Peep Shows and Prison Showmanship


“Two, four, six, eight. Don’t go in to masturbate,” chant the strippers who are picketing the entrance to San Francisco’s Lusty Lady Theater. In 1997, after a lengthy, combative labor negotiation, the Lusty Lady became the first unionized strip club; its workers were organized as the Exotic Dancers Union, a chapter of the Service Employees International 790.

Writer and stand-up comedian Julia Query worked at the Lusty Lady to pay the rent. Although she had never made a film before, she decided to document the strippers’ struggle to unionize. After working on the project for about a year, she brought in experienced documentarian Vicky Funari as codirector. Their film, Live Nude Girls Unite!, should put to rest the canard that feminists have no sense of humor. From the opening shot of Query strolling past that legendary temple of male beatitude, the City Lights Bookstore, to the closing Emma Goldman quote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” Live Nude Girls Unite! is wickedly funny. Its subversive comic style is an antidote to the absence of humor in two films that must have been on Query’s mind: Barbara Kopple’s classic labor doc, Harlan County, U.S.A., and, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, Paul Verhoeven’s glossy sexploitation fiasco, Showgirls.

Query incorporates her stand-up routines as a way of commenting on the events at the Lusty Lady. “I never before worked with so many women with college degrees, most of them in feminist studies. They realized what to do about patriarchy: Make them pay.” Nearly a decade before the Lusty Lady strippers fought to become unionized, sex workers led by Scarlett Harlot tried to get the labor relations board to recognize them as full-time, union-eligible workers rather than as independent contractors. The board ruled against them, explaining that if they had been farm laborers they might have had a case. Which isn’t so different from the lawyer for the Lusty Lady’s owners objecting to the use of the word “pussy” in the contract the strippers propose, claiming that “they were sexually harassing themselves.”

The film zeros in on the doublethink and institutionalized misogyny behind such statements, but it’s even more provocative when it goes after the divisions within feminism around the issues of sexuality, sex work, and the ways women deploy and depict their bodies. “I like dancing in a room with other women. It’s like a weird pajama party,” says one of the strippers, making us aware of the camaraderie, pleasure, and power the women experience as they perform, not only for the Lusty Lady’s patrons but also for Query’s camera.

Query’s mother is Dr. Joyce Wallace, celebrated for her efforts to promote safe sex among New York prostitutes. Having learned her feminism at her mother’s knee, Query didn’t hesitate to come out to her as a lesbian, but she kept her sex work a secret. When she discovers that she and Wallace are both scheduled to speak at a conference on prostitution, she decides to tell all to her mom with the camera running. “I’m going to use it as a plot device,” she says flippantly, but her anxiety is apparent. Dr. Wallace is horrified by the news; to her credit, she never asks that the camera be turned off. “I don’t want people to know my daughter is in the smut industry,” she says tearfully. For her, sex workers are victims. She can’t accept that a woman with as many career options as her daughter would choose to be a stripper. Query, who clearly has no taste for Oprah-like confessionals, handles the mesh of personal and political in her conflict with her mother a bit too gingerly. It’s the big flaw in Live Nude Girls Unite!, a film that finds liberation in irony and uplift in ribald wit.

The protagonist of Sam the Man treats all women as if they were performers in his personal peep show. Gary Winick’s movie is the opening-night selection of ResFest, the lively all-digital film festival that’s largely a showcase for visually punchy, minimally narrative shorts. Compared to the closing-night film, Syd Garan and Eric Henry’s kinetic Wave Twisters—a 45-minute sci-fi animation that scratches images the way DJ Qbert’s album of the same name scratches sound—Sam the Man is old-fashioned to the point of entropy. It’s the alt.Wonder Boys in every aspect, including the casting of Fisher Stevens in the lead role of a novelist experiencing second-book block. Stevens has the guilty eyes and baggy jaw of Wonder Boys star Michael Douglas without any of his charm. Sam the Man is tougher than the Douglas vehicle in one respect: In Winick’s film, the writer is a total shit in his personal life from beginning to end. The redemptive epilogue is the one false note in Wonder Boys (which is being rereleased next month with a revamped marketing campaign), but no studio would have financed the film without it. Sam the Man is proof that digital video, because it’s cheap, is a medium in which you can be as nasty as you need to be. Thanks to the work of DP Wolfgang Held, this no-budget quickie, at least when viewed on cassette, has a hip, downtown fashion-rag look. There’s no telling whether the image will hold up when it’s projected on the big screen.

Months after it was sent down to cable, Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory has been granted a much deserved theatrical release. A performance-driven prison drama with a riot scene that allows the actor-turned-director to show his action chops, the film is richer than Buscemi’s Cassavetes-influenced debut feature, Trees Lounge. The ensemble of underground all-stars features an almost unrecognizable Mickey Rourke as a motor-mouthed transvestite, but it’s the relationship between Willem Dafoe, as Earl, the hard-time veteran, and Edward Furlong, as Ron, the new boy he takes under his wing, that makes the film so compelling. With his head shaved and a simian gait held over from his epic-scale star turn in the Wooster Group’s adaptation of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, Dafoe doesn’t soft-pedal the brutality that ensures Earl’s survival. But he also lets us see the interior contradictions of a man whose need for power and control is part of what turns him into a near saint. “I probably wouldn’t help you so much if you were ugly, but that’s my problem,” he says to Ron, who’s worried that his mentor wants to get into his pants. Deserted by his own father when he needed him most, Ron craves Earl’s attention but also insists on preserving as much independence as he can within the stratified prison society. Too proud to risk rejection and aware that his feelings for Ron extend beyond sexual desire, Earl settles for becoming his savior. Tender, poignant, and homoerotically charged, this complicated father-son relationship is brought to life by two brilliant actors and a director who’s canny enough to give them all the room they need.

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