Over the past couple months, I have had the amazing pleasure and honor of collaborating with Lizzie Borden, director of the powerhouse ’80s gems “Regrouping”, “Born in Flames” and “Working Girls”. When it comes to interviewing my heroes, this one ranks at the very top for me. I saw “Born in Flames” during the pandemic, and the film changed me, filling my heart with fire and emotion. Lizzie has a way of constructing a film, and a book, with such fluidity and inclusivity. Her journey moves me, and in many ways, I feel it reflects my own. Along with her films, we talked about her new book, WHOREPHOBIA: Strippers on Art, Work, and Life, which elevates women and non-binary voices in the stripper community. Each section is a personal story followed by an interview with Lizzie or one of her fascinating subjects. Like Lizzie does with her work, we collaborated on this interview together, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Working Girls” is part of the Criterion Collection and is available to watch on the MAX platfrom. Also, her films “Born in Flames” and “Regrouping” have been recently acquired by Criterion. (We hope there will be a release of the trilogy in a box set!) You can buy ‘WHOREPHOBIA: Strippers on Art, Work, and Life’ on Amazon and in book stores.
This is a true honor to be speaking with you. Before we get started, I wanted to congratulate you on getting all three of your films, “Regrouping”, “Born in Flames” and “Working Girls”, acquired by the Criterion Collection!
Thank you! Criterion acquired all three but the Anthology Film Archives in New York deserves a lot of credit for helping make this happen. They restored “Born in Flames” and “Regrouping”. Criterion restored “Working Girls” and acquired all three this year. It’s been amazing to see them together. A British poet and critic I admire, So Meyer, called them my ”New York Feminisms” trilogy.
Watching “Regrouping” has helped me understand how I developed the “chorale” of sound in “Born in Flames.” I know it was also a reaction to wanting to work with women in a more collaboratively productive way. During a Q&A following a screening of “Regrouping”, filmmaker Jessie Rovinelli made the observation that I always seem to work with groups in my films. I suppose I did the same thing with strippers with my book. I wasn’t interested in the individual psychology of a particular woman, what really fascinated me was the idea of a group of women interacting with society at large, as a collective. I also learn so much from the reaction of audiences to the films now; I never thought they would be relevant now – I assumed that many of the issues in them would be resolved.
How did you get into filmmaking, specifically through those three films?
I never went to film school. I came from the art world, and I had wanted to be a painter. In college at Wellesley I ended up writing reviews for Artforum Magazine. A professor there invited me to write for the publication and the editor of Art Forum, John Coplans, was inventive and iconoclastic, and liked the idea. So I was a student when I was writing art criticism, which gave me access to some important artists of the time like Richard Serra and Vito Acconci and also to women doing fascinating work, like Yvonne Ranier, Carolee Schneemann, Joan Jonas, Simone Forti and Trisha Brown.
At that time, my own painting was slowly being destroyed for me because I knew too much about art. Every time I tried to do anything there was a little voice telling me it had already been done. When I decided to make films, it was preceded by a couple of things. One was my experience in the art world, where women were treated as second-rate by the art establishment, not respected as much as their male counterparts. For example, Vito Acconci, who I loved, could take off his clothes in performance while women like Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke or Joan Jonas would do the same and it would be treated as lesser in value.
“Regrouping” was about a group of women attending the School Of Visual Arts who I met through Joan Jonas. I had initially been drawn to the feminist issues they were discussing. Ultimately, the film became an experimental documentary influenced, I realized later, by art-world films I had been seeing, like Lawrence Weiner’s films, in which Kathryn Bigelow voice-overs. She does similar voice-over “readings” in “Regrouping”. When I watched “Regrouping” recently, I realized that the scene of women dancing without sound toward the end was inspired by Yvonne Rainer’s dance work.
I was politicized by the second wave of the second wave of feminism. By the time I made ”Born In Flames,” I had separated myself from the art world. I was questioning my sexuality and troubled that the art world, including myself, was mostly white and middle class. I wanted to address that. In the art world, I’d been “adjacent to” but not exactly part of, a group called Art Language, which read a lot Marxist texts. Years later, Mayo Thompson, who was part of that group, wrote the song “Born in Flames” which became the title of the film. But what had fascinated me was the Marxist idea of “the woman question.” What did that mean? That women’s issues would be dealt with secondarily? I wanted to explore that.
So I started “Born In Flames” with only one premise – that it would take place ten years after a social democratic cultural revolution. What would happen to the women most affected by this “woman question”? And who would those women be? I thought they would be women of color, and lesbians. If I had gone to film school, iit would have been impossible to start a film with only this premise and nothing else because a teacher would have said, “How can you make a movie that is not a straight documentary and where you have no idea where it’s going?” And that’s just what I wanted to explore.
I didn’t know any Black women at the time, so I had to look for them. It took a while to find anyone who would commit to working with me for the duration. And it took two years into filming – shooting once in a while, editing every day – before a story emerged from the material. The film is a combination of fiction, documentary, and found footage. Looking back, I don’t know how it managed to come together. Also, looking back, I realize it was an attempt to make an intersectional film before the word was coined, since I wanted class to be an issue, race to be an issue, and women to work together without one dominant feminism – ie. with several ‘feminisms” concurrently. Women could use the word “womanism” – the actual word didn’t matter – what they believed did, Although personally I am a staunch feminist and always will be,
It was during the pandemic that I discovered “Born in Flames” and it was a revolution to me. Where has this film been my whole life? I had several “film geek” friends who also discovered this film at this time. After watching “Born in Flames” in the context of where our times have headed, I feel it is exactly the right film for now.
Thank you, Perhaps during more liberal times, “Born in Flames” existed more as a film taught in gender studies classes -I’m incredibly grateful for that. Maybe you’re right and people during the pandemic had more time or more patience for off-center, experimental or political films. Maybe more people making films with their iPhones allowed them to be open to DIY-looking work. I did notice a shift after Occupy Wall Street in the audience for Born In Flames – more young men were responsive to it.
I feel like during this time, people had a hunger for content that was meaningful to them, and this film rocked my world. I get emotional talking about it.
Can you talk about the sound design you used in your films, especially in “Working Girls”? There are places in the film when you feel it should be quiet, full of silence, but then you hear these kinds of ambient noises that deepen the meaning of the film. Can you talk about how you used sound to bring more light into these films?
The sound design was so important in “Working Girls,” thank you for noticing. Both “Born In Flames” and “Working Girls” had themes of labor, but time was especially important in “Working Girls” since it all took place in one day. For me, the sound of a ticking clock is really important in conveying the duration of a day. Molly, played by Louise Smith, wakes up in the morning, and has the sinking feeling , “Oh my god, today is the day I have to “work, “ which she has been lying about to her partner. The ticking clock immediately becomes a motif about how much time she has to spend there. Also, someone in a job they do not like – any job – is always watching the clock to see how much longer is left. I wanted the groaning and creaking of closing and opening doors to convey the feeling of dread. I know some people have called the film documentary-like, but it was actually very controlled in the way shots were designed. The clients were always dollied in. The only time there was music was during sessions with them, from weird angles, sometimes for ellipses in time The women are shot from angles from which they could potentially see themselves. We weren’t thinking about the word “gaze” back then but there were no exploitative angles.
I wanted there to be a very slow progression from day to night. The day was more brightly lit; the night had dark shadows. The progression tracks the shift from Molly working with women she can relate to and laugh with, which helps the day go by quickly and make it endurable. But one single shift is all Molly can handle. If she had gone home at six o-clock, she would not have quit. But she was coerced into working a second shift by Lucy and can’t relate to the women she works with at night. The tipping point is when she sees a client she has liked who unexpectedly turns on her and calls her a whore She is ravaged and it goes downhill from there. She is forced to confront all the reasons she can’t continue to work there, how exploited she has been by the madam, so she quits. Because there is only a little music, the sound design in “Working Girls” is used as a score. On the other hand, the music in “Born in Flames” is agitprop, a call to action. What I would like from both films is to ask questions at the end.
In “Working Girls,” it’s what will Molly do? Will she work a regular job until she realizes she can’t get her photography done? Will she eventually go back to the brother? Will she see Elliot, the guy whose business card she kept? With “Born in Flames,” the question is what happens after the last shot? Are the women all arrested? Is this a wise thing to do in a highly developed capitalist country? Some people watching the film miss that the women just blow up the transmission tower and not the whole building – and no one gets hurt – they want their voices heard.
I’d like to talk about sex work in “Working Girls” and then segue to the book. Molly is always conscious about how much money she is making and yet in her sessions, she is so talented at giving a performance and being very present. It’s almost like watching art unfold like in that first scene when she is breaking out in poses. I think it’s interesting to look at the dichotomy, the lines between what is sex work, what is the art of the performance, and what is intimacy? Can you comment?
Someone like Molly has a lot of what the madam calls “rgs” or regulars, because she puts in a lot of emotional labor into the men she’s seeing, as opposed to giving them solely sexual sessions.. She doesn’t want what is referred to in the film as “the bangers.” Instead, she cultivates the ones who might want “a low-brow girlfriend experience”, which is different in a brothel with middle class guys who can’t afford high-end call girls. But it is a lot of emotional labor for someone like Molly, exhausting after seeing several clients in a day. Her work is “performative” both as a lesbian playing straight and as a sex worker, “performing” intimacy with most clients, although she crosses the line with a few she genuinely likes. It becomes a gray area.
In the preface of WHOREPHOBIA: Strippers on Art, Work, and Life, I write a little about my own experience working in a brothel – the one I based “Working Girls” on. In downtown New York in the 1980s, sexuality was everywhere, from Cookie Mueller stripping in a local bar to Annie Sprinkle doing performances in art venues during which the audience could look at her cervix with a speculum. Dancers and other artists performed nude. Sex work itself didn’t seem morally wrong. A group of artists happened to work at one particular brothel in the East 20s for short periods of time. As an artist, one had to find any way possible to finance one’s work. Although, being white and middle class, artists had options – we could quit at any time, unlike some of the other women we met there.
Talk to me about how you got connected with the stripper community…
It was only after I was traveling with the finished film that I met women in the sex industry, like Carol Leigh, who coined the term “sex work” and Margo St. James of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and Tracy Quan of PONY (Prostitutes Of New York.) They politicized me, especially about fighting for decriminalization rather than legalization. I did some benefit screenings with “Working Girls” but after that, I was out of touch with them for a really long time. As I write about in my preface, I met Jill Morley, who had some stories about her time as a go-go dancer in the 80s and 90s in New York and New Jersey, along with some stories from her friends, including one by Cookie Mueller, which she wanted to turn into a series of film shorts. When that didn’t happen, I inherited them as a basis for an anthology. I decided to restrict it to strippers only since there are so many different kinds of sex work and they’re all different.
I gathered stories for years. It was very slow until the internet expanded. Then I met Antonia Crane, who was incredibly open and generous with her time, and I became re-involved with sex workers on the West Coast in a more engaged way. I began to really understand the issues they were fighting for beyond decriminalization, especially during the pandemic – how FOSTA-SESTA impacted their lives, their fight to unionize strip clubs. They’re really like athletes and can have long careers – some have stripped and done full-service sex work for thirty to forty years. I find that deserves a lot of respect.
As with “Born in Flames,” they become a “chorale” of voices. I had the same feeling in finishing the book as I felt when I finished “Born in Flames,” that I wasn’t finished. With “Born In Flames,” I felt that I needed Asian and Latine voices; with the book, more Black, Asian, Latine and trans voices. But I had to stop somewhere. There will be more books, with stories collected by different editors, I’m certain of it.
I love how you have people with similar life experiences interview the dancers. I feel I adopted something similar for Cinema Femme, like I have an Indigenous writer that interviews most of the Indigenous filmmakers, or I have a filmmaker interview another filmmaker that shares their passions in certain subjects.
That’s wonderful! With the book, I wanted there to be cross-talk, becauseI felt that it was so important to convey the feeling of community. Being an outsider, I knew I wouldn’t ask certain questions, like Jill Morley asking Jacq Frances what an ideal day of dancing might be. Sometimes I asked a writer to choose an outside sex worker who knew them well to interview her. For example, Antonia Crane chose Dr. Vanessa Carlisle. It’s the same reason you do what you do. I also wanted readers to get bit of a backstage view of the writer/strippers’ lives.
The writing is so good. I love the personal stories from the perspectives of the dancers. How did you foster and piece together these amazing stories?
Some stories like Cookie Mueller’s and Chris Kraus’s already existed and I feel privileged to have them in this collection. Reese Piper had already written her story about being autistic. On the other hand, Kayla Tange told me her personal story about visiting her mother in South Korea and I asked her to write a story about it. AM Davies also told me about her devastating motorcycle accident when I met her and I asked her to write about it. One great thing about the Kathy Acker story was meeting Matias Viegener, the executor of Kathy Acker’s estate. She had a story in pieces, which we reconstructed for the anthology.
I love Kathy’s piece, and how her thoughts were scattered across the pages, but you followed it, you were drawn in. And I love how in each story, the personality of the individual really came out. There is such a vulnerability expressed through these words. And someone who deals with mental health struggles, I really appreciated the honesty of Essence Revealed, who examines her depression.
Essence Revealed’s story blew me away. I had been communicating with her about it for over a decade but only met her at the New York Public Library reading in February. It was so interesting a Black woman wrote about depression so long ago. It has been so taboo.
What was interesting to me at the very end, right before publication, a couple of the contributors dropped out because they felt too exposed. Some of them had been involved with the book from the beginning. I was sad because I loved their stories but understood – they felt they would be too exposed in their current lives. Some of them had been go-go dancers thirty years ago, which made me realize there is still such a stigma about dancing. But I want everyone to feel good about what they contributed, because the anthology is for them and about them.
Why did your book focus solely on female and non-binary strippers?
One of the things that I had to do at the very beginning was focus only on strippers, otherwise it would just be all over the place. That had to be the unifying principal – they had to have club-stripped, even if they had also performed burlesque or full-service sex work. There were some amazing sex workers that I met who, given this principle, couldn’t be in the book. I had the difficult decision to make about whether I should include men, but I felt they would have entirely different experiences and feelings about body image. This particular anthology had to have a narrow lens. One writer is trans but Fae (their pronoun) fits in well.
What do you feel is your contribution now to filmmaking?
I don’t think that is a question I can answer. There are movies that were made during the time I was making films that don’t receive enough recognition. I just started programming some of them at the Anthology Film Archives with films by Sheila McLaughlin and Pat Murphy, who were both in “Born In Flames.” I want to program more films that have been made by women people from my generation. I have been incredibly lucky that my films have been restored and seen, so I want to bring their films to light as well. In terms of any contribution I may have made? – that is for others to decide.