Cross-Dressed For Success

For four months earlier this year, New Yorkers streamed downtown to the Film Forum to catch Jennie Livingston's exhilarating, mindstretching documentary Paris Is Burning. Though it packed the theater for 17 weeks, it couldn't be released elsewhere until the music rights were cleared. Now the rest of the country can experience this provocative, poignant film, which makes most of the big Hollywood summer movies look boring by comparison. Zeroing in on an obscure and outre corner of a subculture, Livingston's film ends up shedding an extraordinary light on American culture as a whole.

"Paris Is Burning" is not the movie about World War II. The subject is black and Hispanic drag queens, the posturing acrobatic dance called voguing and the drag balls of Harlem. It's a movie about gallantry and style, survival and self-delusion, and one which raises basic questions about race, class and gender. Smart, hilarious, sad, the movie sends you spinning into the night in a state of mental overdrive.

The fashion-show balls in the film are set up as competitions. But they are not just about men attempting to look like women. Some of the men are in drag as men, competing in such categories as Executive Realness (briefcases and three-piece suits) or Town and Country (riding crop and jodhpurs) or Military Realness. The movie's overriding irony is the spectacle of a despised double minority-both ethnic and sexual-aping the power structure that excludes them. "I would like to be a spoiled, rich white girl," proclaims the petite transvestite Venus Xtravaganza, who hustles his/her body and wants a sex-change operation to realize all her fantasies of suburban domesticity. "I want" is the oft-repeated litany of many of the young drag queens, who've ingested whole the Madison Avenue dream of fame, success and beauty and who, at the balls at least, can live out their fantasies in ferocious splendor.

This might make "Paris Is Burning" sound like a pathetic and condescending anthropological parade. But the subjects are every bit as aware of the ricocheting paradoxes as the filmmaker is. Masters of a bone-deep irony, they are the eloquent tour guides of this arcane world. Though the filmmaker does not shy away from the melancholy and even tragic side of this world, her film is primarily a celebration of its wit, joy and bravado. Most impressive are the veterans of the drag scene-Dorian Corey, a sage old Buddha sitting at her makeup mirror, and Pepper LaBeija, a flamboyant den mother to her family of protegees-who preside over the film like village elders, passing on their hard-won wisdom. Ultimately, "Paris Is Burning" turns our vision upside down: when the film suddenly cuts to shots of "real" men and women on the streets of New York, they suddenly look like they're in drag. Life may not be a cabaret, old chum, but who's to say we're not all in costume?

Livingston, who is 29, white, a graduate of Beverly Hills High and Yale, spent two years going to balls before she shot the bulk of her film. Her inspiration came from a 1985 encounter with voguers in New York's Washington Square Park. She was drawn to their beauty and dancing talent. "The more I talked to them the more they seemed like incredibly insightful Americans," she recalls, "as articulate as any people I've met anywhere. I've always been concerned with certain issues--class and gender and race and consumerism ... This world seemed like an incredible whirlpool of these issues."

Different as her background was, Livingston had little trouble winning the trust of her subjects. "I certainly never felt people were hostile," she says. "There was some concern as to what the product would be, but you're talking very sophisticated, smart people and they're going on their intuition that I'm a good person ... Also I came in with a camera and I said to a group of people who are not asked what they think, what do you think? When you turn on the news, when you read your magazine, you don't see what is the gay black and Latino viewpoint on the gulf war. And I came in and said I want to know."

What surprised her was that her subjects, who had every re on to be bitter, were neither mad nor down on the world. "No, in fact, these people are humorous, spirited, positive," she says. Making the film forced Livingston to confront her own hang-ups about class. "I grew up very sheltered and middle class." The street smarts she encountered were a revelation: "To say,'Oh my god, these people are more articulate than my professors at Yale that was a really exciting thing." It also changed her attitude about being gay herself "It's something I became more aware of and more happy about in the course of making the film. I felt more part of some kind of gay global culture that transcends color and class barriers. I felt part of something."