Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The connection between sex and money: Lizzie Borden's WORKING GIRLS

Perhaps it was the unending coverage of Eliot Spitzer's recent hooker shenanigans that reminded me of Lizzie Borden's 1986 film Working Girls. I must have seen this for the first time in the late 1980s, when I was working in a video store and could rent any title for free. I avoided this one for a long time, as I thought that a film about female prostitutes wouldn't particularly appeal to me; this was also just before hookers became Disneyfied in the form of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. But when I finally saw it, I was mesmerized. It has stayed in my mind since, though I did not actually see it again until last night. It had been teased back into my consciousness by a CNN news story about the world of high-class prostitutes in New York, and I began searching for a copy. The DVD is currently out of print, and goes for large sums on eBay; there was however a VHS copy available for $5.00, and this was what I watched last night. I'm happy to report that not only does the film hold up, but it's probably even better in 2008 than it was in 1986.

Working Girls covers one day, late morning to evening, in a fairly upper-class New York City brothel, and is told largely through the eyes of Molly (played by the excellent Louise Smith), a Yale-educated lesbian whose African-American lover (who has a young daughter) doesn't know what she's doing for a living. Molly rides her bike through the streets of Manhattan after a cozy and domestic breakfast with her girlfriend and the child, and after parking her bike in one of the brothel's rooms, dons a slinky but not slutty blue dress, applies makeup, and readies herself for the day's work. She interrupts her colleague Gina (Marusia Zach) inserting a diaphragm; when asked why she doesn't simply use a sponge or the pill, Gina replies, "I'm not screwing up my hormones for two shifts a week." The work in question is depicted in a routine, definitely un-erotic fashion: the men who pay for Molly's services are catalogues of ticks and fetishes and fantasies. One insists that Molly pretend to be blind so that he, the "doctor," can cure her condition by taking her "virginity." Another likes fairly standard bondage, while another gives her a wrapped package containing a beige shirt that Molly had admired on him the week before -- he follows this gift by asking if he can see her "on the outside," a request which Molly routinely turns down. The film admirably and somewhat bravely shows men with less-than-perfect bodies -- in other words, normal men -- and women whose breasts are not perky Playboy images, but real breasts: somewhat saggy, somewhat out of shape. The sex scenes sometimes have a startling pathos and poignancy: the men are all rather sad cases, either because they're smarmy and arrogant, or because they're painfully shy, inept, or so locked into their fantasies that they dare not reveal them to anyone they can't pay. Particularly lovely is a moment where Molly coaches a very nervous guy about how to put his arm around his new girlfriend, how to kiss her, and how to know whether or not the time is right for sex. "What if she wants to have sex with me?" the man asks plaintively, and Molly's kind and compassionate response highlights more than any other moment in the film the skill with which a prostitute makes her customers feel important -- I truly can't tell whether Molly actually likes this man or if it's part of the act.

Far more interesting than the sex is what goes on between the sex. The brothel's main room could be just another office: the girls have lunch, gossip, make fun of Lucy, their horrid boss (played with delirious bitchiness by Ellen McElduff), compare notes on the various "RGs" (regulars), talk about what their lives might have been and still could be. One of the girls is a college student, who has to leave her shift early, this being Thursday -- she has a night class. The film's feminist slant -- the women are all strong in their own ways and have a competence and control in their work that is remarkably out of keeping with the image of prostitution as a slipshod and scattered profession -- was probably something of a novelty for the mid-1980s, a time I remember of appalling backward conservatism. Working Girls is a time capsule in another sense: in a scene that is chilling in hindsight, a john refuses to wear a condom, and Gina informs him that this is okay, but that it will cost him extra -- those were the early days, when AIDS was still a "gay disease." But the true glory of the film is the way in which the mundane routines -- again, this could be your standard office, and just as boring for its workers -- are laid bare for the viewer: the procedures involving the phone, appointments (particularly whether or not the john is a "one" -- one hour -- or a "half"; he can "go" twice in a "one"), showers, towels, and the exchange of money. The girls are instructed to make sure that the customer is "completely comfortable": in other words, naked, so that they'll know he's not a cop. Borden, who wrote the story and the screenplay, introduces a new employee, Mary (Helen Nicholas), so that Molly can show her around the house and teach her the ropes. There's the standard pocketing of a little extra cash on the side, the standard faking of appointment lengths in the ledger, the standard smoking of pot when the boss lady's gone. Lucy, the madam, appears midway through the film and again at the end, and is a gaudy tyrant and former prostitute herself, who is now the mistress of one of her own RGs (all of the other women in the house have slept with him too, declaring him "easy" to work with) and who yammers on incessantly about the panties she purchased that day, the ski trip she's taking to Gstaad, and, above all, "class" and how the other girls don't have it -- all before getting taken out to be screwed by her former john at the Plaza Hotel. It's reassuring to know that even a female pimp leaves something to be desired.

The film is very low-budget, and sounds as though it was looped in its entirety. But I find something very appealing in that mid-80s film stock in low-budget pictures -- most 80s films feel too slick for my taste, and Working Girls has a tactile feel to it, a texture. It reminds me of the long conversations with my friend Brad in which we would wax rhapsodic about the glories of the graininess of 1970s film stock. Only a few films from the 80s have this feel: Working Girls is one; Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances and Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Laundrette are others. For want of a better phrase, this graininess, this texture, gives the viewer something to gnaw on, or something to cling to -- you could slip and slide easily on most of the glitzy films of the decade. I'd actually hate to see Working Girls remastered, for the visual texture matches the subject matter.

Some might find the ending of Working Girls a bit predictable, but it gives the film a nice circular shape, and reinforces the film's latent feminist intent, which is to show that these women are not stupid, not disease-ridden, not perverse. They have fallen into a profession that none of them can claim to enjoy, but one that they stay in from what might best be called a sense of inertia. "The two things I love most in life are sex and money," says Lucy, in a rare moment of honesty. "I just never knew until much later they were connected." Working Girls is probably the only film I've seen that explores that connection in a witty, sad, poignant, smart, raw, unglamorized, and surprisingly honest way.

Monday, March 17, 2008

If absurdity could kill: ANTICHRISTA, by Amélie Nothomb

Amélie Nothomb is a writer of Belgian origin, raised in Japan, and currently living -- I believe -- in Paris. I was introduced to her work by my friend Valerio, who has read all of her books in Italian; only a select few have been translated into English, the most famous of which, Fear and Trembling, was, I believe, once recommended by Oprah, either on the air or in her magazine, and was also made into a film. Nothomb's style might best be described as minimalist, if we used that term anymore. Her novels tend to be brief, pared down, sharp, clear, and focused. Having ingested a steady diet of Doris Lessing of late, who is the polar opposite, stylistically, from Nothomb, Antichrista was something of a shock in the swiftness of its narrative and in the corresponding sharpness of its insights. This is a book on which you can cut yourself.

Antichrista tells the story of Blanche, an aptly named sixteen year old political science student in Brussels who, until the novel begins, has been moderately content with the fact that she has no friends. While she occasionally longs for one in an abstract way, she is actually quite happy to lie in her room, either looking out the window or reading voraciously. When she meets the beautiful and charismatic Christa, also sixteen, also a student, she doesn't think for a moment that this girl could possibly find her interesting. Nevertheless, the two become 'friends' (and when you read the book you'll immediately understand the need for the inverted commas), with Christa insinuating herself into Blanche's home, Blanche's family, even Blanche's bed -- which is not nearly as kinky as I've made it sound: Blanche takes a folding cot while Christa takes the bed. Soon she has Blanche's parents eating out of her hand, and has made Blanche seem even more the wallflower in their eyes. She introduces Blanche to the world of student parties, where Blanche has her first "snog," only to have the prospect of anything further cut off by Christa herself, who at that moment insists on going home. All the while Blanche questions herself obsessively about her need for this girl whose cruelty increases exponentially. Blanche eventually has enough, and decides to rid herself and her parents of this intruder, leading to a grimly satisfying but also highly disturbing ending.

What distinguishes Antichrista is Blanche's voice, which seems to be both a combination of that of an exceptionally bright sixteen year old and Nothomb's own. I've seen many reviewers complain that Antichrista isn't quite up to the prose standards of Nothomb's other books, but I disagree -- I feel that she has placed herself squarely in the mind of a smart teenager, and I find the effect actually quite a bit more convincing than the voice in Nothomb's The Character of Rain (published in French as Métaphysique de Tubes), which purports to depict the consciousness of a pre-verbal toddler. There the effect was merely clever; here it is accurate and authentic. Who cannot relate to the joys and horrors of first kisses, and the realization that you are, at last, a sexual being?:

"In a mental notebook, I jotted down litanies of first names: Renaud -- Alain -- Marc -- Pierre -- Thierry -- Didier -- Miguel...That was the edifying list of boys who hadn't noticed that I suffered from a thousand off-putting handicaps. I'm sure that none of them has the slightest memory of me. But if they had any idea what they represented! Each one of them, with his banal and insignificant behaviour, had made me think, in the space of a kiss, that I was possible."

And Blanche remarks that if absurdity could kill, Christa and her parents would have died ages ago -- again, sounds like a convincing sixteen year old to me.

In what might be perceived as a stylistic flaw, Blanche's parents are first depicted as gullible, cruel buffoons who fall for Christa's charms and schemes while hatefully ridiculing their daughter to her face. But by the novel's end, they emerge as more finely drawn human beings, now filtered through Blanche's slightly more evolved consciousness. Some might argue that we never understand Christa's cruel motivations, but I would argue that it's almost impossible to divine the motivations of the young, especially girls. That sounds like a sexist remark, but I don't intend it as one. I mean it with a certain degree of admiration. Boys aren't quite as adept at manipulation, the subtleties of getting others to do what they want. When young boys fight, they often resort to fists or shouting; when girls fight, they often resort to words, to psychology, which, as we all know, are far more damaging than the strongest fists. How often do we truly know the motives of our tormentors? And isn't it just possible that the tormentors often don't know, either? In some ways, Antichrista reminds me of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye, another novel in which the secret lives of young girls are laid painfully bare. As in that novel, Antichrista has a moment in which the lightbulb comes on, the tables are turned, and the tormented becomes the tormentor. What I love about both books is that while one part of me cheers this turn of events, another part of me sinks, for self-knowledge is never all that it's cracked up to be.

Nothomb handles the religious imagery -- and in a book called Antichrista you knew there was bound to be some in there! -- throughout the novel in an extremely deft manner. She doesn't beat the reader over the head, even in the novel's final image, which could easily have become overdone. The whole book has a sense of lightness and swiftness, and at 107 pages, can be consumed in a sitting. It's probably best eaten whole.

"I don't understand why I'm obeying you," Blanche thinks after a particularly humiliating episode with Christa, in which she followed her friend's ever whim. Antichrista captures that drive to belong, that torment, quite beautifully. Mille grazie per la raccomandazione, Valerio -- caro amico mio.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

La bella lingua, and a sad state of affairs

In anticipation of a summer trip, John and I are slowly trying to learn Italian. There are "Learn Italian in Your Car" CDs in my glove compartment; there is Rosetta Stone software on the computer ("So effective it's used by the U.S. State Department"); there are tiny labels affixed to objects throughout the house, telling me that lo specchio is a mirror and il W.C. is a toilet. My colleague Mike, who speaks a number of languages fluently and launches into them like a maestro when you least expect it, believes, quite rightly, that there is nothing like learning a foreign language to teach you the rules of your own. As a teacher of English, I see firsthand, daily, repeatedly, the extent to which native English speakers know so little of the tongue they call their own.

At the moment I am teaching an online grammar course, in which more than half of the students routinely answer more than half of the questions incorrectly. Yesterday, a student thought that "was" was an adjective. Another thought that "but" was a verb. (Perhaps she thought "butt," as in "head-butt"?) Even one of my English majors last week seemed stunned to learn that it's a convention in academic prose to italicize book titles. (She is a senior, by the way.) The college where I teach no longer has a foreign language requirement. It's a sad state of affairs.

One of my dearest friends, Valerio, is Italian, and he is the reason for both the Italian study and the Italian trip. At the risk of embarrassing him, his English is beautiful, and he learned it, he tells me, largely from reading English books and listening to English music. (Enya and Loreena McKennitt have gorgeous lyrics, for those of you non-believers.) We chat twice a week online, and in these chats he is nimble, he is quick. He can crack jokes, he can use puns. He uses punctuation the way one of my favorite professors, Erin McGraw, always said it should be used: like musical notation, telling the reader when to speed up, when to slow down, when to pause, and finally when to rest. Best of all, Valerio asks, when he feels he has made an error, for a correction. (His errors are rare.) When he writes to me, I feel more like a dumb American that at any other point, and I resent my shoddy education. It's too easy to write off Americans' lack of language skills to geography: unless you live in an area with a high percentage of Spanish-speakers, there is no real need to speak a second language in the continental U.S. And yet I feel that this encourages our latent ethnocentricism, as if we need anything else to encourage that. I grew up in Texas, and many of my school friends were Mexican, and I went to their houses and heard their parents' rapid-fire Spanish. Some of it stuck, and still sticks. In high school I took four years of Spanish, and one year of German in graduate school, but I've learned with time that language skills are like muscles: they will atrophy without exercise. Another colleague, Jim, who is in the Psych department and who studies memory, read that one of the best ways to ward off Alzheimer's disease is to learn a language or learn a musical instrument, for these skills utilize parts of the brain that are among the first to go, and it's best to keep them limber. On NPR a few months ago a man said that the human brain is neurologically capable of learning one new language per year, if the person puts in the time.

I envy my Italian friend many things: the fact that he lives in Europe, the fact that he's musical, the fact that he's cute. But one of the things I envy most is the fluidity with which he cuts back and forth between Italian and English, the same way in which he slices through the water as a swimmer. With Valerio I will see Venice, parts of Tuscany, Florence, and Rome, and while I do not expect to be fluent by July, I would like to be able to do more than ask for directions, or for the nearest W.C. I will doubtless lean on Valerio for the complexities, but between now and then, I will do my best to put in the time. And that's no bugia.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Daylight Saving Time

The time changes tonight, and this reminds me of one of my favorite passages from Annie Dillard's brilliant essay "Total Eclipse," from her 1982 collection Teaching a Stone to Talk:

"What you see in an eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp on astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for Daylight Saving Time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you."

I feel impossibly stupid when I contemplate the time change for too long. While I understand it on the scientific level (sort of), I find myself spending too much time thinking about where that missing hour tonight will go. I read somewhere recently that Indiana did not use Daylight Saving Time until 2006. Who made that decision? Did people vote on it? I also heard that parts of that state were recently switched from the Eastern Time Zone to the Central. What happens to that time that is lost? Or is it gained? I'm reminded of one my favorite bits from the David Leavitt novel The Lost Language of Cranes (and its film version), in which a character reads a children's book set in a house located on the exact border between two time zones. When it's noon in the kitchen, it's one o'clock in the living room. Easy to miss lunch.

Enjoy the longer days. Spring is coming.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Weather that touches me.

"I can't bear weather that touches me," says Isabelle, one of the protagonists of Gilbert Adair's 2004 novel The Dreamers.

Amen, sister.

Big weather has arrived in Cincinnati today: a few inches of snow on the ground already, with the promise of upwards of ten by midday tomorrow. I've long hated precipitation of all sorts -- weather that touches me. I know there are people who find walks in the rain romantic; I think only of wet hair and fogged eyeglasses. I try to trace my hatred of snow, rain, sleet, and ice, and think of my car crash of fifteen years ago, when an 18-wheeler slid on the icy surface of Fort Washington Way and bashed in the side of my little red Ford Escort. He didn't stop, and as I skidded to a halt against the median, I watched his tail-lights recede as he raced toward I-75 and felt a helplessness I'd never experienced. One of my colleagues at Procter and Gamble saw the accident, followed the truck, took down his license plate number. Months of phone calls with police and insurance adjustors followed. I often think I could have gotten rich from a lawsuit, had I been so inclined, but in those days I was not. What I remember most is the cop who said, smiling, that had I been going any faster the impact would have flipped my car over the median into oncoming traffic. My body remembers this too: when I get behind the wheel in snow and ice, my arms and shoulders tense, my stomach sinks. Best to stay in, as today. Oddly, my first memory, I think, is of snow: my mother is carrying me out the front door of our house in Georgia, towards the car in the driveway. Snow -- rare for Atlanta -- is falling, and just beginning to stick to the grass.

One of my favorite horror movies is Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. I've seen it countless times, and it still terrifies me, not because of the creepiness of the Overlook Hotel, or Jack Nicholson's craziness, or Shelley Duvall's pop-eyed stare, or Danny Lloyd talking to his finger. It's the snow, piling up outside the hotel, sealing them in. I understand that claustrophobia, that itching and twitching, that need to feel as though one could get up and leave if one wanted to.

But today I find the snow strangely comforting. Of course, one of the joys of academia is that colleges, unlike other businesses, actually close in the event of inclement weather. I remember one of the last times Cincinnati received a snowfall like today's, in 1996 or 1997, I suppose. It drifted down my street in such a way that one whole side of my car was obscured. I was chewed out by my hateful manager at Fidelity Investments -- a real battleaxe, she was -- for not making it from Hyde Park to Blue Ash in fifteen inches of snow, while she had driven from Dayton to Cincinnati with virtually no problem. This was not a woman who appreciated psychological weakness: when I tried to tell her about my car crash, she told me to "get a grip."

It's still falling as I write. I've spent considerable time today watching it, safely, from this side of the glass. Perhaps that's the reason I decided to begin this blog today. For there is something in the looking out that enables the looking in.