The way I met Karen Gehres says it all about how personally connected I am to her documentary's subject. I was enthused to discuss onstage the Ebertfest screening of her Begging Naked but could not for the life of me find a copy of it. Like so many of the best independent movies these days, especially those made by women, it didn’t have a DVD distribution deal. So knowing she was another New Yorker, I called her up and asked if I could come find her downtown to snag a screener.
“Sure,” she said in her husky, around-the-way girl voice. We met up at the corner of East Village’s Tompkins Square Park, where she stood cheerfully waiting for me with a screener and a Dim Sum recommendation. An hour later, as my friends and I sat oohing and aahing at the restaurant she'd hipped us to, I thought: I just might like this film a lot. I already knew I liked her.
I’ve seen it three times now—-once plastered across the big screen of the Virginia—-and I can say definitively that I was right. I also resonated with this account of New York City artist Elise Hill in a way that both scares me and enthralls me: Stories like this are rarely told, and told this way. Stories about women who escape from broken homes not to greater safety so much as to endless creative freedom, at whatever price--security, even sanity—-and stories told with the exact feel of talking and walking with a friend on a long, timeless Saturday afternoon. Stories about the threat that always looms for female artists, for women who choose to identify themselves not by how much they earn or by to whom they are related but by their existence as an artist.
Elise is a friend of Karen’s, and they never pretend otherwise in this documentary. Friendship serves up its own particular cocktail of subjectivity and objectivity, of a sort that suits this story. For Elise lives on what used to be called “the edge”—- the edge between bohemia and homelessness, which has grown largely theoretical in the wake of New York’s “new economy.” She also wobbles on the edge between being a singular, self-made person who flouts conventions and being a person who no longer even recognizes social conventions, who has surrendered to mental illness. Her apartment, for example, shifts in and out of different focuses. One minute it is a shabby, claustrophobic galley teeming with the various compulsive collections of a madwoman. In the next, Karen’s camera zooms into those collections to reveal their tremendous, deliberate beauty: This isn’t a galley but an artist’s garret shimmering with life and visions. Visions that we walk into accompanied, so appropriately, by the likes of Kate Bush and Marianne Faithfull. Profoundly distinctive female musicians known to dwell permanently on the cusp of madness and to create unforgettable work from that place.
Or take how Elise presents herself. Though she mostly supports herself as a sex worker, there is something incandescently asexual about her. It is as if she is living proof that, rather than everything being about sex, sex actually is about everything else. Though and perhaps because she matter-of-factly uses sex as a commodity, she scarcely mentions or even exudes it except as an artistic subject. She paints; she crafts extraordinary, richly layered jewelry; and, by virtue of her own device, she adorns herself onstage and for the camera: Self as art, all the way. Huge, unlikely necklaces she crafts herself; flowing gauze strapped in by stern leather belts. She radiates a knowing, bizarrely Celestine energy and states in a too-loud, clear tones what most will not. In voice and in the originality of her uniform she recalls Grey Garden’s Little Edie Beals, yet another unique soul who lived on that same precipice her whole life.
And don’t we rely upon these madwomen to create something new for us to look at and to look like?
As Karen’s camera follows Elise throughout her days (and she covers about seven years of them), we experience for ourselves the constant self-bolstering she requires in order to subsist and persist. As the film begins, she has just returned to the sex industry after working full-time as an artist. She tells us flatly that she ran away to New York from New Jersey at age 15, and immediately found herself a pimp and became every parents’ worst nightmare: a heroin-addicted sex worker. She finally hit rehab when her teeth began waggling loose in her mouth. From there she found her way to the maid’s closet in Carnegie Hill, a tony Manhattan address, which is where she lives as the film begins. We watch her make art; we watch her joke and play-act and spin yarns. Even then she knows she and her life are as precarious as a hothouse flower, if infinitely tougher: No one knows what to do with women who don't have kids. They think we are just here to bear children. We watch how former NYC Mayor Guiliani’s stringent anti-sex industry laws impact her livelihood. And we are there on the actual day that she is put on the street.
This is the only moment in the film that Elise actually loses it. For the rest of this film, she wears a bemused expression no matter what is tossed her way. You can argue it’s a dissociation device—-and, surely, as she rejiggers her increasingly frightening reality, her logic grows increasingly disordered—-but it’s also how she survives. It is not real. This does not matter. What matters is my art. Which is why this moment affects us so deeply in addition to the fear losing our homes strikes in all of hearts. And it is at this moment that I realize how much I need Elise to believe in Elise's version of her story. To be the author and star. To be the artist.
And that’s where Elise both scares and inspires me—-as does Karen’s film about her: Even at the end of this film, there exists two versions of Elise’s reality. She is homeless and living in Central Park, with no foreseeable solution in sight. Even she seems worn down by it in some shots. But she also continues to make the best of it, to tell herself a story that renders the situation manageable for her. She’s found a boyfriend and together they are rapscallions who have fun defending themselves. When she can no longer keep her kitty, she declares pet rats to make excellent allies. Or, (and this part hurts a bit): The government is going to come take her soon as they have been receiving valuable information directly transmitted from her brain. It sounds crazy—-and it is crazy, whatever that term really means—-but the motivating impulse makes sense to me. She is finding a way to get through the day. The optimistic improvisation that propelled her out of her trainwreck of a childhood and adolescence and often grim adult life, that enabled her to make extraordinary art out of all that detritus, now may be making her crazy. But make no mistake: it is also keeping her alive. This is how she resists succumbing to the visions others have of her. This is how she continues to embody the vision that she wishes herself to be. And it is to the enormous credit of Karen Gehres that the director never for one minute gets in the way of that vision. Instead, she creates one of her own.