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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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SEPT 2021 Issue
Film In Conversation

Lizzie Borden with Steve Erickson

Love Crimes shows traces of the perverse feminist neo-noir it could’ve been, but Weinstein destroyed Borden’s career and she has not been able to make a feature since.

Courtesy the Criterion Collection.
Courtesy the Criterion Collection.

Born in Flames (1983), Working Girls (1986),
Love Crimes (1992)
(directed by Lizzie Borden)

Lizzie Borden’s two major films, Born in Flames (1983) and Working Girls (1986), shined a light on the changes taking place in 1980s New York as gentrification and the Reaganite backlash against feminism began to sink in. By now, Borden should have a filmography at least as long as Jim Jarmusch, to pick a director who emerged out of the NYC punk scene that influenced Born in Flames. But her fourth film, Love Crimes (1992), was a Miramax production, and while Harvey Weinstein did not sexually harass or assault her, he did take control over the film, even her “director’s cut.” If fully realized, Love Crimes could have been an erotic thriller reflecting the anti-capitalist sentiments of Born in Flames and Working Girls. As is, the film shows traces of the perverse feminist neo-noir it could’ve been, but Weinstein destroyed Borden’s career and she has not been able to make a feature since.

Born in Flames, set 10 years after a democratic socialist revolution, stages the disillusionments of the Reagan era against a backdrop of failed promises from mainstream liberalism. In the film, two different but allied groups of women unite in rebellion. Some of the actors in Born in Flames were also part-time sex workers, which kindled Borden’s interest in socioeconomics and feminism in that context. Working Girls, which received a theatrical re-release and became a Criterion Blu-Ray last summer, premieres on the Criterion Channel this month. The film is an ahead-of-its-time look at sex work. Set in an upscale brothel whose workers are mostly white and educated, it shows a day in the life of Molly (Louise Smith), a lesbian photographer and Yale graduate. While fairly explicit, it’s more concerned with sex work as labor than titillation, and avoids presenting sex workers as either romanticized hookers with hearts of gold or pathetic victims. Last June, I talked to Borden on the phone about the whole range of her work.

Steve Erickson (Rail): Both Born in Flames and Working Girls reflect the New York milieu in the ’80s, but it feels like there was a huge shift even in the three years between their releases. Born in Flames reflects the punk scene, but also an ethos where there wasn’t much difference between being a filmmaker, musician, or a visual artist. Because of the nature of who’d be able to pay $150 for sex, the men in Working Girls are wealthy businessmen. It suggests the rise of the yuppie.

Lizzie Borden: That’s an interesting perspective. I never thought of it that way. I’d like to take it from a different point of view. I see them related because Working Girls came directly out of Born in Flames. You focused on music and the punk scene, because that was one aspect of Born in Flames represented by one radio station. But the other radio station in the women’s army didn’t relate to that music. I had to go beyond downtown to find other voices beyond what I felt was a very limited, almost ghettoized scene. The downtown music scene at that time was very white. It was working-class in a middle-class way, where people would come to live here cheaply to become artists. I didn’t want to silence other voices. There was a punk aesthetic, which I saw as DIY. The editing, which was more experimental, reflected that. At the same time, Born in Flames is interested in labor, asking “What is women’s work?” And one of the things the women’s army is disappointed with 10 years after the democratic socialist revolution is being pushed to the side. I took a lot of that from Marxist and socialist texts about “the woman question.” I kept thinking, “Well, what if there’s some kind of revolution but the woman question is sidelined and women never get what they ask for, which is equal pay?” I did montages throughout Born in Flames showing women’s labor. One was sex work. There’s a sequence of women packing chicken, women cutting hair. One scene shows a woman putting a condom on a penis. During the five years in which I made Born in Flames, I was already thinking about Working Girls. I discovered that some of the women in the downtown scene were working at this particular brothel. If you’re trying to be a musician or artist, how do you support yourself? Sex work was one way. I wanted to take the point of view of those women and how they managed to get by. One was a photographer who is well-known now, others were academics, one was a psychiatrist from London who was getting her Ph.D but she couldn’t work legally because she didn’t have a green card.

It’s interesting that your two points of approach are punk and yuppies. The way I saw these guys was that a couple benefited from real estate, but many were regular middle-class guys who went to the brothel before taking the train back to Long Island. They were a little too old to be yuppies. Some would be an early incarnation. I chose to show some empathy for the men who spent some time in that place. The films about sex work I had seen beforehand, putting aside classic films like Klute and Belle du Jour, were more exploitation movies [that] either dealt with high-class call girls or streetwalkers. This place seemed like an earlier version of The Girlfriend Experience, where men got a drink in a living room. In the Judith Butler sense, you’re acting as if you’re someone’s girlfriend for an hour. To the johns, that was more convenient than taking a woman out dancing and dining for an equal amount of money and then not getting sex. I think it was going on simultaneously, so even though Working Girls appeared three years later, the events in it really took place when Born in Flames was being made.

Rail: It feels now, and I’m generalizing greatly, that there’s a consensus on the left that sex work should be decriminalized. Obviously, I wasn’t a feminist in the ’80s, or part of leftist circles, but I have the impression it was much different. The film seems ahead of its time in its attitude. What exactly was the attitude around sex work, especially if it was common for women in the art world to do it?

Borden: I wouldn’t say common. It wasn’t like a lot of women did it, but there was no onus upon it that there might’ve been in non-artistic circles. Going back to the atmosphere that existed around Born in Flames, downtown was a very collective experience where people shared resources. Like it or not, we were the first gentrifiers, but the city basically said, “Screw you.” It was the time of Ford saying to New York City, “Drop dead.” So at the time, there weren’t many social services. Everyone left us alone, but we could do whatever we wanted. The idea of a strict morality went out the window, so no one looked down on sex work. We had friends, for example, like Cookie Mueller, who wrote for the Soho News but also stripped at various downtown joints. She didn’t get plastic surgery or dress up in fancy outfits. It was no big deal. You didn’t see it in a moralizing way that you might have in Iowa or some other place. We’d all broken with our families. Not that we were all in bad families with our own families, but we relied on our friends. So it was no big deal to come and tell them, “I work in a brothel.” It was a whisper network, where people said, “If you want to do this, you can come and meet the madam. She’ll make you take your clothes off to see if you have any track marks and make sure you’re not a cop. If she likes you, maybe she’ll give you a few shifts a week.” The question I was asking then was: If a woman can handle it, because that’s not always easy, what’s the difference between renting your body for 16 hours a week tops or renting your mind for a regular job? One of the downtown filmmakers, Sara Driver, worked at a Xerox shop, which was one of the coveted jobs because it was a space where all the musicians hung out. But it was a 40-60-hour per week job. What kind of numbing effect does that have on your mind? If you want to do your own work, what is best? How precious is time? How many people really enjoy the work they do? So people understand that if they wanted to work part-time, sex work was not so horrible.

There were also a lot of people in the art world who worked with their bodies: Carolee Schneeman, Joan Jonas, Ana Mendieta. There were a lot of performances where the nude body was perfectly acceptable. Experimental theater groups used nudity a lot, and no one thought anything of it. All of those conditions led to a different view of work as performative. You performed being a “working girl” and came back to another thing. But in Working Girls, the men are not the villains. I thought a lot of them were lonely guys who needed someone to talk to. In the second half of the film, Molly’s defenses are down. The villain is actually the boss, who pushes her to work beyond her limits. She was vulnerable to men then because her boss wants an extra pound of flesh.

Courtesy the Criterion Collection.
Courtesy the Criterion Collection.

I was also referencing transactional sex. Everyone was aware of it. Post #MeToo, there’s a different light on it. A lot of artists downtown had blown off the idea of marriage and were very cynical about it. They said, “Oh, look at that woman on the West Coast who got married; she did it to get his money or a movie role.” If you look at relationships like that, what’s the difference between it and getting cash and using it to make your work? But going back to your question about decriminalization, that’s now something to be desired. I didn’t do a lot of research about the politics of sex work before making the film, but I met with a lot of sex workers like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) and PONY (Prostitutes of New York) while presenting the film. That was really eye-opening. Later, social media changed everything because sex workers could then communicate globally. There’s a different kind of power and pride in sex work now. There’s a comic scene where a john calls Molly a whore. Today, sex workers are often very proud of the word “whore” and have reclaimed it, although not everyone likes it. Working Girls was an attempt to show the labor of sex work from the women’s perspective. It’s interesting that you brought up the amount of money, because it’s probably high for them, but if you count up what men want for a guarantee of sex, opposed to the cost of dating women who might not be interested, it’s probably worth it for them. Yet Molly, as all sex workers do, counts up her money in a black book, because it’s a running amount of why she’s doing it. There are so many reasons to keep up that tally.

Rail: Did you see the nudity and sex in Working Girls as an extension of the performance art and theater you mentioned earlier? The start of the first sex scene is very choreographed, almost like a dance.

Borden: Part of the way the nudity was shot, in all the sequences with men, was to take it out of time and stylize it. It’s interesting to me that people sometimes mistake Working Girls for a documentary. I love documentaries, but if you look at the way it’s shot, it’s so not one. I did want people to feel like they’re a fly on the wall, but it’s very stylized. Every time a client comes in, there’s a dolly into the living room. I wanted to capture the feeling of time going by and women waiting around. Every time they have food out, there’s a buzz and they have to put it away. But I wondered how I can show nudity from the women’s point of view or at least with their collusion. The nudity in the art world was one influence, but another was to not do it like the porn films I was seeing in Times Square. The Linda Lovelace films are so exploitative. Every one of the clients is based on a real story of what someone wanted a woman to do. By stylizing them and making them last such a brief period, as well as making them the only time there’s music, it was a way to handle that, so we didn’t have to be in the bedroom for half an hour. After a while, I hoped the nudity would stop feeling like nudity, as though the women are just bodies, and we would be with Molly. In the first one, Molly almost ironically poses. There’s a certain comic effect. Later, when she’s with Paul, the musician, it ends up seeming like he’s gonna be a nice guy and he calls her a whore. That’s still very rehearsed and stylized, but naturalistically shot. He was a close friend of hers, and they spent a lot of time rehearsing it, but she still felt hurt by it even though she knew it was coming. But she was really crying after being called a whore. Also, in the scene where the guy won’t let her put on a condom, it was really a struggle. Where could the camera go without exploiting the female nude? I wasn’t thinking about the female gaze. I didn’t want to do a lot of theoretical reading before making the film because that can make one self-conscious. I have done so since. In shooting nudity very often, it is like a dance. Your hand goes here, your hand goes there, you move this way, you move that way. But the new girl was very uncomfortable in the three-way scene. Very often, the real emotion came through. We stylized the bedroom to make it look different. The lighting is different from the living room. It was basically one bedroom that we repainted to make it look like three different rooms. In addition to the art world, I was influenced by Fassbinder. I didn’t go to film school, but I looked at a lot of European films. Did you feel it felt like a documentary?

Rail: It actually feels really carefully constructed as a script. The madam comes in halfway through and that ratchets up the tension. The sound design, like the abrasive use of the phone, seems very deliberate. I find that a strange reaction, although I guess it’s a compliment to the sense of reality you could achieve. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but the film feels longer than it is because it truly does replicate the feel of being stuck in a boring job.

Borden: It’s funny about that. These days, Jeanne Dielman is the film it gets compared to. I didn’t like it at the time. I thought, “This film is taking so long.” When I was making Born in Flames, I wanted it to move a lot quicker, and because I was editing my own films, I kept trying to make it go faster and faster. Then, after I finished Working Girls and returned to Jeanne Dielman, I realized what a brilliant film it is. You really do feel the time. Now I understand that the texture of time in a film is one of the most extraordinary things. In making Working Girls, I realized I had to break it up and go outside for a period of time. That’s why there’s the scene in the pharmacy. I added the scene where Molly goes to sit in the park, because she and we needed air. Sometimes people ask me what the children mean. I never thought of it as suggesting whether she wants children. She’s just looking at life and people. She loves photography. At the end, there’s freedom, on her bike. She rides away on it, but it’s not as if she quit. She thinks, “What do I do for money now?” She has a client’s business card. Is she gonna call him? She may have to, just having one john and not having to go back to Lucy. I didn’t want to make a film that made sex work alluring. I realize that some films, especially lately, about stripping have made people want to do it, like you just get to wear glitter, dress up, and dance. What I’ve found is that there are people who grow up wanting to be strippers, and more power to them. These days there are a lot of chat rooms teaching you how to do it right. Back then, you had to find another stripper to show you how to do it without getting burned out. There are other insecurities. How do you feel when they chose the most beautiful women, and you’re not picked? In Working Girls, there’s a Black woman working there. When a Black man comes in, he’s embarrassed to see a Black woman. What is the triangulation that happens there? So, it’s not necessarily a job for anyone. But at the end of the day, one says, “I walked out with 25 dollars in my pocket.” At that moment, Dawn feels like it wasn’t worth it and she’s just wasting her time. One of the best compliments I received was from a man who said, “I had a boss just like that,” and he wasn’t a working guy. He had a regular job. I did want to make a film about bosses and how many people have jobs where you’re just watching the clock for 5 or 6 p.m. to come about. How do you show work? The working girls have a camaraderie. They can laugh and make fun of their boss. But at night, there’s no way to pass time. The clients are regulars, but it gets darker and darker. We went from one lighting scheme during the day to another one at night. By the time it ends, I didn’t want to make a film that was negative about working in general. I believe in freedom of choice, in every way, as something I go to the mat for. That’s why decriminalization is the way, not legalization or the “Nordic model.” They all have serious flaws, but every choice must be gone into with clarity, in an informed way. At the same time, it doesn’t matter whether a madam or pimp of some kind is taking advantage of you. There are madams who take a smaller cut, so the idea of providing a place for sex work is one thing. It’s necessary to take care of each other. Sex workers who do outcalls take care of each other and use safewords. Social media has changed things from the ’80s. There were fewer safety nets back then.

Rail: How did Working Girls lead into Love Crimes, which was produced by Miramax and you’ve disowned?

Courtesy the Criterion Collection.
Courtesy the Criterion Collection.

Borden: Miramax was a fledgling company when they took on Working Girls. It went straight to the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes, where they saw it and picked it up. It then went to Sundance. At that point, Harvey and Bob had a tiny office on the West Side. I didn’t know anything about them. They’d distributed maybe two or three movies then. Harvey was courting the woman he’d end up marrying. It seemed legit at that point. The only problem I had was that he advertised it like a sex movie. But he didn’t cut the movie. In fact, he let me add a few scenes. I cut one scene because we couldn’t get the film into American theaters, where a woman is jerking off an erect penis. It’s only six seconds. It would’ve been seen as pornography and would have barred the film from Canadian release. But Miramax didn’t make me cut it. In fact, I think they would have liked it there because they could’ve sold the hell out of that.

What happened was that I wanted to direct an edgy, fascinating script by Allan Moyle. When we were about to make it, Harvey had hired Sean Young and insisted she star in it or we couldn’t make the movie. I had some other European producers, and they had ideas about other actors, but he wouldn’t make it unless it starred Sean Young. It was not gonna be Moyle’s script. I didn’t know what to do. I was so innocent from having made two films that I not only directed but produced and edited. I didn’t know I had the power to walk away. I felt that if I kept working on it, it would somehow fix itself but it just kept becoming worse. Kit Carson was brought in to shoot flashbacks which were not even in the script. At the end of the day, Harvey told me I couldn’t take my name off it because he would destroy my career, but it turned out that he did do that by telling people I was difficult. I wondered why he did that. I kept getting word back that I was difficult, when I was nothing but accommodating. Then I learned that Sean was a #MeToo survivor. I should’ve just walked off in the first week. It really does hurt women in particular to end in movie jail. By the time I made Love Crimes, he’d moved to a larger office. What I knew about his violence was that he would throw desks against the wall, but I didn’t know what he did with women. He’d always bring up his mother to me. So I had no idea about the sexual abuse, but I knew [he] had a terrible temper. I wondered about the women who worked in his office later on.

When I finally found out, I felt so terrible about the women he actually abused physically. That’s much worse than what happened to me.

He may have really hurt what I could’ve done in the decades since. It took a long time for me to find out. I heard a podcast that had some information that was wrong, and I wanted to speak out. In other countries, the next step would have been to make a film for one or two million budgets and not have that kind of interference. Moyle’s script would’ve been far more recognizable as something I would make. Every film I would consider mine is out to ask questions at the end. In Born in Flames, it’s, “At what stage, if ever, should violence be used to effect political change?” Even if the answer’s no, it should be debated. The last shot is really a question. What happens afterwards? In Working Girls, what is Molly gonna do for money? What’s optimum for her? With Love Crimes, it was meant to be, “What if a woman turned the tables on a stalker?” It was really a cat and mouse game, but nothing from Allan’s very perverse mind lasted from his original script.

Harvey’s behavior ended up being so much more profound and damaging than I had imagined. He was certainly a bully. He probably sold the rights to Working Girls before he even acquired it because several other companies were interested and he kept adding more and more. John Pierson, the agent who made the sale, assumes so as well.

I think #MeToo has been extraordinary, but needs to be more global. We need to shine a light on monsters beyond the public domain, more than just the movie or music business. I saw the surface of him twice, but finding [out] about Sean later allowed me to reconstruct it. But I’d hope every copy of Love Crimes is burnt forever and no one sees it. I’m horrified that it’s still in archives here and there.

Contributor

Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson is a critic and filmmaker who lives in New York and writes for Gay City News, the Nashville Scene, Cineaste, the Quietus, and Kinoscope.

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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

All Issues