'Unveiling' Revelations : Rodney Evans' erotic, rambling documentary takes a look at different eras of exotic dancing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rodney Evans' "The Unveiling," which the American Cinematheque screened last March and which opens a one-week run Friday at the Grande 4-Plex, is an entertaining documentary on three exotic dancers: Michele Watley, Eldad Sahar and Dixie Evans.

Sahar and Watley are expert dancers with perfect bodies who are consummately skilled at knowing how to tease their audiences, who tend to be gays and lesbians, respectively. Both Sahar and Watley consider themselves bisexual, and they are both clearly intelligent, thoroughly disciplined and detached professionals. Whether they've thought about it or not, they are in their way upholders of a traditional American puritanism: The couple of millimeters of fabric that separate them from total nudity is a matter of major importance and self-esteem to both of them.

Evans is of an entirely different era. Known as the "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque," Evans is a hearty, sharp-witted, reflective 70-something survivor of the golden age of stripteasing in theaters and nightclubs that pretty much died out by the '60s. (The physical contact Sahar and Watley make with their audiences would be unthinkable in the respectable venues of Evans' era.) Evans today runs the Exotic World Museum in Helendale, Calif., where she holds striptease contests and still loves to dance. She looks her age and has an endearing exuberance and lack of vanity.

As a documentary, "The Unveiling" tends to be rambling and repetitive, but you probably won't mind because Rodney Evans has come up with such a sure-fire subject and asked good questions. And yes, his film certainly is erotic. (213) 617-0268.

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Most of the films in the American Cinematheque's "Tribute to Rosa von Praunheim" that have screened over the past two weekends have surfaced locally in various festivals and as special events over the years, but the group of films that will be presented at Raleigh Studios' Chaplin Theater in this concluding weekend are mainly new to Los Angeles. They confirm Praunheim's importance not only as a committed gay filmmaker but as part of the New German Cinema generation that gained international acclaim in the '70s.

The second part of Praunheim's AIDS trilogy, "Positive" (1990), screens Friday at 7:15 p.m. and, like the first, "Silence Equals Death" (also 1990), is set in New York. A pioneer in chronicling post-Stonewall gay life in America as well as Germany and also an early AIDS activist, Praunheim has the experience and perspective to deal with all aspects of the epidemic. While his first AIDS film dealt with the disease and the arts, "Positive" tackles AIDS and politics. (No kudos here for former New York Mayor Edward Koch or former President Ronald Reagan.)

"Positive" argues for the need for gays to hit the streets and protest the government's slow response to the AIDS crisis. One of the last men interviewed in the film says he regards AIDS as "our Pearl Harbor" and that "we will win the war."

"Horror Vacui" (1984), screening Friday at 9:15 p.m., is one of Praunheim's most accomplished films, remarkably formal in comparison to the casual, improvised quality of most of his work. The early '80s brought a spate of films exposing the dangers of cults, but here Praunheim deliberately recalls the memory of Hitler and even attempts, successfully, to evoke the Expressionist style of the German silents of the '20s. As a result, "Horror Vacui" has a timelessness other exposes of "Moonie"-type sects lack.

Into the Magic Cabaret steps a young painter, whose lover is a medical student, only to be caught up in the spell cast by Madame C (Lotte Huber), constantly on the lookout for recruits for her Optimal Optimism cult. Praunheim favorite Huber, a plump, exuberant onetime dancer who recalls the John Waters' movies' Divine in appearance and wardrobe, has a compelling presence in what is a legitimate performance that at the film's end takes on a totally surprising twist.

Playing with it is "Red Love" (1981), in which Praunheim intercuts an interview with vibrant middle-aged sexual liberationist Helga Goetze with a campy tale of star-crossed love in '20s Russia to show that women have been just as repressed and oppressed under capitalism as they have under Communist Party rule. Goetze emerges as a powerful defender of her radical sexual politics, but you do have to wonder how a homely, dumpy middle-aged woman, as captivating a free spirit as she is, ever managed to snag more than 200 lovers in a three-year period, as she claims.

One of Praunheim's most enjoyable movies, the 1982 "City of Lost Souls" (Saturday at 7:15 p.m.), is a musical camp extravaganza. It stars Harlem-born transsexual Angie Stardust, a cabaret singer, who for purposes of the plot, presides over the Hamburger Queen diner and her own Berlin pension, havens for Americans of unconventional and uninhibited sexuality.

Working at the diner is platinum-wigged singer Jayne County, tempted to go to East Berlin to secure the stardom that so far has eluded her. Also on hand, among many others, are naked modern dancer Gary Miller and Joaquin de Habana, singer-dancer and exuberant celebrator of androgyny. These and others are, needless to say, outrageous to the max but have a lot of pizazz.

Appropriately concluding the series is "Neurosia: 50 Years of Perversity" (Saturday at 9:30 p.m.), a sly mockumentary in which Praunheim has a member of the audience shoot him fatally as he's introducing his newest film at its premiere. This allows Praunheim to have homophobic news journalist Gesine Ganzman-Seipel (Desiree Nick), a lacquered blond who loves nothing better than the emphatic pronouncing of her own name, to dig into Praunheim's life for a series of reports.

This, in turn, enables Praunheim to have some fun with his own scandalous myth, drawing upon lots of vintage footage and remarks by friends and former lovers. The real coup is that he's able to get away with having the journalist coming to respect him as an iconoclastic gay activist and filmmaker without seeming shamelessly self-serving. We learn that the filmmaker, born Holger Mischwitzki in 1942, took the name "Rosa" in honor of the pink triangle Nazis forced homosexuals to wear and "Praunheim" from the Frankfurt neighborhood in which he grew up. The handsome Praunheim emerges as a man who knows how to take his work and causes seriously without taking himself too seriously. Information: (213) 466-FILM.

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Many directors start out as experimentalists, but the reverse verges on the unique. Yet that is just the direction France's Alain Cavalier has taken. Over the years the veteran mainstream director has become increasingly venturesome--to the extent that with his "Le Rencontre" (The Encounter) he chronicles his own love story without us ever getting a good look at him and only the swiftest glimpse of the face of the new woman in his life.

In a formidable example of the old axiom "Maximum effect from minimal means," Cavalier involves us in the relationship through closely cropped images revealing a arm or a back, but mainly of hands involved in the activities of daily life, as we hear on the soundtrack a couple conversing with some narration by Cavalier.

In a very real sense, "Le Rencontre" is a celebration of the highly sensual and tactile gesture--a hand touching another individual, the petting of a cat, the caring for birds, the preparing of food; the whole film is like a graceful, thoughtful caress. "Le Rencontre" is incredibly intimate in effect without being invasive. (No, there are no intimations of off-screen sex.) Much of the film is set indoors, in which we glimpse rooms filled with objects of classically understated French taste--a beautiful work of sculpture, an elegant ring.

Yet the film's tantalizing flow of elliptical images are from time to time punctuated with broad vistas--a provincial train station, a view of a shoreline. We don't get to know many facts about Cavalier or his lover or ever know exactly where anything is taking place, but we do get a sense that both are sophisticated, caring individuals, appreciative of nature and possessed of a high degrees of self-awareness. Perhaps Cavalier, who compels our attention throughout, means for us to consider that that's all we really need to know.

Filmforum presents "Le Rencontre" Saturday and Sunday at noon at the Nuart. Information: (310) 478-6379.

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