In the beginning of Burlesque Assassins, a tattooed dancer wearing gold pasties and a lit candelabra on her head undulates in a theater, practicing her act. But backstage is where the real action is: A man gets killed via knife through the eyeball, and a Russian woman is in the middle of interrogating a Nazi (while having sex with him on a chair) when he is shot in the head. And that's just the first five minutes.
"Seduce and destroy" is the motto of Burlesque Assassins, the distinctly campy independent film that's showing at the Crystal Theatre May 3 and 4. In the post-World War II setting, sultry resistance fighters are trying to track down a "Nazi Atomic Death Ray" before their Cold War enemies do. Our heroine, Bourbon Sue (played by real-life award-winning dancer Roxi DLite), a fiesty rockabilly chick who beats up men outside bars for money, is recruited to join the Burlesque Assassins and prove herself. It's not historically accurate by any means: Benito Mussolini Jr. and a clone of Hitler hang out together in a dance hall and argue about drinks.
Burlesque Assassins nods to a long-standing tradition of films that tease audiences by being so bad they're good. It's the first feature-length film from Calgary-based director Jonathan Joffe, who's proud to reference Ed Wood, Rocky Horror Picture Show and Russ Meyer with his work. "Film can be a wonderful means of expressing very deep things, and that's great," he says in a recent phone interview. "But first and foremost, when I go to a movie, I want to have fun."
Campy films, like watching an exotic dance performance, are an escape from life's seriousness. They transport us to places where anything can happen, no matter how outlandish. Joffe says in real life, subcultures like burlesque, cosplay and roller derby let people explore other realities. "Wouldn't it be great if life was an adventure just like it is in a movie?" he says.
The actors in Burlesque Assassins chew the scenery—sometimes literally, as with the continually cigar-chomping assassin leader Johnny Valentine (played by cabaret legend Armitage Shanks). The film's pacing suffers a bit, with punchlines lingering just a beat too long, and the fight scenes don't land many visual punches.
But the several dances in the film are captivating examples of what a fine art burlesque can be. From raunchy to funny to flat-out smoking hot, the performances celebrate sensuality, the agility of the human body and the fun of playing dress-up.
Meg Hansen, who performs as Stella Pearl with Missoula's Cigarette Girls, says when the filmmaker invited the troupe to host a Burlesque Assassins screening, it seemed like a way to celebrate the diversity of burlesque.
"For a lot of people in Missoula, we kind of defined burlesque for them," she says. "And there's this whole big giant world out there, there's so many avenues and interpretations of the art form."
In her own act, Hansen likes to play a goofy, clumsy persona. "You get the opportunity to become a character," she says. She thinks burlesque's appeal lies in being inclusive and accessible. The Cigarette Girls include women of many sizes, and they perform styles ranging from classic '50s-pin-up to neo-gothic. "It's all body types and all women, all different kinds of sexuality," she says.
It's that accessibility that's at the heart of camp's appeal. The idea of becoming a sexy resistance fighter who can knock a man out with a stiletto kick is, well, ludicrous. But we can sit back and envision ourselves becoming a bombshell babe or dashing fellow, and enjoy the dance.
The Cigarette Girls hosts screenings of Burlesque Assassins, with live performances during intermission, at the Crystal Theatre Fri., May 3, and Sat., May 4, at 7 PM. $13/$10 in advance at Rockin Rudy's.