When Beth B surfaced in New York’s “No Wave” underground art scene circa 1978, her approach to filmmaking at the time was to “smash people over the head in the beginning and see if they could survive the rest.”
But times change and while some may find provocative her new documentary on the contemporary burlesque scene, Exposed, she's not trying to scare anyone away. “It’s an overwhelming artform, you know, with penises and vaginas in your face. The huge struggle with Exposed was to dispel the kneejerk reaction to burlesque and make it engaging and universal,” she said of the film, which will screen at IU Cinema on Feb. 5 at 7 p.m. with Beth in attendance.
With this film, Beth takes it slow. “Before the first performer, Bunny Love, exposes herself, we see her talk backstage about the struggles we all have — fear, frustration, vulnerability, worries about what her family will think of her performing,” Beth said.
Knowing Bunny's background — she grew up in a conservative New Orleans family — also helps viewers interpret her performance once she takes the stage. Her dance routine details her transformation from buttoned-up Southern belle to an open, audacious artist. As she rips off her country sundress, we see that burlesque involves far more than stripping — for Bunny, it's a vehicle for autobiographical storytelling.
Beth discovered the world of burlesque at a nightclub in New York and found it “immediately captivating." Intrigued by “the misfits, those who don’t fit in," she was fascinated with how burlesque performers not only find catharsis by projecting heightened reflections of themselves; they also critique society by questioning its boundaries and proscribed roles.
And like the 8mm films Beth made in the late '70s and early '80s — she's since turned her hand to documentaries and docudramas — burlesque performances explore touchy issues like consumerism, sexual repression and deviance.
Beth followed 70 performers over the course of several years, ultimately narrowing the focus to eight of them, wanting to amplify “voices that aren’t often heard.” One of them is Mat Fraser. Born with phocomelia, resulting in foreshortened arms, Fraser stands up for the disabled community on stage.
“As a child, my self-image was very much denial of my disability and wanting to sidestep anything that had to do with it, trying to be as normal as possible,” he says in the film.
Now, Fraser has a new attitude. “I become more normal by highlighting my difference,” the 53-year-old performer says. Embracing his aberration, he calls himself “Seal Boy” and exhibits his body with exuberance.
“The thing about being the imperfect on stage is that you channel everybody else’s perfections, and if you can absolve them of any bad feeling about that by accepting yourself as the imperfect, then they have to do that too. So everybody comes away feeling better about themselves,” he said.
His performance’s takeaway idea mirrors the film's.
“We’re all imperfect. I want people to see me and say, ‘Look at that guy. He loves himself. Maybe I can love myself better,” Fraser says.
Beth ultimately wants Exposed to have the same impact as burlesque by creating a sense of community in the audience. Her film bridges the gap between the personal and the universal, transporting us to a strange, stylized world in which we can all see reflections of our so-called normal one.
In addition to presenting the film on Thursday, Beth B will deliver a lecture, “Psychotic to Erotic,” on Friday at 3 p.m. Be warned: "This lecture contains mature content and graphic nudity," reads the IU Cinema program guide.