The Smoking Cabinet: burlesque film festival



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Time Out looks ahead to a pioneering film festival at Curzon Soho covering the early days of burlesque

  • In decades to come, when the twenty-second-century version of Slavoj Zizek rummages through a grab bag of noughties culture, there is a fair chance that among the iPods, the fertility-reducing skinny jeans and ‘I Am Not a Plastic Bag’ bags, he or she will find a couple of nipple tassels and a corset. For the resurgence of burlesque and cabaret is undoubtedly one of the biggest cultural phenomena of our times. But unlike other nostalgic movements, the impact of its re-emergence has been curiously absent from the big screen. That certainly wasn’t the case the first time round: before the birth of television and the internet, film was the primary medium of exploration and documentation for this burgeoning artistic expression. The Smoking Cabinet, the UK’s first ever film festival of early cabaret and burlesque cinema from the belle époque to the last days of Weimar Germany, is a much-needed reminder of the beauty, grandeur, importance and impact of that period.

    For three days in December, audiences at the Curzon Soho will be treated to a hand-picked selection of rarely seen films (both full-length and shorts) from the years between 1895 and 1933. Offerings such as Josef Von Sternberg’s definitive German-language talkie ‘The Blue Angel’ starring Marlene Dietrich at her most deliciously vixenish, will appeal to cabaret connoisseurs and film buffs alike; as will the impressive selection of early American and European avante garde, Dadaist shorts and surrealist ciné dance classics from the likes of Man Ray, Jean Renoir, Georges Meliés and Fernard Léger. There will be talks and panel discussions featuring festival patron, writer and critic Lisa Appignanesi, the irrepressible Amy Lamé and our very own Simone Baird. While at venues such as Volupté, revellers will have the opportunity to swap furrowed brows and square eyes for decadent evenings of dancing, live music and live performances from cabaret acts such as Bourgeois & Maurice.

    But for its organisers, Aymie Backler, Claire Cooke, Simone Pyne and Kate Grove, the festival isn’t just about exorcising the stick-on talons of cheap imitators from the spirit of burlesque and cabaret. The Smoking Cabinet is also a way of creating an awareness of early cinema and the place of these artforms within that. Cooke says: ‘We felt, as film fans, that it was quite odd such a burgeoning scene had no cinematic representation, either of the attitudes, the aesthetics or acts themselves. There have been film screenings as one-offs, but nothing showcasing shorts from the time in which burlesque and cabaret where taking shape as a form.’

    Backler describes the programme as a ‘filmic variety performance’ and it certainly covers enormous ground. From the teasing latent sexuality of ‘The Birth of a Flower’ to fairground frolics of ‘Looney Lens’ to the opulent splendour of ‘So This is Paris!’ (where the cast of 2000 extras dance the Charleston under a pair of giant, plastic legs), the festival contains a heady mix of type, style and content. But according to Pyne, this reflects their desire to explore rather than define: ‘The selection of films poses a question rather than a statement. We are not dictating what can be understood by the idea of cabaret and burlesque film but questioning really what can be understood by the term cabaret and burlesque cinema. The term is a penumbra, and our films speak and reflect the artforms that influenced society and cabaret and burlesque performance of this period, as well as immediately representing these performers themselves.’

    One of the most anticipated events of the festival is the discussion on ‘Women in Burlesque and Cabaret: Empowerment vs Titillation’. Featuring Lamé, Marisa Carnesky and Bryony Dixon, the panel will explore the somewhat contentious role of women in burlesque and cabaret. As four young females, the organisers recognise the dangerous potential for polarised debate, but say they’re interested in the grey area; in the possibility for something provocative to still be liberating for both the performer and the audience. Even those who question the feminist potential of these artforms have to recognise that they gave women an opportunity to get up on stage, to be listened to and watched at a time when women’s bodies were as hidden as their voices silent. What burlesque and cabaret does now, and for whom, promises to be an interesting and impassioned topic of debate.

    There’s an afterlife for The Smoking Cabinet once the festival finishes. The team are already planning several education projects which will include outreach film screenings in community centres, old people’s homes and museums. There’s also the website,, and depending on the success, we could see a second festival. But there is enough material, interest and demand to suggest that The Smoking Cabinet could become a very prominent and permanent addition to the festival calendar.

    The Smoking Cabinet
    is at the Curzon Soho from December 9-11.

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