Anna Biller's marvelous debut film VIVA is a highly stylized pastiche of advertisements and sexploitation films from the sixties and seventies. Biller was not only responsible for the directing, but for practically everything, including vacuuming the sets. "I find the look of the film more important than the story."
For her first feature film VIVA Anna Biller did the directing, the costumes, the sets, the script, the music, the editing and the producing. And not to forget: she also plays the title role of Viva, a young woman who hesitantly participates in the sexual revolution of the seventies, but who struggles with the impact of her new identity in the story.
"I did almost everything that I could possibly do myself. It was necessary, to make sure that I could get exactly what I wanted. And sometimes I had to do it myself to figure out what I wanted in the process. But it went too far: sometimes I found myself vacuuming the sets, being a real housewife on the set of my own film about a housewife during the sexual revolution."
Biller, who lives and works in Los Angeles, has made several short films and uses "film genres, humor, the burlesque, and visual excess to talk about female roles within culture", according to the biography on her website (lifeofastar.com). VIVA plays in the program section Rotterdammerung, where "fringe" films are programmed, and different genres freely intersect.
Advertisements play a vital role in Biller's art direction for VIVA. More importantly still, the stylized sets and costumes are the first things that you notice. They were inspired by ads, cartoons, and sexploitation films from the sixties and seventies, and they create a sensual and often comic atmosphere. This campy and strange aesthetic stretches from the music to the acting style. The actors laugh too hard and grin too broadly, they speak in staccato one-liners if they are in a fake ad, and they move as if they are real-life Barbies and Kens. "I find the look of the film more important than the story. Why would anyone be interested in my story? To quote Hollywood choreographer Busby Berkeley: 'I can give 'em a show!' Also, if people are not interested in the story, they will hopefully still like the visuals."
Everywhere you look you can see seventies objects, paintings, pieces of furniture, wall-to-wall carpets, and wallpaper. Everything has bright, fresh colors which jump off the screen. "These are real seventies colors, the way they really looked. I spent a lot of time researching. I could have gone a lot further if I’d had more time and more money. Actually, in the seventies it was a lot worse!"
Biller didn’t use any computer effects, or any special film or lenses. "No, the look comes from the colors themselves. You have to put the colors there - red, blue, green and yellow – and then light them with white light. This way you get incredible color saturation."
The Playboy magazines from the seventies were an important source of inspiration for this film. Some Playboy ads and cartoons literally appear in the film and in the text, without having a function in the story. For example, the shot of the barbecue table, with the sordid appetizers and Swedish Meatballs. Or, the scene in which a character says about his stereo system, 'Not everything that makes nice sounds has to be expensive.' "That was literally taken from a Playboy ad. In my film people also read Playboy. I've tried to get the rights, but the company hasn’t responded yet. I hope they don’t sue me, haha!" Biller still doesn’t know what she thinks of Playboy magazine. She's not clear if she's praising or blaming it, or if people will see the film as a parody, a tribute or a condemnation.
"When I was young, my father read Playboy. I found it repugnant, but also fascinating. By making the film I am changing its meaning. I still find the magazine repulsive. The jokes are terrible and the way sex is presented is really oppressive. But when I copy it, I'm changing it into something positive. It's now mine. It's no longer the same thing. I've purged it of its sordidness. It may sound strange, but that’s what I'm trying to do. I take an idea that I'm struggling with, that I have a troubled relationship to, and I make it my own. It’s not Playboy anymore, but my own artwork. That’s when it gets interesting.”
There is a deeper layer that you don’t see right away. "But I think that people unconsciously pick up on it. It's not directly part of the story, but it's there in the underlying feeling of the film. On the surface the film is campy, funny, sexy. But if you dig deeper, you come to sad, tragic layer, a type of alienation in the characters. You don't have time to reflect on it, because the pace keeps going and then there is another funny moment. People who so far have reacted most strongly to the film are people who feel a strong feeling of alienation. For me the film is also about being Asian, even more than about being a woman. As an Asian woman you are often more objectified than other women. I noticed when I showed it in America that people of color react more strongly than white people, and women react more strongly than men. If that's true, there's a political layer in the film. Everyone who has a deep feeling of alienation will probably enjoy my film." She says this with a campy, funny, sexy laugh.
Kees Driessen Viva RD Anna Biller do 1, 14.30, Cinerama 5; za 3, 19.15, schouwburg large room