True story: A famous writer I know shops a screenplay that features several female characters. As it turns out, several is a few too many for the liking of his male producer, who asks the writer to collapse them into one catchall woman. And, asks the producer, while the writer is at it, could he turn this new female character into a whore? I tell this story to a few filmmakers, none of whom is remotely appalled or surprised. Its no different from them saying, Make him a cop, says one male screenwriter friend. Somehow, Im not convinced.
Not long ago, within the space of a few days, I saw two films in which women exchanged sex for cash. In the first, John Herzfelds 15 Minutes, a gleefully cynical satire about our culture of celebrity, the prostitutes bad luck comes in the form of a publicity-hungry psycho. In her big scene, the ill-fated escort enters a fleabag hotel room, unhooks her bra and is almost immediately murdered. The prostitute in the other film, The Center of the World, is luckier shes in an art-house movie, where the kinks are sexual and intellectual. The poetry of the films title is borrowed from the Gustave Courbet painting of a womans vulva, called Origin of the World, which hangs discreetly in a corner of Paris Musée dOrsay. The film, directed by Wayne Wang and co-written by Wang, novelist Paul Auster and Austers novelist wife, Siri Hustvedt, isnt as beautiful as the painting, but its similarly modest in scope (the film was shot on digital) and profound by metaphoric implication: The title of each implies that there is something exalted, even spiritual, about pussy.
Dozens of movies are released each year in which women play high-end escorts and low-down whores taking it every which way for money. Its a theme as popular in the multiplex as it is at the art house, a film subject nearly as old as the medium itself. The episodic The Downward Path, made in 1900, includes a story called The Girl Who Went Astray; during the teens, the passage of the 1910 White Slave Traffic Act inspired numerous white slave films, including Traffic in Souls, banned in Chicago but a hit with female audiences elsewhere. Most prostitute films can be divided between good-whore and bad-whore: In the bad-whore stories, women are generally bit players in some larger drama, a little tacky trim on the genre staple; they are the women who stroll the streets and lean into car windows, sit in police stations wearing smeared lipstick and rabbit-fur coats, and, as in 15 Minutes, often wind up dead. The female complement of the cowboys lament: They Die With Their Bras Off.Pretty Woman
Good whores, in contrast, almost always get sanctified by being tragic or by getting out of the life altogether, as in Butterfield 8, Pretty Woman and Leaving Las Vegas. The Center of the World (see review, Film section) is a good-whore movie, too. A dot-commer waggishly named Richard Longman hires Florence, a lap dancer with no last name, to accompany him to Vegas for a weekend. (Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker are the earnest, good-looking leads.) He gives her 10 grand, and she gives him the lap dancers version of The Rules: no kissing and no penetration, at least on her end. Although Parker never opens her legs to us, Sarsgaard flops around without his drawers and both actors appear in various stages of undress. They may not engage in real sex, Dogma-style, but they do go through the motions. In doubtless homage to that ne plus ultra of art-house erotica, Last Tango in Paris, Florence even stuffs an ice cube up Richards ass (though from his grimace, youd think shed used the entire tray).
Despite these occasional giggly lapses, Wangs film is an honest attempt to tell a sexually explicit story that is at once thoughtful and hot to trot, one that fuses up-to-the-minute technology (digital gives the film the intimacy of a diary) with up-to-the-minute cultural discourse in which the female sex worker is just as aware of herself as a construct as is any Berkeley Ph.D. candidate. All of which is complicated by the startling fact that Wang has said he doesnt consider Florence a prostitute, because she doesnt allow herself to get fucked. But penetration doesnt make a woman a whore taking money for sex does, as any law on the books (or Rubyfruit Jungle, in which Rita Mae Browns heroine lobs grapefruits at a naked man and gets paid for it) will tell you. Which is why, for all its ideas and sincerity, in the end The Center of the World isnt any different from 15 Minutes, a film with no ideas or sincerity, in its take on female sexual desire: One film may punish its whore and the other may problematize her, but both share the fundamental conceit that the only sexual woman is a woman who trades sex for money.
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