A Pensive Close-Up and Some Wistful Music
Extreme close-up on a woman’s face. The picture is slightly fuzzy, but it quickly sharpens into focus, making the image of the lower-right quarter of a face clear. A pierced nose, a cheek, a jawline, half of a chin, lips.
“I’m a virgin,” the woman confesses with some difficulty, accompanied by a few heartbreaking notes on the piano.
A Wink and a Smile is full of moments like this. In fact, within the first few minutes of the movie, Indigo Blue, headmistress of the Seattle Burlesque Academy, introduces the concept of the film in confessional, interspersed with slow-motion clips of her own performances, set to a woman vocalizing over a piano. She talks about helping women find their sexuality and confidence.
The film is full of confessional moments like this. They’re necessary in a documentary, especially with such interesting characters – there’s a taxidermist, a student studying sexology, an opera singer, a 51-year-old mom. That’s how you build connections between the film and the audience, building interest for the film.
But when you start a confessional with a girl in tears, so early in the film, it makes you think. Particularly for a documentary about burlesque, you have to think about when tropes become cliches. A Wink and a Smile has so many slow-motion shots, so many intentionally “soulful” shots, that it becomes a very tongue-in-cheek burlesque of a documentary. This gets really meta, if you think about it – it’s a burlesque documentary about burlesque.
The thing is, I’m not sure if the women know it, which makes me a little edgy. I want to laugh at them because they’re a little outrageous anyway, and particularly ridiculous when framed in this way. But if they don’t know that they’re being laughed at, then I’m not so sure I’m okay with that.
The shots of women standing and gazing pensively out at bodies of water, the melodramatic piano music in most of these confessionals, betrays a little bit more of a sense of humor on someone’s part than might be expected in a standard documentary. This peaks when, after the opera singer drops out of the class, she’s actually providing her own melodramatic piano piano music. She talks about how she worried too much about her family finding out and them being ashamed of her while the camera jumps between her talking and playing piano. It’s ridiculous, and certainly intentionally so, but again, does she know?
At the end of the day, the documentary really is a documentary about these women finding self-confidence and sexuality, and it’s got a lot of heart. And it’s hilarious, not just because of the documentary cliches but because of the absurdity of Indigo Blue explaining to this group of women that they should have their friends help them with “pussy checks” before they go onstage, and other such situations.
I just hope they intentionally burlesqued themselves.