'There is freedom in vulgarity," declares Bunny Love, one of the eight contemporary burlesque artists profiled in Beth B’s Exposed, a study of the stage art that has dipped in and out of historical contention only to re-emerge with a new focus in the 21st century. The one-time New York No Wave filmmaker has gone through something of a reinvention herself, and this documentary proves to be a focused, if sometimes one-sided, exploration of a misunderstood art form that plays close and generous attention to the practitioners on the screen. The dashed-off notion of burlesque as arty, amateurish stripping has no traction in this film.
a focused, if sometimes one-sided, exploration of a misunderstood art form
As the conventional striptease has become a ritualised part of sexual commodification, burlesque has moved towards cultural confrontation. Beth B’s movie doesn’t deign to make the case for burlesque, it treats it seriously and gives the participants a forum to explain their motivations. The performances – at American clubs and European art festivals, which provides a succinct delineation of national perceptions – are provocative and in some cases explicit, beginning with Bunny Love subverting the notion of the crazy woman by holding a gun to her head and applying lipstick to her labia.
'It’s about control," she explains after the audience has cheered, but the documentary doesn’t interrogate the audience’s intentions, which is perhaps understandable with such compelling subjects. Most are outsiders, who in finding a place to breathe discovered, as one puts it, 'another way of seeing the body". Mat Fraser, one of several male artists included, was a Thalidomide baby, and he uses his shortened, flipper-like arms as part of a confidently charismatic act that reverses society’s views of his body. After a show, he says, audience members hit on him. 'They’re flipping the revulsion," he adds.
There’s a touch of history, with Dirty Martini referencing 1940s burlesque star Dixie Evans, but the contemporary outlook is on burlesque’s nudity creating artistic freedom; strippers don’t create an act based on the Patriot Act, as Dirty Martini points out. The film is initially reticent to move outside the work and the associated skills, but it gradually reveals some of how these larger than life performers’ live offstage, most notably in the relationship between Fraser and fellow burlesque artist Julie Atlas Muz; it’s telling that the pair’s joint performances have a particularly fluid approach to image and message, as they break the mentality of the removed artist on stage that appears to satisfy many of those profiled.
The aesthetic visually is handheld and often on the fly, perched at the foot of a stage or crammed into a taxi taking costumed performers out to a Coney Island engagement. But the content is sturdy and the insight slowly accumulates. There’s no probing of the artist’s philosophies, with most of their remarks explanatory when a more rigorous dialogue might have prompted them, but it’s hard not to be fascinated by the dedication and journey of someone like Rose Wood. A man who brings drag culture to burlesque tradition, reimagining feminine movement for a male body, over the course of Beth B’s documentary Wood plans and then gets female breast construction. The result is exactly what he wants in terms of gender: 'I’ll be neither."