A Wink and a Smile -- Film Review

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Six weeks feels like a lifetime in "A Wink and a Smile," a documentary that follows 10 students through a term at Seattle's Academy of Burlesque. Like most strippers, the film promises more than it delivers, offering abbreviated versions of a dozen or so tired routines along with endless critiques, explications and on-camera soul-searching.

Friends and family are the logical audience, though the trenchcoat crowd might help perk up DVD sales.

More a showcase for Miss Indigo Blue and her associates than a serious look at stripping, the film takes a resolutely upbeat and superficial approach to the subject. Miss Blue performs with fans in the film's opening and later offers a running commentary on several other dancers. Her insights rarely rise above the level of "Our job as the audience is to watch." Buzzwords including "empowerment" and "postmodern" help reduce stripping to an intellectual game and also excuse the generally low level of expertise on display. The goth, punk, "draglesque" and "boylesque" strippers veer into performance art, where irony is key.

Running the gamut from opera singer to taxidermist, the 10 students are unfailingly polite, but few are willing to examine their motives with much depth. Formerly a print journalist, director Deirdre Allen Timmons is better at digging up background and getting her subjects to chat than in conveying information visually. Almost nothing is said about the nuts and bolts of theory and training. The dances are poorly lit, indifferently shot and edited with little understanding of rhythm or pacing.

"Wink" suffers from two enormous blind spots. Miss Blue's attempt to re-create what she calls the classic era of burlesque from the 1940s and '50s ignores the fact that mainstream art already has assimilated the bumps and grinds, gaudy outfits and camp attitudes of the best strip dancers. Music videos, "Dancing With the Stars," even "Hannah Montana" have rendered burlesque obsolete.

Second, the performers in "Wink" fail to address the eroticism at the heart of stripping. The routines in the film aren't just squeaky clean, they essentially ignore sex altogether. No one here would know what to do with a real striptease, one that wasn't about calling forth notions of classic femininity or addressing the contradictions in cross-dressing. "A Wink and a Smile" tries to tame burlesque, make it something to laugh at -- or worse, something that requires no skill.

Opens: Friday, May 1, New York (First Run Features)
Production: Golden Echo Films
Director-producer: Deirdre Allen Timmons
Co-producer: Jack Timmons
Directors of photography: Peter Waweru, Marie Joelle Rizk
Music: 3 Leg Torso, Pink Martini, Circus Contraption, Miles and Karina, Orchestra L'Pow!
Editors: Deirdre Allen Timmons, Peter Waweru
Not rating, 90 minutes