Filmmaker Lizzie Borden to Speak About Sex and Feminism at SF Screening of “Working Girls”


Amanda Goodwin, Ellen McDuff, Marusia Zach and Louise Smith in “Working Girls” by Lizzie Borden (1986). Photo: Janus Films

The 4K restoration of “Working Girls” could be one of the key cinematic events of 2021, as it is essentially a rescue of a near-lost 1986 feminist film about sex workers that was one of the first successes of Miramax.

Rightly so, director Lizzie Borden, one of the key figures in New York feminist cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, is doing a sort of victory lap. She plans to board a plane for the first time since the start of the pandemic to fly from her current home in Los Angeles to San Francisco to host a screening at the Roxie on Friday, July 9.

“’Working Girls’ had been featured at the Roxie years ago, and some of the sex workers I paneled with long ago will be there,” Borden said. “It’s a bit like going back to basics. It’s going to be cool.

“Working Girls” takes a radical approach: During a day in a Manhattan brothel, he views sex work as work – part of a patriarchal economic system, of course, but one in which women were in control. There is sex, okay, but it’s hardly exciting.

“I thought the guys who came in (to see the movie) to come down were going to be disappointed really quickly,” Borden said with a laugh.

Filmmaker Lizzie Borden, who will be performing in person at the Roxie on Friday, July 9. Photo: Courtesy of Lizzie Borden

The film premiered at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation. A year later, it won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance and is distributed by Miramax. Then it fell off the map. Borden said Miramax lost all copies and never got a DVD release.

Now the Criterion Collection, UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Sundance Institute have teamed up for a 4K restoration, under Borden’s supervision, from the original 16mm negative. The result is magnificent. The film, which will finally be released on Blu-ray / DVD on Tuesday, July 13, still looks so fresh, funny and touching.

“When he came out it was important because it was shocking for the public to see prostitution and sex workers portrayed in a way that didn’t judge or stigmatize them,” said Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, the director of the Bay. Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network and founder of the Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, which is expected to lead a Q&A with Borden at the Roxie event. “Lizzie Borden is radical as a filmmaker and a feminist. … What she did was rarely done.

But how did a radical feminist come to make a film about prostitutes?

Borden, born Linda Elizabeth Borden in Detroit (she changed her name to Lizzie after the notorious ax murderer as an act of rebellion), was directing what would become “Born in Flames,” her 1983 feminist classic about a group of women. radicals who are trying to take control of the United States. But during the seven-year filming process, she discovered that some of her actors – many of them artists and theater professionals – were prostitutes next door. It was the only way for them to survive while working towards making their dreams come true.

Fascinated, she began to explore a phenomenon she never knew existed: the middle-class brothel, where women leading seemingly normal lives hosted clients (mostly businessmen) in an apartment or apartment. similar frame.

Louise Smith stars as Molly in Lizzie Borden’s “Working Girls” (1986), a film about the life of prostitutes during a day in a Manhattan brothel, whose clients include Miles (Michael Holland). Photo: Janus Films

“There were women, some of whom I can’t mention because they were famous, who worked in this brothel,” Borden said. “For me, it was the idea that this was just one of the many things women could do. I knew a filmmaker who worked in a Xerox store 40 hours a week, and I knew filmmakers who worked in a brothel. I thought, ‘This is really interesting.’ … It is therefore a question of economy, of capitalism.

In Borden’s opinion, the world is not that different now for women.

“I thought there would be equal pay for men and women. I thought women would have a greater range of (well-paying) jobs, ”she said,“ but it turns out that women who have a university education are in jobs that don’t earn enough to pay. pay their overheads.

She also pointed out that although the clients of “Working Girls” seem to be a sad collection of men, she is not and was not anti-man.

“Men are not the bad guys,” she said. “It’s really about the fact that sex in this country then and today is different from what this culture sells. This country sells romance and it sells marriage, but it’s not like the 1950s. It doesn’t happen all the time.

“There is always this sexual drive. … People dated and had sex during the pandemic, which was a little scary. But sex is sex, and some sex workers I know worked during the pandemic because the strip clubs were closed and they took a lot of risks. “

Molly (Louise Smith) entertains a client in “Working Girls” (1986). Photo: Janus Films

The making of “Working Girls” is also the story of a New York artistic world that no longer exists. Borden and his team built the set in his own $ 400-per-month loft, where it took five weeks to shoot with a formidable cast of stage actors led by Louise Smith in a courageous lead performance. Borden even edited the film on set, both for inspiration and for any shots she needed to shoot.

“The New York City I lived in was like the Old West,” Borden said. “Women like Cookie Mueller, who was a star in the John Waters movies, would strip down at strip clubs downtown and everyone would go and watch her. … And there was a lot of nudity in the plays. I remember a show where Willem Dafoe and Kate Valk did a show with hula skirts and nothing underneath.

Borden, whose only other feature was the 1992 thriller “Love Crimes,” starring Sean Young and Patrick Bergin, also worked in television, directing episodes for the 90s erotic series “Silk Stalkings” and “Red Shoe. Diaries ”, among others.

Now she’s working on a film about an abortionist woman battling misogyny in McCarthy-era America that would be the completion of a themed trilogy after “Born in Flames” and “Working Girls”.

She has also started editing an anthology of writings by strippers and sex workers that will serve as a frontline report on sex work in the internet age, including the pandemic.

“There’s a notion of empowerment out there that wasn’t true many years ago,” Borden said. “It changes the idea of ​​sex work. I think it’s good because sex work is not going to go away.

“Working girls”: Lizzie Borden in conversation with Carol Leigh at 7 p.m. on Friday July 9. Second screening at 4 p.m. on Sunday July 11. $ 8-13. The Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., SF 415-863-1087.


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