Exposed, a documentary about a New York-based community of burlesque performers, seems to exist to promote the admirable message that body types, gender identity, and sexuality are all more fluid and varied than a visitor from another planet (or a more repressive country) might infer from an evening of mainstream television. Director Beth B chose artists, identified only by their stage names—Bambi the Mermaid, Rose Wood, Bunny Love, The World Famous *BOB*, and so on—who are articulate and engaging on the subject of how performing has helped them to accept and love themselves after periods of struggle with sexuality, weight, or physical difference. B offers clips of their nightclub acts at a handful of venues around New York (“New Amsterdam,” as it was briefly known, centuries ago) and Old Amsterdam, Holland, and intersperses those acts with interview footage that captures the performers putting on their makeup, or completing workaday chores that clash sharply with the cultivated stage world: walking the dog or taking out the trash.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that her most engaging subject is also her most physically unusual. Mat Fraser was born with phocomelia: His arms extend only as far as most folks’ elbows—the result, he tells one of his audiences, of his mother’s use of the widely-prescribed drug thalidomide to treat morning sickness during her pregnancy. (It may or may not qualify as irony that Fraser strongly resembles Brad Pitt, a standard-bearer for conventional handsomeness.) He invites audience members onstage to remove his underwear on the grounds that he lacks the opposable thumbs to do it himself. He waxes philosophic on his appeal:
“You channel everybody else’s perfections. And if you can absolve them of any bad feeling about that, by accepting yourself as imperfect, then they too have to do that. So everybody comes away feeling better about themselves. Not in a schadenfreude kind of way, where you enjoy the benefit of other people’s misfortune to make you feel better, but in a more, ‘We’re all imperfect. Look at that guy. He loves himself. Maybe I can love myself better.’”
Elsewhere, the World Famous *BOB* recalls how in her early twenties, she tried to evade her traditional, feminine prettiness, using theatrical makeup to make herself look like a man impersonating a woman. She even contemplated a sex-change operation to make herself biologically male, after which she would dress as a woman. “It sounds like a Rubik’s cube with all the stickers torn off, but that was just my reality,” she muses.
Rose Wood is the “trans-aggressive” artist who actually goes through with surgery in the documentary, getting a pair of large, artificial breasts permanently affixed to her uncommonly lithe, muscular chest. Of the stage acts excerpted, hers are the wildest: The tamer of the pair by far is the one where she strips and lifts a bottle with her butt while dressed as a Hassidic rabbi.
“The Jewish people that I’ve done this number for tend to enjoy the number very much,” she says. “I was raised Jewish. In that religion, there’s a valuation of sexuality… a man was to give his wife an orgasm, ideally, as a kind of blessing on the Sabbath. It was a way of kind of consecrating a holy day.” What that has to do with hands-free bottle-carrying remains elusive, but no one could say Wood’s approach to her shocking work isn’t contemplative. Near the end of the film, B offers a mercifully brief glimpse of a Wood stage act called “Serial Killer,” which makes the Buffalo Bill scenes from The Silence Of The Lambs look like an episode of Extreme Makeover.
Exposed is really just a series of intermingling profiles, which is perhaps why its observations eventually begin to feel slightly repetitive, though it runs a mere 76 minutes. (Another reason might be B’s habit of identifying all her subjects with a title card almost every time she shows their faces, even if it’s only been a minute or two since their last appearance. It isn’t a problem, but it is uncommon.) The film is sharply photographed and edited (B shares credit for cinematography and editing with Dan Karlok and Keith Reamer, respectively), but might’ve felt more immersive if B had found a way to lend it some narrative horsepower. Is it fair to knock a film that celebrates the biodiversity of the human shape for feeling a little shapeless?