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‘Paris Is Burning’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 04, 1991

Voguing: A dance invented by black and Latino gay men in Manhattan's streets, parks and nightclubs, years before Madonna made it famous on MTV. Combining the stiff, haughty poses struck by high-fashion models with acrobatic spins and dips, voguing evolved as a competition from the black gay traditions of "reading" (razor-sharp, fast-slashing, finger-snapping verbal abuse) and "shade" (attitude, the body language version of reading).

"The other day in a drugstore, I overheard a kid say to his mother, 'Mommy, Mommy! Johnny's voguing!' " marvels director Jennie Livingston, in Washington to promote "Paris Is Burning," her first feature film. "I thought, 'That's so cute. If only Mommy knew where voguing really came from.' "

"Paris Is Burning" is a poignant and profound, unsentimental and unexploitative examination of a subculture that until now has been invisible to most Americans. Built around elaborately staged mock fashion balls, this alternative world of black and Latin gay men and lesbians has its own elaborate jargon and its own intricate social structure, the self-protective hierarchy of "houses." These substitute extended families (or "gay street gangs," as one voguer puts it) knock themselves out to imitate a society that, ironically, will not have them.

The film, which cost about $375,000 to complete, won the 1990 Los Angeles Film Critics' Award for Best Documentary, then shared the prize for Best Documentary at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival (with Barbara Kopple's "American Dream," about labor strife at a Minnesota meatpacking plant). It has since broken records in its first commercial run, at New York's Film Forum, where it was booked for two weeks in March and stayed for 17, racking up raves and full houses.

And last week, "Paris Is Burning" was picked up for distribution by Prestige, a division of Miramar. It opens Friday in 17 cities, including Washington, where it will play exclusively on several screens at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle. Tracks, a gay disco in Southeast Washington, is holding a voguing ball the following Sunday, Aug. 11, to celebrate the opening of the film.

Ball: A voguing competition and impersonation parade, offering participants a chance to mirror a society that consistently excludes poor black and Latino gays while seducing them with images of white prosperity, white beauty, white straight family life.

"I just didn't know what was going on!" says Livingston, 28, dressed PC-chic in a checked jacket thrown over a Barbara Kruger "Your Body Is a Battlefield" T-shirt. In a suite at the Park Hyatt,he recalls in a rapid ramble what it was like when she entered the doors of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in the Village and was struck by the Spectacle:

"Here were these people, and I didn't know if they were men or if they were women, and they were moving, and why are they moving this way, and what are they screaming, they're screaming these names, like Labeija! Labeija! Labeija! And I was like, what is Labeija and what is Pop-Dip-Spin and what are they doing?

"I was really confused, and somebody said I should look Willi up, as somebody who understands voguing. And Willi and I sat down with a tape recorder and Willi outlined the whole ball world -- these are 'houses,' and these are 'mothers,' and this is 'realness.' "

"I've been voguing for 11 years, but I didn't have an inkling of it until I started," says voguer and choreographer Willi Ninja (who requested to remain ageless), one of the striking stars of "Paris Is Burning" and one of the few voguers to achieve "crossover" success in the commercial world. A tall, exotically elegant man, seated beside Livingston on a sofa, he's dressed to stun in a beige Armani suit over a sparkly crimson pullover, long lush ponytail, enormous gold earrings. "It was very underground. You basically didn't even see the dance in mainstream clubs, because once people figured out where it came from, then they automatically assumed that if you're doing this dance, then you must be. And the majority of kids at that time didn't want to come out. I was in the closet then, but I was like, 'Hey, this is great, this is a new dance form.' And once I had it down pat, I was doing it everywhere.

As Livingston went to more balls and shot more still pictures and footage, she says, "I began to feel that this was a film." She sold her car to make a five-minute fundraising trailer, and began applying for grants.

"Half of being an independent filmmaker is waiting for grants that don't come through," Livingston says.

Curiously, she had some difficulty obtaining funding from gay organizations as well. "The gay mainstream, which is essentially white and middle-class, doesn't want to be shown as drag queens. They don't want to see them either."

With money from the New York State Council on the Arts and WNYC-TV, filming began in 1985 and ended in 1987, with 70 hours of footage from balls and interviews. The next three years, Livingston says, were spent "editing and running out of money and editing again," paring the film down to 78 elegantly boisterous minutes.

The final stages of production were assisted by funds from the BBC and a $25,000 media arts grant, one of the last National Endowment for the Arts grants awarded before the Jesse Helms-Robert Mapplethorpe flap.

"Our checks were coming in as Helms was raising the ruckus about Mapplethorpe," Livingston says. "And we're like, 'Don't let him find out about "Paris Is Burning," we need the money!' "

But the senator from North Carolina should love this movie.

"It's about old-fashioned family values," Livingston says. "Like kindness and tolerance and loving your mother, even if your mother is a drag queen who is taking the place of your biological mother who refuses to speak to you because you're homosexual."

Houses: Rival clubs or "families" of voguers and "ball walkers," with names taken either from haute couture designers (as in the Houses of Chanel, Saint Laurent and Armani) or from the "mother," the most powerful member of the family (as in the Houses of PepperLabeija, Angie Xtravaganza and Willi Ninja), a surrogate parent to the "ball children" who compete against one another for trophies.

There are dozens of balls held in Manhattan each year, but much of Livingston's film revolves around the Paris Is Burning ball, the grandest of the annual events, thrown by Paris Dupree, Legendary Mother of the House of Dupree, at the Elks Lodge in Harlem. Because many ball competitors perform in nightclubs, the balls begin at 4 or 5 a.m. and continue through the next evening, some lasting 18 hours.

"In real life you can't get a good job," says one ball-goer in the film. "A ball is as close to reality as we're gonna get to all of that fame and fortune, stardom and spotlight."

These streetwise Cinderellas have a sad, insatiable desire for fame and the expensive accouterments they see in magazines and on TV. But deprived as they often are, they are not hostile to mainstream culture. In their imitation of life, they dress up as supermodels and movie stars, but also as Wall Street executives, schoolgirls and military officers. "Realness" is their way of slipping momentarily into desperately desired roles, not satirizing them.

As David Denby pointed out in his New York magazine review: "It's the opposite of camp and finally heartbreaking in its longing for the power to be oneself, a power that most of us take for granted."

Realness: The aesthetic imperative of the ball culture, "realness" is the ability to pass on the runway as something you are not, as in rich for poor, female for male, straight for gay. In life, realness can be a matter of survival, as in passing for straight to avoid homophobic violence. As Willi Ninja says, "If you don't look the part in this world, if you don't have the right accessories or whatever, you're not gonna get it."

"One time I was in Sally's Hideaway, this {transvestite} bar in midtown, and I guess I was dressed in tighter-fitting clothes than usual, and this drag queen looked me over and said, 'You're really good, honey,' " Livingston says with a laugh. "And another time, early in the morning after a ball, I was in Harlem right near the subway at around 155th or something like that. And this guy came up to me and smiled at me, and said, 'Are you for real?' "

At film festivals and colleges, Livingston is often asked what it was like, as a white woman, entering this world. "If you've never been to Harlem, that name resounds with all kinds of images," she says. "But you go there and it's, 'Oh, this is a neighborhood like any other neighborhood.' And the ball was very welcoming. I didn't feel anybody was giving me dirty looks because I was a white girl.

"Then again, I wasn't competition," she adds, and laughs.

"Going to these balls would really blow my mind," says Livingston, who came to be called "Miss Jennie" by the denizens. "You just begin to question, what's gender? Am I doing it right? And you go out on the street after an 18-hour ball and you look at all these people going by, like, 'Is that a man?' Or 'Is that a woman?' And you look at somebody in a dress and they have a slightly masculine jaw line, and you're like, 'Whoa -- what's that?' Or you see a man in a suit, a businessman, and maybe he looks a little feminine, and you're just like, 'Wow, I don't know anything anymore.' "

Drag: The concept that clothes make the man. Or woman. Basically, everyone is in drag.

"I think it's a little different for a woman than for a man because men have traditionally, at least in the last 50 or 100 years, been confined to very simple clothes," Livingston says. "And so when a man is willing to sort of dress up, it's like a liberation, because he can find more personalities. Now, women have been allowed all kinds of finery, but what they haven't been allowed is to be simple. So I think I always felt very oppressed by the idea that I should have stockings and heels, and always fought against it as a kid. So when I dress up in girl drag, I feel very much not like myself. I feel like I have to play a role I don't want to play.

"But, obviously, if I could get a lot of very tailored Chanel suits, I might feel very fine indeed," she says, laughing.

"Gender is a construction," Livingston continues. "Much of it is learned -- the behavior and the makeup and the walk and the dress. And what better proof of that than to see somebody like {transsexual ball-walker} Octavia St. Laurent, who is much more of a classical woman than I am?"

"Even men who go to corporate executive offices are in drag," Ninja. "That's their office drag. They have a whole new personality when they step into the office from their home. It all comes down to details, and you will get over better. That's what realness is all about." In one of the film's most remarkable moments, Ninja teaches "real" women how to walk.

Drag balls have existed for decades, Ninja says, and until the '60s there was no color barrier. For a moment, in 1989, when publicity burned hottest, the balls moved to downtown nightclubs, attracting a spectrum of curiosity-seekers. But they've since moved back uptown, to Harlem. And the concept of drag has changed over the years in the ball communities, as wise drag queen elder/oracle Dorian Corey observes in the film: "When I grew up, you wanted to look like Marlene Dietrich, Betty Grable... With the current children, they've gone to televisioin. I've been to several balls, and they've actually had categories like 'Dynasty' -- they want you to look like Alexis or Krystle! I guess that's just a statement of the times... Now it's not what you can create, it's what you can acquire."

"Voguing was happening in the drag balls in the late '60s too," Ninja says, "and it progressed into the true balls of the '70s. In the '60s it was just basically drag queens, but in the '70s, a lot of the boys were like, 'I don't wanna do this, I don't wanna be in high heels, this is not my thing, but I want to get an award too.' So that's when they started having different houses and competing, coming up with categories."

Categories: The divisions of competition at a ball, which resemble the divisions of a fashion show, with events for both Butch Queens (masculine gay men who compete in men's clothing) and Femme Queens (men who compete in women's clothing). Categories might include Executive Realness (business suits and briefcases); Body (muscular for butch queens, model-type for femme queens, luscious for big or voluptuous femme queens); Opulence -- You Own Everything; Looking Like a Girl Going to School; and Looking Like the Boy That Probably Robbed You a Few Minutes Before You Came to the Ball.

An astonishing amount of love and work goes into creating this world, where gender-bending is not just a theoretical concept but a way of life. Ninja speaks of the lavish Grand Prize productions, in which "you have to design your own costumes, and if they say Japanese High Fashion versus Russian Military, that means your house has to come up with the idea of what that is. The categories are listed and sent out, so you have about a month or a month and a half to get ready. And then there's when they call, for example, Mary McFadden versus Chanel, meaning you have to have the real garments. No labels taken out and stitched in, because they know. These kids get them any which way, but they'll have them, and they're not playing... .

One time there was a category called Shopping Down Fifth, which means making sure that you looked like you were a shopper going down Fifth {Avenue}. So that means you could wear anything from Bloomingdale's, but preferably from Saks with, like, all the designer shopping bags. This is the one category that is taken totally seriously, because it's fashion, total oriented, and you have to give that total illusion. When they're doing Executive Realness or, like, looking like a yachting club, it's a little bit camp, because they're taking shots -- wanting to be that way, but also taking shots at the mainstream society.

"But when it's, like, Mary McFadden, you don't mess, because they take that seriously."

Legendary: Becoming "legendary" is the ultimate goal of the ball children. To be a legend, one must win three grand prizes. But, as Ninja says, "that does not make you a legend in their eyes, unless they say you're a legend."

"We considered calling the film "Pecs, Thighs and Videotape," Livingston jokes. "But we decided that 'Paris Is Burning' evoked what we wanted to evoke -- burning desire, fashion, the dissolution of Western civilization."

After graduating from Yale in 1983, Los Angeles-born Livingston spent some time photographing people at gay parties and rallies. "Very much like Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Weegee, Brassai, those kinds of pictures of people. My photographs were about class, they were about race, and gender and consumerism, just the fabric of American life. And looking at visual influences -- what is a woman, and what is a man, and how does the class system affect that?"

But Livingston says she became frustrated with the "silence" of the medium. "Although I love photographs, I think the people who see them are limited to the people who collect photography books and the people who go to galleries. And I really wanted to tell stories and be more overtly political.

"So I moved to New York, so I could get into film, and was taking this class at NYU, and quite by chance I met these guys who were throwing their limbs all over the place at Washington Square Park. And someone said, 'Honey, if you want to see voguing, you'll have to come to a ball.' "

"Paris's" vivid "screenplay," she says, was "truly written by the ball people themselves." But making the film became "sort of a personal experiential sort of a thing" for Livingston, who says she grew up "very sheltered, very middle class."

"I began to think, 'Oh, I guess I'm gay too,' which was, you know, kind of a revelation. It made me very proud of gay culture, which isn't, as you know, limited to sexual behavior. And I think I felt that I had more in common with black and Latino gay people than I did with an awful lot of white Jewish straight people."

Editing was the most painful part of the process for Livingston and her "sensitive and brutal" editor, Jonathan Oppenheim. "I had so much wonderful stuff that I could have made a miniseries with the outtakes," she says. "I had to lose tons of stuff, whole characters that I loved. A lot of people have asked why AIDS isn't there {in the film}.It felt very superfluous, like I'm putting this in to talk the politically correct line. And since there's been such brilliant films made all about AIDS, like 'Common Threads,' the {Oscar-winning} Quilt film, why do it just to do it? My feeling is that AIDS will be cured and will be gone, but there will still be prejudice against drag queens, people will still be murdered, like Venus {Xtravaganza, a tiny waiflike drag queen who was apparently murdered while hustling before the film's completion}, and there will still be class distinctions."

Although voguing is enjoying some commercial success, most notably in fashion shows and in music videos (Madonna took two voguers from the House of Xtravaganza along on her recent tour), Livingston says Hollywood has been slow to pick up on the trend. And she says she knows why. "It's so funny, in about a month's time, they produced three stupid movies about lambada. I always joke that by the time they produce a movie about voguing, it'll be about straight white boys voguing in New Jersey. 'Saturday Night Voguing Fever.' Or about the one straight white guy who goes to a ball and meets the one straight white girl who goes to a ball, you know?" This cracks Livingston and Ninja up.

Now that "Paris" has been picked up for distribution, Livingston says she's eager to get on with other projects, including a "sick, offensive comedy along the lines of early John Waters and Pedro Almodovar, very irreverent, very political, set in New York."

But she'll always remember her nights at the ball.

"I'd just like to make the kind of movies that ask questions, that sort of raise a few hackles, but that just make you think and make you feel that the world is a mysterious place," she says. "Because that's the way I felt going into the ball world, that the world is so full of mystery, and the human spirit is such a marvelous and mysterious thing, and look at what people come up with when they're handed nothing, and look at how we survive -- all of us survive."

Copyright The Washington Post

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