Published in Melbourne since 1854. Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

Playboy era revived in a feast for the senses

Anna Biller's parody of '70s sexploitation films has a serious core, writes Gabriella Coslovich.

With her bright blue eye shadow, tangerine lipstick, short black dress and fishnet stay-ups, American director and unashamed feminist Anna Biller is attracting furtive glances from businessmen in the foyer of the Westin hotel. While they may secretly ogle, they're unlikely to make remarks to Biller's face, as do the stiffly coiffed men in her film about a halcyon time when men were insufferably sexist — and got away with it.

"There has never been a better time to be a man," says the sleazy, heavily cologned "Mark" in Biller's debut feature, Viva, a hilarious spoof on '70s sexploitation films.

The film is an elaborate exercise in style, with sets that meticulously recreate the clashing designs of '70s decor: mustard-coloured walls, floral drapes, wood paneling, lino floors, shag pile rugs, wood-veneer ice buckets, macramé plant holders and the costumes, oh the costumes, to die for — crocheted orange bikinis, floaty negligees, floral shift dresses and matching headbands, bold-printed maxi dresses, white boots and minis — in all, a gaudy visual pleasure chest for fetishists of the era. The film is a campy parody of the times and its advertisements and magazines, particularly Playboy, which perpetuated the myth that life was one big shag-fest.

Biller wrote, directed, edited, produced and stars in the film. She also made the costumes and sets and devised the music — featuring the kooky sounds of the Hammond organ. "I did a lot of macrame and crochet … 90 per cent of the work on the film was dressing and sewing." She spent four labour-intensive years making the film, which cost $US1 million ($A1.16 million) and was funded by a private investor — who needs to make his money back, she says. While the aesthetic is paramount, and points to Biller's background in the arts — she has a masters in art and film from the California Institute of the Arts — the content is richly satiric and has a dark core. Men are the breadwinners, women their dutiful servants and playthings, expected, basically, to be brainless and "bubbly".

Viva is uncannily relevant to our times, when sexism has resurfaced in the guise of post-modern humour (the pole-dancing mother in the Nando's ad) and a new generation of women dubbed "female chauvinist pigs" happy to make sex objects of themselves, believing that in raunch there is empowerment.

"It's a very serious film underneath, but I wanted it to be frothy and fun and even kind of stupid on the surface so that it could have a wider appeal," says Biller. Some men, however, have violently objected to the film. "You don't realise how sexist the world is until you make a movie like this," Biller says. "There are certain men who can't deal with it, and other men will just fall in love with the whole thing. I think those men are more secure in their masculinity."

Set in Los Angeles in 1972, the film stars Biller as Barbi, a bored wife whose life is "always the same, a little dictation, a pinch on the behind, you know, the life of a secretary".

Barbi is married to Rick, a self-obsessed Ken-doll, who works late, indulges in business trips and neglects his "woman". Barbi is sacked from her job as a secretary (because her lecherous boss discovers she's married) and Rick leaves her because she's "being a ball and chain" — that is, she has the gumption to ask whether she can join him on one of his business trips.

Her desire takes her from a modeling agency to a brothel (where she renames herself Viva) to a nudist camp and into the arms of a supposedly sensitive hippy who turns out to be just as egocentric as all the other men in her life — it's a little like Austin Powers meets Belle de Jour.

Luis Bunuel's classic film about the doctor's wife who becomes a prostitute was the original inspiration for Biller's film. The work of American film-maker Radley Metzger, known for his stylish erotica, has also been influential. While the style is kitschy soft-porn, the perspective is resolutely female.

"I was really trying to teach men actually, that was really one of my agendas, because I think that when they portray women in the cinema they really don't have an understanding of the depth of their psychology and perversion when it comes to sexuality and sexual fantasies." The film questions the value of the sexual revolution to women, and how far things have come. Not far enough, says Biller, who is particularly distressed by the themes and ideology of much of the romantic comedy emanating from Hollywood. A recent film she particularly loathed was Stranger Than Fiction.

"I would say the worst movies are romantic comedies, which portray women as just stupid dishrags, they have nothing of their own. It sort of seems like they're strong, because they're bitchy. Bitchy isn't strong, right, bitchy means they're a mess." It's one of the reasons Biller generally avoids contemporary films, preferring to indulge in the movies of old with their strong female leads, such as Barbara Stanwyck and Mae West — women who were witty, sexy and powerful, and who could teach a thing or two to the flimsy Parises, Poshes and Lindsay Lohans of the world.--Gabriella Coslovich