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Beth B: “These really are rare individuals who are on a very intense journey”

One of the key figures of the No Wave underground-cinema scene, Beth B, returns to independent film to take on the alt-burlesque world.

Photograph: Ande Whyland
Beth B and Bunny Love

As a leading filmmaker of the No Wave era in downtown Manhattan, Beth B, along with then-partner Scott B, was responsible for such transgressive cinema milestones as 1978’s Black Box and 1983’s Vortex. She’s returned to her underground roots with Exposed, a behind-the-scenes documentary that examines the city’s alternative burlesque scene and features performers Dirty Martini, Bambi the Mermaid, Julie Atlas Muz, Mat Fraser, the World Famous *BOB*, Rose Wood, Tigger! and Bunny Love. The film is funny and entertaining yet moving and poignant, touching upon themes common to much of Beth B’s work: gender identity, sexuality, and repression and liberation.

You’ve spent much of the past decade working in TV documentaries, which I assume is more financially rewarding than working on a film like Exposed. What drew you back into independent filmmaking?
It’s funny—in 2001, I said to myself that I will never make another independent film in my life. It’s too hard, there’s no money.… It’s torture. Then I started working in television documentaries, and had a great time. It was a great learning experience. The documentaries that I worked on had powerful subject matter and included a lot of my own ideas, but you really have to adjust things for the format of television. After eight years, I felt like my heart was breaking, and I had to go back to my passion. So I made a full circle, going back to independent filmmaking with Exposed.

Why did you decide to focus on the alt-burlesque world?
I was going to clubs, and saw these amazing people who were expressing themselves, pushing boundaries in a way that I hadn’t seen before. They were using the vehicle of burlesque to address social, political and gender issues, and doing it in a completely uncensored way. And they’re brilliant and talented performers! It was all in one succinct package.

So it was an easy call for you to make.
I said to myself, I’ve got to get these voices heard. A lot of my films in the past have been about people who are on the fringe, people who are on the edges—people whose voices go unheard. These are people who often have important things to say, but the grandness and the loudness of everything around us drowns them out.

The film is well over an hour long, and it’s packed full of performance footage and interviews. I imagine it was pretty mind-boggling to film and edit.
[Laughs] It took years! I started to film it about six or seven years ago; it was me and a director of photography. At that point, I was still in my “wow” phase about the whole thing; I was filming everyone. Eventually I thought, Wait a minute—these eight people have to be my focus. To me, they were the strongest voices and the most political voices, and when I saw them perform, it was a transcendent experience. I then understood what the focus of Exposed was going to be. At that point, I started doing all the cinematography myself.

Why was that?
I needed to find a more intimate way to bridge the gap that exists between a cameraperson and a performer. So I got this tiny little camera, and I would just kind of follow them around, as if I was their little puppy dog. And they became very open.

You do elicit what seems to be a lot of honesty from the various performers.
That was at least partially because, over time, I became more sensitive to who they were, and they got to know me a little bit. There became a sense of trust, and the honesty came from that. It was like I was no longer the camera—I was the person who just sort of existed in the room with them. It became much more direct and intimate, and that was really important. Even the way I filmed the stage performances: The point of view is very straightforward. I want you, the cinema audience, to be the performance audience with me—to be intimately front and center stage. I didn’t want there to be anyone mediating the experiences between the performer and the cinema audience.

Watching those performances, I really did get a you-are-there feel.
You know, a lot of people have said, “Why aren’t there audience shots?” But I didn’t want that. What I want is that when you watch the film, you are the reaction. That was the kind of thing that became very important in the making of the film. I also went from having two editors to saying, “You know what? I have to edit this film myself. It has to be me.” I knew the material, I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew what the performers wanted to say. It was really going back to my roots. I was a one-woman band again!

Were you surprised by the eloquence of the artists you focused on? Some of the interviews—with Rose Wood, with Julie and Mat, and with some of the others—are quite illuminating and emotionally gripping, and the performances themselves are certainly expressive.
They really are. I don’t know if I was surprised, but what was astonishing about the performers is that they are so self-aware. They’re so conscious of what they are doing, and they’re very brave. They’re putting it on a stage for us to look at, but they’re not doing it to please us or to titillate us. It’s more like they’re doing us a service. They’re saying to us, “Come into my world, just for this little moment.” They’re blurring gender lines, and questioning our notions of sexuality and sensuality. They do make their arguments in a very eloquent manner. To hear them speak about their work so intelligently is kind of profound, really. They’ve thought about these things. These really are rare individuals who are on a very intense journey. That’s what their work is about, in a sense—this intimate, very private struggle that they are exposing to us. Well, they’re revealing to us; I expose, they reveal. [Laughs]

That reveal comes about gradually. When you start watching the film, you might think that you’re sitting down to watch an entertaining film about burlesque performers. By the end, you realize you’ve watched something else entirely.
That’s true. And the other thing I was trying to do was make a film that is inclusive rather than exclusive. For me, that’s what’s so powerful about the performers: They always want to include the audience. They’re always kind of jesting and winking to the audience. It’s like what Mat said: The rage and anger that he spewed out in his younger years to confront his disabilities didn’t work. To get any powerful message across, you need to seduce them. Tigger! said this too—you need to get them to laugh. And then you can get them to realize that we all are in the same room; we’re all on the same side; we all are actually the same, even though we come in different packages. We go through the same struggles in life, whether it’s love or fear or whatever. Or joy! We all have things going on. And they’re saying, “Come into our world for a little while, because our world is your world.”

Do you think that people are surprised by the issues explored and the emotions depicted in Exposed?
The thing that people are most surprised  about is that the film is a story of humanity—a very tender and vulnerable and honest story. The audience members, for the most part, know nothing about these people. Like you said before, they come expecting one thing, and they walk out feeling enlightened, and feeling touched in the heart. It’s not at all like people leave saying, “Oh, I’m so shocked!” Well, not too many people.

There is that final, almost Grand Guignol–style performance from Rose Wood that could be considered a bit disquieting.
But that performance was critically important to the film. It was true to Rose’s journey, but it’s more than that. We still live in a repressive society, we are still very puritanical, and issues around gender are still front and center. Violence is accepted; nudity is not. I wanted Rose’s performance to be one that would usher in a discussion about why our bodies—our genitals—are seen as being so obscene, and yet mutilation and violence are embraced and sensationalized. Me and my coproducer, Sandra Schulberg—who was phenomenal—actually had a lot of arguments about that performance; I had to keep saying, “No, it is staying in!” And there it is.

Exposedis at IFC Center Friday, March 14 through Thursday, March 20; the screenings feature live appearances from the documentary’s performers. Visit exposedmovie.com for details.

Follow Bruce Tantum on Twitter: @BruceTantum