Don't Call It Exploitation: Anna Biller's Sexy Films Are Classical, Retro Romps
"Men feel they own female sexuality, so if you try to take it back you're ruffling a lot of feathers."
Anna Biller is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress, in which we feature outstanding women throughout the year. Check out the series here!
Anna Biller's technicolor masterpieces are showcases of meticulous style and design. Clearly influenced by the aesthetics of the American 1970s, Biller's films (which she writes, directs, edits, designs and styles — an anomaly, especially for women in Hollywood) are at points totally unrecognizable as contemporary art: so thorough is her attention to detail and so scrupulous is her highly honed artistic vision. As the mastermind behind the underground hits Viva and The Love Witch (and a handful of other, smaller projects), Biller's work challenges conventional ideas about film and feminism.
But don't call Biller's "retro" oeuvre "sexploitation": despite what seems to be a fascination with the low-brow, Biller considers herself a rather classical filmmaker, inspired by old Hollywood and the pleasures of female sexuality, sensuality, and identity.
"I deal with some of these themes in my movies: glamor, fanciness, people wanting to be stars or wanting to be special. Conflicts between the inner and the outer. Conflicts of narcissism: inner fabulousness and outer banality. I've always been interested in those kinds of things," said Biller to me over the phone, shortly after the release of her soon-to-be cult-classic The Love Witch. These ideas seemed to come natural to her from an early age. As the child of Bohemians, Biller found herself surrounded by the fading opulence of Los Angeles.
"My father is a painter and my mother is a fashion designer. I went to school for drawing and painting... You're steeped in old movie culture in L.A. My parents' friends were actors and costume designers and musicians. You could feel the glamor around you. When I was growing up it was fading glamor," she continued.
Biller bounced around between mediums in high school, although it was clear from the start she was interested in the arts. "I've always been an introvert. I was very bookish when I was growing up. I thought I was going to be a writer. Turns out: I actually am a writer," she said. After getting into CalArts on the merit of her short, musical films, Biller flipped between the art and drama departments, honing a variety of crafts and always inspired by the Golden-age works of artists like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Busby Berkeley.
It was Biller's 2007 film Viva that marked her as a force to be reckoned with in the indie film world. While Viva is often compared to the softcore pornography of the notoriously licentious 1970's, Biller would rather think of her movie as an art film, a throwback exploration of feminine consciousness: "My films are very classical," she explains. "In [the 1970's] they started experimenting with scripts and doing stuff that was more abstract or based on feelings and mood. My stuff is very classical compared to that ... My treatment of glamor, of set and costume design and lighting, of story and of editing: those are classical. My scripts are more similar to Hitchcock scripts."
Viva tells the story of Barbie Smith, a vaguely vacant housewife whose husband leaves her after a misunderstanding. Invigorated by all the enchantments of a budding culture of free love, Barbie attempts to reinvent herself as a liberated woman, but repeatedly finds herself victimized by the men around her. Barbie, of course, is played by Biller herself: "It was a kind of performance art. I decided to respond naturally the way I would have if I wasn't acting in a movie. I decided to just be there and listen to what people are giving me and respond how I would respond. Being how I am, there was a level of passivity and bemusement. I was feeling like things were a little surreal and I wasn't sure what to do about it so I was just letting it go by. I think that's kind of what it's like for a lot of women in the world. There's so much weird shit going on all the time, you can't respond to everything."
"In most movies, women respond to sexist behavior with indignation and anger. But that's not how women in life respond to it. If you did that, you'd just be angry all the time. That stuff is coming at you all the time, so you have to become kind of catatonic. Most of the stuff goes by, it's only the stuff that's extreme that makes you go, 'Nope!'"
Viva might be experienced as a sensuous and colorful romp, but the subject matter is serious — although Biller herself cautions against seeing the film as entirely or only feminist: "I'm a feminist. The ideas in the movies are feminist. But I don't know that I would actually say the films are feminist. I know that's a strange distinction to make. I don't make films in order to make feminist missives. I make films for entertainment. But I think part of that entertainment is that there are ideas in it."
About halfway through Viva, one of the male main characters turns toward the camera to give a disturbing monologue: "There has never been a better time to be a man," he says, breaking the fourth wall. "The willing women, the dandy clothes, the thrills, the big rings and jewelry, the open shirts, the sense of entitlement. Take it from me: savor this time. For it will soon be gone, never to return." A truly terrifying statement, especially in 2017 as it feels like our current political climate spirals downward into total misogyny.
"It's totally frightening!" proclaimed Biller. "What's interesting about Viva and about Love Witch – a lot of people are watching these films and they are not feeling that it's frightening. They're feeling that it's pleasurable and entertaining for them. And if they want to feel that way they can feel that way; it's not like they're reading it wrong. All of those interpretations are there. The feminist point of view is there, but if you want to ignore that and enjoy it as a sexist, it’s made so that you can.”"
The Love Witch may not take place in 1972, but it continues the themes and motifs of Viva, in a perhaps-accidentally zeitgeisty way. It's hard to pinpoint when, exactly, witches re-emerged as paragons of style — and it's even harder to tell when (or if) they ever weren't. "I had to become a witch to write the character of the witch," says Biller of her critically acclaimed work. "I have to tell you I was working on this film for so long that I was working on it before [the witch trend] was revived. I wasn't thinking about that. It's kind of like how fashion is: everyone gets interested in something at the same time."
The genre of Love Witch is almost impossible to pinpoint: it's somewhere between horror and melodrama, but with the chic of vintage lighting, costuming, and set design. Despite Biller's insistence, many still compare the movie to sexploitation films: "I don't mind words like 'erotic' but it bothers me when people use words that are so sloppy that they convey the opposite content and intent of what I'm doing. I work so hard to make films about feminine consciousness and feminine identity — so if people say that I'm copying what men do, that's really irritating to me."
Biller claims that Love Witch is a movie both "about my life" and about "a mentally ill, pathologically narcissistic woman who is trapped in a patriarchy." I wondered, in what ways, that resembled being a female filmmaker in what is obviously a male-dominated industry.
"I know this is really sad and a terrible thing to say but the reality is that I have to fight so hard to just be accepted, let alone respected by my crew," said Biller. "That's the first challenge. To even have people want to work with a female director. A lot of people would deny that they feel that way, but it's very obvious. People really have a hard time with that for the first few weeks of shooting until they trust that maybe I know what I'm doing. I've been on sets where there are male directors that are a lot less experienced than me that are not having this trouble at all. I can see the difference and that's quite painful."
And critics aren't exactly easy on her either: "Programmers, critics, audiences — they'll often tend to misunderstand everything that I'm doing. Sometimes they'll think it's boring, or they'll think it's trash. If I was a man making a movie like this but it didn't have the element of female consciousness and questioning then maybe it would be trashy, but that's not what I'm doing. They're making up this whole narrative that doesn't exist ... They're judging it based on how good of a strip show it is."
But would her movies be perceived differently if they were directed by a man? Biller herself wonders: "What if Quentin Tarantino had directed The Love Witch? Do you think people would have kept talking about it as cheesy? As exploitation? Or do you think they would say “cinema”? What if Todd Haynes had directed it? I see early 70s trash films, like really bad exploitation films, and they are talked about with a level of respect that my films don't get talked about in."
"Men feel they own female sexuality, so if you try to take it back you're ruffling a lot of feathers," she continued. "So what they'll do is they'll reclaim it; they'll refuse to acknowledge that you're claiming it. They'll say you're just giving it back to men. They feel so threatened by female sexuality. It's 100% political. Unless it's unconscious! Which would mean that a majority of men are so clueless about female experience — they're just miles and miles away from a woman's experience — so far away that it's almost Trumpian!"