Friday, January 3, 2014
'Exposed: Beyond Burlesque' (2013) directed by Beth B
Friday, January 3, 2014 by londoncitynights
Beth B's Exposed: Beyond Burlesque totally demolishes the notion of burlesque as merely 'stripping that's acceptable in the middle classes'. The performers here spend their lives at the extreme end of the burlesque spectrum, their acts a heady cocktail of thrashed genitalia, fake blood and overt surrealism topped off with stiff middle fingers and a cheeky wink. But this isn't just shock for the sake of it, the film explores the compulsions that drive these performers on stage; digging deep under the makeup and glitter to find out why they do the things they do. This is fertile ground for a documentarian and Beth B is clearly on the same page as her subjects, all of whom are open, friendly and relaxed - feeling able to confide in her and by extension, us. Though the director is an invisible presence we're constantly aware of her, viewing this eccentric and alien world through the eyes of someone on the inside.
The performers showcased here neatly subvert expectations as to what burlesque 'should be': everyone here appears to have a clear manifesto as to what they'd like to achieve on stage. One of the most complex and illustrative is The World Famous *BoB*, who ran away from home to shack up with a crew of drag queens. Her aim was to become a drag queen herself, but paradoxically actually being born a woman is more problematic than you might think. To successfully pull off the drag aesthetic, *BoB* needed to become a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman; embodying a unique genderqueer ouroboros that you don't generally get to see in cinema.
*BoB* detonates a bomb under traditional notions of gender, as does Rose Wood, a transgender performance artist working at the extreme end of the spectrum, even for this documentary. Over the course of the production of the documentary we see her undergoing breast augmentation surgery. When we first meet her she has a taut body that echoes the mental and physical discipline of an expert martial artist. By the end of the film she has impressively bountiful breasts that somehow make her more physically intimidating, fiercely challenging anyone that interacts with her to confront her physical appearance.
Wood describes herself as "trans-aggressive", explaining that she's had to develop a tough carapace to put up with the daily bullshit of stares, catcalls and insults that come with a life lived as performance. She's open and charismatic in interview, imparting conspiratorial nuggets of inside drag-knowledge. This persona segues smoothly into her act which, in the most shocking footage of the film, involves a performance called Serial Killer in which she drags a woman into a bathtub, stabs her with lashes of fake blood, staples her scrotum into faux-labia and then staples a bloody rubber pussy onto her groin. Fun for all the family.
Suffusing the film is a soupy, gloopy mixture of greasepaint, blood and glitter - yet even through all this theatricality the humanity of the performers shines through. The most immediately affecting story is Mat Fraser, born a thalidomide baby with 'flipper' arms. He's a disabled rights activist, performing at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Paralympic Games and being lauded by the Queen herself. It's fun to think what Lizzie might make of his act, which showcases his disability in a beautifully concise manner - one segment featuring him shedding prosthetic arms and another showcasing upfront disabled sexuality.
Fraser could sustain an entire documentary by himself and the most affectingly honest moments in the film are the interviews where he charts his progression from being bullied at school and trying to conceal his disability, to his punk awakening and decision to embrace his body. We learn later that he's married the bombshell burlesque trash-queen Julie Atlas Muz whose performances (in particular one involved a severed hand) are both imaginative and technically marvellous. You get the warm fuzzies in tender pillow talk sequences as the couple are interviewed intertwined with each other, two people in perfect ease with each other - practically finishing each other's sentences.
Fraser dares us to stare, seizing the exploitative iconography of the PT Barnum freakshow and subverting it into a pro-disability statement of intent. Large portions of the documentary are shot in Coney Island, the warped wood, distorted paintings and downmarket carnie glamour creating an atmosphere similar to Tod Browning's Freaks - complete with the intense camaraderie that develops between people who exist physically and mentally on the fringes of what polite society deems 'acceptable'.
Exposed is consistently interesting, though much of this is borne on the backs of the performers rather than any particular impressive cinematic tricks. Though largely competently constructed there's the odd spot of editing that works against the film; a heartfelt explanation of the artistic joy and self-fulfilment of burlesque that immediately cuts to a woman dancing around in a lobster costume doing a buttery autocannibal striptease. This disconnect a funny, but arguably undermines a bit of the heartfelt sincerity.
Somewhat more egregious is the technical quality of the recordings. The performances are shot on handheld DV cams, so in the darkened rooms of the burlesque clubs the film quality grainy and indistinct. Similarly, the soundtrack occasionally devolves into slightly cheap sounding MIDI muzak - presumably where the budget couldn't accommodate royalties for whatever song was originally being played. Fortunately this DIY aesthetic just about fits the material, the technical shortcomings appropriately bringing to mind John Waters' Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble.
For all these flaws, a film exploring a subculture this smart, charismatic and extroverted can't help but succeed, powering through any flaws with bravado: deploying shocking imagery in a pleasantly casual way - as if daring us to find this offensive. Anyone with a taste for sexual extremes, who enjoys being shocked and playfully transgressing all manner of taboos will enjoy this. For 71 minutes you find yourself hanging out with fascinating friends, awakening that old desire to poke boundaries previously thought unpokeable.
Exposed: Beyond Burlesque is at the ICA from 7-16th January 2014. Tickets available here.