Doc of the Day: Live Nude Girls UNITE! Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Live Nude Girls UNITE!

Posted in Days of Docs, Reviews by - January 14, 2012

I doubt this byline is what’s drawing your attention here, but this movie is about strippers who formed a union.

Poster courtesy of Cineplex.com.

Dir. Julia Query & Vicky Funari, 2000, 69 min

Hey watch, I’m a mind reader. When I say, “a group of strippers teamed up to unionize so they could get better working conditions,” you think, “heh, that’s cute.” Uncanny, I know. But why did you think that? Because stripping is a low, dirty job, not for serious people, and unions are for serious work, right? Right! Well, you’re wrong. Not about the part where unions are for serious work (if you have some inherent beef with unions or the idea of unions, you’re probably trying to make America a worse place). The part where stripping can’t be a “real” job.

Why not? Can you do it? Or rather, would you? There’s a powerful social stigma attached to the job, not just because of the sexual aspect (which we’re always squeamish about), but due to the dirty, creepy seediness that permeates it. It’s a pervasive trope in entertainment: the poor woman taking up the work because she has no other options, the strip club as the dark refuge of strange, sad men (and then there’s The Full Monty, but there are always outliers).

To a certain extent, this image reflects the reality of life, but it’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy. We expect stripping to be a low, ignominious position, and yet we laugh off any attempt to legitimize it. It’s probably because we don’t want it to get any legitimacy, since it’s dirty filthy work that no one should want to do, and the dirtier and filthier it’s kept, I suppose we hope the fewer women will stoop to it. And it’s worked out great! There are practically no more strippers anymore, right?

But some uppity little busybodies working at The Lusty Lady (strip clubs never seem to have much imagination) in San Francisco decided that, not only did they like their jobs (not as stunning a fact as you might think), but that they deserved a better stripping environment. So they formed a union and set out on a long, arduous battle of negotiations with their employers. Along the way one of the strippers, Julia Query, who originally set out as a writer and stand-up comedian, decided to film their plight and efforts.

Even for an independent documentary made during the nineties, this is a pretty grungy movie. It sort of fits into the atmosphere these women deal with, but sometimes the production drops to stunningly low levels. The doc refers to the strippers by their real and working names interchangeably, which becomes a headache. Following an expositional scene where Query explains what stripping is like as part of her stand-up act, there’s a voice-over that restates the same information. At one point there’s an honest-to-God misspelling in the titling (unless they really meant “no piece” instead of “no peace,” in which case it simply doesn’t make any sense), which I didn’t even think was possible in a distributed film. It’s almost amateurish enough to sink the whole thing.

What keeps the movie afloat are the characters. Unless you’re harboring misogynistic tendencies or finger-wagging judgment (but most of those people probably clicked off this review when they saw the poster), you’ll find these women hard not to root for. They’re fighting stiletto-and-nail to claim some professional dignity from a society unwilling to grant them any. But deeper than that is the director’s journey. Query had a golden personal angle to exploit: her mother Joyce Wallace is a powerful, well-known feminist and anti-prostitution activist who was unaware of her daughter’s choice of profession. Running parallel to the strippers’ fight for rights is Julia’s struggle with her mom, first in admitting the truth and then in gaining her acceptance.

While the film backs these women and their choices 100%, it acknowledges the unpleasant realities of their work. This goes both for the substandard conditions of the job as it is and the level of exploitation that is inherent to it, no matter how much it ever gets cleaned up. The conflict between Query and Wallace allows the movie to explore that tension, to ask some difficult questions about what is truly most empowering for their gender. It’s a thorny issue that comes with every commercialized sin. Julia (and my own) stance is that it can’t ever be stopped from happening, so it might as well be made as beneficial and as least degrading (that is, no more than it is unavoidably degrading, which can only be changed through cultural shift) as possible for those who choose it.

More than a rah-rah feminism piece, more than a go-get-’em workers’ anthem, and far more than some cheap skin flick*, Live Nude Girls UNITE! is at its heart a mother and daughter story. And while that the film uses that story as a lens to focus on a bigger idea, without that personal touch that idea would have no resonance. It’s sweet, it’s touching, and it redeems the movie’s artistic failings. So check it out, and remember to patronize only unionized strip joints, perverts!

*I honestly wondered whether it was really necessary to go into this, but since I don’t want anyone complaining that I got them in trouble at work: yes, there is nudity in this movie. It’s about strippers, what did you expect? Now grow up.

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Dan Schindel loves movies more than you do.

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