By Greg Goodsell
The next queen of cult filmdom is unquestionably Anna Biller. This Los Angeles-based filmmaker has a fierce aesthetic, a heavy work ethic and a definite, singular vision. Biller is best known for her expressionistic use of color, insistence on costumes, sets and stylized lighting. Furthermore, she is deeply sincere in what she does. Where lesser hands would feature settings with pink wallpaper decorated with gold plaster angels and encourage the audience to snicker at its camp excess, Biller would use that very same setting because she finds it beautiful - and insists that her audience find it beautiful as well.
Biller is taking the world by storm with Viva (2006), her take on the sexploitation films of the Seventies. While Biller says her main source of inspiration for the film came from the elegant erotic films of Radley Metzger, many other things came to this writer's mind while watching it: TV's Love, American Style!, the odd attempts at low budget filmmakers trying to craft lavish Ross Hunter melodramas without money such as Love Me Like I Do (1971), Herschell Gordon Lewis' Suburban Roulette (1967), Blood Mania (1971) and Point of Terror (1971) all seemed to have served as unconscious inspirations for the project.
Down the Rabbit Hole
Viva recounts the sexual odyssey of a suburban housewife circa 1972. Barbi (Biller) is married to Rick (Chad England), who is too caught up in his work to pay her much mind. Their next door neighbors Mark (Jared Sanford) and Sheila (Bridget Brno) encourage them to "loosen up and get with it." Fired from her job after her warty boss gropes her, Barbi tries to lose herself in housework but quickly becomes bored. She goes to a modeling agency in search of work, and is told to get her hair and makeup done professionally. Seeking the services of a swishy gay hairdresser, she is drugged and seduced into a bisexual three-way with him and his hunk blond neighbor. Barbi returns home and tries to rededicate herself to her marriage to Rick, and tries to show interest in his macho activities such as racecar driving and tennis. It winds up all for naught when Rick walks out on her.
Seeking the help of her friend Sheila, they hit the city wearing see-through clothes and are approached by a jaded old dame who promises to set them up with the men of their dreams in exchange for some light prostitution. Barbi adopts the name Viva, and the two go through a long series of unattractive men until Sheila lands a nonagenarian sugar daddy who buys her a white horse. Barbi/Viva is introduced to a line of unconventional people such as a hippie nudist, a fashion photographer and a pretty black lesbian. Through it all, Barbi is repeatedly drugged and raped, and the film climaxes in a lavish orgy. Barbi eventually returns to Rick and settles down, and then unexpectedly finds self-actualization outside of the sexual arena.
"The Wizard of Oz was on TV the other day, I was in tears watching it, and I think I took a lot of Viva from The Wizard of Oz. Like Dorothy, Viva doesn’t appreciate what’s at home." This writer spoke to Biller over lunch at the French Market restaurant in West Hollywood. I asked that Biller choose a setting that would be complimentary to Viva, and the French Market was a good choice. Catering to a largely gay clientele on Santa Monica Boulevard, the restaurant is nestled in a bright and cheerful plaza-like setting not that far removed from Disneyland.
Viva was very much a labor of love for Biller. "I did buy a lot from thrift stores, but I was sewing like a maniac during the whole production: costumes, curtains, pillows, couch upholstery, crochet, everything. I made and hand-dyed some of the negligees, as I couldn't find exactly the colors and styles I wanted, and many other costumes were things I bought and completely remade. I was obsessive about underwear: I bought a $250 bra because I thought it looked retro-70's, plus I made a lot of panties and gold bikinis and collected some Playtex 18-hour bras. I collected dozens of 70's dress patterns, and I even made a lot of the men's clothes.
"For the orgy scene, I made all the costumes, including my headdress and costume, where I hand sewed on over 1,000 gold paillettes, and all of those feather costumes the dancers wore. My work process is so much about coming up with all of these objects and clothes," Biller says.
For all of its eye candy and attention to period detail, I sense that there's a greater agenda at work in Viva. I put forth the theory that since her character is repeatedly is drugged and raped, that the film serves as an indictment against the vaunted Sexual Revolution. Largely engineered by goatish men, this change of social mores seemed to encourage women into dropping their veils in order to be more fully exploited. Is Viva an angry film?
It seems I only got part of the film's message. "That's absolutely there! That’s the first layer. It's like an onion, you keep peeling it. The number one layer is that layer. I really feel that way about the Sexual Revolution. I feel that for a lot of women, especially women that are timid, all that it did was to take away the protections that they had. Viva is a comedy about how wretched that is. The dimension that I'm trying to add is where the woman fits in, the woman that believes in the promise of enjoying sex. Barbi took that at face value. She actually wanted to have that, to have it be as much for her as for them."
Biller's analysis of Viva suddenly takes on an unexpected dimension. "She's luring the men with passivity. I think she has a fetish for playing dead. She has a fetish for being taken. It's not real obvious, but there are clues, like when her neighbor the hairdresser (drugs her) she says 'please help me' in a very campy way. Help me what? And then she goes home the next day, to her husband, and she’s not upset at all. She smokes a cigarette, takes a bath, she has no conscience. There are lots of shades of meaning that I think people don’t get. I think women get them, which is interesting. Women get it on more levels. She is so passive with men (except with her husband and the lesbian woman) that the sex scenes can be interpreted as rapes. The question is, is how does she feel about it? Is she encouraging it on some level?
"She wants to go down the rabbit hole, and my feeling about that is that nobody is seduced who doesn't want to be seduced. Rape is another thing. But I don't think she’s ever really raped."
What about Viva's very ugly and obvious rape at the hands of the middle-aged stage director? "If you follow the action that happens, it's very tricky. She's wearing a negligee, she lets him in the house, she sits on the carpet, she's reading a sex book, and she's drinking. She doesn’t protect herself from him, she doesn’t sit on the couch, she sits right down on the floor. And then when he tells her, 'you think about sex all day long, and you don’t let men touch you, why?' She acts like she’s going to slap his face, and he grabs her arm and he lays her down. But she's obviously strong enough to get out of that situation. It's not like she couldn't have gotten away. That was all intentional, that wasn't just bad staging. It's kind of like he’s not strong on purpose, so you know she is partly pretending. I think she doesn't know what she wants at that point. She doesn't want him, but she is sexually frustrated, and she does want something, and he's there. She has an almost male-type of sexuality that way.
"The actor did something that was very strange that wasn't scripted at all. He caressed my face, like it was a moment of tenderness. I created a character that was almost a sociopath, without any feelings, and yet he did that. So I left that in there. I used that take, and what was great was that the actor was interpreting it as a love scene. That's why he doesn’t show any remorse for the rest of the movie."
Biller says that Viva is "really a complicated movie about female sexuality. The clues are all there. At the end, she says about the orgy - 'I became a female animal, made only for pleasure...and I liked it.' It was intentional to cast a really good-looking guy (Marcus DeAnda), who was dynamic, really handsome, desirable, a little bit Glam, a little bit bi. Obviously, she's going to like him. She’s going to want him. All the men that she ends up with... are dynamic, desirable men. It's not like those movies in sexploitation, with the young girl and the old, disgusting guys preying on them. So in that way it's about her desire too, and the gaze shifts to the female perspective.
"The thing is that I'm trying to do two things. I'm trying to make a movie that's like those sexploitation movies, and I'm also trying to do something else with it, which is contemporary, which is tricky, trying to do that split without making it seem too contemporary. It's an authentic movie on the surface. There are all these things, but it's also about something else."
What was the pointed use of rampant alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking throughout Viva? "That's from the Playboy ads, all the liquor and cigarette ads. I was so struck by those images. I was just so excited by them. It makes people feel good, and the actors really like it." Biller got most of her visual cues from the advertising of that era. Unlike many women who find those publications as sexist and degrading, Biller likened her perusal of those vintage erotic publications to be "one of pure pleasure."
While Viva has wall-to-wall soft-core sex and nudity, a decidedly non-erotic scene infuriates some audience members. It's the aforementioned scene where Sheila woos an old man and insists that she buy her a white horse. Her wish is granted, and Sheila sings a little song about horses. "It was a pretty horse. Women love that scene. I get e-mails all the time from women telling me that's their favorite scene. Men don’t like it, usually."
Why is that? "There’s some structural innovation, they don’t get their linear narrative - they think it's my moral obligation to keep the plot tight or something." The horse reappears in an offhanded way toward Viva's conclusion, and "that gets a big laugh from the audience. They go, 'oh, there was a narrative significance to that scene!'
"That's Sheila's world. She's a total narcissist. I wanted to go into her world, her experience, where she gets everything that she wants. Because she's that type of woman, she can get her fantasy while remaining unscathed. Sheila's chief line is, "I always wanted to be a prostitute. It sounds so romantic!"
"She’s kind of like a dumb blonde, but she's not. She gets what she wants because she doesn't take it seriously. Barbi's fatal flaw is that she's too serious. She wants things. And that’s the joke about it. The joke is that she wants something, and she falls down the rabbit hole. Sheila doesn’t want anything. She's totally self-sufficient," Biller explains.
"It's like, she wanted to play with this horse, and you have to watch. And some people see that scene as either amateurish or aggressive, but for me it's when the movie really opens up, because you have to give up your preconceptions about where the movie is going, and just go along for the ride, or down the hole. I love to create that moment in a movie where the audience loses their balance. But many people don't like to lose their balance that way. It makes them hysterical."
Prior to Viva, Biller created a series of experimental short films that honed her particular vision. Early on, Biller decided to work with the medium of film and film alone, due to a disastrous experience with video. "I made one video. It was a really elaborate video, and it disappeared off the tape, it was just white noise. It was very fortunate that happened, because I never went back to video. I never looked back. I never went back to video because it was such a traumatic experience. I worked for a year on this movie, I made all these costumes, and it just disappeared off the face of the earth!
"Film is like sex. Film fulfills all my expectations, all my fetishes; Video doesn’t satisfy anything for me. If I couldn't work on film any more, I would just go back to painting or writing, or writing music. I'd just stop making films.
Three Examples of Myself as Queen (1994) was Biller’s first 16mm feature, and is readily available on the grey market video circuit. A portmanteau short comprised of three stories with Biller playing the lead, the first segment features Biller as a "sad queen" in an Arabian Nights setting. In a nod to pretentious French cinema (that Biller is an unabashed fan of - Belle De Jour and Donkey Skin are two of her very favorite films), the dialogue is in French with English subtitles. Her handmaidens sing her a song to cheer her up, and the film abruptly switches back to English. The second segment involves Biller as the Queen Bee of a hive, involving costumes that recall John Belushi’s Killer Bee getup on Saturday Night Live. "My character is so sad, she's so fertile." All of the male worker drones appear to be exceedingly gay. "Not all of them are gay, it's just once they stepped into those costumes and were struck by the pink lighting, that they all become so fey!" Biller's father has a cameo as a tenor who does a solo. The third and final bit seems to be the precursor to Viva, with Biller attending a swinging retro Sixties party which quickly devolves into an attempted gang rape. Through magic, all the male party attendees are transformed into dogs and the film ends with Biller walking towards an Emerald City-like backdrop.
Biller’s next short, A Visit from the Incubus (2001) has been likened to Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1965), a film she's never seen. Biller plays Lucy McGee, a poor put-upon frontier woman who is plagued by the titular demon (longtime cohort Jared Sanford). Lucy goes to an old west saloon and becomes a hit as a singing Diamond Lil-type character. Bright, colorful and with a rollicking country and vaudeville score, Incubus was quite a production challenge.
"Two guys built that saloon in Incubus. It took them a month. But I had a very meticulous plan as to what they would do every day. It almost killed them. We were renting stuff from Culver Studios. Those walls were really heavy, with the flocked wallpaper and the molding on them. And it was just the four of us, me, Jared and the two guys. You normally have 50 people making a set. It was unbelievable what I made those guys do!
"There's no such thing as that saloon in the world. I looked for three months for a saloon, and it doesn't exist. You have to go to New Orleans to find something like that. If you did, it would take tens of thousands of dollars a day. I went to the desert, I went to Pioneer Town, and I went to the movie studios. Even Warner Brothers didn’t have a saloon like that! I wanted a saloon like the one in 'The Harvey Girls', and the only way to get a room like that was to make it. The same thing with Lucy's bedroom, with all the striped wallpaper, and the colors. No room exists like that. I did location scouting, hotels, The Madonna Inn. We didn’t have tops to the walls, so we could light them. You can get a location like the Madonna Inn, but you can’t afford to shoot there, the fees they charge you, plus, you can’t light it!"
The Hypnotist (2001) was next on Biller's agenda. A throwback to the stylish melodramas of the Thirties and Forties, The Hypnotist's sets were constructed at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. "It wasn't my script. It was Jared's movie. It turned into my movie because it was all my sets, and all my casting. I'm a very old fashioned person. I get all of my values and ideas from two things: old movies from the Thirties and the Forties—that's where I learned where men were men and women were women-and from my life. I don't see men acting a whole lot differently than they do in those movies. It's not a retro thing. Those jokes are not about a different time. That's just gender!"
The IMDB plot synopsis for The Hypnotist reads "A weird German doctor uses hypnotism, seduction, and criminality to get the better of a trio of spoiled wealthy siblings, in a tribute to old Hollywood Technicolor melodramas." Recreating the lavish look of old Hollywood for pennies to the dollar, Biller is especially proud of the film's lighting and photography. "In The Hypnotist, everything had its own special light. You build a sculptural element into all the objects. Everything has its own light. The couch has its light, the painting has its light, the doorway has its light, everywhere people are going to be, or every place where people are going to sit, has a spotlight on it."
Biller also took special care in correctly recording the sound to better replicate the actors' slightly hammy delivery. "If you have the actors really projecting, with rich beautiful voices, you mike it the old fashioned way, that's how you get that beautiful rich sound. For me, the visuals aren't the only thing; the sound is just as important. I'm very careful to make the sound very sensuous. I train the actors to speak beautifully."
Biller has had her share of disappointments. One production that she began exists only today as a filmed fragment. "The other thing I wanted to go into more was the musical The Lady Cat. After I made Three Examples... I was planning to make a movie called The White Cat, after a French fairy tale, about a white cat that falls in love with a prince, and I was preparing for it as if it was going to be made.
"So I went to the fabric store every week and spent all of my earnings buying a few yards of fabric here and there, and after a year I had maybe a hundred costumes, fifteen songs, a script, and a bunch of props. But I had no way of raising funds, so I decided to put it on as a stage musical. I got some of my friends together and it was like, 'Hey, Judy, let's put a show on in the barn!' Nobody could really sing except me and Jared, and none of the guys could dance, but I rigorously trained them for weeks, making up dances and teaching them.
"We put it on, to the total astonishment of audiences. There was this weird imbalance of no tech, no sets, actors who were struggling painfully but who were very sincere, plus eighty costumes, a handmade cat costume with ventilated hair pieces which was months in the making, wildly ambitious songs, concept, and choreography. There are still people who talk about that show to this day, as the strangest thing they've ever seen. We shot one scene from it, which became the movie Fairy Ballet. That film was a total disaster in terms of execution, but is quite sincere and original. It's so crude technically that I'm still debating whether or not to make it available on DVD, but I think even with its crudeness it's quite moving and is a precursor to Viva in its pleading for pagan sexuality!"
Why She Does the Things She Does
In our rambling two-hour plus conversation, Biller and I agree that cinema retains its power by inviting its audience on a magic carpet ride, where it doesn't matter that faraway exotic places are replicated on a Burbank soundstage. We agree that as long as directors are sincere with their audience, and remain psychologically true with their characters, it doesn't matter that the Land of Oz is merely a painted backdrop.
I point out that the one thread that runs through all of Biller's projects is artifice, where the audience never forgets for an instant that they are watching a movie, on a set, with actors in costume spouting their lines in a declamatory style. There is no attempt whatsoever by Biller to mimic reality or seek a naturalistic style. "I'm very much into creating that, consciously. Here's the thing: all movies are fake, all movies are artifice. Everything's fake. What I was looking for was psychological authenticity, authenticity with what the actors were experiencing, and authenticity in creating the time period. That's the type of authenticity that I’m looking for.
"I wasn’t looking to trick the audience by saying that a movie is real life. I could go a step further, and create that level of manipulation that most movies have. I might try that sometime. You create the illusion of reality, and you set up your artifice. People don’t look at movies like they used to. A movie that I think is good and realistic is still going to look artificial to a lot of people because my sense of visuals is coming from the Forties and Fifties, and that's not people's sense of what a natural movie looks like. So I don't think I'm going to get away from other people saying it's artificial. But I think if I make the plot more linear, and make the acting more naturalistic..."
I note that Biller's camerawork is extremely conservative, with little or no movement. "One reason the camera is static in my films so far is, I had a really bad early experience, where I let the cameraman move the camera how he wanted to, and the effect was so ugly that I had to reshoot everything, and this was coming out of my own pocket, 16mm, when I was working for $10 an hour. So I've tried to maintain total control since then. I'm learning now to let go of certain things, but I can only do it if I can see how I can let go and still get great images. I think I know enough now to incorporate more movement into the next movie and still get the look I want. But I do love the pageant-like style I've been doing. It's really a way to honor the sets and visuals; it really creates a picturesque look.
"I'm less interested now in making the audience aware that they're watching a movie, but that's because I've been misunderstood a lot. I don't want it to be a joke. I'm very frustrated when people find my movies to be a joke, because of the artifice. They're real stories about real things. I'd like to take away that block. But I don’t know if I can, due to my natural campiness and my personal tastes," Biller says.
"The first thing that I want is for the visuals to look great, sensual and colorful, and for the sound to be great. You get more sophisticated when you learn more. You can make the artifice more and more and more subtle and combine it with a naturalistic approach. But it gets very tricky. My first efforts are crudest. As I get better, it’s going to seem more conventional. But conventions are fetishes for me. The more conventional I become, the stranger the films are," Biller says.
As for the future, Biller is promoting Viva to various film festivals, and has recently returned from screenings in Moscow. She promises to make her next feature (Circus Sex Witch) with "lots of action and camera movement, emotional manipulation, naturalistic acting, and a linear story!"