Burlesque vs. neurosis with a budget: neurosis wins
I was quite eager to see what had been described as a "documentary" on the burlesque strippers of the second quarter (or so) of the last century. I worked as a live musician behind strippers in the mid 1960s, when the women I worked behind were already an anachronism. Older than I was by 10 or sometimes 20 years, they had an "act" (or a "shtick") with props and a narrative of sorts; they didn't disrobe completely; and there was no possibility of confusing the experience of watching their show with being a non-medical presence at a gynecological examination. They were also (to generalize, certainly) wilder than hell, full of life, and committed to a philosophy of behavioral laissez-faire which was truly mind-expanding to my young suburban self. Nevertheless, I am quite disappointed with the film.
OK, what is this film? First of all, to the degree that it explores the director's (and - should we also call her the female lead?) discomfort with her own sexuality, with her stammering, over-controlled and nearly inarticulate vocabulary of movement, and with her search for a new (and appropriated) vocabulary of movement which she hopes to be self-empowering, it may well be some sort of autobiographical essay, but exactly to that degree, it's not documentary. (By the way, watching her attempt to perfect some bumps, grinds, and shimmies while "en point" in ballet toe shoes is an example of the brittleness of her self-conception, and provides apparently unconscious self-parody. For a person who spends as much time as she does looking at herself in the mirror, she sees remarkably little, and nothing to laugh at.)
Also, in an effort to mold the expression of the strippers (yes, oldish women, but in the context of this film, first and foremost strippers) to cleave to a puerile combination of partly-chewed and regurgitated academic feminist theory and the psycho-babble of sex and power, she robs from the strippers the often formidable authenticity and power of their statements. They lay it out bare (as it were) and she hurries to wrap it up in something that's not so scary. Several times the strippers quite obviously are suffering her as an annoying, uncomprehending tourist to their world. At one point, one of the strippers says "Oh come on, now - you're not THAT naive!" Unfortunately, I think that the stripper may have been incorrect.
Given the inherent interest of the topic (to me, at any rate), and the rich color and authenticity of the old strippers in the film, it saddens me that I think the movie such a dog, but dog it is. A producer with a commitment to excise the egregiously self-indulgent and narcissistic strains from the movie would have resulted in a much stronger work. As it stands, you'll learn more about female burlesque (if not about stripping) from watching old Lucy reruns.
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