NEW YORK — In a recent interview, Madonna said that her friend Michael Jackson was in need of an image makeover and she had the perfect inspiration for him: the Harlem transvestite scene. After a couple of weeks of hanging around it, she suggested, he'd be a new man.
She should know. A couple of years ago, Madonna popularized "voguing," a dance style that had originated in Harlem at drag-ball competitions in which blacks and Latinos mimicked the preening of high-fashion models and movie legends. "Vogue," Madonna's No.1 hit and video, was the sanitized interpretation of a gritty ghetto aesthetic that has been captured in "Paris Is Burning," Jennie Livingston's documentary that opens in Los Angeles Friday after a record-breaking run at the Film Forum in New York.
The oddly evocative title refers to the name of one such ball featured in the 78-minute film, which shared both the 1990 Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. award for best documentary and this year's grand jury prize at the Sundance Festival. Yet despite the accolades, the low-budget film (about $450,000) went without national release for about a year until Prestige picked it up. Distributors were skeptical about its appeal outside New York. Their doubts, which will be put to the test in coming weeks, are understandable for the film focuses on the pageantry of one of society's most marginal cultures: poor black and Latino gays, some of whom are transvestites and transsexuals.
Yet much of the drama stems from these outcasts' glorification of the conventional as well as the glamorous. At the balls, they compete for cash prizes and trophies in categories that go well beyond gender-bending. Homeboys and homegirls alike are judged on their ability to impersonate not only the opposite sex, but also college students, Wall Street bankers (right down to briefcases filled with airline tickets and credit cards), and society snobs in jodhpurs--the very groups that would reject them.
Despite the outre subject matter, however, Livingston, a 29-year-old Yale graduate, maintains that the subculture depicted in "Paris Is Burning" serves as a microcosm of sorts. "The movie shows people something they've never seen before in a way that mirrors something they know intimately--living in a consumerist media society," she says. "The people in this film are simply responding in their own way to the intense social pressure to conform to certain images. We all feel that."
As parody or satire, the sight of ghetto youth in upper-class togs would be stunning proletarian performance art. But the cultural cross-dressing is for real. "This is white America," explains the ball emcee. "And when it comes to the minorities, especially black, we as a people, is the greatest example of behavior modification in the history of civilization. . . . That is why if you have captured the Great White Way of living, or looking, or dressing, or speaking, you is a marvel!"
Studded with such loaded images, the documentary raises troubling questions--about ethnic self-hatred, the fluidity of sexual identity and the social tyranny of the media. While Livingston has been praised by both white and African-American critics for her handling of these thorny problems, others have questioned the wisdom of bringing to light the spectacle of ghetto youth kneeling "at the throne of whiteness"--especially when such worship demands stealing, lying and going hungry in order to outfit themselves. In a critical article in Z magazine, a Boston cultural journal, writer Bell Hooks painted the white, upper-middle-class filmmaker as a sort of intrepid bwana voyaging into the "heart of darkness" to bring back African-American exotica for white consumption.
Hooks notes that the very popularity of the film with Manhattan's smart set confirms its titillating appeal. She wrote: "What could be more reassuring to a white public fearful that marginalized disenfranchised black folks might make revolutionary struggle a reality than a documentary affirming that the victims are all too willing to be complicit in perpetuating the fantasies of ruling class white culture?"
The criticism makes Livingston bristle. "I am aware that there is a long history of whites exploiting African-American culture just as there is of men exploiting women's work," she says. "But we live in a multicultural environment and can't help but be influenced by each other. This is certainly not an authoritative statement about blacks or Latins but a film about a gay subculture which does not 'belong' exclusively to any one group any more than African-American culture does."