Originally published at SpoutBlog:
A WINK AND A SMILE Review
The ten brave students at Seattle’s Academy of Burlesque, who shimmy in pasties and heels, unexpectedly and touchingly reveal themselves in more ways than one in Deidre Timmons’ “A Wink and a Smile.” The film combines talking head interviews with the mostly average Jills and their anything-but-average headmistress Indigo Blue (who also serves as an enlightening guide and narrator through the burlesque scene of both today and yesteryear) with actual performances courtesy of the exhibitionist men and women of Seattle’s vibrant scene. But the biggest revelation of all is that this breathtaking doc just might be the sexy feel-good flick of the year.
It’s no coincidence that the performers of burlesque and “boylesque” tend to run in the same circles as the mistresses and masters of the BDSM scene and the queens and kings of drag art. Not only do these stripper artistes share costumes (with the fetish world a penchant for corsets and stilettos, with the drag scene a preference for the lovingly handmade over the store-bought, a la the grand balls most notably featured in “Paris Is Burning”), but also a common goal. As much as the students in “A Wink and a Smile,” who come to Miss Blue’s school from every walk of life and for an equal variety of reasons, might profess a desire to wield their taboo female sexuality as a power tool, the reality is that burlesque (and S&M and drag) is really a tool of transcendence, rising above the simplistic gender binary of male/female (and by extension any gay/straight sexuality). As Miss Blue notes, the definition of burlesque is to mock something, in this case the very notion of a fixed female sexual construct. “The distinctions between male and female in our society are not as rigid as they were in the past – and neither are they in the burlesque world,” Miss Blue proclaims. Indeed, the biologically female Swedish Housewife was “raised by drag queens” and incorporates camp into her performance, while the male-born Waxie Moon makes a female student swoon that she’s “in love” even as he commands the stage in the ultimate symbol of femininity, a white wedding dress. Boldly, Timmons’ film makes visual that which is so freeing about burlesque – and also so terrifying.
And like with S&M play and drag shows, body type within burlesque – the mere physical form – is truly irrelevant, while the melding of sexiness with silliness is crucial. It’s a return to an adolescent stage of sexual exploration, an infinite realm of possibility. One student chooses to create a Little Red Riding Hood routine in which she takes on the roles of both innocent child and wolf. Another was astonished to see that “gawky little girl” that she once was, staring back at her in the mirror as she rehearsed her dance. By the time the students reach the end of their life-changing journey, shown in a montage sequence in which the director deftly quick cuts between the (now nine) women’s class final/live show, their transformation onstage is nothing short of astounding, all the more so since it’s got little to do with tassels and boas. Miss Blue had defined the basic burlesque formula routine at the very beginning as, “Performer enters with some clothing, magic happens, and performer exits the stage with less clothing.” What’s truly remarkable is that Timmons’ lens has managed to capture that middle part.