There’s a half-naked woman onscreen at Seattle’s Egyptian Theater, and her name is Indigo Blue.
A shapely brunette delicately waving a four-foot long feather umbrella in each hand, Blue commands the opening frames of “A Wink and a Smile,” filmmaker Deirdre Timmons’ revealing documentary about the thriving Seattle burlesque scene. The flesh-tones of this veteran dancer turn emerald-green or cotton candy turquoise, depending on which floodlight tracks body her across a nightclub stage. Aside from the feather-shields that Blue teasingly fans about like massive butterfly wings, there’s precious little covering her curvaceous female form.
Suddenly, Blue’s projected image flutters like a wind-whipped curtain, distorted and fuzzy. Strange sounds emanate from the theater projection room. The movie stops. Fade to black. Was Indigo Blue too hot for the Egyptian to handle?
Playing to a sold-out crowd at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival, “A Wink and a Smile” is delayed by some minor technical difficulties – but the unplanned down time is anything but boring. A dancer in full fishnet stocking ‘n feather boa regalia bolts to the screen, faces the unprepared audience, and shoots off a pupil-jarring flash photograph. Like some manic paperboy distributing the morning news, another scantily-clad stage strutter darts up and down the Egyptian’s aisles, passing out invitations to a gig by local strip troupe The Atomic Bombshells.
Suddenly, the screen explodes in more sultry wall-shadows of Indigo Blue. Armed with glitter application, garters, and a revived film projector, “A Wink and a Smile” is up and running.
“A Wink and a Smile” serves up plentiful scenes of onstage tassel twirling and dud doffing. However, Timmons’ thoughtful film is more about the human need for expression than it is about female nudity (those expecting a full-frontal bonanza will be disappointed. There’s a lot of provocative skin, but pasties and panties remain intact).
In fact, the heart of “A Wink and a Smile” is comprised of ten women willingly enrolled in Seattle’s Academy of Burlesque. A sort of “Striptease 101,” the seven-week crash course in all things bump-and-grind is far removed from an employment audition at some sleazy peep-show emporium. Run by Indigo Blue herself, it’s more of a hobby try-out, like a fly-tying session, skydiving plunge, or basket-weaving class. Graduation is celebrated via a bona-fide club performance, complete with catcalls and wolf-whistles from a live audience.
The featured Academy novices want to perform burlesque not for the cash or attention, but because they feel it will satisfy some psychological void. One woman, for example, is an opera singer who sees the class as a means of combating stage fright. It makes sense. Whipping around a feather boa in stiletto heels and pasties is not a ritual commonly associated with fear of one’s audience. A 51-year-old mother sees burlesque training as a healthy, middle-aged rebellion against stay-at-home stagnation. “I always tried to gain approval and fit in,” she laments of her younger years. “Now, I don’t care. For every person who disapproves, there’s someone to applaud me.”
The gutsy disclosures continue with Megan, who endured bulimia for five years and says, “I’ve never been happy with my body.” She hopes burlesque training will be the catalyst for feeling comfortable in her own skin. Casey, another class member, confesses to personal biases against make-up. Burlesque, she says, allows her to explore the realm of lipstick and mascara with total freedom, challenging past judgments. The Shanghai Pearl, a professional dancer and assistant to Blue’s Academy projects, sees stripping as empowerment. “I’m from Taiwan,” she reveals, “where women don’t mean anything.”
Obviously, these rationales subvert the common stereotypes associated with stripper culture – that it’s an exploitative, lecherous business full of couch test castings and misguided teen runaways. Such assumptions might be accurate in some cases, but not among Timmons’ cast of reporters, students, housewives, and taxidermists. They’re all levelheaded, completely aware of what they’re doing, and in control.
“A Wink and a Smile” also clarifies another cliché often attributed to Burlesque. It’s a niche far removed from the spread-eagle peep-show emporiums, like those nearby – surrounding downtown Seattle’s Pike Place Market. There’s a sense of theatrics and nostalgic costumes that transcend the nudity. In fact, Miss Indigo Blue insists that Burlesque and stripping are two entirely different stiletto heel clad animals. “Stripping’s objective is revealing nudity,” informs her Academy of Burlesque site. “Burlesque’s objective is to call attention to all the moments of revealing, and to tease just shy of nudity. Burlesque also encourages mockery and parody, so tends to be funnier and more lighthearted than Stripping.”
The film backs up this differentiation through profiles of both its amateur academy recruits and more experienced industry pros. We meet Tamara the Trapeze Lady, the Swedish Housewife, Kitten la Rue, Miss Inga Ingenue, and Waxie Moon, among others. As each performs his or her routine (yes, male dancers also enter into Timmons’ onscreen mix), we’re struck not by the exposed flesh, but by the creative style with which the frilly, flashy garments are removed.
Take Inga Ingenue. Initially covered with white balloons that resemble poodle tufts, the air-filled orbs are gradually popped, revealing ever-increasing skin. My favorite film performer, however, is Ernie Von Schmaltz. Representing everything reptilian and repulsive about the male persona, Von Schmaltz resembles a cross between Tony Soprano, Ron Jeremy, and Weird Al Yankovich in obese, full fat-suited “Eat It” mode. The onstage routine – all crotch-thrusting moves and exaggerated male cockiness – is a guaranteed hoot. In fact, Von Schmaltz is so utterly convincing in his sweaty, gyrating self-worship that I had this charismatic whirlwind pegged as a male performer.
Not true, corrected Timmons and her DOP Peter Waweru with a laugh, during a recent interview. Beneath the gold chains and sleazy dark shades, Von Schmaltz is a – gulp! – female dancer. In the paragraphs that follow, Timmons clarifies other ambiguities concerning “A Wink and a Smile” and the world of Burlesque dancing.
Why did you choose Burlesque as a theme for your film?
It’s now becoming a mainstream form of entertainment. It’s really good timing. There have been other documentaries on burlesque, but they have focused primarily on individual troupes, or history. But nobody has focused yet on the journey of burlesque – what it takes to go from day one to performance one, and beyond.
“A Wink and a Smile” feels like three films for the price of one. You have the past history, the current contemporary performers, then these newbies going through the academy. Had you intended for this three-layer approach?
Absolutely. Originally, my intention was to show the journey – getting to this place where you can completely reveal yourself for the first time, and have the audience learn a little bit about what neo-burlesque is, at least in Seattle. Then (I intended to) illustrate the journey, the lessons, and the lectures with professionals performing today. I wanted it to be a multi-layered experience. I think just following the journey would have been interesting on its own, but the women were busy. It’s difficult to have ten people involved every single day. I really wanted it to feel a bit like “Cabaret,” “Moulin Rouge,” and “The Full Monty,” and be funny, sexy, and have a story. And I wanted it to be educational. I was going for the journalistic triumvirate – educational, enlightening, and entertaining.
Which of the three layers was the most challenging to achieve?
The most challenging part was tracking these women. They all had busy lives. None had been in front of a camera before. (It was challenging to) get them comfortable enough to open up – they were learning to bare their souls in front of the camera, knowing that the world was going to hear what they were saying. The second most challenging thing was taking 300 hours of footage and whittling it down to 90 minutes. That was a lot of footage. Trying to keep a really clean story line for each woman, bringing out her major challenges, was a biggie.
One Burlesque Academy performer decides not to follow through with the end stage performance. She is worried about protecting her family. Did she ever request that all of her footage be removed, or that she be taken out of the film completely?
Well, that was my first worry – that she would drop out of the whole project, and that I would be stuck having her image in all of our footage. Also, she was such an eloquent speaker I didn’t want to lose her as a character. She was able to unveil a lot of complications related to becoming a burlesque performer, even thought she didn’t do it in the end. She’s an intelligent woman and a professional performer who I think understood that this would really blow up a huge thing for us. She was willing to continue singing on camera, and do her exit interview. This is a big deal with burlesque. As we saw with the Shanghai Pearl, she still hasn’t told her parents, and she’s one of the consummate performers around town. Miss Indigo Blue didn’t tell her parents until she knew her story was going to go public. It’s one of the largest things that the women grapple with – choosing an art form that society considers edgy and to many people unacceptable. Doing this in front of their families, and in spite of their families, is a big deal. I told her that it was really relevant to keep her in. We needed to explain that this wasn’t just some slutty thing that women do. They put a lot of thought into it. Burlesque performers are intelligent and not your average pole dancer who is “putting herself through college.” They’re amazing women – and men!
In a sense, do you think that the film was helped by the fact that one cast member drops out?
In the beginning I panicked, but when we did the exit interview, I was glad. It really brought home for audiences that this was not a simple thing to do. And it also provided a twist to the story. I couldn’t have written it better. Ten go in, and nine come out. Which one doesn’t survive? It’s the most surprising one who doesn’t survive. It’s the one who says, “I’m fearless now, I can do anything. I don’t want to be ordinary – I want to be extraordinary.” But at the end of the day, the familial pressure kept her from doing this.
You hear about documentaries where something completely unexpected will happen, which takes the film in a totally different direction from which it had started out.
We were just relying on everyone’s stories. Ultimately, it was fine. People say, “Okay, come on – you staged the scene with the “tour of the refrigerator” (in which a taxidermist dancer reveals a stash-pile of frozen, pre-stuffed animals residing alongside her foods). We didn’t stage anything. The only things we staged were the interviews, where I guided them with my questions. Even then, their responses took us in directions we weren’t expecting. When (dancer) Christi Jo says, “I’m a virgin,” it all came crashing down to me why she was crafting an act that was so dark and strange. She was creating sexuality that she had never had. She was completely making it up, and imagining what she thinks it would be. Until we had that confession, I didn’t understand why she was doing this really unusual act, of Little Red Riding Hood turning into a wolf.
Part of what we were trying to understand was why the women chose the characters and acts that they chose. I believed from the beginning that the personal stories and touch points would reveal why they became those characters. And they did! Honey Moon, the woman who has grappled with eating disorders, just wanted a character who was really happy with her body. She could leave her old identity at the door, and Honey Moon is stepping onstage and she loves her body. It’s a very powerful process. I think most people in the Burlesque community start out with an alter ego that is them, filtered in a way that they would like to see themselves. In the process of realizing this character, they become the people that they want to be.
Leave your inhibitions at the door…
Yeah! Leave your self-doubt at the door, and take your real person forward; who you want to be.
The Shanghai Pearl spoke about growing up in a culture where “Women meant nothing.” I could see how dancing would be empowering.
Absolutely. The Shanghai Pearl was able to enjoy herself as a woman through Burlesque, something that culturally was not acceptable in her background. That was very powerful for her. She was not given that ability growing up. She was taught that to be successful, she had to be a doctor or a lawyer. To be an artist, and revel in your own identity, completely holds no value. You can see through every single woman, how they are taking one step forward in their lives.
The burlesque subculture knows no gender boundaries. Is Ernie Von Schmaltz a really anal-retentive, proper guy in his real life, who needs to do this as a counterbalance?
At this point, both Timmons and Waweru trade smiles, before breaking into loud belly laughs. Waweru reveals that Von Schmaltz is actually a woman.
People are laughing so hard during that act. One thing we weren’t anticipating in the film while editing was that the line, “Ernie Von Schmaltz is actually a very beautiful young woman named Anna,” is not heard. Nobody ever hears that line because they’re laughing so hard at her act! She is considered a “drag king!” Meanwhile, Ultra and Waxy Moon are the two men in the film. I was really hoping that a man would sign up for the class. The Burlesque 101 Class does get men. I thought it would be very interesting to explore why a man would do this. We didn’t dictate the class, or create the students. They simply signed up.
Some of the most surprising feedback I’ve had since the festival screenings is a lot of response from men saying that they have grappled with body issues their whole life, and held back from chasing their dreams because of self-doubt. In watching “A Wink and a Smile,” they are ready to accept themselves, move forward, and chase their dreams. I haven’t gotten that from any women yet, but I’ve had five or six men send me long, detailed e-mails about it, thanking us for making this film. That really shocked me. I thought I would be inundated with e-mails from women, saying, “I loved it so much,” but the men are the ones who are really giving detailed feedback and confessing their self-doubt, concerning body image.
One of the reviewers in town said, “You won’t get any men identifying with this film. None of us have these issues.” But in fact, that’s all I’ve had! That kind of feedback has only come from men, so far, which I wasn’t expecting. I thought men would enjoy the film on a purely prurient level.
When I initially saw the theme, I thought, “A film on burlesque dancers! I can think of worse ways to spend two hours at a film festival!” But I came out of it realizing that the psychology and motivations behind the dancing are what really run the engine of the film.
If you watch any film, whether it’s about tri-athletes, or skiers, or racecar drivers, it isn’t about the thing they’re doing, but about what motivates them to do the thing they’re doing. That is the case in this film. It’s not about stripping, although that is what they’re doing. But it’s a vehicle to get to the next level in their lives.
The film’s finale is a montage, showing the dancers finally getting onstage. It goes by fairly quickly. You didn’t linger on the final performance. The film focuses more on what leads up to it, as opposed to the actual performance.
If we had shown all of the performances in their entirety, it would have been half the film. It is about eleven minutes at the end. We structured it so that you see them throughout their strip, starting in full costume, then taking layers off, then down to pasties. But I sort of felt like these women were not professional burlesque performers. Out of respect for them, I didn’t know if they wanted to live with their entire performance in a film for the rest of their lives. There are lots of little snags and snafus. Respect for the women was of utmost importance. I didn’t want them to feel violated when they saw the film. I wanted them to be proud of it. It’s their project as much as it’s our project.
You talk about the concept of “living with” the film. Was there any kind of a pact at the beginning of the film that all participants would carry on, despite knowing that this was a subculture that many people might disagree with or stereotype?
When they signed up for the class, it said at the bottom, “This will be filmed as part of a documentary.” So right away they knew, “If I sign up for this class, I’m gonna be on camera.” I’m sure that kept a number of people from signing up for the class.
I had never done a feature-length documentary before. I had no credibility that I could point to and say, “See, I’ve done this, this, and this.” However, I’ve been a journalist for fifteen years, starting out with a newspaper, and going on to magazines and online. Peter is a photojournalist from Kenya. I was able to say, “I know how your personal information is going to affect the public, so please trust me. As a woman, I’m not going to take you through the ‘reality TV’ road and try to get you to do dramatic stuff. I just want the truth. I just want you to share as much as you’re comfortable sharing.” I think that really put them at rest. It took a huge amount of trust for these women to sit down, work on this, and share what they shared.