Paris Is Burning

Although nearly a decade has already passed since Jennie Livingston's groundbreaking documentary first took home the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and then went on to nail just about every other award in the book, Paris Is Burning is as relevant now as it ever was, if not more so.

Since then, the notion of "drag" has positioned itself even further within the mainstream's lexicon – thanks to Madonna, Marilyn Manson, and, one presumes, Mrs. Doubtfire. Although drag balls and the gay subculture that fosters this vital, vibrant artistic movement have been around for as long as anyone can remember (in the East Village, anyway), Livingston's portrait of the Harlem/Village scene and the varied divas and performers who compose it is as enlightening a bit of sociology and sub-pop-culture expressiveness as you're likely to find.

It's also a lot of fun: The legendary children of the Houses of Labeija, Xtravaganza, Saint Laurent, and others parade their fierce selves at all-night and all-day balls, competing against each other in categories such as realness, butch queens, femme queens, and anything else that can be imagined, strutted, or sewn. And yes, there's more voguing here than you could shake a Ciccone at.

Livingston alternates between footage of the balls – the winners carrying out their enormous trophies, the losers licking their wounds and silently vowing their return, and scenes of the queens at home or in the dressing rooms, preparing for battle while quietly reciting the horrors inflicted on them by the straight world. It's bad enough, notes Pepper Labeija, that middle-class and affluent white women are bombarded by images of stylistic perfectionism every waking moment; being black, gay, and poor is a triple whammy that sends some young children spiraling into the abyss.

Still, there's a fierce pride at work, the hallmark of true artists and artisans working far beneath the radar of the white-collar straight world above. Paris Is Burning illuminates that dark, strobe-lit underworld in a way few documentarians or sociologists have ever attempted. Sashay shante indeed.

Paris Is Burning will be presented as part of the Texas Documentary Tour on Wednesday, September 9 at the Alamo Drafthouse, at 7 & 9:30pm. Tickets for both shows go on sale one half hour before showtime. Admission is $5 for the general public; $3.50 for Austin Film Society members and students. Jennie Livingston will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session after each screening. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.

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Jennie Livingston, Texas Documentary Tour

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