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MOVIE REVIEW : Invitation to the Drag Ball

TIMES FILM CRITIC

A most unlikely ghost haunts “Paris Is Burning,” the absorbing, seductive new documentary that focuses on Harlem’s drag-ball scene. It is Marlon Brando as “On the Waterfront’s” Terry Malloy, anguish incarnate in the back seat of a car as he tells his brother, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”

The black and Latino drag queens who people “Paris,” denizens of one of those hidden, inaccessible worlds that documentaries used to specialize in unearthing during the days of “Nanook of the North,” would seem to have little to do with the proletarian Mr. Malloy.

Members of a subculture within a subculture, with their own language, dress code, dance styles, wickedly humorous forms of insult and a sexually charged lifestyle strong enough to unnerve the unwary (if there’s anyone unwary left out there), they seem to inhabit a dark-end-of-the-street universe as far removed from the mundane world of the working class as it is possible to go.

But once you get past the gaudy and glamorous cross-dressing, the ever-present breast implants, the cherished sex-change operations, what you come to is that yearning both to belong and to succeed that is so naked, so quintessentially American, so evocative of Terry’s plea, it almost breaks your heart.

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What “Paris’ ” producer-director Jennie Livingston manages to very adroitly demonstrate is how the ball world holds up a crooked mirror to straight society, underlining not only the poignancy of the dreams of this parallel universe but also how limited are the role models they chose to follow.

Though they’re held in places like Elks’ lodges rather than palaces and don’t seem to feature any dancing or romance to speak of, the balls of “Paris Is Burning” (at the AMC Century 14 and GCC Beverly Connection) are similar to the one Cinderella wanted to go to in one crucial respect: Everyone is dressed to the teeth. And if winning a prince is not the object, the earning of enormous trophies that would put those offered by any self-respecting bowling league to shame certainly is.

“It’s a fame,” says Dorian Corey, a veteran participant, and one of the more philosophical. “A small fame, but you absorb it, you take it. It’s like a physical high, a high that won’t hurt you.”

And for these men, many of whom apparently work as entertainers and/or for escort services and are further marginalized by being poor, of color and gay, it is, as one of them says, “as close to fame, fortune and stardom as we’re going to get.”

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Almost invariably estranged from their blood relatives, these often witty, resilent men have formed themselves into surrogate families called houses, run by veteran ball participants like the regal Pepper LaBeija (“Do you want me to say who I am and all that?” he says with inexpressible hauteur) who are called legends and perform the work of surrogate parents for the tyro ball-goers, known collectively as “the children.”

Though the most flamboyant ball participants are the Femme Queens, men who dress as the highest of high fashion models, one of the surprises of “Paris Is Burning” (named for one of the balls) is the variety and incongruity of the other categories.

Among the most unexpected competition classifications are Military, where participants parade around in a variety of uniforms, Executive Realness and Bangee Realness, where the object is to convincingly impersonate briefcase-carrying Wall Street types and street muggers, respectively.

That people who are mightily scorned by conventional society fantasize so fervently about belonging to it is one of the many paradoxes this film explores, and one of the many examples it gives of the pervasiveness of cultural norms even among those whose entire life is based on flouting them.

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“Paris” was made over the course of five years for a minuscule $375,000, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant that somehow escaped Jesse Helms’ scrutiny--but not a Christian watchdog group, which is calling for a boycott of the film.

“Paris” is more conventional in form than “Tongues Untied,” this year’s other documentary focusing on gay men of color. Scrupulously open and evenhanded, Livingston and her editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, intercut ball scenes with interviews with the participants in less hectic, more reflective moments.

It is those personal, humanizing moments, much more than the hectic, eye-catching hubbub of performance, that truly linger in the mind and enable “Paris Is Burning” to rise above the usual accusations of chic voyeurism or exploitation.

We meet people like Venus Xtravaganza, who dreams of “a normal happy life, getting married in a church in white,” while hiring himself out to men who like the fact that his tiny hands enhance his femininity.

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Or the stunning Octavia Saint Laurent, who yearns to be a high-fashion model and is glimpsed wandering dazzled and a trifle forlorn on the outskirts of an event run by the Eileen Ford Modeling Agency.

Though “Paris Is Burning” (Times-rated Mature for strong sexual language and situations) emphasizes the humor and resilience of these folks and also features people like Willie Ninja, who has managed to translate his subculture status into success in the mainstream world, it is those who seem likely to live back-street versions of the American Dream who, inevitably, make the strongest impression.

When Tennessee Williams said, “Nothing human is alien to me,” he could very well have had this film’s participants in mind, and it is the triumph of “Paris Is Burning” to not only show us what he meant, but also make us feel why he meant it.

‘Paris Is Burning’

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An Off White Production, released by Prestige. Directed and produced by Jennie Livingston. Executive producers Davis Lacy and Nigel Finch. Co-producer Barry Swimmer. Associate producers Claire Goodman and Meg McLagen. Cinematographer Paul Gibson. Editor Jonathan Oppenheim. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (sexual language and situations).


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