"Paris Is Burning" is a drag queen's version of "The Great Gatsby."
A documentary about black and Latino gay culture may only seem to be about a tiny corner of American life. But the underlying subject of Jennie Livingston's wonderful film could not be more mainline American: It's about Jay Gatsby looking yearningly across the water at the green light on Daisy Buchanan's dock; it's about wanting to be what you're not.
The title comes from the name of the most famous gay ball in Harlem -- held, in a wonderfully appropriate twist -- at an Elks lodge. Gay balls, as Livingston's camera sensitively tells us, let the fantasies of those who attend them run wild as they alternately mock and celebrate the straight world. Part beauty contests, part fashion contests, part dance contests -- balls are opportunities, as one of the film's subjects puts it, "for us to be free to be whatever we want to be."
What many of the men in "Paris Is Burning" fantasize about is being part of the straight world. But it is straightness with an ironic difference. Out of their rejection by straight culture -- not only because they are gay, but also because they are people of color who are often poor -- they make something that is simultaneously strange and familiar. There are contests in several categories, and one of the most striking is that of "realness": the ability to pass as something you are not, as in poor for rich, male for female and -- almost always -- gay for straight.
Among the subdivisions in realness are "preppy" (in which we see young men from the mean streets in pressed chinos and shetland sweaters looking as if they just stepped off an Ivy campus); "executive" in which gay men don conservative gray suits and rimless eyeglasses and carry briefcases and copies of the Wall Street Journal; and "military" featuring uniforms and beribboned chests. These competitions call into question the idea of "masculine" dress and behavior.
Even more intriguing are the men who pass themselves off as women. The older ones regard dressing in drag as an interlude; but many of the young men actually want to be women, passing as women in their regular lives, having breast implants and saving money for sex-change operations.
"I just want a few things in life," says Venus Xtravaganza, a frail, light-skinned Latino with green eyes and bleached blond hair. "To get married in a church -- and in white -- and to be with the man I love all my life."
Then there's the beautiful Octavia Saint Laurent, who is convinced that being beautiful is the answer to everything, who keeps a poster of supermodel Paulina Porizkova over "her" bed and who attends modeling demonstrations in the hope that she, too, may someday make the cover of Vogue.
"So many of these kids just want to become women," says Pepper Labeija, one of the older and wiser drag queens. "But having a vagina doesn't mean that you'll have a fabulous life -- it could be worse."
There are sad stories in "Paris Is Burning," such as that of Venus, but there are also success stories such as that of Willi Ninja, whose passion and talent for a type of dancing called voguing helped it enter the mainstream and have made him a fixture at fashion shows from Tokyo to Paris.
Livingston weaves these narratives together with pace and skill, making us understand her subjects as human beings with dreams not unlike our own, but also helping us to understand that the wit and humor with which they view the straight world is one of the reasons they call themselves gay.
'Paris Is Burning'
Starring Dorian Corey, Willi Ninja,
Pepper Labeija, Octavia Saint
Laurent and Venus Xtravaganza.
Directed by Jennie Livingston.
Released by Prestige.