Nov. 18th, 2005

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On Wednesday we watched "Paris is Burning" in our New Documentary Film class. Wow, that was REALLY good! I recommend it to everyone. It's a documentary by Jennie Livingston about the black drag queens of Harlem, NYC in the late 80s. She follows a group of people around and shows how they live and perform.

They organize themselves in Houses, a bit like a gang. There's the House of LaBeija, the House of Ninja, the House of Ducreet, the House of Xtravaganza, the House of Saint Laurent and many more. The heads of the Houses are called Mothers and the members of the Houses are children. Houses are self-chosen families. They take care of each other, spend time together, support each other. All the performing members of a House take their house name as last name. For example, Pepper LaBeija or Venus Xtravaganza or Octavia Saint Laurent.

They gather for balls, which is basically a dance-off, or a catwalk. Everyone who wants to perform "walks" there, showing off their costumes. Unlike popular opinion, they don't always wear flashy gawdy costumes. There are actually many different categories, such as "Business Executive", "Winter Fashion", "American Schoolgirl", "Butch Queen wearing a Dress for the First Time" etc. There's an MC who introduces the contestants and this one was particularily funny. He had this very fruity mode of talking, almost a little vicious, but he was really funny. Like "Next category is winter fashion. Winter fashion is coats, is fur... you can wear something other than fur, too. If you choose polyester, so help you God. You know how the Queens are." hahaha... If you walk in a Ball successfully you become "legendary". Becoming a "Legend" is the most desireable thing for a House child.

Whenever two queens have a beef with each other they give each other a reading. A reading is a fast-paced, insultive speech given to the other one. It's their way of duking it out. You can also give someone a shade, which is a very subtle, very smart insult. When reading won't do anymore, you can also vogue against each other. Vogueing is a dance style which you might know from Madonna who adopted it from this very scene. It's a very angular, elegant dance style, incorporating ballett and martial arts moves into a dance routine that got its name from the fashion magazine Vogue because the dancers imitate the poses from the models there. The one who vogues best wins.

I found this documentary very touching. It gave you an insight into the mind of these people. A lot of them felt cheated by life. They were black, underpriviledged and gay. They felt like everyone else but them was rich, white, successful and beautiful. A lot of them hungered for riches, for fame. They wanted to become somebody. Others had very modest dreams. They wanted a man who loves and accepts them, a house far away from New York, a family, a good life. Some of them wanted nothing more than become a real woman. That's one thing that jarred me a little. They seemed to be very sloppy with their terminology. It was almost like drag queen = transvestite = transsexual, which of course isn't true. But maybe the terms just weren't that seperated yet in the late 80s.

Anyway, it was very moving. I felt for these people. Some of them were so startingly beautiful and they wanted to become models or actors, be rich and famous. And there was this one woman, Venus Xtravaganza, who said she felt like there was nothing male about her and her biggest wush would be to become a full woman one day. She was the one who wanted the man, the house and the family. That wasn't too much asked, was it? And yet... it was clear from the start that she'd never get this. Walking is expensive, you need to keep up with the latest fashion, need to buy new accessories, top the other people constantly. It's an addiction and in order to finance this addiction they need to steal and prostitute themselves. And this is what Venus did, too. She was trying to rationalize this away, saying what she was doing wasn't very different from what a wife would do. If you want something from a man you need to fuck him. But... that's not true. Later it was revealed and two years later she was found strangled in a hotel room. I felt so sorry for her.

One of the interviewees was Dorian Corey, an old and worn-out drag queen, who was putting on make-up. He kept talking about how life had changed, how people have moved away from beads, glitter and fashion to super models and labels. How everything had changed. He said "Of course everyone wants to become famous. But as you grow older... you aim lower. Now you just want to get by." It reminded me of Delilah Blue. It touched me deeply. It was like he was the destiny of all these young and hopeful queens who were dreaming of fame and riches.

I cannot recommend this documentary enough. Everyone should go see it. It will change your perception of life.
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