This week the Screening Room hosts the Sex Workers' Festival, which is not what it sounds like. Rather, it's an assortment of live performances, panel discussions and documentary shorts and features.
Two of the more interesting films are Angel's Ladies and Live Nude Girls Unite, which represent nearly opposite ideas about documentary filmmaking. Angel's Ladies is an intense, somewhat mean-spirited look at a "Christian" brothel, whereas Live Nude Girls Unite is a film by and about Julia Query and her efforts to unionize the strippers at San Francisco's Lusty Ladies peep club.
Angel's Ladies is in the same philosophical vein as the Maysles brothers' documentaries: The filmmakers have a great deal of distance from, and even a certain distaste for, their subjects. This is not in any way a bad thing, though; in fact, it's the only way to tell this story, which continually returns to the tensions between the prostitutes who work at Angel's Ranch, and the owners, Angel and Mack Moore.
Angel and Mack are former mortuary owners who, according to one of their current employees, have gone from dealing in cold meat to hot meat by buying a whorehouse in Nevada. The women who work there find the Moores a bit comical and a bit annoying, as they try to impart their Christian values on the working ladies.
Those values include swinging, selling women's bodies and having sex with the clientele and employees. You know, just like Jesus said after he handed out the loaves and condoms.
While the Moores are the subject of some ridicule, the filmmakers seem to genuinely enjoy the company of the prostitutes, who are shown as a lot more intelligent and thoughtful than, say, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. They're also, of course, a lot less pretty, as are the clients, and watching them interact au naturel really brings into question a lot of the mainstream cinema's assumptions about sexuality. What makes the sex so disturbing, though, is the baldness of its commodification. While there are plenty of Hollywood movies about hookers, none of them capture the unpleasant fiscal aspects of the profession with as cold an eye as Angel's Ladies.
Perhaps the film's most riveting moment (and the whole thing is pretty compelling) is when the filmmakers interview Fran, the former owner of the brothel. Fran looks like everyone's grandmother, sitting in her extremely middle-class living room, with her cute granny voice and winning granny smile. Of course, she's saying things like "My pussy's made of gold!" and "The one thing I miss about the business is getting all that ass." Strangely, my grandma never talked to me like that, but I think I speak for everyone with a grandma when I say I wish she had.
WHILE ANGEL'S LADIES is a winner because of its capacity to separate itself from its subject, Live Nude Girls Unite works by presenting an insider's view of the stripping business. It details the efforts of comic, activist and stripper Julia Query to unionize the Lusty Lady peep show in San Francisco. Whereas the women in Angel's Ladies are in their late 40s or 50s, and are mostly working class and high-school educated, the women of the Lusty Lady are largely college-educated, in their 20s and conversant in feminist rhetoric and ideology.
Query herself was raised by feminist activist Dr. Joyce Wallace, who's spent her life trying to protect the prostitutes of New York from disease, homelessness and violence. This side of the sex business contrasts strongly with the relative safety and respectability of stripping, and it would have been interesting if the filmmakers had explored the effects of education and class on the lives led by these different castes of women.
However, the story they tell instead is equally engaging, though it's really not about sex so much as it is about workers' rights. The Lusty Lady, though considered one of the more female-friendly strip clubs in San Francisco, engaged in some questionable business practices, and the strippers' efforts to unionize seem not only heroic, but necessary.
While the unionization story carries the same kind of punch as an action film, with clear-cut heroes and villains, it becomes more complex when the strippers are asked to help other clubs unionize. Heading out to Alaska and the Midwest, they meet strippers who are not grad school dropouts and philosophy/feminism majors, and again the class issues separating different kinds of sex workers come to the fore, perhaps without the filmmakers quite realizing it.
Live Nude Girls Unite is incredibly well put-together, with beautiful, but not distracting, cinematography and some really careful editing. Each scene seems to follow naturally from the previous one, which is quite a task in a film that was made over more than a year and is drawn from many hours of disconnected footage.
Angel's Ladies is not so well assembled, and even seems slapdash at times, but it is intense, revealing and occasionally hilarious. Both films work well on their own terms, and both also go a bit further, opening interesting questions about the relation between the person behind the camera and the people in front of it.