Cymbals hiss and the bass starts walking. Tassels spin this way and that in a crowded, smoky bar full of traveling salesmen and rowdy conventioneers. Somebody tells a dirty joke and everybody laughs. Exotic women dance with wild abandon in the tight, hot spotlight.
That's burlesque the way it used to be. On Saturday, December 6th, John Michael McCarthy, Memphis' king of underground rock-and-shock cinema, has arranged to bring a little of that old-time Minsky-madness to the corner of Cooper and Young.
"The Broad Daylight Block Party" begins at 7 p.m. at the screening room of First Congregational Church (of all places) with a showing of McCarthy's new stag film, Broad Daylight, and The Velvet Hammer Burlesque, a revealing documentary about the burlesque revival by L.A. filmmaker Augusta. At 10 p.m., moviegoers will be invited to take a trip down the street to see indie-pop innovator (and frequent McCarthy collaborator) Poli-Sci-Clone at Do (the corner's new sushi bar). Then New Orleans' retro-rockers the SophistiCats (think Impala at their most Las Vegas grind) play the Young Avenue Deli until closing time. Kitten DeVille, a six-foot-plus burlesque queen featured in both films, will join the SophistiKittens to demonstrate the fringe-shaking shimmy that brought her the coveted title of Miss Exotic World 2002.
"I guess I'm a little more mellow these days," McCarthy says, reflecting on the irony of screening his striptease film in the basement of a church. "People know what I do," he says. "And everybody gets it now. At least I think they get it. But I'm still waiting for that call, you know? The one that says I can't do it." It's a fairly predictable response from an underground director whose primary rules for filmmaking are: "One, don't ask permission. Two, shoot until they make you stop. And three, deny everything."
Broad Daylight is a sequel (or, as Herr "Direktor" puts it, a "shequel") to McCarthy's 1998 stag film, Shine On Sweet Starlet, a grainy black-and-white homage to classic stag loops and party films. Shine On was shot piecemeal with thrift-store cameras, and the whole tawdry affair was set to a nasty garage-rock beat. When asked to compare the two films, McCarthy says, "This new one's in color. Short on plot, long on [censored]. Keep it simple."
"The goal is always to make features," he says. "But in between the features, why not take the opportunity to work on your chops, have a little fun, and shoot some cuties?"
Broad Daylight features striptease numbers by burlesque performers from all over the country. The garage-punk soundtrack has a retro flair and includes tracks by Memphis bands the Reigning Sound, the Grown-Up Wrongs, Viva L'American Death Ray Music, and Mr. Airplane Man, along with cuts by the Woggles, the Demolition Doll Rods, the Dirtbombs, and the SophistiCats.
The roots of burlesque can be traced back to Aristophanes, but the form as we know it began in the 19th century as a bawdy, musical send-up of traditional theater. It evolved alongside vaudeville and quickly established itself as a kind of parasitic twin. It took on a variety-show format: Comedians, magicians, animal acts, singers, and acrobats performed alongside the striptease artists. In the 1920s and '30s, burlesque became increasingly sophisticated thanks to innovative performers like Sally Rand. America's top comedians -- W.C. Fields, Mae West, Bert Lahr, and Eva Tanguay -- cut their teeth in burlesque. The lowbrow form became very nearly respectable when playwrights like Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett began to appropriate the vulgar tone, naughty songs, and absurd slapstick of the "burley houses."
Sometime in the mid-'90s, L.A. hipster Michelle Carr was hanging out in strip clubs wondering why the pole dancers didn't put on more of a show. Inspiration struck. She began to recruit friends, dancers, actors, and artists interested in reviving the lost art of the striptease. She eventually found her cast, and in 1995 the Velvet Hammer troupe was born. Velvet Hammer the documentary begins as a glamorous romp through the glitter-laden history of the burlesque revival, but toward the end it takes on an almost apologetically feminist tone.
"Strip clubs are a man's idea of what's sexy," one burlesque queen opines, pointing out that the Velvet Hammer is put together almost exclusively by women.
And what is it that the girls find alluring? To begin with, the Velvet Hammer girls are all-natural. Some are rail-thin, others are nearly perfect, while others sport their share of love handles. One dancer known as "The World Famous Bob," a full-figured Jayne Mansfield type known for mixing cocktails between her cleavage, offers prospective dancers one bit of advice: "Never say no to dessert."
Many of the acts are pure retro glamour; other acts call to mind classic pinup girls of the 1940s and '50s. We are shown women as cowgirls, nurses, spies, exotic islanders, spiders, genies, dancers, aristocrats, kitty cats, and goddesses. At least one act, however, carries a political theme. A female escape artist, naked except for requisite pasties and G-string, is bound head-to-toe in heavy ropes. Unlike most escape artists who affect ennui, her struggle is obvious and painful-looking. When at last she breaks free, instead of wiggling around like a go-go girl, she makes one unmistakable gesture: the universal sign for "kiss my sequined behind." That message, with all its various meanings in play, seems to be the Velvet Hammer's mantra: "You can kiss my sequined behind."
The Velvet Hammer is just one of many burlesque revival troupes to spring up in the last decade. It's good news for McCarthy, who has always been a filmmaker looking for an audience.
"I premiered Broad Daylight at this year's Tease-O-Rama festival," McCarthy says, referring to the third-annual international burlesque convention, which was held this year in L.A. "It was a sold-out crowd. People even laughed at the editing decisions. There have always been people who have liked my movies," McCarthy says. "Now it feels like there is a movement."