Friday, August 9th / Weekend Movies / Performing Arts / NY TIMES / David Kehr
Lives of Struggle Illuminate a Job Where Less is More She has freedom, she works where she wants and when she wants, she makes a ton of money, and she’s not even attractive.” So speaks one of the professional exotic dancers in Jill Morley’s documentary “Stripped”, speaking enviously of one of her sisters on the seedy New York-New Jersey “adult entertainment” circuit. The line, with its seamless blend of empowerment rhetoric and old-fashioned cattiness, seems to embody many of the contradictions of 21st-century feminism – as does, in a larger sense, the film itself. Ms. Morley, who wrote, directed and produced “Stripped”, is present through most of her movie, either on camera or on the soundtrack. An actress and playwright, she drifted into stripping to support her theatrical activities, which include one previous treatment of this material, the off, off Broadway play “True Confessions of a Go-Go Girl”. As Ms. Morley, an attractive red-head with a practiced smoldering look, explains: “I didn’t know what that would be like – to be that kind of girl. It was a good acting challenge for me.” Plus, at least at first, stripping seemed no worse than any of the other dead-end jobs Ms. Morley had endured as a struggling young artist in New York. But stripping turns out to have a significant psychic cost. As the women tell their stories, several strong themes emerge: almost all of them report feeling shy, unloved and desperately unattractive as children; almost all had glamorous, sexy mothers and distant fathers; almost all admit to extensive cosmetic surgery; almost all sense an estrangement from their own sexuality and a growing disgust with men. Eventually, Ms. Morley decided to get out of the business, an option not open to those of her colleagues with families or drug habits to support. The most sharply etched of Ms. Morley’s subjects is Angela, a tall, angelic 37-year-old blonde brimming with anger and contempt. “You’re like a farmer,” she says of her work as a New Jersey lap dancer, “you go out there and harvest money.”. She’s proud of her breast implants, which allow her to harvest an additional $150 to $200 a night. This is empowerment of some kind, but at the cost of serious self-mutilation. As we learn in a postscript, Angela’s eventual cost was even higher. “Stripped” was made over seven years, and Ms. Morley’s filmmaking skills grow visible as the movie goes on. There is a thrilling moment when she graduates from amateurish analog video to the sharper, more stable digital variety and a truly glorious one, when she finally replaces the tiinny sound of her camera microphone with the work of a professional sound crew. The film, which opens today in Manhattan, is far from sleek and polished, in the manner of HBO, but it’s much the better for it. Ms. Morley leaves in her contradictions and loose ends, where a more “professional” approach to this material would probably try to obscure them behind slick graphics. This is a bumpy ride, but one worth taking.