EXPOSED—a burlesque movie review

A new documentary about burlesque, EXPOSED, by Beth B, premieres this Friday, Nov. 15, at the SVA Theater as part of the DOC NYC Film Festival. We’re proud to present an advance review of the film by burlesque host and cinema addict, Bastard Keith, making his Burlesque Beat debut.

by Bastard Keith

November 13, 2013

The first thing that may strike you about Exposed is just how many penises, vaginas and assholes are on dangling, gaping, winking display right from the beginning. Most documentaries about show business don’t take as one of their signature images a woman smearing lipstick around her naked labia, but Beth B, thankfully, proves a director willing to jump in at the deep end.

The subject of Exposed is burlesque, and in a refreshing change from the prevailing documentary approach, it’s not the stuff of coy, wholesome naughtiness or empowering workshops. This is about the New York scene of the early 21st century, a hotbed of puckish, punkish performance art. This is the burlesque of politics, gender mutability and provocation. The bump and grind is still very much in evidence, but the bumps can bruise and the grinding sometimes draws blood.

But for all that, this IS show business in excelsis, and the faces and voices of Exposed are a thoroughly enjoyable bunch of people to spend a movie with. The cast of characters, in no particular order: World Famous *BOB*, Rose Wood, Dirty Martini, Tigger!, Mat Fraser, Julie Atlas Muz, Bunny Love, Bambi the Mermaid and James Habacker. If you were looking to chronicle downtown burlesque, you could hardly ask for a more representative or entertaining gaggle.

At first, the torrent of raw performance footage and uninhibited interviews is wonderful, relentless, funny, surprising. Love, a Southern belle gone marvelously twisted, gives us one of the film’s guiding principles: “Vulgarity is freedom.” And every performance we see is a display of the wild possibilities of the human body, unencumbered by convention. Muz’s disembodied hand act is a hilarious treatise on the body in rebellion, but the really telling one is Breaking the Law. The concept, in which she shatters innumerable petty laws and social mores, presents the female body as a weapon, a thing every bit as unlawful as smoking in a bar or destroying currency.

*BOB*, meanwhile, presents gender as a hall of mirrors. Believing herself to be a gay man in her early life, *BOB*, a female-bodied person, often went in drag as a man pretending to be a woman. She even walks us through the process of “femming up” in ways that suggest she might be hiding her birth gender. Now *BOB* has the aura of a den mother, a loving, friendly, humanist caretaker, holding her audience’s hand as she gently disassembles their notions of identity. It’s easy to mistake her onstage cheer for something far more simple than it is. It’s comforting and thrilling at the same time.

Rose Wood takes us further into the joy of sex/gender uncertainty, but with the strange, implacable cool of a zen master. With acts ranging from the satirical to the frighteningly grotesque (there’s a serial killer routine that you may have to watch through your fingers), Wood also offers a persuasive explanation for why this motley crew does what they do: it’s a method of shocking away the inherent skepticism of adulthood and rediscovering the child’s potential for unguarded wonder.

It would be a mistake, with a cast this large, charismatic, and diverse, to say that any one of these personalities dominates proceedings. Tigger! is a fascinating, relentlessly entertaining mixture of classical thespian and genderfucking punk artist. Fraser comes off as tender and talkative in interviews, bawdy and suave with an audience (and we’re given a damn good glimpse of what looks suspiciously like his genitals nearly being swallowed live on stage). Dirty Martini, brassy and brilliant, speaks intelligently on dance and the body. Habacker embodies a timeless archetype, the impresario-performer, and we see him in character guises so different that it’s often startling. Bambi has less screen time but is nevertheless irrepressible and funny.

Exposed, unfortunately, fails these glittering personalities in crucial ways. Low-budget documentaries have had shaky camerawork and lame synthesized music before and they will again, but the film’s biggest problems are thematic and narrative. After some 20 minutes, it becomes clear that the footage, as striking as it is, isn’t linking together and resonating or developing in any particular way. There’s no structure here, no progression. It’s essentially a bunch of vignettes making similar points, over and over. As a result, what ought to be a breeze at 76 minutes feels much longer. Themes are stated repeatedly (gender is performance, normality is an illusion, transgression is healthy, there’s no one “right” body) but they are never developed or explored. Often there’s a feeling that a deeper inquiry might have taken the film to another level.

There are plenty of stories here (*BOB*’s romance and engagement, Muz and Fraser’s tour of Amsterdam, the running of a place as unusual as The Slipper Room, Wood’s breast implant surgery and aftermath), and any of them could have served as windows into their subjects. All are either unexamined or shoved inelegantly into the larger picture. The placement and treatment of Wood’s story, for instance, feels like a slight. After almost an hour of haphazardly organized material, we see Wood set off on the journey, return, and go immediately into what looks like painful aftercare in one lump segment. It’s gripping, poignant stuff, but its inclusion almost feels like an afterthought.

The film’s greatest value may be unintended: it’s a document of a bygone era. It’s been a few years since much of this footage was shot. Bunny Love is back in New Orleans. Martini and Muz have become unlikely celebrities after appearing in the French film Tournée (On Tour). Rose Wood has made the papers after pretending to vomit on a thoroughly delighted Susan Sarandon. The Slipper Room has undergone an extensive makeover since filming, and in its new guise is unlikely to play host to lipsticked labia or live oral sex.

Yet here it all is as it was. And for a glimpse into the New York burlesque scene at a crucial and exciting moment, we should be grateful. If you were there, this is a fine memento. If you weren’t, well, strap yourself in.

EXPOSED movie screening with Live Performances: DOC NYC Film Festival, Friday, Nov. 15, 9:30pm at SVA Theater, 333 W. 23rd St., New York City. Get Tickets.
(party at the Slipper Room afterwards)

Bastard Keith is a burlesque emcee, writer and actor. 

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