Striporama Preserves the Roots of Pop Pornography; A Knight's Tale Mixes Period Comedy with Smirky Postmodernism

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Two burlesque comics (Jack Diamond and Mandy Price way past their prime) perform moldy shtick on a stagy set (resembling an SRO, it's virtually a projection of lonely old men's seedy private worlds). After some rickety routines and cornball jokes, the men don pajamas and climb in bed together, putting a pin-up poster under their pillows. As they sleep, the now-legendary pin-up girl Bettie Page?billed as "The Queen of Curves"?materializes and the duo witnesses her dance. Their apparition (defined as "the moment most favorable for observing a heavenly body") distills the 1954 burlesque film Striporama (at Two Boots' Den of Cin starting May 18). It's a rusty old product of shameless male prerogative, yet its hinges make an amusing squeak.

Compared to a modern girlie show like the new Lady Marmalade music video featuring Mya, Christina Aguilera, Pink and Lil' Kim dressed as if filming Night of the Living Drag Queens, Striporama honestly uncovers the tawdry essence of sexual exhibition. The Lady Marmalade video (directed by Paul Hunter) predicates the performers' exploitation on viewers' ignorance?we're meant to approve these pop tarts in Hunter's candy box setting. In Striporama, the performers' and viewers' low aims meet?sweaty hand on sweaty thigh. Together, their fantasies of pleasure and success swell and almost rise.

Striporama's a shabby camp experience, but as a relic of what show business and movies used to be, it instructs one on changing tastes in sex and humor. Filmed by Intrator on 16 mm and later blown up to 35 mm, Striporama was intended for "adults only" theaters caught in that late change-over from vaudeville to sex shows. (This was back when the term "art movie" also meant "skin flick.") The 50s moral shift is accounted for in the film's premise: a group of civic-minded old farts deciding what to preserve in a time capsule hypocritically omit burlesque. Striporama's revue is intended as a defense of all-American vulgarity. And better than Lady Marmalade, these stripteases-plus-variety acts (including a dancer with trained doves and a strongman) put male sexual fantasy in an accurate context. The teen idols in Lady Marmalade grossly overscale their own appeal; monstrous makeup and whorey choreography degrade them, while the skillful young women in Striporama are part of an almost venerable tradition. (The initial lineup of women, each carrying a letter to spell out "burlesque," recalls a low-rent version of the "Beautiful Girls" number in Singin' in the Rain, itself a camp spoof.)

It's fascinating to watch the old-time merging of talent and exploitation, an excuse for politely giving the audience more than what is proper. In Lady Marmalade, the post-Madonna equation of performance with prostitution is simply cynical. The lack of cynicism is what's surprising about Striporama. It's a found tatter (the original ending was lost; Two Boots is video projecting what's left). Like a torn and frayed garter belt exposing last night's debauch, Striporama helps gauge today's hypersexualized pop. Whether Georgia Sothern ("The Human Dyanamo") doing her contortions, the dovely Rita Royce or Bettie Page making a second appearance in a bubble bath, these women look womanly?fully fleshed ecdysiasts (the term H.L. Mencken coined). Only Lili St. Cyr reveals a modern sculpted body type (without TLC's awesome abs) that makes one reflect on the progress of prurience.

These women hoist their age and their breasts. You're reminded of the work of being sexy by some performers' almost brutal athleticism, or the way a demurely dressed dancer's tough strut undercuts her pretense. Class overwhelms burlesque's illusion of free-flowing sensuality, and it's clear these girls drifted into a sordid enterprise. But?and with sex there's always a but?these acts are discreet by the standards of Master P's Ice Cream Party porn videos or the shakeathons in Luke Campbell's Scriptmaster Films videos. A silhouetted striptease demonstrates how a taboo actually incites imagination. An Apache dance dissolves male sadism and female masochism in lubricious colors?the redheaded woman, her green dress with naughty pink lining, and black panties and garter belt on pale flesh.

Everything onscreen is a confluence of illicit thoughts, the result of common private desires as illustrated by two men sharing a dream in the same bed. Masculine privilege is only questioned in the strongman episode. The appearance of Mr. America seems pretty gay for a girlie pageant?evidence that burlesque also provided secret male outlets.

Striporama itself is the time capsule. Preserving the roots of pop pornography, it reveals more hidden impulses than originally intended.

A Knight's Tale
Directed by Brian Helgeland

Old-time strippers could take lessons in pandering from a modern Hollywood hack like Brian Helgeland, the producer-writer-director of A Knight's Tale. That hyphenate credit suggests Helgeland's hunger to be a "creator." But the film itself shows Helgeland didn't have a real idea, just a thought for commercialization that a studio snapped at, hoping gullible audiences would too. Helgeland's notion is worse than a stripper's, since it not only involves the prostitution of actors but also exploits literature and pop music.

A serf in the Middle Ages, William Thatcher (played by Heath Ledger), gets a chance to prove his bravery and skill in jousting tournaments by assuming a new identity after his master dies. Trying for contemporary relevance, Helgeland scores his underdog plot to teen-rousing pop music, then?for extra credit?brings in Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany) as a herald announcing each of Thatcher's competitions like a World Wrestling Federation barker. More of that Shakespeare in Love crap, A Knight's Tale mixes period comedy with smirky postmodernism. It's the worst series of sustained ideas in a single movie since 15 Minutes. The travesty that results shows nothing of either Chaucer's lyrical bawdiness or the unique emotional eloquence of pop tunes. Helgeland proves that a Hollywood hustler talking his way into movie deals is no shining knight.

A Knight's Tale is all pretext. Ledger's straw-haired hero conforms to the lamest good-guy code, his romance with Lady Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) and his jostling with fellow serfs (Bettany, Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk and Laura Fraser as his female armormaker) pretends fellow-feeling without ever following up on their possible commonplace aspirations such as those Chaucer detailed. The pretext is Hollywood's oldest hoodwink?democracy. Ledger blathers on about wanting to rise above his station as William invades the nobles-only tournaments and searches for the father who abandoned him. But the story is actually just another social-climbing fantasy about making yourself better than others. The hollow producing, writing and directing betray the essence of movies and music that complicate shallow aspirations or express them in ways that are more than rote.

If Helgeland was really creative, he would have done Beowulf with congruent songs by Metallica, Sisters of Mercy, the Cult and Rammstein. But that would have required some genuine enthusiasm for literary legend, a feel for the thematically appropriate pop music. And it would take directorial talent: animating a monster who represents cruel nature and society is more difficult than simply showing riders, horses and lances in collision. Helgeland's last film, Mel Gibson's awful Payback, fooled people by being bluntly violent. This shows he's lousy at directing action. Every bout is shown the same way and photographer Richard Greatrex bleaches out every shot. Inferior to Camelot, Lancelot du Lac and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this is just the same anachronistic folderol as in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

Helgeland's sheer commercial calculation is offensive. Pop songs like Queen's "We Will Rock You" (at the tournament), David Bowie's "Golden Years" (in the big ball scene), then AC/DC, Bachman-Turner Overdrive and others are not used sincerely but simply to bilk the youth audience. That's how pop tunes are slathered over trailers for nearly all movies. This practice satisfies the impression of familiar storylines; in fact, it encourages the use of no storylines, which benefits a hack like Helgeland. (He co-authored L.A. Confidential, the second most overrated film of the 90s.)

Hollywood intends these old songs to rouse teens even though the music predates them. The sense that pop lives forever is never blended with an appreciation for English lit, because Helgeland only trusts that boomer music culture can dominate the tastes of the younger marketplace. It's noteworthy?and frightening?how this devious calculation found synchronicity with a mainstream music publication touting A Knight's Tale weeks before its release as "coming in under the radar." Gullible teens are meant to think they discovered the avalanche of tv ads and billboards for themselves. (It reminds me of Rocky being hailed as a "sleeper" two months before its opening.) That's what's called manufactured consensus. It makes one suspicious of the hero's name, William Thatcher. The serf who lusts for a title, who romances a model-girl who wears new couture gowns in every scene, may be shown in the past, but they evoke nothing more than the celebrity and fashion of 80s Vanity Fair and its worship of right-wing politicians. After all this time, and those anti-Thatcher songs by the English Beat, Morrissey and Elvis Costello, the Margaret Thatcher legacy at last gets big-screen celebration. That's A Knight's Tale's final pop betrayal.

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