Arts & Books: New York Diary: Post-modernism for perverts

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The Independent Culture
"RRRRRRR," RUMBLED a fellow at the back of the second floor of the East Village bar, Sunday-night home to the Red Vixen burlesque. He was responding to fleshy blonde Dirty Martini, now wriggling in a black corset. Behind a curtain, in silhouette, Martini slowly took off her stockings, toes pointing up at the ceiling. After the second act, another man in thick, black-framed, nerd-cool glasses handed a buck to the second dancer, an act that was retro and "erotic" and seemed loaded down with mournfulness. The dude didn't slide the tip greasily into her black thong, however, but offered it rather shyly, so as not to invade her performative space.

This so-called avant-garde burlesque happens weekly. It's a slice of Manhattan's new enthusiasm for naughty vaudeville. This taste for camp porn coincides with the Mayor of New York's quality-of-life war on the adult entertainment industry. Topless dancers are now chastely brassiered, and sex shops zoned out of Times Square and into the hinterlands of Queens - a quarantine of warehouse districts. (In a sideline, the severe zoning laws were outsmarted a few weeks ago by a legal claim that after one strip joint had allowed 14-year-olds into its environs, it was no longer an "adult" business.)

Artful nudity is not limited to the new burlesque outfits. Two weeks ago, 500 art kids, sundry perverts and a New York Times critic lined up for three hours of non-penetrative sex between porn actresses and a salesman in the SoHo shock gallery du jour - Jack Tilton.

"They really wanted penetration, but it was just soft porn," testifies Jack Tilton's co-director. "The actresses were touching audience members and putting sand piles on their genitals. But last year, there was penetration," he said. He believes that if the Mayor caught wind of it he "would try to close it down if he could".

This month, critic Geoffrey O'Brien's The Times Square Story was published - a book wallowing in the lost 42nd Street of yore, full of B-movie stills, fleabag hotels and grind- houses.

At Red Vixen and Grindhouse and the Blue Angel, audience members discuss whether scrotums or breasts are more beautiful, and then decide that breasts are social constructs. There are feathers, spangles, throaty Fifties chanteuses, abjection, Serge Gainsbourg and accordion music. Other acts at Red Vixen included the Little Girl From Chernobyl, topless and painted with glow- in-the-dark "plutonium" make-up; and Mangina Man, his genitals arrayed behind plastic labia with woven fuzz. He told the audience that the runner- up name for Mangina (man plus vagina) was Lotum (labia plus scrotum). He welcomed anyone in the audience who wanted to touch it.

The Mangina is not quite the twee demi-porn of Broadway and recent films. The hit Broadway revival Cabaret continues to pack people in to see girls in satin skivvies and Jennifer Jason Leigh's familiar performance (is she recycling Dorothy Parker, or a strung-out narc for this Weimar succubus?) Until its recent move to the revamped Studio 54, Cabaret was housed in the Disneyfied Times Square that O'Brien's book wishes to forget, a stone's throw from the sites where the dank sleaze palaces once stood.

A few years ago in Manhattan, porn kitsch took over. Girls dressed in glittery sweaters, worn in honour of former porn star Traci Lords, waited in art- plexes for Mark Wahlberg's member to emerge, soon after Larry Flynt was canonised as a constitutional scholar. What did the cute-porn moviegoer care for the death of New York's dark, Modernist theatres, where a low public culture of joyless pleasure had been carried on, without irony, for decades?

The live burlesque is sadder and more self-aware. On Sunday, Red Vixen's sweaty raconteur/novelist emcee Jonathan Ames said of it: "Burlesque came from vaudeville before vaudeville was destroyed by cinema."

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