margie hart--burlesque starBeyond the Burly Q and others

Directed by Leslie Zemeckis

You sit down in a theatre where they're showing a documentary, say on the pollution of the Southeast from runoff sludge, or the reception a Danish trio of actors receive in the DPRK, and you get a desultory 20 or 30 attendees, dutifully propping toothpicks where their eyelids might fall…Zzz!

There are numerous reasons that documentaries are relatively flooding the filmic space now. Never before have the theaters and TV airwaves been as rich with these extraordinary offerings. Cutbacks in journalists on print papers, the continuing death of magazines and news organs, plus limited time to cover stories in depth on TV and other media, produce are bumper crop of filmmakers eager to fill the gap with informative, strongly researched documentaries that are, by and large, remarkably interesting, fact-filled, and important.

With reference to this Burly Q doc, somehow, get out the word that this is a movie about the scanty hoochy-coo scandalous but affectionate heyday of the burlesque in the United states from the first squall of the 20th century through to its heyday and desuetude in the 1960s (the women's movement hammered the last nails into that particular titillational teatime), and somehow, magically, people fill those seats. Lots of men fill those comfy lean-back, rock-a-bye seats in the A/C-controlled amphitheater. And yes, there is lots of pulchritude unsheathed for the guy with the Double-D fetish or the homegrown married guy who doesn't step out on his missus.

But through the years, and with clips galore of all the stellar strippers and novelty acts, the comedians and hard-working straight men earning a better-than-average living from the 10-cents a show vaudeville and burlesque, you have to empathize with what wrought all these essentially lovely and, well, pure, women to the stage to twirl those tassels or tease off those unneeded 'extra' business-layer clothes. And while there's hilarity and fascination, the stories behind these statuesque women are often heartbreaking.Burlesque was, according to these wonderful women and men recalling the 'best times of their lives'—according to not a few of them, women in their 80s and 90s, some, or children of the ecdysiasts of yore (including a thoughtful daughter of Lou Costello, Alan Alda, whose father worked in a burlesque, the handsome young JFK tried to date one of the lovelies (she turned him down—said he didn't appeal to her, 'all that red hair under the military cap'!) and a few historians of the vaudeville/burlesque era) a loving, camaraderie-filled vagabond life.There were novelty acts, comics—some very ancient, with pratfalls and gags far older than the buildings housing them—chorines, hoochy-coo numbers, the Main Act.

Occasional tsk tsks from the likes of Fiorello La Guardia, who did not cotton to any of the comics saying the words hell or damn, and closed down the NYS joints in 1937. Or some of the circuses in town determining what could stay on, or be removed. Because they catered to a family crowd (yes, believe it or not), they offered a chorus line, comedy, a surcease from the grinding Dustbowl poverty outside the show-houses, the streets of despair from the Great Depression, they largely weathered any short-term (public and hypocritical) outrage. For the main, these lovely and talented women made a handsome living, some $1500 a week, when grub was a dollar a plate, and a place to sleep was maybe $2 a week. At a dime a throw, the innovative Minsky brothers cleared a cool $1 million a week—in emporia that seated thousands of foot-sore Bible salesmen, vacuum cleaner hawkers, even Harvard guys ("You haven't been to Harvard unless you've seen Sally Rand!").

Ultimately, it wasn't beauty killed the Burly Q—it was that squiggly-line black-and-white box in the living room that did it in.

The Oath

Directed by Laura Poitras

An exceptional documentary that interweaves the atypical histories of Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard/driver, Abu Jandal –now a Yemeni cabbie fallen on rough times—and a Gitmo prisoner charged with war crimes, Salim Hamden. We are privileged to hear people who aren't a part of the comedy nighttime lineup, or even any usual news cycle. Peabody-winner Poitras uses intelligence documents, interviews, and unnerving multilayered interrogation sessions and methods to keep viewers off balance in this second of a planned documentary trilogy on documents and artifacts from Guantanamo. One cavil, however, is that we hear from the subjects, but not enough of their personal feelings and thoughts emerge from this clearly hard-to-come-by archival material.

We wanted more personal feedback from these people in impactful places, with newsmaker myth builders and causes célèbre. Even at the length it is, THE OATH is fascinating, if queasy, watching. Undeniably riveting for any number of reasons.

The Red Chapel
The Red Chapel

Directed and performed by Mads Brugger

The most subversive documentary of the season, the three-man 'comedy team' from Denmark seems for all purposes like a visiting broad-slapshtik-y troupe come to Pyongyang, North Korea, for superficial entertainment. It is outrageously nervy, however, because the actual motive of Brugger and his compadres, is somewhere in the nether zone between Sasha Baron Cohen's Borat thing and the tsk-tsk feigned-documentaries of agenda-driven Michael Moore. The team with Brugger consists of Simon, whose ostensible goal is to do an acoustic rendition of Oasis' "Wonderwall," using a backdrop of singing Korean schoolgirls; and Jacob, a self-described 'spastic' whose regular speech in Danish or English is close to incomprehensible except to his close buddies Mads and Simon. The DPRK hosts don't understand the underlying satirical and expose purpose of the 'comedy' trio, but the horrific fright of most North Koreans they are forced to deal with, and the bizarre mandatory changes these functionaries push on the comedy team tell the viewer far more than a mere documentary possibly could. On the surface, schoolkids look idyllic and adults are smiling. Under their façade, one sees utter terror and fear for their lives, and an inability to even entertain political challenge, lest their whole façade fall. It is intentionally mocking, intentionally funny, but its ulterior goal is achieved better than any similar company in a serious vein could have been. Any comments that are accurate and critical of the N. Koreans is in subtitled Danish or English, all of which is two levels beyond the Koreans' comprehension.

The three have ethical and artistic disagreements throughout, with Jacob coming out the heroic purist unwilling to compromise at all. Mads wants to complete his film, which demands unwieldy pragmatic acquiescence. Simons is a clown, reminding one of Beckett's sad clowns, Didi and Gogo, in Waiting for Godot. Jacob is a significant rarity in film: A physically challenged person whose ailment is not the target of action, but whose intelligence, innate character and incisive brainpower are the focus.

One marvels that the evidently brilliant trio were cool enough to create this dramatic structural trelliswork; what they are doing so eludes their hosts that the DPRK 'minders' have no idea how their crazy communist destruction of the troupe's [ostensibly] innocent funny business translates into film.

This is a twinkling masterpiece, though it dawns on the viewer only as he sees the incendiary evidence in bizarre scenes played out for all they are worth by this free-speech seeking humor team. Brugger has a long, honorable career as a TV and print satirist and subversive role-playing in experimental journalism.

The Red Chapel docu is a huge Gotcha! against "the dear leader" systematically starving his people and crimping their brains in the utter absence of any news leaking out to the free world.

Hilarious. But even more–terrifying.

Takeaway: As good as are the first two films, the third is the most abiding in the heart, somehow.


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