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Sonoma Valley Film Festival:
Welcome Sinners: The Velvet Hammer Story

I love Vaudeville. I can't help it, I just think that entertainment back at the turn of the 20th century had it all over us today. Vaudeville's bumping and grinding sister burlesque has always fascinated me, ever since I came across an old Tempest Storm book in 5th grade.

I can say that in the passing years I have been most interested in the history, and especially the women, of burlesque. And with all that going for it, why wasn't I all that moved by Welcome Sinners: The Velvet Hammer Story?

Velvet Hammer is a group out of LA that is bringing back the old Burly-Q by putting on shows around California. The women involved with the shows are not strippers…I mean, they aren't REALLY strippers. They're dancers and performers who happen to strip down to fringe and pasties. Everything from Entertainment Tonight to Newsweek has covered (not literally) the girls and their shows. They've even run Lucha-Va-Voom, a crossbreed of Mexican wrestling and their burlesque acts. The group is a natural for interesting stories to be told, so where did this go wrong?

The documentary is a simple one: tell the story of this burlesque crew by interviewing the girls, cutting in with bits of the various acts, and use vignettes to serve as bumpers between the segments. It's a simple formula that has worked for dozens of other docs, including Bowling for Columbine, but this attempt failed to connect with me.

The first thing I noticed was the uneven pacing. The interviews almost always snipped short, occasionally being mere sound bites, while each of the dancing acts received long coverage.

Don't get me wrong. These are some talented, BEAUTIFUL women, but it took me out of the story to have to wait through a full act before moving on and hearing more. I was far more interested in the women with names like Michelle Carr and Teri Geary than the performers called Valentina Violette or Kitten De Ville. Some well-placed voice-over, talking about the acts in the context of the segment, might have helped.

I was also interested in the whole feminist issue, but the segment that focused on it was far too long, and not punctuated enough. Weaving that story through the film would have helped by evening out the chunkiness of the material, as several spots called for that sort of commentary.

Some of the cinematography was very good, particularly on the segments that were shot on film, but a few places it felt like a friend's camera in the crowd capturing the performances. While the set-ups for some of the interviews added an element of continuity to the subject, such as putting the founders in a living room, holding Cosmopolitans and sitting on a purple couch, others had the "We need a place to talk" vibe going.

Perhaps my problem was the feeling that the whole thing had been rushed. The director herself admitted that it wasn't finished until Monday at 4:30 AM, but there were a number of areas where it just felt tacked together, waiting for the glue to dry. I noticed at least one spelling mistake in an on-screen graphic, and if I noticed it, what would an editor catch if they watched closely? I am betting that the director will continue to spend time on the film, cutting and recutting. I hope so, since I think there is some great material waiting for great presentation.

While some of the documentary portions have weaknesses, a couple of the choices made for the vignettes are even more questionable. Doing a mockumentary segment on the Poubelle Sisters, the French maids of the show, in the middle of a documentary was a gutsy move, but one that removed me from the flow of the content. Whereas Michael Moore made it work for Bowling For Columbine with its cartoon segment, this did not help things. It would be most unfair if I didn't say that the two women who portray Bibi et Fifi Poubelle are, without question, the most attractive women ever to don the French Maid uniform. Seriously, I'd Hinckley for a moment with either of them.

Now, while I can't give Welcome Sinner: The Velvet Hammer Story any better than a maybe, I can give the Velvet Hammer group a whole-hearted recommendation.

If you are anywhere near where Velvet Hammer is holding a show, go without hesitation. If you are not, make plans for a trip to see them. They are worth it. The women are of various body types, many of which don't fit with the common perception of what an "exotic dancer" should look like, but they all have an air of artistry to their numbers that make each one highly entertaining. As one interviewee says "This is Entertainment", and she is not at all wrong.

Check out www.velvethammerburlesque.com for show dates, cast bios, and some very nice pictures.

All in all, in this form, see it if you are a fan of Burlesque…or just like watching talented women taking most of their clothes off and putting on a hell of a show.

Chris Garcia

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