Deirdre Allen Timmons, 2008
An examination of the Seattle burlesque scene and an exploration of why a normal woman would go into the field, A Wink and a Smile is an interesting, if unfocused look at one of the most popular historical performance arts. Unfortunately, it is also a movie made by a person with a vagina about people with vaginas for people with vaginas to watch when they are feeling sad, unattractive, or have some raging PMS. Not that there isn't a market for this type of film, it just isn't really my cup of tea.
Ten women of varying ages and backgrounds join Miss Indigo Blue's Academy of Burlesque for several weeks of classes on how to shake it till you make it, followed by a graduation recital. We see a little bit of their time in class, but the documentary is mostly divided between three sections: interviews with Indigo Blue about the history of burlesque, interviews with the women about why they chose to take the class and how it makes them feel, and footage from various burlesque performances. From a technical standpoint, the film is sort of milquetoast in the sense that there are lots and lots of shots of talking heads, where voice over and more clips of burlesque performances would have greatly improved the viewing experience.
Though there are numerous issues, my biggest criticism is that the film has an overtly feminist slant and spends entirely too much time discussing how burlesque performance boosts a woman's self-esteem. While I love and thoroughly support most forms of erotic performance art, burlesque is still all about people getting (mostly) naked to entertain a crowd and then make money. It's not a Lilith Fair hippy circle with hand holding, crying, and talking about feelings. I found most of the women's explanations about their feelings tedious, but the interesting burlesque performances between interviews kept my attention.
There is a fair mix of classic burlesque, raunchier acts, female male impersonators, male burlesque performers, and male-female impersonators. My personal favorite was Lily Verlaine, who, in my opinion, makes the film well worth watching. She is an established performer in Seattle and across the country. Her act in A Wink and a Smile is a Picasso inspired set where she begins the set in white make up and paints herself, quite erotically. Definitely recommended.
The fairest thing I can say about this documentary is that it presents burlesque in its most non-threatening, non-sexual light, avoiding the seedier and more exploitative, financially-driven origins of the art form. And what fun is that? A Wink and a Smile is currently streaming on Netflix, though there is also a basic DVD available from First Run. You can also pop over to the film's official page to find out more.