Speaking before DOC NYC’s premiere of Exposed, a documentary capturing the subversive, decadent and downright artistically important New York neo-burlesque scene, no wave director Beth B declared that this wave of contemporary burlesque inspired her more than any other art since the NEA collapsed during the Culture Wars of the 1990s, driving her back to underground filmmaking. Well, Ms. B, we couldn’t agree more!
Frequenting burlesque shows at Joe’s Pub, the Red Lotus Room, Vig 27 (may her awful margaritas rest in peace, as well as the memories of our shitshows) and The Slipper Room, as well as random holiday shows with Moisty the Snowman and Murray Hill, both Marion and I have admired the New York burlesque scene for years, unabashedly fan girl/boy-ing it for performers such as Tigger!, Stormy Leather, World Famous *Bob*, Go-Go Harder, Bradford Scobie and countless others. We found our place in the audience of these performances, viewing the burlesque scene as the logical continuation of Weimar Berlin and John Waters’ trash aesthetic, who Queen of Coney Island Bambi The Mermaid refers to as an influence in the film as she magnificently pops a hard-boiled egg out of her cooter.
For me, as an art writer, this new wave of burlesque delves into issues of gender, sexuality and body politics far better than most of the performance art and fine art I’m forced to review, pushing the boundaries of good taste. Breaking taboos, if the contemporary burlesque scene is not worthy of the title of fine art, I don’t know what is.
However enough about me, let’s get back to the film.
In production for seven years, Exposed follows some of the most notable figures on the burlesque scene through their backstage rituals, personal lives, physical changes, challenges and fantastic performances. Best known for her underground no wave films such as Black Box, Beth B began her descent into the world of burlesque after watching Tigger! perform, deciding to document this unique scene.
Taking viewers from The Box to The Slipper Room and Coney Island’s Burlesque at the Beach, the film focuses on Rose Wood, Julie Atlas Muz, Mat Fraser, Dirty Martini, World Famous *Bob*, Bunny Love, Bambi The Mermaid and Tigger!, many of whom I have been lucky enough to see live. Highlighting the backgrounds of each performer and their own thoughts about burlesque, Exposed becomes an important archive not only of an era of burlesque performance but also the use of burlesque as activism.
While the film also delves into the performers’ touching personal experiences such as Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser’s sweet relationship, the film, first and foremost, reveals the potential of burlesque to loudly and nakedly comment on political issues of gender, sexuality, disability and the body.
In her introduction to the film at DOC NYC after World Famous *Bob*’s performance, Beth B prefaced the film by stating that this era of burlesque is all about politics. Undoubtedly correct, the political worth of burlesque is found throughout the film from World Famous *Bob*’s discussion of her personal performance of gender, Mat Fraser’s understanding of the relationship of his disability to burlesque to Dirty Martini’s revelation about her problems in dancing due to her body type and Rose Wood’s manipulation of gender identity through breast implant surgery.
Throughout Exposed, the performers’ ability to publicly display their physical, sexual or gender differences in their performances allows them to both express their own personal politics as well as forcing the audience to question their own assumptions. Foregrounding the politics of burlesque performance, Exposed reveals these performers as the forefront of queer performance art.
While I was particularly moved by blond bombshell World Famous *Bob*’s story, identifying as a gay man and then deciding consciously to identify as a woman, perhaps the most overtly political performer in the film is Mat Fraser who was born with phocomelia of both arms. Describing the anger he felt for many years as a disabled person, Fraser explains how through burlesque he has been able to both accept and celebrate his body as well as force the audience to deal with issues of disability, physical differences and his sexuality.
As Fraser explains, “If you can make the audience laugh and make a political point that fuels your outrage at the same time, all the better”
Following Fraser’s observation, all of the burlesque performers in Exposed use humor in their burlesque performances as a way to draw the audience in while still exposing them to extreme ideas. By coating that bitter pill with humor, these performers can easily project their ideas on an unassuming public. Rather than protesting in the streets, sometimes it’s just easier to take your clothes off and make them laugh first.
As Tigger! reveals, “If you’ve got some really extreme position that you want to shove down someone’s throat, a good way to open that throat up is to get’ em laughing.”
With this idea of humor and extremism, I always felt that many of these performers enacted a type of burlesque terrorism on the audience, shocking them into a stupor and allowing them to leave with either a more open perspective or at least stunned enough to consider other viewpoints. While the audience arrives assuming they will see a naked performer, as well as some satire, most of these performers enact unexpected and shocking acts, which brings me to Rose Wood.
Oh, Rose Wood, you are a burlesque terrorist and I love it. Aside: I have never seen Rose Wood live since The Box is entirely too expensive for those of us on a writer budget and while admiring her from afar, I hope against hope that one day I’ll be able to see her live.
Infamous for vomiting on Susan Sarandon at The Box, trans-aggressive performer Rose Wood is undoubtedly the most extreme burlesque performer around. From performing as a rabbi, which she admittedly wanted to become when she was growing up, pulling a bottle of Manischewitz out of her ass to her Serial Killer act in which she chloroforms an audience member, faux cuts her up and staples a rubbery disembodied vagina onto her balls, Rose Wood perhaps best embodies this idea of burlesque terrorism, horrifying the audience into submission while forcing them to consider her shocking but important commentary.
Allowing the audiences to question their own inhibitions, all of the performers in Exposed enact this type of burlesque terrorism but on a less bodily fluid-stained level.
In one of his interviews in the film, Tigger! describes the burlesque scene as a place for “those from the Island of Misfit Toys.” Speaking as someone who originates from that island, loving sleaze and slyly using humor to corrupt others, Exposed is a well-needed look at the significance of the burlesque scene, hopefully exposing others outside of this small world of underground New York to its artistic and political potential.
Exposed launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to pay for the music rights and get the film a wider release. Donate here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1339534802/exposed-0