Judge Neal Solon is certain that this will become one of his most popular reviews, if just for its frequent use of the words stripper, naked, breasts, and sex.
Strippers show and tell all.
A portrait is most widely understood to be a representation of a human being with a focus on her face. When one thinks of a "naked lady dancer," the face is not where the mind is immediately drawn. But it is true that every "naked lady dancer" has a face, and a story, and a mind. With her film Portraits of a Naked Lady Dancer, Deborah Rowe brings this truth to the forefront. She attempts to paint a group of exotic dancers as individuals—sexual people rather than the object of sex.
Facts of the Case
Portraits of a Naked Lady Dancer is literally composed of the of portraits of four naked lady dancers: April, Ginger, Zoë, and Jessica. April and Ginger are sisters, both dancing at the same club in Washington D.C…Ginger is pregnant and confident, still dancing. April, on the other hand, quietly struggles with her body issues. Dancing with them are Zoë, who is addicted both to the attention that stripping brings and to cocaine, and Jessica, a young woman who is ashamed to tell her family what she does for a living. This film is an exploration of the dancers' lives, their thoughts and feelings, and their opinions of stripping.
Portraits of a Naked Lady Dancer is an attempt by director (and one-time exotic dancer) Deborah Rowe to inject an informed, alternative opinion into the discussion that constantly surrounds stripping. One always hears that stripping is abhorrent because it victimizes women; that it is, in some way, a mistreatment of the women who voluntarily bare their bodies on stage. Every woman in this film takes issue with that view of the profession. Zoë, a self-professed addict who knows the dangers of the world of stripping first-hand puts it like this: "I know some desperate women who are strippers, but I also know some desperate women who are housewives." In an interview on the disc, director Deborah Rowe takes this one step further saying, "Victims of male sexuality do not strip in the stage in any club. They [strippers] victimize males with their own sexuality."
But as much as Rowe wants this film to be about a message—and she does, which is evident from one horribly staged scene in the film where she sits in a window sill, a lapel mic attached to her sweater, delivering a monologue to a dial tone on the other end of a phone—this film really is an artistic portrait. The film addresses stereotypes, but only by painting the women as whole people and by displaying their differences of opinion, approach, and lifestyle. By putting the individual on display and by having conversations with these women whose job, in part, is to say very little, Rowe deconstructs the monolithic idea of "the Stripper" or, as she puts it, the "Naked Lady Dancer."
Whether the patrons or the women dancing ultimately have the power in this business relationship is a question that the film never really definitively answers. Rowe certainly asks each of her four subjects for their opinions, and they all answer with some form of the idea that they are making a living by expressing their own, organic sexuality. One of the women goes as far as saying that she is more respected as a dancer, performing for successful men, than she was working as the sole secretary for forty of them. At the same time, each of the women hints at the idea that she defines herself, to some extent, by her body. Ginger, who dances on stage pregnant, has not let her boyfriend see her naked in months. April, her sister, cannot imagine dancing pregnant and as it is now, she feels she must constantly compensate for the relatively small size of her breasts. Zoë talks about being addicted to drugs, but also to sex and to the attention that stripping gets her, and being numbed by her addictions. Jessica shares how her sister's poor body image affected her own and how she has allowed stripping to keep her from pursuing the acting and modeling that she really wants to do.
So, while Rowe has an agenda for this film, she does not blind her camera to the truth of her subjects' lives. Nor does she heavily inject her voice into the film, except for in that one awkward scene where she appears on camera pretending to talk on the phone. For the most part, Rowe lets her subjects talk, and her camera just captures a moment in their lives. In this way, the film really is just a portrait. This is even more apparent when Rowe revisits her subjects five years later and find them all in very different places in life. Some are a little embarrassed by their past dancing careers, some are still dancing, and some have moved on entirely.
The picture of this stage in their lives, though, is beautiful and honest. Visually, the subject of the film is handled quite well. There is a lot of frank nudity, showing each of the dancers performing her act on stage, but the camera is never exploitative. It captures the beauty of each woman and the sensuality and sexuality inherent in her work. The lighting and is largely determined by the club in which the ladies dance and is very soft and forgiving. Outside of the club, there are some more questionable filmmaking choices. Presented in its original full frame image, the film jumps between color and black and white. Some of the transitions seem abrupt and unnecessary, just as some of the moves from outdoor shooting locations to indoor locations or from one woman's interview to another result in abrupt and jarring changes in the audio volume. Ultimately, though, the film shines through in spite of these technical issues.
Rounding out the presentation of Portraits of a Naked Lady Dancer on DVD, are a handful of special features. The longest of these features is a collection of deleted scenes clocking in at less than eight minutes. While none of the extras are exceptional, there are a few worthwhile tidbits of information in a four-minute interview with director Deborah Rowe. What is actually most interesting about these special features is the way they are advertised on the packaging. The eight minutes of deleted scenes are supposedly "too hot to handle!" when, in fact, they are less explicit than most of the footage in the film itself. In addition to being misleading, there is a certain irony to the way that someone is trying to sell the deleted scenes from this movie that is largely about how exotic dancers are more than just sex incarnate. The packaging also tries to oversell the four-minute interview with Deborah Rowe as an "interview and commentary by Director Deborah Rowe."
Regardless of any minor quibbles, Portraits of a Naked Lady Dancer is a beautiful little film about a group of beautiful women who are more than just a collection of body parts.
What choice do I have? Ladies, you're free to go!
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