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Another 'Paris' That Sizzled

6 Jul, 2005 By: Holly J. Wagner

In a world of implants, liposuction and botox, it's not hard to imagine how far people will go to feel attractive.

“We all look at advertising and say we don't look like that model or have that car,” said director Jennie Livingston. “Until we don't have media and don't have capitalism, it will be that way, and that is never going to happen.”

Getting a peek at how far Harlem's marginalized 1980s cross-dressing community would go to look like — or feel like — their idols set Livingston on a creative course examining the weight of ostracism and the power of acceptance. The result was Paris Is Burning, the 1990 film that finally will get its close-up on DVD Sept. 6 (prebook July 26, $29.99).

Livingston started her project after meeting people in the park who were “voguing,” competitive runway-model-posing at camera-shutter pace.

“I [later] went to a drag ball — I had never seen anything like that,” she said. “That made me think a lot about gender and what it is to be a woman.”

For the crews involved in voguing — known as “houses” (like fashion designers, and often named after them) — the goal of a ball appearance could range from looking as flamboyantly different from their genetic roots as possible to looking as natural as possible to blend in.

“It's really a case of going back into the closet” figuratively and literally, explained Dorian Corey, one of the grand dames of the circuit featured in the film and part of its inspiration.

“The other thing that really grabbed me was the idea that people were trying to be a ‘real' anything,” Livingston said. “People were all engaged in various levels of trying to fit in. This is the illusion of being whatever it is in imitating. We're all playing a game.”

While voguing has somewhat fallen out of vogue, the theme of the Miramax film can still resonate with a new generation because it is less about the drag balls and more about the people who attend — two of them made commentaries on the disc.

“The world hasn't changed; the generations have changed,” Livingston said. “The issues that the film are about are not about 1991 when the film was completed. The issues are really about what it means to fit in in America, [whether the issue is] class or race or sexual orientation.”

For the voguers, the ball circuit is a way to fulfill dreams of achieving screen or modeling fame. They plunge into character. In the film, subjects discuss how they became part of the drag ball scene as well as how their gender orientation affected their lives, relationships and professional opportunities or lack thereof.

For some, the balls opened doors. Willi Ninja, one of the crew leaders who recorded a commentary track, went on to a career choreographing runway shows for mainstream fashion designers.

The DVD will include the commentaries and some outtakes.

“There is an intercut that didn't make it in the film where they talk about religion,” Livingston said. “One thing I really liked about the people in the film is that they have really strong and articulate views.”

Another outtake looks at views of AIDS, which then was starting to appear on the mainstream radar though it was already cutting a swath through the gay community. Faced with that and a wall of social prejudice, the crews carved out a place of their own.

“In a sense, they created an alternative where they could be accepted for who they are,” Livingston said. “It's a lesson to not measure ourselves against billionaires and top models. Most of us are never going to be that.”

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