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May 02, 2008


viva 1.jpg

Anna Biller - 2007
Anna Biller Productions 35mm film

Is it possible to create a parody of a film that was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place? Or can one make fun of a movie that may have been unintentionally comic? As one who has seen some of the films that served as inspiration for Viva, my reaction was that audiences might be better served by another viewing of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Camille 2000, perhaps topped off with a bit of Jesus (Franco) and Venus in Furs.

I feel bad in that Anna Biller totally put herself into the film as writer, director, costume and set designer, animator (!), song writer, producer, editor and star. Biller not only stars, but allows her beautiful and naked self to be exposed. The only multi-hyphenate that I can think of that came nearly as close was Clint Eastwood offering a posterior view in Space Cowboys. The best thing I can say for Viva is that Biller and co-star Bridget Brno have gorgeously fleshy bodies, rather than the stick figures that usually parade on screen.

viva 2.jpg

The basic story of a married woman who ventures into prostitution after being ignored by her self-absorbed husband may remind many of the basic premise of Belle de Jour. The film ends with a very clear homage to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with a Biller penned song titled "Two Little Girls". A gay hair stylist resembles a subdued version of John LaZar, the immortal Z-man of BVD. Viva also succeeds in creating sets and colors that resemble "Playboy" pictorials of swinging bachelor pads. I must be getting old - I had lust in my heart not for any actor, but one the Eames chairs used in the film.

Except for a comment by one of the women that the "Playboy" playmates were skinny, any intended feminist critique of early Seventies exploitation films were not noticeable. More obvious were the reworkings of elements from the films from that era, some of which are available on DVD for comparison. I saw some of these films at the time of their initial theatrical release, and even recall interviews with some of the male filmmakers who insisted that their films were cries for sexual equality. For myself, I liked the films by Radley Metzger for the scenes of cunning linguistics. I have to think that had Anna Biller made films in the early Seventies, she might have had Roger Corman in her corner. There are part of Viva that make me think that what Biller created works better as a stage play rather than as a movie. What ever Viva was suppose to be in theory, the final film is a less than lively sum of its many parts.

viva 3.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 2, 2008 12:49 AM


The first time I saw Anna Biller's VIVA I had the strong feeling of being in front of a Russ Meyer's fan not only for the sensuality and the erotism but also for the old-fashioned sets. Recover the 70's atmosphere is a quite obsession for our time's directors (Grindhouse above all) and Anna Biller's homage to that period is really well done.

Posted by: Lea at May 2, 2008 05:07 AM

Peter, it's interesting to read your review of Viva. I almost drove up to Rochester to see her present her films last month but couldn't make it. I agree with your distinction between "fleshy bodies" and "stick figures". Women in Indian cinema have always belonged to the former category but of late, under the rapidly increasing influence of the West, the norm of the "perfect body" in Bollywood films is turning alarmingly skinny, which is too bad.

Posted by: girish at May 2, 2008 07:32 AM

Your entire critique is based on the assumption that I set out to make a parody of exploitation films. You say "an intended feminist critique of 70s exploitation films was not noticeable." Parody/ critique of exploitation films was not my point. A critique of the genre would not allow me to create a real story, because it would make the whole thing a joke about film style. And yet many reviewers insist on seeing it as a joke about style anyway.

Sexploitation films were based on real things, like sexuality between men and women. I would never be interested in critiquing them wholesale, because I don't find them stupid or inferior (you might). They are more for me like fascinating fragments of culture, all the more alluring because of their low status in today's culture.

So again, you are making many assumptions. Those assumptions come from our need today to look back on history and laugh at it. They also come from a discomfort with the exploitation form because of guilt at male enjoyment of it. I am not critiquing those films, but I am critiquing cultural stereotypes. There is a big difference.

The intention with VIVA was to make my own version of those films, to rewrite history as it were and place myself and my voice (as a female and an individual) within it. So in that sense it's pure fetishism, and comes much more from the place the original films came from (the desire to make a sexy film using fantasy and displacement). The confusion about my intentions may come from the fact that we have not seen many sexual fantasy films made by women, except by female directors who are working in entirely more "serious" forms.

Posted by: Anna at June 1, 2008 12:33 PM