At the beginning of Thank You for Supporting the Arts, the filmmakers ask Liv Osthus, better known as stripper and writer Viva Las Vegas, to define who Viva is. Osthus, in a floral wrap dress and deep-red lipstick, responds with a small laugh and looks away from the camera. While she silently searches for an answer, directors W. Alexander Jones and Carolann Stoney cut to a riotous overture—a blast of footage of Las Vegas in a strip club twirling her bra over her head, testifying in front of the Portland City Council, and strangling a microphone while fronting one of her bands in only a thong and leather jacket.
Viva Las Vegas has been Portland's most famous stripper for over 20 years. During those two decades, she's also published two books, fronted the punk band Coco Cobra and the Killers and worked as Exotic magazine's editor-in-chief. Currently, she sings in a medieval French a cappella trio called Bergerette. In the late '90s, she testified in front of the City Council under the pseudonym Lila Hamilton to advocate for the rights of sex workers. At age 33, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After recovering from chemo and a mastectomy, she continued stripping. Near the end of filming Thank You, she also gave birth to a daughter, Charlotte.
It's a lot to pack into a mere 60 minutes. In Thank You, there are interviews in which Las Vegas candidly discusses her battle with depression, along with footage of her making tea in her kitchen and playing with her dog before a shift at Mary's Club. There's archival footage of her delivering articulate responses to condescending city commissioners, and interviews with Las Vegas' religious parents, who still disapprove of her career.
But the filmmakers have created something far more complex than a cursory biography. Thank You for Supporting the Arts is named after Las Vegas's tagline when she accepts tips from her audience. "There's so much subtext going on, especially in America," she says, explaining why stripping is art. "There's an economic subtext, there's a political subtext, there's a feminist subtext. And to me, the best art has all those things."
Whether or not stripping is art isn't exactly an anchor of the film's narrative. It's more like a powder keg. Just about everyone in the film has an opinion. Most of the counterpoints come from men. Las Vegas' former bandmate, Kevin Shapen, says stripping is entertainment, which is different from art. Her brother, Kristoffer Osthus, says Las Vegas romanticizes stripping, and worries that her male audience might see her job differently. "Do they think that she's truly giving an art performance, or do they just think that she's another stripper?" he says.
In an interview with the filmmakers, Las Vegas offers a straightforward retort. "Fuck yes, I'm an artist."
Still, even Las Vegas acknowledges that the question is too complicated to answer definitively. "I would not say all strippers are artists, because I don't want to speak for them," she adds.
That makes the fact that we don't get to hear from any other sex workers seem like a contentious omission. Thank You is first and foremost about Viva, and 60 minutes is hardly enough time to cover her life and career. But the absence of other sex workers leaves a disconcerting undercurrent when her brother worries about Las Vegas being dismissed by men who "just think that she's another stripper," or when one of her ex-boyfriends says that when he mentions to others that he used to date a stripper, he usually adds, "Yeah, but she went to Williams [College]. She's the Ivy League stripper."
Early in the documentary, there's an interview with Gus Van Sant, who says he once took Sean Penn to Mary's.
"Some of them are working more than just the stripping," Van Sant says. "They work their way into your life as well. Then there is the sort of stripper that it's, like, they're really good at their job, and then they take it to the door and that's, like, it. So they're kind of playing a part."
It begins to seem more radical to assert stripping is just a job than arguing it's art. It's frustrating that the conversation around sex work is often focused only on whether or not sex workers are empowered, when all sex workers, regardless of how they view their jobs, deserve rights and protection. Too often, the conversation focuses solely on conventionally attractive strippers with college degrees, and excludes anyone who just needs the money.
Occasionally, the film toys with the idea that all we need is a little self-confidence to break free from whatever labels society has put on us. In one interlude, the camera follows the back of Viva's red, silk robe as she walks onstage at Mary's. She looks like a boxer walking into the ring. "Maybe I'd finally found my tribe," says Viva in a voice-over, "who disavowed the proverbial fig leaf, and were unashamed of their bodies and their sexuality, who found the key to the Garden of Eden and let themselves back in."
It often feels as if Thank You is trying to portray a woman who has defied categorical bullshit. But we also get glimpses of a woman who's just as weary as the rest of us. Near the end of the film, there's an interview with Las Vegas about her attempts at online dating. It's fun, she tells us, to get to meet so many new people. But she often conceals her profession from her dates. "I don't know, there's a lot of people who would want to date a stripper for the wrong reasons, and wouldn't want to date a stripper for the wrong reasons," she says, looking away from the camera.
Still, Thank You is determined to end on a positive note.
"If you stay healthy and keep your head in the game, you have more to offer every year," Las Vegas says near the end of the film. As a resolution to the documentary, it's fittingly ambiguous. As a consolation, it's more like a heavy load.
SEE IT: Thank You for Supporting the Arts is at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org. 7 and 9:30 pm Thursday, May 3. $9.