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Paris Is Burning Reviews

Though her intentions aren't overtly polemical, Jennie Livingston's PARIS IS BURNING is an enthralling examination of the loaded cultural issues of sex, class and race as seen through the subculture of black and hispanic transvestites. Shot in New York City between 1985 and 1989, the film, which takes its name from a Harlem drag ball, consists of interviews with a cross section of the minority cross-dressing community, a term whose very ludicrousness is relevant to the film's intentions, as well as footage of drag balls and various aspects of their daily lives. Livingston's subjects range from middle-aged queens who once modeled themselves on movie stars and Las Vegas showgirls but now look like nothing so much as matrons who have too heavy a hand with the mascara wand, to younger cross-dressers who aspire to look like androgynous high fashion mannequins and succeed admirably. Their lives revolve around the tools of artifice: the make-up, clothing, accessories and breast implants that create the compelling illusion that they are something other than what nature made them. A world that at first sounds camp and desperately superficial gradually reveals itself as an altogether more complex milieu. They belong to various "houses," surrogate families headed up by an older transvestite, whose members take the same last names ("Ninja," "Labeija," "Xtravaganza," "St. Laurant"--a cultural mix that speaks volumes), socialize together and generally look out for one another. They're like gay gangs, one explains, but instead of fighting they compete against one another at the elaborate balls, where the aim is to create plausible illusions and the reward is nothing less than adulation. While the houses celebrate style and artifice, they're also a source of warmth and unconditional love, something sorely needed by many members who've been rejected by their own families because of the lives they lead. The word "ball" conjures up images of chandeliers and plantation houses, a far cry from the dim, run-down Elks Halls where PARIS IS BURNING takes place, but the ambiance is extraordinary. Competition revolves around the notion of "realness" (the disco song "To Be Real" is a motif), and such categories as "Executive Realness"--in which one must do a credible impersonation of a Wall Street banker, down to the credit card receipts--force the viewer to ask questions that at first seem innocuous enough, but lead down a path that ultimately forces one to wonder what it is that makes anyone what he or she is. In this context "drag" is a concept that goes far beyond the popular image of a man in a wig, dress and high heels. It encompasses business suits, army fatigues, school uniforms and even the jeans and doorknocker earrings of bangee girls, the same young toughs who would beat up the very people adopting their look for the night; PARIS IS BURNING truly embodies the axiom "you are what you pretend to be," and suggests that surface may be deeper than one is led to suppose. Yet despite the material's inherent emphasis on types, Livingston's film is very much about individuals, and their voices--by turns confused, witty, melancholy, street smart, deluded, brash and tender--remain long after the film is done. The world Livingston's film reveals is one whose members have been barred from mainstream society at every turn. They're poor, non-white and flamboyantly homosexual; their only way in is through the popularity of voguing, a style of dance that revolves around striking poses (as in the fashion magazine Vogue) with as much attitude as the room can contain. But even that's a deceptive entree--it may have taken oppression and desperate imagination to spawn voguing, but by the time the Madonna video "Vogue" makes it to MTV, little remains of the style's outlaw origins. It's just another variation on the "just do it" credo that celebrates putative self-expression through consumption and the original voguers are still poor and disaffected. Although PARIS IS BURNING received "Best Documentary" awards from Los Angeles, New York, Boston and National Film Critics societies, as well as a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, it was not nominated for an Academy Award. Speculation blamed homophobia, but the situation echoed the equally inexplicable omission of Errol Morris's THE THIN BLUE LINE in 1988, suggesting that mere indifference may have been at fault. (Adult situations.)