Anna Biller Revisits Vintage Sexploitation Flicks And Flips The Script
Over the past decade, filmmaker Anna Biller has made a series of visually rich and provocative films. Her shorts, including "Three Examples of Myself as Queen" and "A Visit From the Incubus," have garnered both rabid praise and visceral disdain from festival audiences, largely due to her recurrent themes of female pleasure and empowerment. Biller's feature debut, Viva, is already drawing considerable critical praise both for its political wit and visual style, which borrows from brightly colored 1970s sexploitation movies. Four years in the making, Viva is now making the international festival rounds, screening in Montreal, in Australia, in competition in the Moscow Film Festival, and at this year's Maryland Film Festival, with Biller speaking at the Panel Tent Saturday, May 5. Biller spoke to City Paper from her home office in California.
City Paper: What drove you to make Viva?
Anna Biller: I wanted to do a film about things that are now, the types of problems with sexuality or problems of identity that are more contemporary, but make it as if it was an old movie, as if there was that movie then. It's a weird fetish of mine, to keep it looking and feeling so much like it's a movie from then that you feel like you discovered a movie that you never knew about, and putting my own ideas and values in it. It's as if I could insert myself into that place in history, as if I'm watching an old movie and I see myself in it, and I see my ideas reflected back at me from another time. It's like rewriting history from a woman's perspective.
The film is kind of like an experiment to bring up all these questions about who's looking and why, what we're looking at, whose desire it is, and who gets pleasure. I think what's interesting is those questions haven't been resolved at all.
CP: Viva possesses a fairly authentic 1970s look, but it also feels like it has a more modern sensibility. Do you see it as a movie that could have been made in 1970s?
AB: It actually sort of is a movie that could have been made then. I was trying to be careful. The only thing that's absolutely obviously in there that is a clue that it wasn't made then is a speech where a character, Mark Campbell, looks into the camera and says, "There's never been a better time to be a man," and he explains the sense of entitlement in the way men have it all at that point. And then he says, "Savor this time, for it will soon be gone, never to return." It's like the obvious clue in the script that we're looking back at this time and saying: We're looking at a time when it's a man's world, and the man is commenting that men should cherish this moment, because their sense of entitlement is going to change, that gender is going to become looser, and that they're not going to have that place of privilege. It's going to topple.
CP: How have your audiences responded so far?
AB: Some people feel that it's a subversive film. Other people feel that it's a piece of trash, because they feel the original sexploitation movies were trash, and they have no cultural value--so my gesture of copying it is just campy and superficial, pastiche. What's weird is that I can't imagine how they can think this is the same thing. A lot of the same people who say that don't have any problem with movies like Grindhouse. They find that that's good fun, whereas Viva is a drag for them. I think what's happening is that some of the subliminal stuff, like about being for female pleasure, or being a political thing, is being internally felt by certain men and they're not accepting it. It makes them angry. So it's only coming from men who feel threatened by the whole movie. They want to say it has no value whatsoever, which I find interesting.
CP: Does it surprise you that your films can provoke such negative response?
AB: It used to bother me, but now it's kind of fascinating. My other films have some of that effect on some men as well, even though they were very gentle, I think because there's no hero. There's the emotional need people have for a male hero, and the absence of the hero kind of freaks them out. It's that basic, which makes you realize how primal it is for people to watch movies and what they want and expect emotionally from a film. I'm not saying that men are bad. I'm not trying to demonize them. I'm not trying to take anything away. I'm just trying to create this little corner where I can also say something. It's like there can't be any films out there that aren't specially intended for me, for my pleasure--which just goes to show you how bad it is out there. I've actually had people walk out of my films, literally saying, "I refuse to watch a film where the man has no agency."
CP: Do you see Viva as a political film?
AB: It is a political film, underneath. I was really striving to have it not have any overt political messages of any kind, because I wanted it to be about pleasure and I also wanted it to be sort of authentic. I feel like those old exploitation movies were made just for pleasure and consumption--so there's this kind of nonsense about it, which I enjoy. I didn't want to make it so political that it would take away that pleasure for people, to make it didactic or make it seem dry. When I look at it, I almost think I could have made it less overtly political, because I think there are things about it that give it away. But I think a lot of people don't see that at all. A lot of people just see it as an exact copy of an exploitation film, which I find very shocking. Because how could it be--if it's made now, and it's made by a woman? That just blows my mind that people can't see that just the gesture of making it makes a difference.
I was fascinated, from the very first 16-millimeter films I was making many years ago, with the idea of challenging that Laura Mulvey article on visual pleasure in narrative cinema. I was thinking, I can make a cinema for women. It will be a cinema of pleasure--not didactic, not boring, not angry, not hateful of men, but just pleasure. So in a way, all of my work for the past 15 years or so has been a response to that challenge.
Viva is more interesting for me because I'm taking so many risks in it. I did nudity, which is so hard for me. I've always hated nudity in movies, because it felt degrading to the woman, but I've discovered in sexploitation films that I like nudity, because it felt like it was about the woman and it was about her pleasure a lot of the time. It was about her display and it wasn't extraneous like it was in a mainstream film. So I felt like I enjoyed narcissistically identifying with the woman on the screen. And then I wanted to see who's looking: Can you make a movie where you're doing nudity and have it be for the women, or are you just deluding yourself? I tried to do things that were very consciously to be for the woman. For example, in the one big sex scene in the film, where there's a seduction scene when she's on drugs, and then she has the animation sequence, you're seeing through her brain. You're in her head. You're not looking at her. You're looking through her eyes into the experience, and that's very different than how I think a man would shoot a major sex scene in a movie. It's not necessarily just sexy, it's just kind of weird. Stuff like that, those kinds of decisions, that being the climax that you're in her brain--I don't think that's ever been done.
CP: Does it seem to you that misogyny in our culture is stronger now than it has been in a long time?
AB: I think stronger than ever, definitely. There was a really high point in the early '70s for misogyny, and it seems like another high point right now. There's been shifts and changes in between, but right now it seems like really high levels of misogyny, and I think a very low level of men's understanding of women, and a low level of understanding of gender difference. You can see that in movies as well, the kind of films that are out. Females were outraged in the early '70s with all the sexploitation and objectification of women--that almost now seems like a good thing, because at least they were acknowledging that women exist, and that they have sexual allure. It seems like we don't even have that anymore. It was some kind of acknowledgement of female power. You can go back and fantasize about those days, when the female was a goddess. It was oppressive at the time, but now it seems nostalgic. It's weird how these things change. Now all the movie posters have brooding men on them. It's like male narcissism--the female is not even in the picture.
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