COMES NATURALLY #110
Spectator Magazine -- June 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 David Steinberg
LAST MACARENA IN VEGAS
Wayne Wang's heart is essentially in the right place. He knows how thoroughly sex workers get stereotyped in mainstream media and he is determined to avoid the familiar type-casting, both positive and negative. There will be no sex worker as pathetic victim in his new film, "The Center of the World," no sex worker as glamorous sex idol, no sex worker as misguided soul in need of salvation from herself, no sex worker as heroic goddess of liberated sexual expression.
Wang wants to say something truthful about both sex workers and the people who pay for their services. He has sent a female researcher, Laurel Rosen, to visit some of San Francisco's high-end lap dancing clubs -- talking to dancers, trying to learn something about who these women really are and how they relate to their work. Rosen has returned with the familiar response sex workers give to media anthropologists who ask, essentially, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" -- which is that sex work is, first and foremost, a job much like any other, neither magnificently glamorous nor horribly demeaning, an exchange of sexual and psychological services for rather substantial pay. Indeed, sex workers point out that their job is often not even primarily sexual -- that it can be more a matter of alleviating loneliness or soothing personal insecurities than a skillfully providing sophisticated sexual pleasure. In any case, it goes without saying for anyone but the most naive that sex work is almost never about anything as complex or transcendental as falling in love.
No, Vincent, there is no Santa Claus, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy Christmas anyway. You just have to shift your perspective a little bit.
You'd think that by now this information would be both obvious and thoroughly old hat, but in reality it continues to be new and surprising to all those people who can't wrap their minds around the fact that sex workers are basically the same kind of human beings as anyone else. True, their work presses them up against other people's sexual confusions in ways that office temp work does not (at least not so directly). Also, because much sex work is illegal or quasi-legal, sex workers have to juggle issues that most of the rest of us are privileged to avoid. But in the end, sex worker after sex worker will tell you that the work is, most of all, remarkably unremarkable. To resort to the vernacular of our late, great President, if you're looking for a simple bottom line, "It's the money, stupid."
This rather worn message is what lies at the center of "The Center of the World." It's a message that the film reiterates as frequently and earnestly as a Southern preacher trying to rid the world of sin, or a political ideologue trying to rid the world of injustice.
Florence is a college drop-out and would-be trash band drummer who works as a lap dancer to pay the rent until something more meaningful coalesces in her life. She is good at taking care of herself, and at managing the amorous attention she gets from men, both on-stage and off. There's nothing particularly wonderful about her, but nothing particularly upsetting about her either, except maybe for that vague kind of disconnected anomie that seems to be going around like a virus these days. She is, most decidedly, neither a victim nor someone wanting or needing to be saved from herself.
IPO-magic-millionaire Richard is equally uncompelling -- a computer geek with no clear sense of what it is that's missing from his noticeably directionless life. When Richard rather haphazardly proposes that he pay Flo to spend a weekend with him in Las Vegas, she refuses at first, saying in just so many words that she's not that kind of girl. But when Richard clarifies that it's $10,000 he's talking about, Flo, being a practical young woman, reconsiders. Yes, she will spend the weekend with him, but only if he agrees to a laundry list of conditions (a room of her own, limited hours of being on sexual duty, no kissing, no intercourse, no talking about feelings) that puts her firmly in the driver's seat and assures her ability to maintain the emotional, physical, and sexual distance she needs to keep things from getting out of hand.
Richard, a stunningly ineffectual nice guy with barely a sexual fantasy that he wants to enact for his ten grand, agrees to Flo's terms after only a moment's pause about the no intercourse stipulation. Abracadabra, it's a done deal, leaving these two disconnected, wandering souls to ponder what on earth they're going to do with each other for 48 long hours.
Since Richard has little sense of what he wants from this weekend, and Flo wants nothing more than a little redistribution of the nation's wealth, the answer is not much. If you're looking to vicariously fulfill your exotic fantasy of an expensive weekend with a sexy escort, you've got the wrong film. (As Wang told one interviewer, "We didn't want people to be jerking off to this film.") With neither Flo nor Richard (nor Wang) bringing any real passion, sexual or otherwise, to the table, we soon become as restless with their weekend as they are.
Their designated sexual encounters -- limited to the hours between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. -- are excruciatingly stilted and awkward. As the clock strikes ten, Flo emerges from her room in standard slinky attire and begins to dance mechanically for Richard who sits, mechanically (but thoroughly) entranced, in his armchair. Wang wants us to remember what Richard is likely to forget -- that this is work, not play -- but the Flo that he gives us is emotionally absent far beyond the call of professional duty. Some people are just better at being sex workers than others, and Flo, bottom line, is quite an uninspired and unimaginative temptress. And Richard, unable to enjoy the scenario he has created on its own terms (he is more interested in falling in "love" with Flo than enjoying her seductiveness in the moment), is equally inept as the temptee.
It's only when the shared pressure of sexual performance is off that a bit of simple human juice manages to flow between Richard and Flo. They actually get to laugh and enjoy each other's company a bit when they get caught up playing Richard's favorite computer game, and also when they go to visit Jerri, a friend of Flo's who happens to live in Vegas. Jerri (Carla Gugino), is as sexy and alive as Richard and Flo are not, and she brings the film its only sustainable human warmth. Some of her passion rubs off on Richard and Flo when they are in her company (at one point it even extends a bit to when they are alone), but most of Richard and Flo's time together is simply boring. The biggest problem with "The Center of the World" is that watching boring people be bored with each other is hardly interesting, unless we get to see something of what's going on beneath the alienated surface. If the point is simply that this scene is a complete emotional wasteland, why bother to make a film about it at all?
True, contrasting the reality of sex work to both the idealizing and stigmatizing misconceptions about it that dominate mainstream culture is a worthy goal. But in his determination to deflate anyone's romantic notion of what a paid weekend with a stripper might be like, Wang makes Richard and Flo such thoroughly flat characters that they become caricatures of disaffection rather than believably alienated, confused human beings. With such lifeless, two-dimensional representatives of both sides of the sex work equation, the potentially interesting issues and conflicts inherent in sex-for-money exchange evaporate before our very eyes.
Who are these people really? What makes them tick? What has made them so afraid of life, afraid of each other, afraid of themselves? What would it take to bring them alive? How do they handle the paradox of being in a situation that is simultaneously intimate and impersonal? Presumably, under their bland exteriors, people like Richard and Florence have interesting stories waiting to be told, and the emotional complexity of the sex work paradigm is itself fertile ground for looking at larger, existential issues. But, in contrast, say, to all that we learn about the rich, complex, albeit alienated characters in "Last Tango in Paris," we come away from "The Center of the World" knowing precious little about the humanity of either our anti-hero or our anti-heroine.
There are, without a doubt, countless high-cost escort weekends that have as little life to them as the Flo and Richard story that Wang has told with this film. But there are also countless weekend escorts and clients who know much better than Flo and Richard how to have reasonably lively, pleasant, superficially friendly, somewhat sexy time together, even though nothing on the order of love or any other deep emotional connection is involved. Yes, the bottom line about sex work is that it's about money, but, like all work, it can be done well or badly, with spirit or with numbing alienation, with care or with disdain, creatively or by rote repetition -- even when both sex worker and client know full well that the entire construct is a game, an act, a fabrication, a piece of guerrilla theater.
"The Center of the World" would be much more interesting, and much more effective, if its central characters were just more human, more complicated, and more alive than either Florence or Richard, and if the moral of its story were not so pat, obvious and didactic. To his credit, Wang has successfully avoided, as he intended, the standard idealizations and condemnations that render most dramas about sex workers hopelessly irrelevant. But in the end he has projected his own dismissive, if better informed, values and preconceptions onto the world of sex work, much as other filmmakers and novelists have used sex workers as blank slates for their different fantasies and moralities.
What would be more useful, and certainly more radical, would be for someone in Wang's position to stand more objectively aside and let the buyers and sellers of that world reveal their complex, contradictory, and ultimately more interesting stories without needing for it all to lead to any grand overarching moral at all.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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