Ebertfest 2009: Begging Naked (2007)

Directors: Karen Gehres

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2009

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Begging Naked, like its subject, artist Elise Bainbridge Hill, has had a bumpy road. While the film has been shown at numerous film festivals, even winning some awards, no distributor has touched it. Gehres, at a low point, got the boost of validation she needed when Roger Ebert, having pulled her screener off a tall pile and watched it, sent her an email inviting her and the film to Ebertfest. She, understandably, was thrilled, and now a theatre full of Champaign festival goers, including yours truly, are, too.

Gehres, a painter who always wanted to make films, talked to her friend Elise Hill about a videography internship she got and her need to learn to use video equipment. Hill wanted to tell the story of her life as a teen runaway to New York City but knew she’d never write it. She invited Gehres to come by early and often to film her, and a shoot that ended up spanning some 9 years began. Hill’s story was indeed worth filming, and it took some turns that neither she nor Gehres could have predicted.

When we first meet Hill, she talks about how, after an argument she had with her mother, her father punched her and said he was going to kill her. She took off out of the house and never stopped running, eventually crossing a bridge from New Jersey into New York. Her feeling, even as she was making the crossing, was that she would find a pimp and become a hooker. She had just finished reading Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker and thought her life could be just like that, too. She thought that if she just got to 14th Street, she’d be able to find a friend of hers who lived there. “That’s a long street. “I thought if I just stood on the street, my friend would eventually walk by.” That’s how green she was. She did find a pimp, Maurice, who she says did her more good than harm. He taught her how to survive on the streets, managed to leave very few scars on her body, and kept her away from heroin. Almost offhandedly, she mentions times she would have liked to cut short sex sessions with him: “They hurt.” Eventually she left him and developed a heroin habit. When her teeth got so bad “they almost fell out of my skull,” she kicked and saved her teeth with “vitamin C, massive doses.” She went on to strip at a 42nd St. club called Show World.

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Hill always wanted to be an artist, and during her Show World time, she created a stir (“some customers liked it, it was something new, and some complained”) by sitting on stage and painting her fellow strippers doing their thing. She described some of the activities, including butt stuffing, in which the emcee encouraged patrons to shove a dollar bill into a stripper’s rectum. A painting showing this occurring accompanies her narration. Eventually, she left the club, only to return several years later at the age of 30. By this time, Mayor Giuliani was determined to clean up 42nd Street, and eventually closed down all the peep shows, adult bookstores, and strip joints, putting Elise out of work. At around this time, Hill started showing signs of mental illness.

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Hill lived in a “converted” air shaft and paid rent on a space that had a hot plate and portable oven, a bent hose for water, and not much else. Hill spent months making it livable enough for her, though I would die of claustrophobia in a place like that. When she couldn’t pay the rent on a space it’s hard to imagine anyone else wanting, her landlord booted her out. Her comfortably situated downstairs neighbor, Sally Roth, whom Gehres interviewed for the film, sounds like a matron from Kansas half the time, but the pair seems to have gotten on fairly well. Gehres shoots the homeless Hill arriving at Sally’s door to shower and wash her clothes; she hates being dirty and smelly. She’s not unaware or incompetent, something she would have to allow herself to be labeled to go into an institution. She has steadfastly refused to come out of the cold.

These are the bare facts of Hill’s life, and they’re juicy on their own. But that’s not why anyone should see this film. It is through the eyes of genuine friendship and love that Gehres portrays her, and we come to care about her, too. Elise Hill is a wonderfully creative, genuinely sweet person. She’s funny and honest, strong in many ways, but also fragile. When we see her descend into delusions and paranoia, it’s not revulsion, but concern we feel. Her art is as unflinchingly honest as she is, but it’s not confined strictly to Show World girls. She made beautiful dolls that were shown in a Soho gallery, but didn’t sell. (I’d buy one in a minute, they’re magnificent.) She made jewelry. She sculpted. And she still paints, using whatever money she can put together to buy supplies.

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The scenes of Hill being evicted brought tears to my eyes, as the doorman refuses to allow her back into her apartment to get her belongings, her paintings, or her cat. She starts to bargain for her coat. Eventually, she is allowed up. We watch as she bundles her belongings and cat carrier onto a luggage stand and wheels them to an open space against a wall dotted every few feet with homeless men. Her first cold, dark night outside is terrible to watch; she looks so scared and alone.

The only part of this film that gave me trouble is the nostalgia for the vanished sex shops of 42nd Street, a nostalgia that is voiced in the film by a man. Later, Hill expresses her sympathy for the repressed, cornfed boys from the heartland who need to come to the clubs just to unspool a little. She felt the streets were more alive then. But then out comes what I would call the real reason she regrets the loss of the strip—a lot of people who were making ends meet were pushed out of the way for Disney. “I regret those happy hours I spent as a child watching Disney,” she says under a large, neon Disney sign. As a feminist, I loathe the porn industry, and think the loss of the clubs is no loss at all except for the economically needy for whom society has made no other provisions. Despite Hill’s assertion that she liked to dance nude, she’d only do it at a club that paid her. “I’m not begging naked,” she says. “Most of the women who work in these clubs have children to support.” The economic necessity that drives vulnerable, naive teens like Hill was into sex work amounts to nothing more than exploitation.

Even after filming, it seems the manipulation of Hill was not to end. During the Q&A, Gehres mentioned that she had four editors on the film. The third editor, whom Gehres hoped would give the film a professional polish, worked with her for one week and had very different ideas about how to cut the film. He wanted to take out the pauses in Hill’s speech to make the film smoother; he wanted to cut out her sexually explicit artwork because he edits in his living room and didn’t want his young son to see the material. Not surprisingly, he was fired, despite several attempts to guilt Gehres into keeping him by saying he had turned down some work for PBS to do this film. All his work was scrapped.

Gehres ends the film with a montage of photos of Hill in her younger, happier days. It’s a little corny, yes, but it seals this film as a love letter to her dear friend. l

Take a look at a clip from this remarkable film.

  • Ferdy on Films, etc. spoke:
    25th/04/2009 to 11:07 am

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  • Pat spoke:
    26th/04/2009 to 10:21 am

    I wonder if this might have a shot at distribution now,even if it goes straight to DVD. I’d like to see it,even though it sounds difficult to watch.
    And Marilyn, your review is superb. Both your compassion and your feminist principles come through loud and clear.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/04/2009 to 6:10 pm

    I’m not sure what the future for the film will be, but wherever it is shown, some of Hill’s art is sold. I bid on one of her pastels from Show World but didn’t win it at $100. That actually makes me happy because I know it went for more. All of her art pieces at Ebertfest sold. Gehres says Hill seems more open to moving indoors than she has in the past 5 years, so maybe she’ll be better situated soon. Her health didn’t look too good, so I hope that’s the case.

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  • Lynne spoke:
    28th/04/2009 to 6:22 pm

    I bought one of her paintings after the screening!
    And this film about ripped my heart out!
    http://lynnejordan.com/blog

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/04/2009 to 6:34 pm

    Lucky you. I was outbid, I guess. I’m going to try to buy one of her dolls, if they are still around.

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  • lynne Jordan spoke:
    13th/05/2009 to 8:25 pm

    I want one of her dolls also. they are very expensive. she wants $1000 for each. They are fantastic though – I collect handcrafted dolls and it has been a huge temptation for me!
    Hope I didn’t out bid you!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/05/2009 to 8:33 am

    Worth it, but too rich for my blood. I hope you’re happy with the art you bought. I tried, but it was not to be.

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