The Out Take: New Films at DOC NYC Question The Definition of Queer Art

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The Out Take is a bi-weekly column about queer representations in film. It runs on alternating Thursdays.

“Woman is a choice.” These are the bold, richly evocative words of burlesque performer World Famous *BOB*, who has described herself as a female-female spiritual transsexual. Her art is about her journey, built from the simple fact that gender is a performance, rather than innate element of identity. In fact, this performativity of “male” and “female” takes center stage in “Exposed,” Beth B’s documentary about the New York City burlesque scene. It’s only one of three films at this year’s DOC NYC festival that ask the question “Who is a queer artist?”

Some of the most significant documentaries in the history of queer cinema, after all, penetrate the nuances of this deceptively complex question. “Paris Is Burning” and “Portrait of Jason” both immediately spring to mind, blurring the lines between art and life, and establishing the construction of character as a crucial component of artistic creation. An artist’s canvass can be the artist themselves, whether through voice or dress or face. Yet what about those who lived in a time and a place where they couldn’t really express themselves? “Finding Vivian Maier” obliquely brings such questions of the closet to light.

Vivian Maier herself was a fascinating figure, a completely unknown photographer of extraordinary skill. Co-director John Maloof actually found her work at a storage auction, boxes and boxes of breathtakingly inspired images. It turns out that Maier worked as a nanny for most of her life and never showed any of her photos to anyone. The film unfolds like a detective story, as Maloof contacts everyone he can who might help him piece together her character and her story.

Maier’s incredible work, curated by Maloof and his co-director Charlie Siskel, incontrovertibly establishes her as an artist. But was she queer? The documentary never touches on this, to its credit. Speculation in this sort of non-fiction film would feel inappropriate and gossipy.

Of course, there’s room for the audience to draw its own conclusions. She had a stern eccentricity that evokes Mrs. Danvers in retrospect, a guarded personal life and a troubled mind into which it is so easy to read the repression of the closet. Her clothes, her solitude, and other details hint at the ghost of a love that dare not speak its name. It’s not hard to reclaim her, her suspicious French accent and her secret trips around the world. Perhaps the new narrative project, recently announced by Christine Vachon’s Killer Films, will shake things up a bit.

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Anyway that was the 1960s, and the Midwest. Today, in the Bronx, the options for self-expression are a bit different. Laura Checkoway’s “Lucky” is a portrait of a young woman with an uncompromising vision of herself, projected onto her skin. Tattoos, all over her body and her face, are a way to recognize a life of art, love and hardship. Whether the name of her son, a verbal confrontation (“F**k You,” specifically) or Lil Wayne’s face, her body modifications are the clearest representation of her spirit.

Her time is spent in a state of imbalance. Checkoway shows us moments of love and conflict, a struggle to make it as an artist versus a struggle to make it as a mother, the pursuit of a home and a job versus the pursuit of a dream. All of this is complicated and enriched by her tattoos, which make her both uniquely beautiful and a hard sell to employers. At one point she explains them as a way to confront her ugliness and anger, and to try finding her own pain. Yet they are a diverse enough assembly of memories and values that one single interpretation seems inadequate. To explain Lucky’s tattoos would be to explain an entire human being.

As for her art, she doesn’t seem entirely sure herself what that might be. On the one hand, she wants to be a model or a singer, and tries to make inroads into those worlds. However, her girlfriend and her sister urge her to hold down a more practical job, and to focus on taking care of her son. Through all of this she refuses to see any limitations on her dreams, resisting the advice of those who care about her and staunchly defending her own vision for her identity.

Does this make her an artist? If “Portrait of Jason” is the portrait of an artist, than so is “Lucky.” Her self-presentation, her assumed name, and her voracious insistence on her right to define her character make her a living, breathing work of inspiration.

And that brings everything back to the beginning, to the assertion that all of life has the element of burlesque, one way or another. The downtown world of Beth B’s “Exposed” is a place of fluidity and beauty, where performers deconstruct their own identities on stage to help the audience question themselves. The knowledge that everyone doubts themselves, that even such privileged identities as “Christian male” are burdens of rigidity, helps these artists break down the presuppositions of the crowd. As Mat Fraser, whose act emphasizes his own disability, explains: “I become more normal by highlighting my difference.”

Beth B’s informal, perceptive representation of these performers helps build a notion that burlesque is not only titillating, but creating a unique sort of artistic space. As one of her subjects, Bunny Love, explains, she feels as if she’s bringing her audience back to a time before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The performances at Coney Island, meanwhile, evoke a century-old setting that merges with these fluid, progressive values. The metaphorical potential of the human body is, after all, timeless.

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That said, one performer is perhaps slightly closer to the spiritual core of "Exposed". Rose Wood’s vicious, hilarious assaults on conventions of gender, religion and sexuality make for exceptional shows. Yet it’s the backstage life of Rose Wood, under the make-up, that really underlines the film’s celebration of fluidity and beauty. Beth B follows the artist into her home and her closets, examining the tools of her trade. She shares her genuine, refreshingly honest fear of labels, finding the stresses of religious and gender laws unfathomably difficult to live up to. Rose Wood, perhaps more thoroughly than anyone else in any of these films, lives according to her art.

Unfortunately, this perhaps makes her the most marginalized figure as well. “Exposed” treats her distance from society with a great deal of respect, highlighting the supremely independent and groundbreaking quality of both her work and her life. Rose Wood tells of the verbal abuse she faces, especially after her breast reconstruction surgery, as well as her 27-year celibacy. She’s like the perverse warrior monk of a new and queered religion, one which by definition cannot exist solely on the stage.

The art of living as an artist, particularly a queer artist of performance, is not historically an easy one. Vivian Maier hid herself from the world, Lucky is living on the fringe, and Rose Wood has to deal with a confused and unfriendly world. In a way this difficulty is what makes documentaries about these creative individuals not only attractive but necessary, and works of art in their own right. New York’s artists might not be where they are now “Portrait of Jason” and “Paris Is Burning,” and continuity is assured by films like “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Lucky” and “Exposed.”