The Viva Project

Local documentary contemplates the art of stripper Viva Las Vegas

“Thank you for supporting the arts” is Portland-based stripper Viva Las Vegas’ signature phrase when collecting patrons’ cash after her performances at Mary’s Club. It’s also the title of a new documentary about Viva, directed by Blacktop Films’ Carolann Stoney and W. Alexander Jones, which premiered Thursday, May 3 in a sold-out showing at NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium.

The auditorium’s location in the Portland Art Museum felt fitting, considering the artistic dialogue the film opened up and its scene of Viva contemplating nude sculptures in the museum.  “Stripping is art,” she says in the documentary. “Strippers are artists.”

The Blacktop Films team originally planned to make a documentary about a local nude-dancing contest, but that idea was quickly scrapped because, according to Viva, none of the strippers actually cared about winning. Stoney decided Viva deserved a film all to herself. Thank You For Supporting the Arts was born, and the film crew followed Viva for the next four years.

The resulting documentary strips back the many layers of Viva Las Vegas—also known by her given name Liv Osthus, her punk rock persona Coco Cobra and previously, while lobbying in court for sex workers’ protections, Lila Hamilton.

Viva is a writer; she published the memoir Magic Gardens and wrote articles for publications including The Portland Mercury, The Village Voice and The New York Times. She is a musician; she sings in punk rock band Coco Cobra and the Killers and medieval French trio Bergerette. She’s an actress; she starred in Gus Van Sant’s 2007 Cannes short film First Kiss after meeting him at Mary’s.

Viva is an advocate for sex workers; she has lobbied for their rights in courtrooms, newsrooms and classrooms. She’s a mother, which the film highlights in scenes that Jones says make him misty-eyed. It’s also worth noting that the documentary premiere was punctuated with uproarious laughter from its audience.

Thank You For Supporting the Arts allows Viva’s identities to coexist peacefully. If viewers want to take a tour through some seedy underbelly of Portland’s erotic scene, they might be disappointed. The documentary is free of mascara-dripping breakdowns, cocaine nosebleeds and flying fists; its battles are those between Viva and breast cancer, depression and her parents’ distaste for her profession. The film does not offer any decisive moral or emotional revelation. It reveals Viva herself in her many facets. Viva challenges people to discard the singular, stereotypical stripper caricatures perpetuated by pop culture and to look at stripping in new ways—as art, as humanity, as a choice to be proud of and empowered by.

“The fact that we don’t get to hear from any other sex workers is a glaring omission,” wrote a reviewer from Willamette Week. This statement seems to miss the point—the documentary is not so much a stripper documentary as it is a vivid portrait of a woman and her relationship with her art form.

According to a Portland Mercury article, the film’s subjects “lend emotional resonance to what otherwise might have been superficially packaged as a merely salacious ‘True Life: I’m a Stripper.’” And there was not enough room to squeeze every stripper’s story into the film because, as Jones said, “Making a movie is fucking expensive!”

“I won’t say that all stripping is art, and all strippers are artists because I don’t want to speak for them,” Viva said. “But I see artistic subtext in any performance.”

While no additional showings are scheduled for the film yet, members of the Blacktop team mentioned the possibility of sending it out to festivals. For now, Viva can be found dancing at Mary’s Bar, her memoir can be found on the shelves of Powell’s and an opera, Viva’s Holiday, based on the memoir will be performed on Dec. 15 at Winningstad Theater.