Saturday, February 24, 2007

Viva: An Ode to Anna Biller

My favorite film from Indiefest was Viva. This film is a pastiche of different 70’s cultural touchstones. Anna Biller was the driving force behind this film. She was the star, director, producer, screenwriter, casting director, animator, and set designer. She procured and/or made the costumes and wrote the original songs. This may not seem unusual for a small independent film but she did two things that are atypical for independent films today. She shot on 35mm and she made a period piece; the film is set in 1972.

Viva is the story of Barbie Smith (Biller), a bored housewife in the LA suburbs. Her life is devoted to her husband but otherwise unfulfilled. She separates from her husband when he leaves to spend an extended ski vacation alone. This allows Barbie to pursue her dreams. The rest of the film is a series of vignettes that I would describe as Barbie's Sexual Misadventures. And what misadventures they are! Instead of modeling, Barbie and her best friend become prostitutes. The title of the film refers to the pseudonym that Barbie adopts when she becomes a prostitute.

By my count, Barbie was surreptitiously drugged twice (and both times sexually assaulted while unconscious) and separately forcibly raped. Despite those overtones, Viva is comedy.

The reason this film works is because Biller is relentless in spoofing the 70's or more accurately, she spoofs the media representation and cultural self-image of the times. Biller plays Barbie as naive or foolish depending on your point of view. Biller as a filmmaker and actress must be fearless or shameless. Foremost, Biller sashays across the screen, in scene after scene, wearing the most hideous collection 70's clothing since the last Austin Powers movie. That is when she is wearing clothes. Biller spends a significant amount of the film topless. She also applies a frightening amount of green eye shadow which accentuates that strange affectation she does with her eye. When sexually aroused, she squints her right eye. The effect is to appear confused or constipated. I would accuse the filmmaker of exploiting the actress except they are the same person.Viva - Anna Biller (in headdress) during the orgy scene.The film is not to be taken seriously. Biller has crafted a series of exquisitvely memorable scenes and she strings them together with little interruption. My favorite scenes include Barbie visiting a client at a nudist colony, Barbie visits a gay hairdresser, and the climactic bacchanal where Barbie drives the partygoers into a sexual frenzy. That orgy scene is an instant classic. The orgy is a costume party so it gives Biller a chance to wear what looks to be an Aztec headdress or it could be Chinese inspired.

I know I must be forgetting some stuff. The actors deliver their lines in an odd style that's kind of an exaggerated stage-acting with a healthy dose of self-mockery. Several of the principal actors sing, mostly off-key, lyrics such "Fly your freak flag high." If I understood the Q&A correctly, the score was "reworked" from Radley Metzger films. Metzger made porn films in the 70's so the score sounds as if Johnny "Wad" Holmes is going to show up any minute. Biller stayed true to the period if Playboy magazines are to believed. Let's just say that some of the female extras must have been prohibited from getting bikini waxes during production. Also, the nudist colony scene has the most full frontal male nudity this side of porn.

As I was watching Viva, I thought that there was something unidentifiably attractive about Anna Biller. Biller does not have the typical body that you would associate with an actress that is frequently topless. She's a little soft in the middle which is only highlighted by the unflattering costumes, camera angles, and her frequent state of undress. The running gag in the film is that Barbie is a sex goddess that no man (and few women) can resist. Having seen Biller in person, she is an attactive woman but there is some je ne sais quois sexuality on screen that is present despite her self-parodying performance. After seeing the film, I googled Biller and read she is part Japanese. I'm half Japanese so I wonder if there was a subconscious, Hapa connection.

I enjoyed the film so much that I saw it twice. I was debating whether to see Viva a second time or S&Man. I chose Viva because as I was exiting the theater for Fido, I saw Biller standing in front of the theater. Curious to hear her speak, I chose Viva. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake because the film isn't as funny the second time around. In fairness, most comedies are not as funny upon repeat viewing because you know the jokes and set-ups before they arrive. However, it was interesting to hear her field questions after the film. I was expecting Biller to be assertive and flamboyant. She came across as soft spoken and slightly self-conscious.

When Indiefest first screened the film, there were several scenes where the boom microphone was visible. It occurred in so many scenes that I thought Biller was making an intentional reference to shoddy, 1970's filmmaking without knowing which specific film or director she was lampooning. I hate it when the boom mike is visible so it really grated on my nerves to see that mike show up repeatedly. However, during the second screening (second for me, third screening of the festival), I don't recall seeing the mike. Biller showed this film in Rotterdam during the first screening. I wonder if Indiefest got the copy with the outtakes during the first screening. It's expensive to strike duplicate copies of 35mm print.

That reminds me, Biller should be complimented on filming on 35mm. She was able to recreate the soft-edged look of films of the period. Biller's skills as a director are on full display as there were many different sets and location shoots. Only a skilled director could have pulled all that off while shooting on 35. Even more impressive is that typically, directors will have a viewer so that they can see what is being filmed while it is filmed. Biller said she did not use one (presumably due to budget restraints). That means she had to film everything and hope that it came out ok because she wouldn't see the finished product until the film was developed later. I assume they didn't have dailies.

Biller was not the only person to give an unforgettable performance. Marcus DeAnda who played Clyde captured that Euro-trash look and sound perfectly. Similarly, John Klemantaski was spot on as stage director Arthur from Liverpool. Barry Morse as Sherman the hairdresser was at the screening & was unrecognizable.

I hope this film gets more screenings. I'm not sure if it'll get a distribution deal without some editing. In it's current state, it's probably an NC-17 film given the MPAA history on male nudity. The odd part is that given the premise of the movie, there is nothing gratuitous about the nudity.

Here is a link to Anna Biller Productions Website.


Julius said...

When you see the mike at one screening and not another, it's the fault of the projectionist and not a re-edited print.

I think it's weird that you say you loved this movie, and yet you repeatedly insult the filmmaker!

Marshall Crist said...

Loved this movie! I'd been wondering if it was shot "soft matte." I guess I need wonder no longer.