenty minutes or so. It felt like a long time, and soon I was looking just as much at the faces of people encountering the image. Nobody lingered for very long that I saw, but if there was any response it was generally a smile. An affirmation or memory perhaps of the spectacular event of Paris Hilton going to jail. But nothing extreme. No obvious displays of sympathy or pathos, no acknowledgment of Paris’s pain. The affective response to the photograph of Phuc couldn’t be more different. That photograph provokes a space of historical or imaginary recognition, a consensual feeling of horror, perhaps. This feels like a catalogue of the abbreviated palette of contemporary feeling: attraction, repulsion, and steadfast ambivalence. Thumbs up, thumbs down, no comment.


  1. twiceastammy Says:

    is it ok if i glean a safe amount of utilitarian erotic satisfaction from the very idea of the imprisonment of an heiress?

  2. BB Says:

    Hi Tammy!

    Oh, absolutely, and I think that’s an integral part of the reception history of Paris. There’s something
    really erotic about that thrill you describe, that leads me to consider that the tale of Paris going to prison transcends the typical American delight in the capture and arrest of its célèbres.
    But is that what you meant? Or is there something delicious in the condition of being an heiress that I’m too obtuse to think of? Like are you suggesting perhaps that PH is a Rapunzel figure? Because that is fascinating and I hope somebody will suggest that!


  3. twiceastammy Says:

    b, you’ve inspired me to consider a very detailed, robbe-grillet-esque modern fairy tale: a pseudo-autobiographical journey, from mansion to cop car–where every mundane nuance of paris’ being is explored, felt, translated and then sold–rapunzel cuts her own hair and auctions it to the highest bidder at TMZ. (with all proceeds given to charity, of course). however, the very act of cutting her hair leaves rapunzel alone and stranded in the hilton towers…do you know any decent hollywood agents?

  4. BB Says:

    “ROFL” as the kids say.

  5. Steve Benson Says:

    Well, this is a pretty fascinating discussion. I never would have thought the two photos were by the same person. That the same person would have taken them both. So you draw a connecting line where there might have been a dividing line. The line down the road in the 1972 picture is, as to function, erased by the circumstances presented and the affect stimulated. The lines across the windshield in the more recent picture seem likely to be communication system wires, such as phone calls and downloads and youtube videos might run through — their function here held in suspension by, again, the immediate affect and crisis of the situation.

    A subtext in my reading, though probably not in your text, Brandon, is my almost total evacuation of Paris Hilton’s life story from my brain, which is partly because I’ve never tried to learn anything about her. All I know is she’s rich, and she has something to do with looking sexy that might be amoral. I think I saw her name associated with a good cause once, too. So to me, in a way, she is just somebody in trouble–sort of like Lindsay Lohan, whom I liked in Parent Trap and Prairie Home Companion but so far as I know wouldn’t want to see in anything else (would I?). I feel like I know as much about the traumatized girl in 1972 VietNam as I do about Paris Hilton–maybe more–and this is a curious sensation to my cerebellum.

  6. BB Says:

    Hi Steve!

    And thanks for reading and leaving this terrific comment.

    Lots of interesting directions to go here. For one, we might say that an original connecting line was drawn by the curators of the show, who not only hung these photographs in the same exhibition, but made one visible to anyone standing in front of the other. That said, they are also in different rooms. The room with the photograph of Hilton is a room of photographs exploring celebrity and the room with Phuc images of war and violence. Other rhymes are present in the two rooms: Robert Kennedy’s assassination in one room rhymes with the paparazzi chasing Jackie Onassis in the other.

    As a viewer, I was enchanted by the formal parallels of the two pieces; the coincidence of their dates and the biography of the photographer is more like supplemental, sexy ephemera. I love your reading of how each photograph approaches lines of communication and information: utterly destroyed in the picture of Phuc (does the effective silence thereby “amplify” her wail?) and yes quite the opposite in the picture of Hilton (whose wail cannot seem to be amplified—the subject of a future post I’m afraid.)

    I think your apperception of what “Paris Hilton” signifies is actually more or less everybody’s. I probably read her with a bit of generational dismay (no less obsessive for all of that.) It’s extremely interesting to think that Paris and Kim Phuc do share one trait in their “real” lives, which is that they are famous primarily for being photographed. Phuc once, Paris uncountable. And, yes, finally, what do we “know” about those lives?

    As for Lindsay Lohan, well, you’ve got to see Mean Girls (2004, dir. Mark Waters). That’s her real masterpiece. But I’m not counting her out yet. I believe in Lindsay. Sometimes I think I am “in love” with Lindsay.


  7. renny Says:

    Hey Steve it’s only been 25 years or so.
    I curated a show in ’06 of war photojournalism and Phuc was one of the speakers and I met her. She lives in the US for a long time now (Northeast I believe, Steve) and makes a living as an inspirational speaker. About forgiveness. So the accidental incident–wrong place at the wrong time–Event in the Photograph carried her to a whole new life in a new culture. But the direct outcome was the better part of a year in hospital and rehab. Rehab of course echoes for Ms. H. in a wholly different way. And the Event in the Photograph was part of an accidental strategy of emerging into a whole new life as a celebrity. One other note–the picture of Phuc was taken by a cousin who then dropped everything and took her to the hospital where her life was saved, as opposed to Hilton’s Event in which her image was completely about commerce.

  8. konrad Says:

    yes, “uncountable” but unvarying, Paris

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